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Speaking of Autism… Is Cure the Right Word?

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As a professional who works with so many exceptionally bright, capable, and unique adults on the autism spectrum, I wish it were not so common to refer to “curing autism.” Cure is a powerful word. It is easy to get behind cure campaigns – who doesn’t want to cure cancer or cure AIDS? It is natural to want to eliminate the negatives of autism – like emotional meltdowns – but autism cannot be cured in the same way that cancer might. Given that the goal in treating autism is to reduce the challenges that come along with it, it is most effective to think about treating certain disabling tendencies rather than curing a whole person. Treatment requires parents and professionals to understand the way each individual’s mind and body responds to the environment. Further, treatments focus on helping the individual achieve that same understanding and to implement appropriate coping methods.

My intention is not to minimize the real and intense challenges that come with the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASDs require an enormous amount of attention and intervention and cause strain on families. But what message does the word cure send? If the only hope is for a future cure, what does that say to families who currently have an autistic child? What does it say to an adult living with an ASD? Referring to autism as a “debilitating disease” or having the goal of “eradicating autism” sends the wrong message. Sadly, stories about parents killing their autistic children litter the media. One reason parents make such an irreversible and devastating decision is because they feel helpless and hopeless in the moment. The current stress tied with the tragic view that their child has an incurable and debilitating disease is just too much to handle.

Autistic children become adults, many of whom uniquely contribute to their families and to society. Similar to many neurotypical adults, adults on the spectrum have strengths as well as challenges. Some childhood challenges might even become strengths. For instance, persistence in getting what one wants in childhood might be frustrating for parents, but in adulthood such determination can lead to big successes. Most adults on the spectrum say that they would not cure their autism if they could. It is a part of their sense of self; their personality.

It is unfortunate that most of the general population only thinks of ASDs in terms of childhood. In fact, whether they realize it or not, most people do know adults on the spectrum. Many ASD adults are bright, high-functioning, possibly quirky, members of society. Some do not disclose their diagnosis, while others are quite proud of who they are. Websites like www.wrongplanet.net are dedicated to helping individuals on the spectrum understand themselves and join a like-minded community. There is also a term, created by the autistic community, called “neurotypical syndrome,” that comically (and dare I say realistically) describes “normal” people as being the ones with a disorder.

People who are dedicated to raising awareness of ASDs are passionately well-intended. They see families struggle and want to provide a message of hope. It may be intuitive to use words like cure or eradicate in those campaigns, but it is inappropriate to do so. There are so many fascinating and brilliant autistic minds out there. Temple Grandin has made huge strides in the humane treatment of animals. Einstein and Newton were thought to be on the spectrum. As a community, isn’t it more important to focus on helping ASD individuals thrive rather than to focus primarily on eliminating autism?

Jaime earned her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. She works in a private practice doing psychotherapy and evaluations. Jaime’s specialty is in working with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. www.spectrumservicesnyc.com. JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com. (914)712-8208.

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