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".

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.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.