I came across this BBC article months ago, and bookmarked it for further consideration. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly bothered me about the author’s assertion that developing a pre-natal test for autism could be a mistake.  Obviously, the specter of eugenics looms over all pre-natal genetic testing. The point of it isn’t to prepare for the birth of an ill child. The assumption is that one will treat or abort.

Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of the BBC article, posits that if we have the ability to test for and treat autism before a child is born, the world will have fewer important advances in mathematics. Really? Is that the concern? Baron-Cohen says,

If reducing the testosterone in a foetus helped that baby’s future social development, we would all be delighted. But what if such a treatment reduced that baby’s future ability to attend to details, and to understand systematic information like maths?

It is a good point, of course, but it doesn’t go far enough. Why does the person with autism have to be treated? Why not accept that everyone is different, with variable social needs and abilities. Do we value a person because they are genius in math or engineering, or conversely, because they have the ability to charm, a special social skill? Most of us are in between the two extremes.

NPR has this today, a report about a study from South Korea that found 1 in every 38 children to be on the autistic spectrum. Most were unknown to be autistic, in regular classrooms.

Many of the children were probably missed because they didn’t misbehave and they weren’t failing academically, Kim says.

“These children could function at a level that was expected, even though they were having a lot of difficulties with their peers and social engagement,” she says.

The researchers go on to say that it is important to identify these autistic kids, you know, the ones who aren’t misbehaving and are doing fine academically, because they need help with their social skills. Help from ‘the experts’.

“They’re socially awkward and they have trouble making friends. They get in trouble because their behavior is a little odd,” he says. “And then when we teach them their skills, they actually can fit in better and succeed better.”

I can see this kind of mass testing gaining steam, under the guise of anti-bullying intervention. Ferreting out the individuals ‘with the problem’ could be seen as necessary and even helpful. Also it would be much easier than teaching our children (and their parents) to tolerate and embrace those who are different.

This bothers me for two very personal reasons (actually, three, but I’m assuming you’re all with me on the moral high ground, so there’s no need to discuss nice v. smart, and other values.) First reason: as a parent, I can easily visualize my parental rights being taken away. If my child was diagnosed, at school, with autism, he would carry that with him forever. So even if he was one of the kids who wasn’t misbehaving and was doing fine academically, if his teacher thought there was a problem with his social skills and recommended him for intervention, would I have the power to refuse? Maybe I would want to handle this within the family. Would that be allowed? There is a decent chance that it would be seen as neglect, failure to treat an illness.

That may seem paranoid, but a similar situation happened recently in Detroit when a mother refused to give her adolescent daughter psychotropic medications. The police came to her house and removed the child after the mother refused to give her up to CPS.

Second reason: I am socially awkward. (Now you know my secret.) Actually, I know plenty of people who are similar to me. We make friends with effort, we don’t really engage in much small talk, we become uncomfortable easily around others. I have become much more practiced with social situations over the years, as anybody who had to function in society would. Treating awkwardness as a medical condition instead of having the sensitivity to cope with and ease the path of the afflicted is a mistake. All kids need a safe environment in which to develop. A school that tests and labels kids, then ‘helps’ them to become more like everyone else is not safe.