Autism's cultural spectrum


April is National Autism Awareness Month, and in recent weeks autism has been at the center of media coverage. High rates of the disorder—the most current CDC statistic cites that one in 150 children in the United States have autism, compared to one in 10,000 a generation ago—have led to public fears of an epidemic, fueled by vaccine- and environmental-related worries, such as the concern that immunizations are directly linked to autism. "Well-funded celebrities are devoting their time to autism awareness," said Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, which paves the way for scientific studies and increased services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His talk Thursday night, "What in the World is Autism? How Culture Shaped an Illness," kicked off the MAPSS program's 2008 Earl S. Johnson conference, Autism Through the Lens of the Social Sciences, a collaboration with Easter Seals: a partnership between "social activists and cutting-edge social-science research," said MAPSS director John MacAloon.

Grinker—the grandson of Roy R. Grinker Sr., SB'21, MD'21, who founded Chicago's psychiatry department—comes at ASD as an anthropologist, he told the 25-person audience in Swift Hall's third-floor conference room, exploring how knowledge about autism fits into history and culture. The higher prevalence is not caused by a medical epidemic, he said; instead, modifications in tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders cast a wider net, including people with more mild symptoms on the autism spectrum. Answering an audience member's query about "the scare with immunizations," Grinker said that, based on what he knows, "that question has been answered": there is no scientific evidence to directly link vaccines to autism.

Grinker also approaches the disorder as a father—his 16-year-old daughter, Isabel, has autism. In her lifetime, he said, he's seen advances in autism awareness; because of changes in our cultural perspective, not only has stigmatization decreased, but there are also more treatment options. Quoting National Institute of Mental Health psychiatrist Judith Rapoport, Grinker said, "I'll call the kid a zebra if it will get him the services he deserves."

Autism's place in the medical and media spotlight has far-reaching effects on international awareness, Grinker explained. On a trip to South Africa, he met a Zulu family whose son Big Boy "developed all the hallmark signs of autism." The grandparents wanted Big Boy taken to a "witch doctor," Grinker said, but his progressive parents were "truly terrified" of the doctor's techniques, which would likely include induced vomiting, blood-letting, and laxatives. The parents, however, "succumbed to custom," and at the son's first visit, the witch doctor concluded that Big Boy had autism. Surprised, the parents asked him how he knew. The witch doctor responded, "I heard about it on the Internet."


Photo: Grinker's daughter Isabel, who loves animals, watches jellyfish at the Georgia Aquarium.

Photo courtesy R. Richard Grinker

April 7, 2008