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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Four Kingdoms

In the spirit of mapping the autism landscape and finding some common ground, I suggest four perspectives that currently separate the communities interested in the autism spectrum. The language, assumptions, literature, and societies that have grown up around each of these perspectives are so distinct, they have begun to represent different countries or kingdoms. Each has its own truths. And each too often fails to understand or even recognize that their truths may not apply to all kingdoms.
Autism was first described as a developmental disorder by Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist, in 1943. In the 70 years since, research on autism has largely focused on autism as an illness. The illness kingdom is largely populated by clinicians, researchers, parents, and some people with autism. They view autism as a brain disorder in which the language of medicine applies, with a focus on improving diagnosis and interventions, and cure as the ultimate goal.
Self-advocates with autism, like self-advocates in the deafness community, have replaced the medical model of illness with the language of diversity and identity. They, along with many in the educational and disability communities, view autism as a difference in need of accommodation, not a disorder in need of cure.
One of the more heated arguments surrounding autism has been on the purported role of vaccine injury as a cause. This kingdom was founded by parents who report marked regression after the 18-month vaccination series, when their previously interactive, communicative toddler withdraws and stops speaking.
Just as scientists have studied blindness to understand the visual system, scientists in the kingdom of insight assume that the study of people with social and communication deficits is a remarkable opportunity to understand the social brain. This kingdom belongs to social neuroscientists, using tools from cognitive science, neuroimaging, and neuroanatomy.