OUR CHILDREN ARE SMART. NOW WHAT?
An article in The Globe and Mail discusses a recent study released by a group of researchers led by Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. Despite having no college education, Ms. Dawson has become an integral part of Dr. Mottron’s team researching autism. Their most recent published study indicates that autistic children who might score in the retarded range on the standard Wechsler I.Q. test actually score closer to the level of a college student on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their conclusion is that autistic children tend to be more intelligent than once was thought.
It’s nice to know that science is finally catching up to what most parents of autistic children already know; our children are smart. That point is a rare point of agreement between both sides of the needless conflict between so-called neurodiversity advocates and those of us they refer to as “curebies.” The issue that leads to disagreement may be summed up by questions posed by Dr. Mottron in the article: “What do we do with that intelligence? How do we let that person achieve his potential?”
If Dr. Mottron’s research leads to increased opportunities for autistic individuals ⎯ without regard for their level of “functioning” ⎯ I would be happy indeed. How can anyone really argue with that goal. But Ms. Dawson has other goals as well:
She makes no secret of the fact that her participation in the research is guided by self-interest, that it gives her more credibility when she is fighting other battles — of which there are many.
In much of the autistic community — support groups dominated by parents of autistic children — Ms. Dawson is public enemy number one.
“They want autism to be a sickness that needs to be cured,” she said. “They say horrible disgusting things so they can get more money for their lobby groups. They make me sick,” Ms. Dawson said.
Personally, I have never considered Ms. Dawson an enemy, much less “public enemy number one.” I’m not a part of any “lobby group,” nor do I raise any money for a “lobby group.” I respect Ms. Dawson and agree with much of what she says. And yet there is so much with which I disagree.
If Ms. Dawson has become controversial, it has much to do with her crusade against anything that might smack of labeling autism as a disability. She famously intervened in the Auton case, in which parents went to court to get the British Columbia government to fund ABA for their autistic children. The catch was that it had to be established that ABA was a medically necessary treatment. There were certainly arguments to be made in the case; I certainly wouldn’t argue that treating autism as a mental disorder is factually incorrect. But Ms. Dawson’s Factum to the Supreme Court attacks the morality of intervention:
Ms Dawson submits that if the Respondents’ position is adopted, autistic people will not have the same equality rights enjoyed by non-autistics. Autistic people will be seen as unworthy and undeserving of equal protection and benefit of the law. Their equality rights will amount to an obligation to be or to act much less autistic or not autistic at all.
Further, accepting the Respondents’ position will have the direct effect of demeaning all autistic individuals and rewarding those who have chosen to demean autistics in order to fulfill their goals.
I wish Ms. Dawson would stop seeing people like me as the enemy. Most of us have no intention of forcibly making every autistic individual undergo any particular intervention, be it ABA, RDI, biomedical, or anything else. But many autistic children need some form of intervention. Not all of them are destined to find ways to meaningfully utilize their intelligence in the way Ms. Dawson has without intervention.
The arguments about the nature of autism and whether it acts as a disability so often center on the issues of intelligence and pure science. To be sure, it would be stupid to summarily dismiss the value of studies like that which Dr. Mottron’s group has given us. I can’t help but think, however, that we err by concentrating on simply the question of intelligence, while we ignore the social and cultural questions that also define dysfunction.
Ms. Dawson correctly argues that autistic individuals should not be forced to think or act like so-called “normal” people. Nevertheless, the human race has a social construct that favors those that are able to use their individual gifts in ways that benefit society as a whole. We may struggle to change the negative views that have traditionally been assigned to autism, but humankind’s basic social nature will not change. Even for someone like Ms. Dawson, who has overcome adversity and prejudice to a remarkable extent, making a contribution is not easy. Again, from The Globe and Mail article:
. . . Like many autistics, Ms. Dawson has reduced social skills and, while she can put forward brilliant ideas, she is incapable of managing simple tasks that are essential to the research process.
“I have some spectacular deficits,” Ms. Dawson said matter-of-factly.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mottron said “she is changing the way the world views autism and that will have a lasting impact.”
I don’t dispute Ms. Dawson’s positive impact on the way autistic individuals are viewed by the neurotypical world. I only wish she would not judge us ⎯ and especially not judge our children ⎯ based solely on her own experience. For that, too, is stereotyping.
Finally, a different perspective on this same subject, see this recent post at Ballastexistenz.