In looking towards the future, several trends are likely to become more noticeable in understanding autism among adults. Some of these are already apparent to those who study autism. It’s also possible that not all of these trends will come true. However, what is indisputable, I believe, is that our understanding of autism in the future will be much different than how we think about it today.
Autism is Not Unitary
Currently, autism is considered a single, uniform condition, different from other conditions. It appears the same or similar enough in each person who has autism, and it is distinctly different from other mental, emotional conditions. The term “autism” indicates a separate, distinct entity, an impression that is widely accepted by the general public.
In fact, the symptoms of autism vary from person to person. There is a saying that if you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism. This maxim encapsulates the heterogeneity of autism, meaning there are different kinds of autism with various features and components across many people.
Diagnosing autism will Change
I believe future diagnosticians will realize that we cannot accurately assess autism if we adhere to formulaic definitions that require each person to meet those same diagnostic criteria. Just as autism is not a uniform entity, diagnosing autism will not require the same process and the same evidence across all persons.
The expectation of a unitary set of diagnostic criteria for autism is already problematic. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) requires that someone with autism have “deficits in nonverbal communicative behavior.” Even if we all agree on what that means, it’s pretty clear that some people with autism don’t have the same problems with how they communicate nonverbally as others do.
Our Notions of Differences Will Change
In the future, we will realize that the boundary between autism and normality is much less precise than we think it is. Adults with autism have the same basic human makeup as anyone else. They have biases, emotional tendencies, predispositions, attitudes, expectations, etc., as everyone else. Is the person who is highly sensitive to noise, for example, autistic or simply highly sensitive to noises? Where is the line between abnormal and something different?
As we think more about autism, we will discover that what we think is normal is as vague and indeterminant as our views of abnormality. Schizophrenia is not normal, and there are adults with autism who don’t act normally. However, many adults with autism act similarly to what we consider normal, if you have a broad enough and rational enough definition of that term. Likewise, people who we think of as normal have oddities, are socially awkward, behave irrationally, etc.
Treatment Will be Different
We will discover that no treatment method can address all the needs of autistic adults, just as there is no one treatment for anyone who needs help. There is no such thing as “the best treatment for autism.”
We are also going to be rethinking whether the idea of helping someone overcome or even treat their autism makes sense. Many people find their autistic traits to be valid, valuable, and helpful. They see themselves as independent and competent, not broken and needing to be fixed. They don’t want to be stripped of their personhood. They want to be valued and respected for who they are, appreciated for their neurodiversity, and valued for their humanity.
To quote Benjamin Franklin, “Change is the only constant in life. One’s ability to adapt to those changes will determine your success in life.” This is as true for our understanding and approach to autism as it is for every other aspect of life. Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Spectrum psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience.