Has Our Autism Doomsday Arrived?

Filed Under (Activism, Advocacy, autism, Discrimination, Ethics, Research) by Estee on 10-06-2010

We knew there were genetic studies on autism. We knew this was coming. Perhaps a better title for this would be “for every downside, there is an upside.” This is could be very true about the Human Genome Project.

Today Carolyn Abraham reports on the front page of The Globe and Mail the recent publicity surrounding the findings of an international group of scientists trying to uncover the genes that comprise autism. Throughout the article, Ms. Abraham describes autism and it’s “genes” as a hiccup — “genes fouled up by long stretches of missing or duplicated pieces of DNA.”

Doomsday is coming, or it could come. I know that there are parents who dread having a child with any disability. I understand that no two families are alike in the way they approach the subject. Yet there are families who do cope well; those of us who value the children we have and balk at the concept that humanity can be distilled into DNA. Of course, it can in a sense, but the complexities of being human cannot. I could tear this article apart. I am utterly offended by it, if I am to admit my leanings. I cringe at the thought of my son reading that he is a “hiccup” or a series of “fouled up genes.”

Just as important is the idea, the very scary idea I might add, that we can terminate an autistic pregnancy. The study co-author Peter Szatmari admits that the prospect of the commercial test that will prematurely reach the market “makes me nervous. I don’t think we have the science yet to nail it down. This isn’t one gene but a profile of genes, a pattern of susceptibility, not cause.” As reporter Abraham writes, “in the direct market age, the market rarely waits for more research.” In other words, in a world that hardly understands disability, how disabled people live and feel, disabled pride, autistic pride, and rarely hears or listens to the voices of autistic people, parents may rush to pick up a screening test. Without this knowledge, what do you think is going to happen?

Then it occurred to me: Adam’s parents, that’s right — his father and myself and his entire family — would likely have many of those genes — those “fouled up” ones in one way shape or form. Maybe this would mean I would not be here, his dad, his grandparents, his Bubby or his Zaida. “In all,” says the Globe article, “the study spearheaded by post-doctoral fellow Dalila Pinto at Sick Kids, identified more than 100 genes affected in the people with autism, many of them forming a part of a network that governs how brain cells grow and talk to each other.” Perhaps this comprehensive network is part of all of us that make up autism. Autism is an accentuation of our very human traits.

As far as I’m concerned, this is doomsday approaching fast IF the dialogue about how we use science — how we implement knowledge — better be linked with a dialogue about not only what it means to be human, but the very right to be disabled, autistic and yes, what can be wonderful about that in our world that has been taught to fear disability. There is a social aspect here that is running the show and we are a highly biased society against those with neurological differences and further, we write about autism as if it’s the worst thing on the planet.

In our family, and in many others that I know of, it is not. Premature reporting of scientific findings without a balanced argument (or even acknowledgment that there are people who prefer to be autistic) of this kind runs a very high risk.

Another discussion that may help our own:

The article referred to in Nature here.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.