Can Autism Spectrum Disorder Be “Cured”? No, and That’s Not a Bad Thing

Can autism spectrum disorder be cured? Waypoints offers behavior-analytic services based on applied behavior analysis (ABA), often in support of autistic clients, and it’s important to be clear about the fact that those services cannot cure autism.

With that being said, a cure for autism is not something that we’re seeking in the first place.

The reasons for that require consideration of what autism is, as well as what “curing” something entails and what the implications of a cure would be in this context.

can autism spectrum disorder be cured

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

First, what is autism?

Straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability associated with certain social, emotional, and communicative differences in comparison with neurotypical peers. Autism is often diagnosed in very young children, but can absolutely be identified in older children, adolescents, and adults as well.

Because of many barriers to diagnostic services, as well as the potential for societal stigma associated with a documented diagnosis, it’s important to note that someone can determine that they are autistic without receiving a formal diagnosis.

An autism diagnosis is based on the individual’s behavior, not any kind of medical test. This hints at the fact that the causes of autism remain largely unknown.

What Are Some of the Common Signs of Autism?

Signs that diagnosticians look for primarily include differences in social and communicative behaviors, which in turn seem to be influenced by differences in how learning occurs in the first place.

For example, an autistic person might be less likely to engage in joint attention and social referencing:

  • Joint attention refers to a learner following the gaze of another individual to something in the environment
  • Social referencing refers to learning through observation of others.

One implication of these differences is that someone who is autistic may be less likely to be affected by social norms in the way that their neurotypical peers might be.

Another common aspect of autism is differences in how stimuli in the environment (like sounds, textures, and scents) are perceived. These differences can be associated with repetitive behaviors (often called “stims”) that produce pleasing sensations, the same way that one might enjoy a big satisfying stretch or cuddling up in a warm fluffy blanket.

On the other hand, some stimuli perceived as neutral at worst by neurotypical people might feel deeply unpleasant to someone with autism. Flashing lights or fluctuating temperatures, for example, could be very distressing. Sensory sensitivities, both positive and negative, vary widely from individual to individual.

These are just a couple of examples of how an autistic person might experience the world differently, and how those differences can affect behavior. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) provides much more information here, and I can’t recommend their resources enough.

What Does “Curing” Something Imply?

In order to “cure” something, it’s necessary to know its cause, also known in the medical world as its “etiology.”

As I noted above, the causes of autism are as of yet unclear beyond “environmental, biologic, and genetic factors.” Many false causes of autism, including chemicals present in some vaccinations, have been disproven time and time again.

As such, autism cannot be cured in the way that antibiotics cure a disease caused by bacteria. At most, symptoms of autism can be intervened upon, with the active assent of the autistic person.

I encourage readers to consider this question: if autism could be cured, what exactly would be the goal, and why? Autism in and of itself is not physically dangerous or harmful. It simply creates a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world.

In this post, originally an address to Emory University, Ari Ne’eman provides a lengthy but poignant account of serious concerns with the pursuit of curing autism, as well as the value of the neurodiversity movement and a social (as opposed to medical) model of disability in general.

Finding a Different Path Forward

Earlier I brought up the idea that a preference for less-social learning methods may mean that social norms have less of an influence over an autistic person’s behavior. This is not necessarily a bad thing! However, limitations to observational learning can also make it more difficult to learn social skills, daily living skills, independence, and self-advocacy.

Autism can be associated with difficulty with communication and social interactions, which can in turn lead to trouble with getting basic needs met. However, that can be addressed through skill development. Importantly, these might not necessarily be the exact skills that neurotypical peers might engage in.

Adjustments to the environment and accessibility aids are also fantastic. Someone who is hard of hearing, for example, might use a hearing aid in order to more easily engage with the world. In the same way, an autistic person might use an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device.

While this article by Ogden Lindsley includes some very outdated language regarding disability, it makes the excellent point that “it is modern science’s ability to design suitable environments” that is at fault for many limitations to self-care and self-advocacy. Lindsley proposes three basic strategies for supporting people with disabilities: “(1) construction of prosthetic devices; (2) prosthetic training; and (3) construction of prosthetic environments.” In other words, the environment and other support systems should be changed, not the person.

Another common concern that is raised regarding autism is self-injurious behavior (SIB) and aggression, but it’s important to keep in mind that SIB and aggression are not inherent nor exclusive to a diagnosis of autism, and not all people with autism engage in self-injury or other challenging behaviors. All behavior happens for a reason, and behaviors that pose a danger to oneself or others may occur due to a lack of other ways to get one’s needs met.

For example, someone with a painful earache who is unable to verbally communicate what they’re feeling may experience brief relief by hitting their head; someone who is unable to independently leave a hot, crowded space may scream, hit, or kick if they’ve learned that that’s a reliable way to get taken home. Again, these concerns can be resolved through development of self-help and communication skills, as well as preemptive accommodations in the environment to support each individual’s needs.

Skill Development at Waypoints

To reiterate, our goal at Waypoints will never be to cure or otherwise eliminate autism, nor arbitrarily enforce social norms, nor pursue behavioral interventions only for the sake of fitting in with social norms. We stand with the neurodiversity movement in celebrating the individuality of every person, and working to change the world around us to support everyone’s health and happiness.

Even in cases in which the individual is engaging in self-injury or other dangerous behaviors, the methods of intervention should be based on skill development and adaptations to the environment. And we can help with that!

As always, if you’d like to look into options for diagnosis or behavior-analytic services, or just chat more about this topic, please reach out to us at info@waypoints.life. We’d love to hear from you.

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Whether you’re looking for diagnostic testing, one-on-one in-home ABA therapy and skill-building resources, or simply want to learn more about our unique approach, please don’t hesitate to reach out! (We love getting mail.)

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