Controversy and Curious Case Histories in the Autism Community

Health and medicine explained.
Jan. 16 2013 1:16 PM

Is the Neurodiversity Movement Misrepresenting Autism?

The curious case histories of some of autism’s biggest celebrities.

Filmmakers Sue Rubin and Geradine Wurzburg speak during the reception for the 23rd Annual Celebration of the Academy Award Documentary Nominees at the Academy of Motion Pictures.
Sue Rubin andGerardine Wurzburg of the Oscar-nominated short documentary Autism Is a World in 2005

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Much of what we know about autism has changed since my son Jonah was diagnosed in 2001, but the metaphors we use to conceptualize it have remained largely the same. Portia Iversen, founder of Cure Autism Now, writes in her book Strange Son that she thought of her son’s autism as a “deep well” he had fallen into. Jenny McCarthy describes the “window” through which she struggled to free her son from his autism.  Arthur Fleischmann states in Carly’s Voice, his account of how his severely autistic daughter developed the ability to communicate using a keyboard, that “There was a wall that couldn’t be breached, locking her in and us out.” The more profoundly impaired the child, it seems, the more likely these images of physical barriers are to crop up, as parents search desperately for the “intact mind” (Iversen again) they believe is there, somewhere deep down, despite often brutal symptoms that suggest the opposite.

It’s not just the hope of desperate parents that fuels this quest—although, as one of those parents myself, I would never underestimate our ability to persist in our hopes and efforts even in the face of abundant evidence. Over the past decade, our faith has been validated by the emergence of several seemingly low-functioning autistics whose “intact minds” have been revealed through their brilliant writing. These celebrities, including Amanda Baggs, Sue Rubin, Tracy Thresher, Larry Bissonnette, and others, speak minimally, if at all, and require support for even the most basic of life skills. Yet their blogs, videos, and written commentary—as seen on major networks such as CNN and in Academy Award nominated documentaries—have inspired countless parents around the world. 

Jonah was 4 years old when he started writing in chalk on our driveway without ever having been taught—although his phrases, like “FBI WARNING,” were admittedly less communicative than Carly Fleischmann’s complaint, “HELP TEETH HURT.” Despite that, I really believed, for many years, that Jonah would develop into the next Tito Mukhopadhyay, the Indian boy featured in Iversen’s Strange Son, who published several books of poetry despite autism so severe he was nonverbal; prone to constant, repetitive movements, or “stims”; and, not infrequently, disruptive, noncompliant, and even aggressive with his mother.

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Now that Jonah is almost 14, I’ve come to accept that what he writes and says (he learned to speak in a rudimentary fashion when he was 5) pretty accurately reflects what he’s thinking: “No school,” “BIG orange juice,” “Mommy and Daddy leave and Jonah stays at Costco” (so he can ransack the bakery department). Not that we will ever stop pushing him, working to expand his limited communication and social skills, while trying to maintain control over the frequent and unpredictable rages that necessitated a 10-month hospitalization when he was only 9 years old—rages that made him pound his own face bloody before turning his aggression outward in attacks that left us scratched and bruised. But as far as an “intact mind”? If it means a level of articulation and abstract reasoning belied by everything Jonah says and does—well, I no longer pray for my son to be someone he’s not.

But the bigger question is: Should I have stopped praying years ago? Should parents with young autistic children expect a breakthrough like those in the high-profile cases? Evidence suggests many of these people are either not as high-functioning—or in some cases not as low-functioning—as has been described.

Shortly after Amanda Baggs was interviewed by Sanjay Gupta on CNN and drew nationwide acclaim, several former friends and classmates took to the Web in bewilderment. Their testimony was consistent. They knew Baggs, either from a summer program for gifted teens or from Simon’s Rock College, where she was a student in the mid-1990s. During those years, she spoke, attended classes, dated, and otherwise acted in a completely typical fashion. How to reconcile the accomplished student she used to be with the woman they saw on TV in a wheelchair, rocking, smacking herself in the head, flapping her hands, and making unintelligible noises?

I exchanged emails with one of her old acquaintances. Although he confirmed that the statements he wrote online were accurate, he couldn’t say anything else: Baggs’ lawyer had contacted him and warned that such statements could result in legal action.

The objection is surprising for many reasons, not the least of which is that Baggs doesn’t really dispute these details of her teenage years. On her blog, Ballastexistenz—which has been called "the most-read of all autistic blogs" by disability scholar James C. Wilson—she confirms that she was identified as gifted, went to college, and “produced plausible-sounding speech sounds … in the past.” She also explains that she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 14 (joining a long list of diagnoses she says she has received over the course of her life, including bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, psychotic disorder, and schizophrenia), and that she lost all functional speech in her early 20s.

This story appears to be clinically unprecedented. “Very high-functioning individuals might not be diagnosed until their teens or later, because of their milder symptoms,” explains Alex Kolevzon, clinical director of the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. But, he adds, patients who are diagnosed relatively late display nothing like the incapacitating impairments Baggs seems to suffer from now. And Kolevzon has never seen patients lose the ability to speak in their 20s due to autism. His observation is supported by the findings of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) at Kennedy Krieger Institute, which maintains the largest online autism database in the country. Of almost 10,000 subjects, IAN researchers report, “Of those diagnosed in adolescence, no child whose primary regression was in ‘speech and language’ incurred the regression after age 5 years.”

The diagnoses of Sue Rubin, Larry Bissonnette, and Tracy Thresher, on the other hand, have never been questioned. Rubin, featured in the Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Autism Is a World, was considered severely intellectually disabled for most of her childhood, with a tested IQ of 29. Bissonnette and Thresher star in the 2011 film Wretches and Jabberers; Bissonnette was institutionalized into his 20s, while Thresher grew up in special-ed classes. Although all three are capable of speaking simple words or phrases, their lives were transformed when they were introduced to Facilitated Communication (FC), a method of supported typing. A facilitator holds the user at the wrist, elbow, or shoulder, as is the case for Thresher and Bissonnette, or the facilitator may hold the keyboard in place, as is the case for Rubin. With this help, all three produce sophisticated written work that has enabled Rubin to attend college and Thresher to serve on two state-level disability committees in Vermont, where he lives.