John Elder Robison on an autism cure

This is kind of a follow-up to my most recent post. In responding to Some Asperger questions from the audience, John Elder Robinson Robison – author of the book Look Me in the Eye and a blog of the same name – takes on the cure question:

If there were ever a cure would you take it, or would you think it was like taking a piece away?At age 50, I am comfortable the way I am and I would not want to take any pieces away. As a teenager, though, life was a lot harder and I’d have had a different answer if you asked me this at age 15. I guess we become more comfortable with ourselves as we get older and hopefully wiser.

If you’ve read the book, you know that Robinson’s Robison’s life was anything but easy. Interesting, no doubt. But not easy, especially in a time when pretty much all kids – autistic or not – were left to sink or swim in the world.

(A side thought for a later post: Could the increased amount of time parents today spend with their kids, compared with previous generations, be a contributing factor to the increase in autism diagnoses?)

6 thoughts on “John Elder Robison on an autism cure

  1. It’s not so much a change in the amount of time parents spend with their kids, I think, as it is a change in attitudes. In previous generations, many parents didn’t worry about how quickly the kids were developing speech or other abilities, but just let the kids run around and play, assuming that their development would sort itself out in time. Now parents worry much more about their children not being “normal” and are quick to take their kids to specialists whenever anything seems out of the ordinary.


  2. I kind of agree with ABFH on this one.

    I think that the reason that a lot more kids from highly educated and mid to upper class families get diagnosed is that there is a lot more pressure in these families to perform and conform from the start.

    It is not unusual for parents to try to get their kids into the “right” prep schools, and even sometimes the “right” pre-schools so that they can get into the “right” colleges and “succeed” in life. If their kids are not up to the Lake Wobegon standard (“Where all of the kids are above average”) then they’re hauling them off to the doctor to see what’s wrong, and what they have to do to fix them.

    Is this always the case? Certainly not. Many cases of autism are really obvious. But I think many kids with a diagnosis nowadays wouldn’t have been misdiagnosed as something else before. They just wouldn’t have been diagnosed with anything at all.



  3. It’s Robison. Not Robinson.

    Kids make choices that they later regret too. They get tattoos and piercings at 15 that they wish they had not looking back from age 30.

    But the choice is not cure or no cure, but having a brain that’s been messed with by people who don’t know anything about brains (that’s the state of science now Brett) and risking ending up with a brain that can’t do anything or that is so messed up that the person thinks only of killing himself or that can’t sustain a heartbeat even).

    You act like there will be a day when people can just totally rewire a brain and then they can choose. That’s stupid, Brett. Stupid. Like the vaccine hypothesis, and like the AoA blog. Stooooopid.


  4. Ms. Clark, I don’t really agree with the statement “the choice is not cure or no cure, but having a brain that’s been messed with by people who don’t know anything about brains (that’s the state of science now Brett) and risking ending up with a brain that can’t do anything or that is so messed up that the person thinks only of killing himself or that can’t sustain a heartbeat even). ”

    First of all, I am indeed opposed to chemical therapies, at least for me. I recognize there are some people for whom chemical intervention may be necessary, but I’m not one of them. And I’m also opposed to any other invasive brain technique on principle. No lobotomy for me.

    As to other therapies . . .

    There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests we can indeed rewire our brains to good effect. Note that I say, “WE do it.” Us – the person onthe spectrum. Right now there are image-response therapies that make measurable improvements in the mirror neuron network that control theory of mind.

    There is also compelling evidence that experimental techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation can accelerate that process.

    TMS has been in clinical use in Europe as a stroke and depression treatment for 10+ years.

    Those are two examples on non-invasive therapies we can use to make our own minds better, with little risk of drastic side effects we’d regret later. The processes are driven by our own minds, and they are gradual, so if we begin moving in a direction we don’t like, we can stop.

    The development of my own mind’s abilities in recent years is evidence of this brain plasticity leading to improvements. You may observe the same improvement with time in people like Temple Grandin. Emergent therapies may allow us to achieve beneficial change like that faster.

    I think you’re going to see that science is unlocking some of these secrets and we may see some significant answers in the next decade.


  5. I’d like to add one more comment, to speak to WHY someone on the spectrum might want to change.

    First of all, change is a normal part of growth and we all do it to soem extent.

    But what about a more serious effort to alter our behavior?

    All of us on the spectrum must recognize that autism presents us with unique individual gifts. We may have, for example, extrordinary musical, mathmetical, or technical abilities.

    Autism also leaves us with certain social disadvantages, in most cases. If we want to engage the wider world most successfully, we benefit from learning how to fit in socially. And that may require some considerable work.

    Why do it?

    Well, if the prevelance of autism conditions is one in 150, that means that for each of us, there are 149 others who don’t have our particular social eccentricity. And with those odds we’re going to succeed better if we learn to fit in.

    Fitting in is an individual choice, as to degree and even “do I do it at all?” I am happy with my own choices and results, and that’s all one can really hope for.


  6. John,

    Thanks for your comments here. I agree whole-heartedly with your thoughts on brain plasticity and the ability to change how your mind works. Many people think that as we get older – autistic or not – our brains become unable (or less able) to adapt. It may take a bit more work to learn some new things, and some things may be out of reach (I’ll never be a chess Grandmaster at my age, no matter how hard I try!), but it can be done.

    And thanks too for speaking up on why an autistic may want to change. I could say it, but as a non-autistic my opinion isn’t always accepted as valid for someone that is autistic.

    I don’t think anyone should be forced to change, or be different from who they are, but neither should they be discouraged or prevented from changing. As you say, every changes. I would almost go so far as to say that everyone wants to change, to be a different person than who they are: taller, thinner, smarter, more popular, and on and on.


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