Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An epidemic?

I was asked last night to comment on the new CDC statistics about how 1 in 88 children are now considered to be on the autism spectrum.

How did I feel about the use of the word "epidemic" that often accompanies this piece of information? Or what about the dismissal of these numbers as proof of lazy parents seeking a fad diagnosis to explain their children's' bad behavior?

I stammered and rambled and am pretty sure I gave an incoherent answer.

But in the middle of the night, my real answer occurred to me. I think it's too late to amend my response, but at least I can share it with you.

Advances in things like brain research and a better understanding of human development are allowing us to be better at identifying different learning needs and variations in development. Science can help us recognize, for example, that delays in auditory processing can make it difficult for someone to keep up in conversation.

The variation isn't new. But the understanding of the why and how it happens is. So now we can call it something besides, "a little bit slow."

While we're getting better at identifying variations and labeling them with more objective and less judgmental terminology, our schools and institutions haven't been able to change fast enough to keep up with our understanding of neurodiversity.

Schools still need, for example, any given second grader to do pretty much the same thing as all the rest of the second graders. I don't blame them. It's just more efficient.

So while some people say there's an epidemic of autism, I think the real epidemic is our epidemic lack of support for individual needs.

Many people have pointed out that likening autism to an epidemic suggests that autism is bad. Like cancer. Or Ebola. This is our deficits-only model of diagnosis-as-identity, courtesy of the DSMIV, omigod don't get me started...*

I doubt everyone who is using the "epidemic" term thinks autism is really a disease, but there certainly is a sense of panic as if people are saying, "what in the world will we do with all these people?!?"

If we were truly equipped as a society to accommodate differences, maybe identifying more people on the autism spectrum would be as newsworthy as identifying more redheads or more lefties.

* a whole other blog post