Should Autism Be Cured or Is "Curing" Offensive?

Some within the autism community take issue with seeing autistic people as having a disorder, decrying the "cure culture".

Creative Young Kids with Paint on their Hands

While there are constant scientific efforts to find a cure for autism, some people do not feel a cure is necessary. In fact, they see neurodiversity as a new civil rights movement.

To its proponents, neurodiversity sees neurological differences like autism as genetic and "the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome," as said John Robison, a writer on autism issues, in Psychology Today.

They see the search for a cure to autism as something in the vein of searching for a "cure to gayness".

Indeed, if there is no currently available cure for 1 out of every 68 children in the US who have autism, or about 1% of the world's population, that's a lot of people who are trying to lead regular lives despite a varying degree of difficulties. And this number is rising as autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability (according to the CDC), with boys 5 times more likely to develop autism than girls.


Should society view such a large group of people as disabled or should it see them merely as different and find a non-judgemental path towards incorporating folks on the autism spectrum? This would include allocating budget resources going to what could be unnecessary medical research towards improving the lives of those who are diagnosed as neurologically diverse.

The autism rights movement (ARM) looks to foster greater acceptance of people with autistic behaviors, therapies that focus on coping skills rather than cures that would imitate "normal" or "neurotypical" people, and the need to recognize autistic people as a minority group.

A number of organizations advocate this type of approach. These include the Autism Network International, Aspies for Freedom (which established June 18th as an Autism Pride Day), the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the Autism Acceptance Project. Among their work to advance the rights of autistic people, some ARM groups go so far as to actively advocate against organizations like Autism Speaks and others that work to find a cure, looking to change what they see as detrimental "cure culture".

Understandably, controversies have followed such groups. As reported in this New York Times article, some autism email lists have been criticized for calling parents who are looking to cure their children as "curebies" who are depicted as "as slaves to conformity, so anxious for their children to appear normal that they cannot respect their way of communicating".

As Julia Bascom from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network told to the Daily Beast:

“The idea of a cure for autism doesn’t make sense. Autism isn’t a disease or an injury; it’s a neurodevelopmental disability that shapes our brains differently. If I can’t talk, does it make sense to look for a pill for that, or should my speech therapist help me learn how to type or sign instead? Is flapping my hands or intensely and obsessively loving something ‘weird’ or wanting to be by myself the psychological equivalent of diabetes, or is it a natural and beautiful part of human diversity?

One criticism of the autistic rights movement stems from the perception that it is being led by high-functioning autistic people, like those with Asperger's syndrome. While they may exhibit certain symptoms on the autism spectrum, many with Asperger's are able to lead lives similar to a non-autistic person and find the idea that they need to be "cured" offensive.

But to people on the low-functioning end of the spectrum, this approach might prove detrimental as it can prevent or delay treatments that they need and want. While differences in race or sexual orientation can cause societal oppression, they are not physically disabling a person in everyday life like neurological issues.

From heated arguments over vaccinations to its burgeoning civil rights push, it is clear that autism is a very emotionally charged topic and its increasing prominence is underscored by the rising number of diagnoses. Whatever may be the cause, how we view people who are autistic is a significant social challenge that needs discussion and action.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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