Book Review: Defining Autism

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.

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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.

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3 responses to “Book Review: Defining Autism

  1. If someone whose real identity is unknown for the external observer says, “My autism is just a part of me. It is who I am, it is in the design of the brain, why does not that count for an explanation?” Then I would say to them, “That is fine; but you have just admitted that your autism is the most important fact about you. And you should not be insulted if I ask you what are the grounds for your belief?” But what I just described is what Neurodiversity can’t stand. The world is characterized by diversity. When you make the decision to call yourself “autistic” (or neuro-divergent) (or a member of Neurodiversity), you must have reasons. How autism, in computer terms, have wired your brain’s circuits? We are most responsible for our mental programming, our approach to the world.

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  2. Fitzgerald has also diagnosed Ted Bundy as autistic, and Charles De Gaulle…and 400 more figures. His method of writing is strange and something is bizarre about his methods.

    Another strange figure is Khalid Mansour who claims narcissism is an ASD disorder and Susan Heitler who wrote on why she agrees (neither with any medical evidence). The former’s paper was so strange I had trouble taking it seriously, the latter’s article I felt speechless at the comment section. Fitzgerald once cited Manuel’s paper on minicolumns (not to prove a theory I believe but something I notice in Fitzgerald’s papers, reciting a lot of facts and trivia)

    Fitzgerald and Heitler have been invited to give talks on other matters, and also have been cited and have cited others I imagine. It seems a bit strange some are so ignorant of a person’s full views when they meet, ally with, or cite. Like the continuous admiration for Hans Asperger despite his criminal acts and bigotry. (Though some maybe like him FOR that reason?)

    Mansour and the other two are psychologist/psychiatrists (as are others like Baron-Cohen), I feel bothered by how so much has gone into psychological studies and website articles/bestselling books rather than neurology/biology/medical research that could make a difference.

    I don’t understand how it got this way. Best is to stay calm and rational, like you are doing Yuval, in front of this scene. I also admire Manuel for being very cool in face of this too. You are both nicer people than me.

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