Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder

By Chloe Silverman | Go to book overview

4
Brains, Pedigrees, and Promises:
Lessons from the Politics of Autism Genetics

Patricia Stacey is a memoirist who attributes her son’s recovery from autism to “floor time,” an intensive program of early behavioral intervention. Like many parents’ accounts, Stacey’s story of her child’s diagnosis and treatment includes an explanation of autism’s causes. In her version, seemingly unaffected parents exhibit, in milder form, the same behaviors and sensitivities as their children. Autism “runs in the family.”1 When Stacey describes how a therapist’s passing comment about her tendency to “space out” during sessions with her son helped her recognize her own sensory oversensitivities and defensiveness, she is speaking to a wider community of parents for whom genetic claims make obvious sense. “sometimes the children we are working with are just exaggerated versions of their parents,” her son’s therapist observes.

Time and again when I have been talking to women with children
with autism, I hear a resonant story. I heard nearly the same story
twice from two different mothers who had never met. The cou-
ple goes to a lecture on autism or visits a therapist shortly after
their child receives a diagnosis. The couple learns that people with
autism have systematic minds, like things in certain orders, have
trouble with transitions—that people with autism are not social—
that they may be good with math and music, or they are highly
visual. The husband walks out of the classroom, or office, and says,
“My God, they’ve just been describing me.”2

That shock of recognition concerning the heritability and genetic nature of autism comes at a moment when the category has been rendered

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