Tuesday, January 09, 2007

About One of TACA's Taglines

If you visit the website for Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), you will note one of their taglines reads as follows:

Some of our families have been told to put their child in an institution. We're hoping for Harvard.

There's so much wrong with this tagline that I thought a full blog post was needed to address it.

To begin with, we have this common claim about how doctors have recommended institutionalization. This doesn't match my experience, but I've heard this anecdote so many times that I have to conclude some doctors still do this. It is wrong for them to continue to do this, and there are number of different reasons of various types as to why this is wrong. Some people would argue that absolutely no one should be institutionalized under any circumstances. When it comes to autistic children specifically, there is no scientific reason to recommend institutionalization, nor any reason to suppose most autistics end up institutionalized. In fact, most adult classic autistics seem to live either at home with a parent or in community care. Some live independently. The outcome of autistic individuals is rather unpredictable.

TACA is helping promote the idea that autistics belong in institutions. I am sure that is not the intent of the parents who manage TACA, but that is effectively what they are doing.

The premise in TACA's tagline is that an autistic person must be cured for them to be able to attend a university such as Harvard. There are a number of reasons why this is wrong.

First, this unintentionally promotes the idea that it is acceptable for universities to discriminate on the basis of disability. That is, if an applicant is autistic, they can be rejected on the basis of autism; because, after all, an autistic person must apparently be cured before being able to attend a university.

There is also something that seems factually wrong about the premise of the tagline. It assumes that autistics are less likely to go to college than non-autistics. I do not know if this is true. I know that outcome studies have found that some classic autistics do end up going to college. And not all non-autistics go to college. In the US looks like about 24.4% of all people end up getting a Bachelor's degree or higher (source).

Turning that around, I do not believe autism is less common inside universities than in the general population. (There's not a lot of data on the matter, but I can provide some specific details why I do not believe this).

There are non-cured autistics who teach in universities, e.g. Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. There is at least one non-cured autistic who has won a Nobel Prize in an academic field, Vernon Smith, Professor of Economics and Law at George Manson University. I'm only mentioning diagnosed autistics.

Autism organizations would better spend their resources trying to understand how successful autistics got to where they are in the absence of a cure, instead of pursuing dead ends such as the thimerosal hypothesis in the futile and notoriously unsuccessful search for an unlikely cure. That is part of what the petition to the NIH is about.

Finally, what is it with mentioning Harvard specifically? Hope and positive thinking are good things, for sure. But expecting that the very unlikely will come true is quite another. It's not good for the mental well-being of the person having the expectation, and it cannot be good for the person who is pressured into fulfilling the expectation. Harvard apparently admits just over 1000 students every year, and about 4 million Americans are born every year in the United States. The odds aren't too realistic, either for autistics or non-autistics. Of course, if it turns out that someone really does have a shot at being admitted there, they should definitely give it a try. That's not what I'm arguing against.


  1. Lars Perner is a university professor

    and on the autism spectrum, he does some advocacy stuff, too. I spotted a few professors at UCD and several students who were definitely autism spectrum people. I didn't know many from the engineering dept at all, there may be dozens there. The one I know about is on the spectrum and has an autistic adult son.

  2. Handsome Dan1/09/2007 8:41 PM

    George "W" Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard.

  3. Handsome Dan said: George "W" Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard

    I think that was before he was chelated.

  4. An autism "advocacy" group using scare tactics and loaded language? Color me stunned.

  5. Seeing that tagline, without further information or background made me think that they were either trying to be 'funny' or 'sarcastic.' Either way it doesn't come across [to me] as suggesting that they want to institutionalise their children. Perhaps some background information might clarify.

  6. I did not say they want to institutionalize their children, and in fact I clarified that they probablly don't. But they are helping spread the notion that autistics and institutions go together (unless cured) which should be an obsolete notion by now.

  7. No, TACA is not being "funny" or "sarcastic" about Harvard. They mean that they are all about "recovering" their children, so then they'll be Harvard Material.

    I wonder if anyone on TACA's BOD is a Harvard alum? What's their collective educational background anyway? I'm not seeing much by way of their bio section.

    child of harvard alum (bfd)

  8. Berkeleys gotta be the place for me.

    It's the trees innit:)

  9. *Handsome Dan said: George "W" Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard

    I think that was before he was chelated.*

    Nah, it's before he pickled his brain, liver and kidneys....

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  11. For someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    Methinks thou doth protest too much.

    There are no non-cured autistics.

    Open your mind.

  12. Autism organizations would better spend their resources trying to understand how successful autistics got to where they are in the absence of a cure,

    I have heard Dr. Grandin address this. She speaks of the importance of finding mentors and once when I heard her speak she said something to the effect of, "In remediating deficits don't forget to nurture the talent. All autistic people are very good at something."

    Her statement has stuck with me.