The following blog is written by Yuval Levental, a reader and contributor to our blog site. At present Yuval, who is on the autism spectrum, completed a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and is interested in doing research on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). He started a job in Information Technology where he answers questions and repairs computer hardware and software. Yuval has previously written an essay at corticalchauvinism.com where he discussed his life, views on neurodiversity, and a couple of autism symptoms (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2015/01/14/visualizing-neurodiversity-breathing-for-treatment/).
I asked Yuval to describe himself so that the reader would get to know him better. This is what he said: I am a person on the autism spectrum who advocates for treatment or a cure, because the evidence for autism as being positive is meaningless in most cases. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from ESIEE Paris. Through researching the cause of my autism, I have developed interests in physiology, cellular biology, and neuroscience. In the quest for a cure, I have successfully progressed by attempting to introduce more potassium and less sodium in my diet, and have recently undergone Botox which mitigated my symptoms. Additionally, I like to spread awareness of arguments against Neurodiversity through social media and Wikipedia. Other hobbies of mine include recreationally solving complex math puzzles, traveling, eating new foods, and learning about different cultures.
In the past few years, several autism advocates have criticized neurodiversity, but usually only with respect to low-functioning autism. For instance, although Ashlyn Washington, a Huffington Post contributor, pointed out the challenges of low-functioning autism, she described high-functioning autistics by writing that “A small sliver of the autism spectrum works happily in Silicon Valley, comfortable in their own skin, able to overcome their challenges and function successfully in the world.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lets-start-honoring-people-with-autism-by-stopping_us_58dbf66ee4b0487a198a5686?). Amy S.F. Lutz criticized the relative lack of low-functioning autistic individuals in Neurotribes, but also agreed with his positive portrayal of high-functioning autism that “No one is contesting the achievements of the “scruffy geniuses” Silberman profiles in his book, or denying that they should be celebrated.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inspectrum/201509/please-stop-whitewashing-autism). In a Different Key questioned the idea that low-functioning autism was a positive identity, but portrayed high-functioning autistic activists as well-meaning (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2017/01/02/neurodiversity-as-seen-in-the-book-in-a-different-key/). Even Autism Speaks criticized neurodiversity by discussing the difficulties associated with low-functioning autism, but said that for high-functioning autistics, “Those who are least severely affected may just need an openness and understanding of the character traits that make them unique” (https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/08/25/call-unity).
While pointing out the difficulties that low-functioning autistics face is commendable, unfortunately, those individuals also spread questionable ideas about high-functioning autistics. To ensure that autism is realistically portrayed across the entire spectrum, we also need a realistic focus on the challenges that high-functioning autistics face.
Many often refer to famous figures in science and technology such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg to justify the alleged benefits of high-functioning autism (http://nymag.com/news/features/autism-spectrum-2012-11/). However, Professor Fred Volkmar of Yale says “there is unfortunately a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger’s”, and that ”the trouble for many of our folks is they just engage in an endless acquisition of facts, without doing anything productive” (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/09/health/cases-a-disorder-far-beyond-eccentricity.html). Professor Darin Hayton, a historian of science, says “Retrodiagnosing any condition or disease or illness is fraught with difficulty… The impediments seem even more significant when trying to interpret a mental condition that requires intensive and sustained clinical observation, especially when the evidence is drawn from biographical information” (http://dhayton.haverford.edu/blog/2015/12/31/isaac-newton-was-autistic-or-not/).
Even Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, who at first seemed to promote the idea that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were autistic, only claimed that they had “signs of autism”, and in fact, said that his main reason was for Asperger syndrome, “This condition can make people depressed or suicidal, so if we can find out how to make things easier for them, that’s worthwhile.” This implies that his purpose was to make autism look better through describing various traits, as opposed to doing a serious analysis of their cognitive abilities (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3676-einstein-and-newton-showed-signs-of-autism/).
Employment studies are also very discouraging. According to two large longitudinal studies, twenty-somethings with autism were less likely to be employed than their peers with other disabilities, with 58 percent employed. Those who worked tended to work part-time in low-wage jobs. Additionally, only 36% of young adults with autism received additional education after high school. Only one-quarter attended a two-year college at some point. Fewer attended a vocational/technical school, a four-year college, or both two-year and four-year colleges (http://drexel.edu/autisminstitute/research-projects/research/ResearchPrograminLifeCourseOutcomes/indicatorsreport/#sthash.31XId4lN.e3gJoWCB.dpbs, p. 42 and p. 47). So, while a significant portion becomes employable, they still have significant difficulties.
Unfortunately, because of the vague claims that most high-functioning autistics are successful, even by many critics of neurodiversity, many don’t realize the challenges that high-functioning autistics face. When people learn about the unemployment rates, many are often shocked as the reality is opposite to the unrealistically positive portrayal that often exists in the media. There are high-functioning autistic individuals that display significant abilities or have made significant achievements in spite of or even because of their autism, but they are the exception, and not the rule. (https://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/57ioqt/is_the_unemployment_rate_really_so_high/) and (https://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/5rizhe/is_the_unemployment_rate_really_that_high/).