This isn’t about the fetus anymore. This is a referendum on who we are: how selfish and hopeless, or whether we have grown up. This isn’t about the children, about their suffering or struggles. This is about what we have to offer, whether we have the capacity for selflessness. This time, it’s personal.
Within the last year, the discussion has started in earnest: What to do with the development of prenatal indicators of autism? Last January, news that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University had developed a correlation between the amount of testosterone in amniotic fluid and autism sparked heated debate that continues. It is now well-known that karyotyping of cells in amniotic fluid is used to screen trisomy 21, with the result that 93% of Down Syndrome babies are aborted. Will genetic screening also be used to cull autistic babies? If it comes to pass, it will not be the silent holocaust of the Down babies.
The autism community of activist parents is large, loud, loving, and deeply committed to advancing our children. We are a force to be reckoned with. We are also a sign of societal evolution.
We have succeeded in destigmatizing , to a large degree, our children’s handicap. We have dragged the medical community, sometimes kicking, to an awareness of these children’s potentials and have helped forge new therapeutic paradigms that have yielded astounding fruit. With one of every one hundred-fifty children diagnosed on the spectrum, everyone knows someone with autism.
Like their cousins with Down Syndrome, these children are sweet and kind. They have much to offer. Unlike their cousins with Down Syndrome, these children’s prevalence arose in a more enlightened time, after the age of institutionalization, among parents better educated in the aggregate, sensitized to the fate of aborted Down babies. Even the Down babies benefit from the early intervention programming that has arisen mainly out of the autism community.
Twenty years ago, we simply didn’t know. We have evolved.
There are, however, powerful economic forces arrayed against those with autism. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, play therapy, special education, are all essential services in the successful treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders. Over 95% of these costs are carried by school districts that are being bankrupted in the process. The cost is necessarily shifted to homeowners through property taxes. Parents must fight like lions every year in many school districts to maintain their child’s level of services. All too often, unscrupulous school officials mislead parents, wear others down, in the attempt to reduce services to children because of budgetary constraints.
Then there is the fact that autism advocacy groups are spending millions on genetic research in the effort to find the cause, and hopefully a cure. Genetic disorders with a single gene involved are the best candidates for treatment. Most genetic disorders involve several genetic loci in combination. Early data on autism research point in this direction. Therein lies the potential for abuse. In the absence of a ready medical treatment or cure, there will be increasing pressures brought to bear on mothers to get tested and to abort.
But these children haven’t been sequestered in institutions, hidden out of fear, shame, or the inability to help secondary to a dearth of therapies.
These children have names and faces in our communities, attend school with our children, attend our churches. They are participating members of the family.
Why them? Why now? Why so many?
Has God sent them to save us from ourselves? To redeem us from the holocaust against Down babies? Are these children the prophets sent to assuage us from our bitter selfishness and despair?
I hope so. I’m blessed to live with one.