The ideology and partisanship of autism

In US politics, we’ve got Republicans and Democrats, also known as the Conservatives and the Liberals. (Please feel free to substitute the two main political parties from your country if you are not from the US.) I don’t know if the following is accurate, but I remember hearing it somewhere in the seemingly constant barrage of US election year news: 30% of the population is Republican, 30% Democrat, and 40% Independent. Kind of makes sense if you think about it in terms of the “bell curve” and normal distributions in a population.

I’ve come to think that the same may hold true in the world of autism ideology. I use the term ideology quite deliberately here. From dictionary.com, ideology is defined as:

  • the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group
  • such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan along with the devices for putting it into operation

On the one hand, there is the ideology of neurodiversity, defined on wikipedia as:

an idea that asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be tolerated and respected as any other human difference.[1] The concept of neurodiversity is embraced by some autistic individuals and people with related conditions, who believe that autism is not a disorder, but a part of their identity, so that curing autistic people would be the same as destroying their original personalities.

On the other hand there is the ideology that believes that autism is indeed a disorder, an abnormality in development caused by various environmental insults to a fetus or young child that must be cured in those that are currently affected and prevented in the future. The most commonly blamed environmental cause is mercury in the form of the thimerosol preservative used in vaccines, and more generally the large number of vaccines now on the vaccination schedule for young children. (The term “curebie” is sometimes used to describe this position. Although there is not an official “curebie” site like there is for the neurodiversity movement, check out The Age of Autism for more info on this position.)

Just like in politics these two “parties” have within them a broad range of beliefs, from the extreme (“all autism is mercury poisoning” and “society should accept and accommodate everyone, no matter how different”) to the moderate (“we need to make society aware of the special needs of our autistic kids – and adults – and help those kids and adults make their way in the society to which they belong”). And, again like in politics, you have that overlapping area where the moderates of the opposing parties seem to be more like each other than the extreme element of their own party. (You may have noticed that I only gave one example of a moderate view, instead of separate ones for each party.) It is in this middle, the meeting point between the moderates of the two parties that you find the independents.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I fall somewhat in the middle, though I lean a bit more toward the neurodiversity side. But sometimes I get very frustrated at the whole discussion, the absolute statements from both parties that leave no room for deviation from the party line. I believe that this can be dangerous in politics, I also believe it to be dangerous in our efforts to understand autism and its affects on society. And at times, I feel like just dropping out of the discussion altogether because it just seems to be the same things over and over again.

But then I’ll come across something like …there of necessity will be much arguing from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge that makes me remember why I continue to write here:

If something matters, it is worth arguing about; consensus is for the ordinary and inconsequential things of life. Of course it does need good [wo]men if argument is not to degenerate into bitter polemic. Exploring ideas, supporting a position you do not necessarily believe in to test an argument, taking a contrary view for the sake of argument are all mechanisms by which human knowledge can advance.

I have seen the discussion about autism “degenerate into bitter polemic” all too often, and would like to think that I am one of the “good men” that help advance our collective knowledge about autism and what to do about it. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but for this year I resolve to continue the discussion, stir the pot, and keep the arguments as honest as I can.

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3 thoughts on “The ideology and partisanship of autism

  1. You are indeed right in your self-estimation as one of those “good men” (who is very hard to find). The polemic gets, as polemic does, nowhere and, when it becomes too mean-spirited, drives people away who are just trying to do the basic, right thing of taking care of their kids and preparing for the future.Keep up the dialogue!And a most happy new year from all of us to you and yours.Kristina

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  2. Since my way of life is “all or nothing” in that OCD sort of way, I really really struggle with the autism polarity. I am a momma in the middle, probably more towards neurodiversity as well. Good to read someone else’s perspective.

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