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January 17, 2013

Slate: Is the neurodiversity movement misrepresenting autism?

(Continued)

Despite this overwhelming evidence, the cases discussed above have had a huge impact on the autism community, which has increasingly been divided between those who consider autism a disability and those who believe it is merely a different, not worse, way of thinking and interacting with the world. This latter position is espoused by the autism rights movement, also called the neurodiversity movement, which has evolved over the past two decades from an ad-hoc association of individuals with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome and their families into a powerful lobby led by organizations such as Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and Autism Network International. ANI's founder, Jim Sinclair, wrote the famous 1993 essay "Don't Mourn for Us," which accused parents who long to cure their children's autism of really hoping "that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces." Today, neurodiversity activists sit on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (which advises the National Institutes of Health on how to allocate its autism research budget) and the National Council on Disability.

Since its inception, the movement has been lambasted by parents of lower-functioning autistic children for pursing what they consider to be an exclusionary agenda focused on civil rights, societal attitudes and support. These advocates, such as Harry L. Doherty, who writes his Facing Autism Symptoms in New Brunswick blog about life with his autistic son, Conor, say that this "irrational" mission distracts and draws funding from research on medical treatments and possible cures.

But to counter these critiques, there is always Amanda Baggs to echo the popular neurodiversity argument that handicap is in the eye of the beholder: "I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit, but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural," she has written. Or there is Larry Bissonnette, who (through FC) proclaims, "We are one branch of many on a . . . diverse and wonderful beauty tree." Lower-functioning autistics, it seems, are on board with the movement after all. (Sue Rubin is a notable exception, in that her writings (through FC) reflect a strong desire for a cure, but she often pops up in these debates because of her apparent capabilities.)

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