Philosophical perspectives of autism spectrum disorders

Posted by Kate Butler

April is Autism Awareness Month. Philosophy professor Susan Parillo introduced Skidmore's series of events and lectures to raise awareness on April 9 with a discussion of philosophical views on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). As a philosopher, Professor Parillo claimed to be "better at asking questions than answering them," and chose to approach issues surrounding ASD from a different perspective than a traditional scientific and psychological viewpoint. She is concerned with the validity of the scientific approach to autism and its explanatory power, and seeks to evaluate the ethics of how to address ASD and approach the issue "from the perspective of what is owed" to those with disabilities.

Parillo's research focuses on Theory of Mind philosophy, which helps to explain the reasons why those on the spectrum have the issues and behaviors characteristic of the disorder. Theory of Mind is a mental concept that enables a person to understand that others think differently, or as Ms. Parillo put it, to "read others' minds." It's necessary for normal social interaction, for imagination, even for successful lying and pretense. Those with ASD lack these abilities in varying degrees, which impairs their social skills.

Core social deficits differ in severity depending on a person's place on the autism spectrum. Currently, there are five diagnoses grouped under the umbrella term of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) to be released in May, the diagnostic criteria will change. Separate diagnoses, including Asperger's, will no longer exist, replaced instead with the blanket term Autism Spectrum Disorder. A doctor will have to determine the severity of someone's condition and what services he or she requires and receives. Parillo fears that without the Asperger's diagnosis, people with the disorder will "fall through the cracks," and not receive adequate support due to their relatively mild impairments. Some people with Asperger's also fear losing a sense of community and identity associated with the diagnostic term.

In the final part of her discussion, Parillo focused on the fundamental question: should Autism be cured or embraced? This quandary forms the foundation of debate within the ASD community, and has the potential to affect peoples' lives and futures. Viewpoints on this issue differ greatly. Some large organizations are committed to completely curing and preventing the disorder while other groups, like Aspies for Freedom, claim that Asperger's is not a disorder but an alternative wiring of the brain, and oppose any attempts at "normalization."

The crux of the issue, and the heart of Parillo's talk, centers on the important connection between a person's identity and the disorder. For many individuals with Asperger's and higher functioning autism, and for their friends and parents, the idea of eliminating the disorder amounts to eliminating who they are. Since this disorder can be such an integral part of someone's identity, many don't consider it impairing. Ms. Parillo raised the question whether these people, like her own friend with ASD, Katie, would want to be cured.

Parillo admitted, "I ache for Katie," but knows Katie does not view her traits as a disorder and does not suffer from the social anxieties that others do. Parillo contrasted to Katie's happiness her own weaknesses and social anxieties, exclaiming, "I spin my wheels all day long-who's disabled, who's broken?"

Although those on the spectrum who are higher functioning could be harmed by a "cure-all" mindset, Parillo acknowledged that there are still others on the low functioning end who do suffer from more severe impairments and emphasized that society has an ethical responsibility to embrace efforts to help them. The obligations of improving peoples' quality of life and helping them to reach their fullest potential necessitate research into interventions, support, and, perhaps, even "cures" to offer them the best chance to flourish.

Parillo asserted that the issue isn't whether or not to cure autism. Rather, it is how to provide the best help and support by evaluating each person's needs on a case-by-case basis instead of a "cure-all" approach.

"We're talking about people," said Ms. Parillo. "Remember that everyone is an individual. We need to embrace each other as human beings; we're all just people." 

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