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Autism as a “neurobiological” condition

Humans are neurobiological creatures. We are “made out of meat” as Terry Bisson so memorably put it. Our moods and cognitive capabilities have everything to do with hunger, fatigue, headaches, sore backs, hormones, and other influences outside the brain; not to mention the many biases inherent in our how our brains work.

Yet we often say that autism, depression, ADHD, and other diagnoses are neurological or neurobiological. When we use this word, what are we distinguishing these conditions from?

What is an example of a non-neurobiological mental difference, personality trait, or even learned idea or learned behavior? I can’t think of one. The word has no sensible opposite in this context.

When you hear someone say “autism is a neurobiological disorder” they’re sometimes saying the autistic person “can’t help it” and needs to be cut some slack. People want to switch from judgment to empathy, a noble goal.

But with this word “neuro(bio)logical” we’re implying that its opposite exists… that non-autistic minds might be non-neurobiological, or perhaps that the autistic mind has an outside or uncontrollable force operating upon it. We’re implying that autism (neurobiological) is something separate from the (non-neurobiological) self.

This is dehumanizing at worst, and misleading at best. It’s both immoral and impractical.

When we say someone has a “neurobiological” difference, and therefore should be cut some slack, are we saying they are meat-automata lacking some element of free will which other people have?

As is so often the case, we might correct how we think about autism by finding a new habit of thought which leads us to right action by recognizing the common humanity (sameness, rather than otherness) of an autistic person.

What does that look like? From a practical perspective, many wise teachers from Jesus to Thich Nhat Hanh have already shown us how to forgive and empathize, without resorting to psychiatric diagnosis.

I won’t try to restate the words of these teachers — please learn from them directly! — but I hope to convince you to question the “neurobiological excuse” model in your relationships, and urge you to look elsewhere, wherever that may be.

Forgiving ourselves without psychiatric approval

Many accounts of adult autism diagnosis describe a feeling of relief. People say they felt terrible about themselves.  The autism diagnosis gave them an explanation, and permission to shift blame to neurobiology. They could finally forgive themselves.

But they couldn’t forgive themselves before. They required a medical excuse before it was OK to be the person that they are. While it’s wonderful that diagnosis was helpful, it’s horrible that the help was needed.

DSM diagnoses aren’t even intended to be explanations; they’re intended to be descriptions. An autism diagnosis means “you are like other Autistic people,” it does not mean “we know why Autistic people are like that.”

If your flaws aren’t found in the DSM, must you hate yourself?

Let’s find a better way of thinking about relationships

In a touching letter to her husband, an anonymous wife describes how her feelings for her husband changed when he was diagnosed with autism. She found his behavior saddening and frustrating. She felt he wasn’t making an effort. With the autism diagnosis, this changed; she reframed how she thought about her husband and was able to forgive him.

For me, a workable model for living with others doesn’t fit the “before” or the “after” in this letter.

Before diagnosis, it was not realistic to expect a spouse to change dramatically; people do not, as a rule, change dramatically. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a DSM category for the way someone is; they are still that way.

After diagnosis, if these spouses weren’t a good match, they still are not (whether or not it’s anyone’s “fault”). If forgiveness was the only missing element, then wonderful! But again, why the need for diagnosis to forgive?

What’s needed is a model which works both before and after; which allows us to empathize and forgive, and to recognize our own needs, and to expect others to be responsible for their actions; and which allows those things without reference to psychiatric diagnosis, simply recognizing that we all are who we are.

The same need for a better model arises in parent-child relationships.

A related conversation: sexual orientation

There’s a parallel discussion about sexual orientation. Can someone change their sexual orientation and become “ex-gay”? Reasonable people don’t think so. Does this mean sexual orientation is neurobiological? Does it mean it’s genetic? Does it mean it’s learned at an early age? Does it matter?

When we debate “choice” in sexual orientation, we’re already framing the discussion in a dehumanizing way. If it’s not a choice, then someone can claim that it’s a disorder, that it would be appropriately “cured” or eliminated through eugenics. If it is a choice, then someone can claim that it’s OK to discriminate and persecute, because people can “help it.”

For me the human perspective is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a choice. People experience sexual orientation as a core element of their identity; it’s clear that attacking someone’s sexual orientation harms that person. We should not go around harming people without a good reason, and as so many courts have eloquently explained in same-sex marriage cases, no good reason exists here.

We cannot be humane toward someone if our attitude is that they need a neurobiological excuse before we can accept them.

Parenting and education are not criminal justice

Often we describe children’s behavior and our response to it using a “justice” metaphor. We know we’re using this metaphor when we talk about whether a behavior was intentional, whether someone can help it, and what punishment would be fair or deserved.

Federal law in the United States encodes an “insanity defense” approach to educational discipline. When a child with a disability misbehaves, schools are required to determine whether the behavior was a “manifestation of their disability,” and the usual punishment may not apply if so.

