The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know
Autistics like Baggs are now leading a nascent civil rights movement. "I remember in '99," she says, "seeing a number of gay pride Web sites. I envied how many there were and wished there was something like that for autism. Now there is." The message: We're here. We're weird. Get used to it.
This movement is being fueled by a small but growing cadre of neuropsychological researchers who are taking a fresh look at the nature of autism itself. The condition, they say, shouldn't be thought of as a disease to be eradicated. It may be that the autistic brain is not defective but simply different — an example of the variety of human development. These researchers assert that the focus on finding a cure for autism — the disease model — has kept science from asking fundamental questions about how autistic brains function.
A cornerstone of this new approach — call it the difference model — is that past research about autistic intelligence is flawed, perhaps catastrophically so, because the instruments used to measure intelligence are bogus. "If Amanda Baggs had walked into my clinic five years ago," says Massachusetts General Hospital neuroscientist Thomas Zeffiro, one of the leading proponents of the difference model, "I would have said she was a low-functioning autistic with significant cognitive impairment. And I would have been totally wrong."