An Absurd Umbrella: Neurodiversity and the Autism Spectrum (Jason Garshfield, 21 Apr 2024, Quillette)

There is a core of truth to the arguments undergirding neurodiversity. Human minds cannot be whittled down to a unitary norm, and people with unusual or eccentric approaches can make great contributions to society. To “cure” autism might be said to be akin to “curing” creativity or introversion.

Yet the arguments against regarding autism as merely a benign form of neurodiversity are compelling, too. One prominent critic is Jill Escher, president of the National Council on Severe Autism. Escher has two autistic children, both of whom are profoundly impaired in their ability to perform basic life functions. As she has pointed out, the diagnosis of autism has taken on “an absurd umbrella aspect that can cover quirky people like Elon Musk, sensitive artists like the singer Sia, and even elite athletes like Tony Snell,” some of whom “are so high-functioning I would consider my kids completely cured if they had similar abilities.”

The problem is inherent in the absurdity of an “autism spectrum” that groups together highly disparate individuals and conditions. On one end of the spectrum are people who may be different from the norm, but who are perfectly capable of living full and dignified lives. For them, the notion of a cure is sinister, even dystopian. On the other end are people who are severely disabled by the condition, for whom a cure might be an immeasurable gift. […]

Rates of autism have skyrocketed in recent decades, from well below 1 in 1,000 children in the 1960s to 1 in 36 today. This is almost certainly partially attributable to a broadening of the diagnostic parameters. People who might have been considered merely somewhat abnormal in 1960 are liable to be classified as high-functioning autistic in 2024—a shift that has led to considerable confusion.

We’re all on the spectrum somewhere.