Filed Under (Discrimination, Eugenics) by Estee on 29-06-2014
I came by your article in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, The Hunt for Humanity, printed on June 21st, 2014, a little late. To recap for readers, you suggest that your project, Brainspan Atlas research at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital (Dr. Sherer works in Toronto and Brainspan Atlas is located in Seattle) explores the exons – the series of “segments” (including intons) that make up the human genome, are involved in human evolution. In this exploration, Dr. Uddin, a computational biologist and geneticist, sits to author the computer code comparing the relationship between “sequenced exons from thousands of apparently healthy individuals” (Semeniuk, Globe Article) and those with “mutations.” Dr. Uddin looked to Brainspan Atlas data on exons “that were rarely mutated but highly expressed during brain development” and “filtered out” to distill the genes suspected of having a connection to ASD candidates – finding some speculated connection between exons and these genes which both Uddin and Scherer now study.
Without delving into the “science” of their work, let us consider the premise, for few science writers will begin any article with a discussion of ethics and disability. Interesting because when we read articles in the Globe and other news sources, one can’t write an article about autism or disability and ethics, without getting some remark from a neuroscientist or geneticist (I am leaving the rest of this sentence for the reader to fill). No…Dr. Scherer believes in natural selection. He says, “natural selection has sculpted these genes by tweaking their expression in the brain” (Globe). Darwin’s theory, adopted by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 laid the groundwork for an entire movement that institutionalized and segregated many from society and was the basis for the eugenics movement which separated people by their supposed “genetic soundness.” This was also the premise by which the Nazi’s killed the sick, mentally handicapped, and the elderly (before the Jewish population). One need only a lesson in history, picking up original text from the period to compare the language used by Semeniuk, Scherer and Uddin to see that the people involved in this project may be treading too close to a history we must not repeat. Terms used throughout the article such as comparing autism as a mutation – using the binary of health versus mutation or worse not human (this was implied throughout) – are dangerous in that they sway, with their power of position, the general public to believe that autistic people are less than human. The entire article does more than insinuate that autistic people are not human.
Says another doctor cited in the article, Dr. Varki, “…the children of a mating between humans and Neanderthals may have been physically healthy but ‘cognitively sterile.’ The disadvantage of losing the uniquely human genetic package, even to a small degree, would have conveyed a tremendous cost in terms of social interaction and reduced their chances of reproductive success” (Globe article).
The language throughout the entire article (if you can get your hands on it as The Globe and Mail now has a subscription service online), it is rife with dangerous language. Autistic people are compared to “non human” species. But worse, as I find with many neurologists and “autism experts,” there is a gross lack of knowledge about autism from autistic people and the people who live every day with the label, and the challenges of being different than what is supposed to be “normal.” This was very apparent throughout and also at the end of the article when Semeniuk writes:
“For Dr. Uddin, who has grown increasingly aware of the burden carried by those with ASD since coming to Sick Kids, the payoff comes from watching his ideas and his number-crunching materialize into something that may improve lives…’These kids often don’t talk to anyone, or have any way to express their concerns,’ he says. ‘As a researcher, I want to help if I can. It’s us, as a society that has to come up with our own understanding of how to approach this.’
Along the way, the bonus prize may be the ability to see what it is that compels us to connect – to get inside each other’s heads – in a way that no other creatures seem to do” (Globe article).
I’ll assume, Ivan Semeniuk, you are meaning that only humans communicate, and those who do not are not human? Have you met autistic people? Have you talked with them? Have you connected with any of them or have you avoided contact (or insisted that it only happen on your own terms)?
I’m asking questions here that must be asked of everyone involved in this field. I’m often surprised at how experts haven’t met many autistic adults, or read their work. This seems to me to be a prerequisite if you state you are going to work in a field, that you get to everyone who has a stake in the outcomes of your work.
Can you see how my son is very social and just this past week, despite his struggle in forming words, has gone with his friends to the Science Centre, the farm, out to restaurants and has been happy in being with his mates? Have you seen an autistic person, Dr. Uddin, not be able to forms words well, but can express themselves with alternate communication? Have you seen an autistic person type cogent sentences at the same time making supposed inarticulate utterances? Have you investigated the actual fact that the two occur simultaneously? How important is rhythm and support to the ability to communicate and what must we all do to appreciate the many ways of being human (certainly not a natural selection theory). Mr. Semeniuk, I’d love to talk with you about research and critical theory on linguistic theory and what I call the language prejudice. This prejudice assumes that if you can’t speak, you don’t think or don’t understand, which of course is not true. It might provide a more well-rounded article on autism, ethics and the prejudice in society about autism that we all must avoid.
This, by the way, is a first draft, unedited. I am writing from my mind and most importantly, my heart as both a scholar in the field of critical disability studies and a mother. I look forward to dissecting genetic science (and your work) and the premise of discrimination.
If you want to read the article, The Globe now makes you pay for it.