I reject this whole framework. For me, the parenting ideal is to love, accept, teach and guide, not to judge. If a behavior is a significant problem and isn’t going to serve my son well, then I’ll discourage it (in the most developmentally-appropriate, empathetic, yet clear way I can come up with), and try to teach an alternative. It doesn’t matter whether he meant to do it or had malicious intent, what matters is whether he’s developmentally ready to practice and learn a better option.

Applying moral judgment to some skills but not others

We tend to view social incompetence in moral terms; if a child doesn’t know how to act in a social situation, we tend to say they are not only incompetent but naughty. We introduce the question of intent: did they “do it on purpose.” These questions don’t even arise if a child has trouble with reading or math. They should not arise for social skills, either.

Acceptance with allowance for growth

If you aren’t familiar with Carol Dweck‘s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets, check it out. It’s easy for all of us to underestimate our talents and our capacity for change. Whatever our capacity may be, we’ll be more likely to reach it if we see ourselves as able to grow — and less likely if we see ourselves as a collection of fixed attributes.

There’s a delicate balance, though. We might strive to forgive ourselves for being who we are today, without convincing ourselves that we must always be exactly that person. We don’t want to attempt the impossible (personally, I will never be a musician!), but we don’t want to give up too easily, either.

This stuff is hard.

An unhelpful question: “Is this caused by autism?”

Many parents and teachers find themselves asking whether a specific behavior is “part of autism” (and again, it’s encoded in United States law that schools must determine this).

It’s a trap — it has an intuitive appeal, but it’s wrong. We do need to cut people slack, including our kids, but let’s abandon “it’s autism so they aren’t responsible” as the reason.

Practical considerations:

  1. It’s false to say that autistics can’t help it, while everyone else can. Being human is a neurobiological phenomenon. It’s delusional to believe that anyone with any neurology walks around making conscious, rational decisions all day.
  2. It’s impossible to figure out what’s “caused by autism” and what isn’t — because autism isn’t separate from the person.
  3. Beware fundamental attribution error. We overestimate the effect of unique personal qualities (such as autism). We underestimate the importance of the situation and of universal human traits. We even do this to ourselves, adopting a fixed mindset and attributing our behavior and skills to our traits, when in fact we may be able to change more than we expect.
  4. Typical kids have tantrums and inflexibilities and repetitive behaviors, too. In the midst of a child’s temper tantrum, it’s tough to imagine a less-helpful question than “is this an autism tantrum or a regular tantrum?” Instead, always assume the child has good intent (they are a child!), and help them learn. Focus on how to help them thrive.
  5. When we try to guess what we can’t know, we become confusing, inconsistent parents; rather than offering stable, consistent, guidance, we add our own unpredictable guessing game to the situation.

Moral considerations:

  1. When we respond to a loved one with encouraging or discouraging actions, our purpose should not be justice and judgment; our purpose should be to help them, or help ourselves, or help us live better together.
  2. We risk viewing a person as a collection of symptoms and behaviors.
  3. The “I am a person and you are neurobiological” idea takes away a person’s humanity.

If you find yourself needing the “neurobiology” excuse to accept someone, ask why. Why do you need that excuse? Why can’t you accept them to begin with?

If I can’t ask “is this caused by autism?” what do I do?

Of course we need to recognize what people can do, and not hold them to an unrealistic standard. They may be limited by age and developmental level. They may be limited by their genetics. They may be limited by a physical disability. They may be limited by traumatic life experiences. Who knows?

When we cut people slack, we aren’t giving them a pass because “they can’t help it,” we’re giving them a pass because we’re realistic and understanding. Because we know everyone needs downtime, everyone needs autonomy, and nobody is perfect, We also know that we all are how we are.

But we shouldn’t give each other slack all the time. We can help each other grow by asking for more and allowing our loved ones to impress us with what they can do.

Parents are not a criminal justice system, nor are they God. If we reward good behavior and great accomplishments, and sometimes punish misbehavior, it’s not because our child “deserves” a reward or a punishment. It’s not (ideally) because we’re angry at them. Instead, it’s because we want to encourage our children to do things that will be good for them, and discourage them from harming themselves or others. This can be done clearly and non-negotiably when needed, but without passing judgment.

There’s also lots of room to leave our kids alone, and let them develop intrinsic motivation. Not everything needs a parental response.

When we respond to a loved one, we don’t need to look inside their head or guess at causes. If what they’re doing is dangerous or harmful, we need to communicate that to them clearly and consistently. If what they’re doing will be healthy and make them happy in the long run, we might encourage it, or we might let them find the intrinsic value in it. When we aren’t sure, or it isn’t an important issue, maybe we should stay out of it and accept them as they are.

Hard lines to draw, yes. But in a family, our job is acceptance, with occasional guidance. Our job is not to judge.

 

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