In The Politics of Autism, I write:
The most basic questions trigger angry arguments. For instance, into what category do we put autism in the first place? In 2013, President Obama said that “we’re still unable to cure diseases like Alzheimer's or autism or fully reverse the effects of a stroke.” The language of “disease” and “cure” offends some in the autism community. “We don’t view autism as a disease to be cured and we don’t think we need fixing,” says Ari Ne’eman of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “We do feel comfortable with the word disability because we understand what it means.” From this perspective, autism is difference that requires accommodation, not an illness that requires eradication. Adherents of this position liken autism to homosexuality, which psychiatrists once deemed to be a disorder. Conversely, some parents take offense at opposition to a cure. “Anyone with the mental and verbal ability to challenge autism research is not autistic on a scale that I care to recognize,” writes autism parent James Terminello. “Opposition to finding a cure is particularly hurtful to parents who still mourn the loss of the child that could have been. A line has been crossed.”
"I think that given the complexity and the variability of the causes and the manifestations of autism, trying to come up with a cure is probably not the right approach,” said autism researcher and psychologist Len Abbeduto, director of the University of California, Davis, MIND Institute in Sacramento.
An estimated 80 percent of autism cases involve genetic factors, and it tends to run in families, but there is no single “autism gene,” Abbeduto explained. In fact, research has shown that more than 100 genes, and maybe upwards of 1,000, may play a role. Researchers also suspect that environmental factors — such as exposures to infectious agents, pesticides or other toxins in pregnancy — may play a role.
These research developments come amid growing controversy over whether autism even needs a cure. Autism Speaks, an advocacy and research group founded in 2005, removed the word “cure” from its mission statement in 2016.
“In the beginning, [researchers] were looking more for the magic bullet, the magic pill. We were looking for the autism gene, and we thought that would ultimately lead to some kind of cure of autism,” psychologist Thomas Frazier, chief science officer at Autism Speaks in New York, said. “Then we recognized that we were way off base.”
Autism research spending in the U.S. totaled more than $364.4 million in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, with 80 percent of that money coming from federal agencies and 20 percent from private organizations. Of the spending, just 2 percent went toward autism lifespan issues and 5 percent toward services, according to the government’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. An additional 35 percent went to biology, 24 percent to risk factors, 16 percent to treatment and interventions, 10 percent to infrastructure and surveillance, and 8 percent to screening and diagnosis.
Paul Shattuck, director of the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, and a member of the scientific council of the Organization for Autism Research, agrees that not enough attention is paid to adults with autism.
“We’re expending a lot of effort for very young children with autism, but as a society we kind of drop the ball once these young people become young adults,” he said. “There’s really not much there for autistic adults or their families in terms of services or even thinking how to support autistic people across the lifespan.”