Introduction by Yuval Levental: I am a person on the autism spectrum who critically analyzes autism advocacy. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from ESIEE Paris. Other hobbies of mine include recreationally solving complex math puzzles, traveling, eating new foods, and learning about different cultures.
Defining Autism: A Focus on Autism, not Politics
By Yuval Levental
In the past couple of decades, autism has become a highly politicized condition. Many neurodiversity advocates assert that autism is part of their personal identity, and any attempt to treat or cure their autism would eliminate who they are. By contrast, many autism parents and other autistics advocate for medical treatments and cures. Defining Autism mainly focuses on the biology of autism, exploring the history, genetics, and environmental factors of autism. In particular, the chapter “The Brain in Autism” discusses Dr. Casanova’s work with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). It is written very well and covers what the reader needs to really know. Overall, it seeks to form a consensus on what the best definition for autism is for all needs.
In the first chapter, “Kanner’s Conundrum and Bernie’s Biology”, the book supports their view that autism is based in biological differences. Contrary to popular belief, Leo Kanner was against the idea that “refrigerator mothers” were the main cause of autism. Bernie Rimland was very important in criticizing the psychoanalytic view of autism, and even founded the Autism Society of America. Undoubtedly, both of those individuals made many important contributions to the overall understanding of autism.
In the chapter on environmental causes, one potential cause that is discussed is the presence of low Vitamin D levels, which is my favorite potential cause of autism. Although there is not much research on Vitamin D and autism, Swedish researchers in 2015 discovered that autistic children had far lower levels of Vitamin D than their siblings. Vitamin D is suggested to be either a direct or indirect cause of autism. This section concludes by stating that Vitamin D is considered to be an excellent future candidate for a potential cause of autism. This is something I may have to look into later.
One issue I find with the book is with its section “Savantism with normal intelligence”. The section profiles Jacob Barnett, an autistic Physics PhD student. It starts by stating that he is on the “short-track” to the Nobel Prize, and claims that he is truly talented, but several experts have criticized this claim. Scott Tremaine, an astrophysicist from the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, says that anyone that solves the problems he is working on would get a Nobel Prize, but there is no guarantee that Barnett himself would be able to solve these problems later in life (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2011/04/is-a-12-year-old-smarter-than-einstein-don-t-be-stupid.html). Steven Novella, a professor of medicine at Yale University, notes Barnett’s high intelligence, but says that Barnett also makes “rash conclusions” in explaining his ideas (https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/boy-genius/).
The section also lists Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Cavendish, Tesla and Newton as autistic geniuses, citing the work of Michael Fitzgerald, a professor of psychiatry. However, Fitzgerald is a controversial figure, having been criticized by Sabina Dosani as promoting “fudged pseudoscience” and has also been criticized by Mark Osteen as “frankly absurd”, since retrospective diagnoses may be unreliable. It should also be known that Professor
Fitzgerald has also diagnosed Adolf Hitler as autistic (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/186/3/267.1.full and http://eres.lndproxy.org/edoc/FacPubs/loy/OsteenM/AutismAndRepresentation-08.pdf)!
In the last chapter of the book, in the section “Autism or Autisms?”, it is noted that there are many causes of autism. However, despite the many causes of autism, most individuals share many common symptoms. Therefore, it is suggested that subgroups of autism will only be realized at a broader systems level. This is an interesting and useful way of examining the knowledge about autism. In the final paragraph, it notes that current research on autism is a “work in progress” and the overall aim of research should be to make a positive difference in the lives of autistic individuals, which is the best possible solution.