Recently I found some interesting research on the DNA of autism.
This was an article by psychologist Laura Sanders – One Problem, Many Paths – that I found in the August 13, 2011 edition of Science News.
Two studies of families where neither parent was affected by autism, but there was one high-functioning autistic child, identified roughly 250 “genome regions” where the DNA of the autistic children differed from the parents’ DNA.
Commenting on this and some other research, author Sanders says, “An avalanche of new genetic data shows clearly that there is no single culprit in autism.”
Geneticist Huda Zoghi, Sanders reports, says these studies demonstrate the “immense heterogeneity of autism”, referring to the many differences in autistic people.
Another interesting outcome: the non-autistic children in these families often had many of the changes that appeared to lead to autism in their sibling. Zoghi suggests that this is evidence that autistic traits only appear after a certain threshold has been met. In the case of girls, the threshold appears to be higher than in boys, which may explain why autism is four times more common in boys than girls.
New information about autism is always welcome, but I can’t help noticing how often researchers assume that they are researching a disease or disorder, rather than simply a difference in mental functioning. Look at the language they use.
There is “no single culprit” causing the condition. Girls don’t have or not have the same genetic change, but the same “genetic insult”. At one point in One Problem, Many Paths, there is mention of two proteins associated with autism, and they are called “co-conspirators”.
So it’s not surprising that Sanders concludes with the comment that “this research may lead to ways to treat or prevent autism in the future”.
Many autistic people resent this desire to prevent them from being autistic. Go to the forums at Wrong Planet (www.wrongplanet.net ) and you’ll see that many of them see autism as an inherent part of who they are. They don’t want to be someone else.
Why don’t we wait until we know what autism is, and why it exists, before we try to prevent it? Why are we so eager to meddle with something we don’t understand?
I’m not opposed to therapy that helps autistic children and adults cope with the non-autistic world. There is no question that they have a hard time in society.
But autistic characteristics like the so-called “restricted activities and interests”, which, to me, is just a negative euphemism for the strong focus autistic people bring to subjects that interest them, should not be “prevented”. It is probably the reason that a disproportionate number of high-functioning autistic men and women become engineers and scientists.
If they were pressed on the point, most autism researchers would probably say that they don’t mean that any positive aspects of an autistic personality should be blocked, but, sadly, they almost never say it.