Major Shift Underway in Goals for Treating Autism

Change is driven in part by neurodiversity movement
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 5, 2022 7:45 PM CST
Major Shift Underway in Goals for Treating Autism
Stock photo shows a therapist working with a young adult with autism.   (Getty - Tatsiana Hancharova)

According to recent CDC stats, about 2.2% of American adults—more than 5.4 million people—are somewhere on the autism spectrum, which "reflects major improvements in public awareness and public health response to autism" since the early 2000s, according to Autism Speaks. Writing for Scientific American, Claudia Wallis says she's noticed a major shift in approaches to treating autism since she started covering the topic 15 years ago, back when therapists focused on "fixing" behaviors commonly associated with the condition. As three noteworthy researchers noted recently in JAMA, specialists have "moved away from thinking of autism as a condition that needs to be eliminated or fixed to thinking about autism as part of the neurodiversity that exists across humankind."

As Wallis notes, early intervention is still important, as therapists are encouraged to "remediate the defining impairments of the condition," particularly with regard to basic communication and social relationships, as well as potential harmful behaviors like head banging. But experts now see little reason to expend energy trying to remediate harmless behaviors. Rather, it's time for the rest of world to respond differently to people with autism. For example, says Geraldine Dawson of Duke's Center for Autism and Brain Development, "If someone rocks back and forth because it makes them feel calmer, I feel that our society should be accepting of different ways of being in the world." The shift comes as people on the spectrum have successfully advocated for themselves through a global "neurodiversity movement," which has "fostered a greater appreciation for what society gains from having different kinds of brains contribute to our world."

Not all researchers have given up on finding ways to literally change the autistic brain. Per SciTechDaily, researchers at Tel Aviv University are experimenting with hyperbaric medicine involving pressure chambers like those used to treat scuba divers stricken by the bends. Using "autism animal models," not people, researchers found significant improvements in social functioning after treatment in a pressure chamber, which may decrease neuroinflammation. There's no indication when the method might be tested on human subjects. (Read more autism spectrum disorder stories.)

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