October 23, 2009
Thank you for permitting me to address this meeting of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. I am representing the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
I appreciate having had the opportunity to represent ASAN at the recent Scientific Workshop. The meeting offered many opportunities to make changes as the Strategic Plan is updated for 2010.
Inclusion of an objective to study ethical issues related to “the assessment and communication of genetic, environmental, and clinical risk for autism” was one of the recommendations from Panel 1, the panel I participated in. This objective does not go far enough in that it only addresses assessment and communication of risk. It does not address other ethical issues which we believe to be important. Therefore we strongly urge an objective that would address ethical, legal, and social issues related to all aspects of research, not just the communication of risk, although that is a critical area, given recent developments in identifying prenatal risk factors.
Another area for concern about ethics is early intervention, as interventions are initiated at earlier and earlier ages . Ideas about what early interventions will work are generally based on assumptions of non-autistic people about what “the reasons for autistic behaviors” might be, with little to no input from autistic adults, who can inform and guide research.
A concerted effort is being made to increase acquisition of biological materials, such as skin fibroblasts, brains, and other tissue types. There is an ethical concern with collecting biologic samples from young children, who are not capable of giving permission. Potentially, children might not want to contribute biological material, if one of the purposes was for developing a prenatal test aimed at selecting people like themselves out of the gene pool. Although there are many reasons for collection of biological materials, this concern must be addressed. People on the autism spectrum who can communicate,* (see below) and people with other disabilities such as Down Syndrome, and their families, have advocated against, and continue to advocate against, such an aim.
In general, recommendations of many of the panelists to include adults in many sections of the Strategic Plan are a step in the right direction.
Although the IACC does not fund research, presumably it has some influence on research priorities, or it would not bother to come up with budget recommendations. Here are some figures from the 2009 Strategic Plan.
Recommended budget for diagnosis and assessment: $133,600,000
For biology and risk factor research, $179,000,000. For causes and prevention, $216,400,000 [almost 28% of the IACC recommended budget]. Treatment and intervention gets $190,100,000.
For “Where Can I Turn For Services?” Where, indeed? Not to the IACC recommended budget, which suggests a grand total of $25,330,000 [3.27%]. If research were really funded at the levels recommended by the IACC, that question becomes even more anxiety-provoking for autistics and our families. We will certainly need to turn to avenues other than the IACC for answers to questions about needed services and supports. Research into causes, biomarkers, prevention, etc. will not help people who are alive today and need evidence-based information about services and supports.
Recent research and initiatives in the United Kingdom can provide a model for services-oriented research and also research into adult issues. The National Health Service has released a study of autistic adults, indicating that prevalence of autism in adults in the UK is one in a hundred, similar to the recent figure here of 1 in 91 children. Interestingly, the NHS report avoids alarmist rhetoric and talk of “an epidemic of autism.” In addition, initiatives such as the “Don’t Write Me Off” employment campaign and “Supporting people with autism through adulthood” can make a real difference in the lives of autistics, especially and young people who are transitioning out of school settings. Sadly, the United States is falling behind on crucial issues related to services and lifespan issues and is failing autistic adults, families and communities.
Currently the Strategic Plan does not address communication differences and disabilities at all. This is a surprising omission, since one of the criteria for an autism diagnosis is communication disability. Although panel 4, on treatments and interventions, mentioned communication as an emerging tool, specific mention of communication research should be incorporated into the 2010 Strategic Plan.
*[Note: The comment "people on the spectrum who can communicate is NOT intended to mean that there are autistic people who cannot communicate. Everyone communicates. It's an error I wish I had caught before I delivered the comments, but I am posting the comments as I delivered them.]
*[I explained more carefully what I intended to say, in my November 10, 2009 IACC testimony:
Every person communicates in some form, but that communication is often not well-understood, and to this date, has been under researched. To separate autistics into “verbal” and “non-verbal” categories and leave it at that is to miss a critically important area for research, far surpassing in practical importance the finding of yet another “autism gene” or maternal antibody. The need for all autistics to communicate in ways that others can understand is crucial for our empowerment, life chances, access to basic needs, and for the chance to engage in reciprocal communication with people who do not easily access our various ways of communicating. What do autistics want? Ways of communicating that work for us and that allow us to communicate effectively with a wide range of others. What do parents of autistics want? Ways of communicating with us. A glance at comments online and in news media indicate that more parents are interested in being able to communicate with their autistic children (including adult offspring, who are by no means to be written off) than are interested in what gene/s are responsible for autism.]
Paula C. Durbin-Westby
Board of Directors
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network