If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we cure autism? Frustrated parents may ask that question, remembering that when John F. Kennedy committed the United States to go to the moon, NASA scientists and engineers figured out how to get there. Ever since Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module in 1969, politicians have held up the Apollo project as a model for solving all kinds of problems. But autism is not rocket science. Contrary to the usual meaning of that expression, I hardly suggest that autism science is simple; rather, it is more puzzling than rocket science.
When the moon program was getting under way, there was consensus about the fundamental terms and facts. Although the engineering details were challenging, the basic math and physics behind the mission dated back to Isaac Newton. Autism is different. As we have already seen, it is a contested concept with many uncertainties. Just picture an Apollo program in which experts saw different kinds of moons in different parts of the sky and were not quite sure about the laws of motion.
Rose Eveleth writes at The Atlantic:
Charting where an individual falls on the autism spectrum, though, is nearly impossible. I know because I recently tried to figure out how to do it. After talking to doctors, epidemiologists, self-advocates, and anthropologists, I learned that the more you try to pin down what the autism spectrum actually looks like, the looser your grasp on it will become.
The terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” have no medical meaning. Nearly every expert I talked to referenced a common mantra in autism: When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Which sounds nice, but is not particularly helpful when looking for meaning.
“With the spectrum, there’s a wide range, we’re still trying to figure out what that wide range means,” said Stephen Edelson, the director of the Autism Research Institute. “I don’t have a great answer. Scientific understanding of autism certainly continues to evolve,” said Paul Wang, the head of medical research at Autism Speaks. “I think there’s no one continuum necessarily,” says Lisa Gilotty, the autism-spectrum-disorders program chief at the National Institute of Mental Health. “It’s hard because ... different people will break that up in very different ways, I’m not sure any of those ways are accurate.”
“It’s almost like if you look in the stars in the sky and say, ‘Oh, there’s Orion’s belt. And oh, there’s the Big Dipper.’ You could also look at the stars and say they cluster a different way. And I think that’s still where we are with autism,” said Jeffrey Broscoe, the director of the population health ethics department at the University of Miami.