Autism and “getting better”

I was watching Netflix’s “Atypical” when I came across the following exchange in a scene where the parents of the main character Sam were at a group for parents with children with autism:

Doug: The whole thing really threw me off because we’ve been getting along well, and he’s been seeing a therapist lately, and I felt like he was getting better…

Shelby: Oh! So sorry to interrupt you again, but um, there is no (making air quotes) getting better in autism. It’s a neurological condition, not a curable disease…

It’s obvious Shelby has a stick up her arse when you see the character in action, and I really feel sorry for her kid: No, John, you can’t go out and play with the other kids because there’s no getting better in autism and the last time you made poor Amy cry…

Ok, exaggerating!

The TV show has not shown her kid, as far as I can remember. So I have no clue how damaging that kind of parenting has been…

But this scene still leaves us with the question: What does “no getting better” really mean here?

While I was treated with ADHD-medication right after I got my diagnose, the treatment for autism was more along the line of several different cognitive behavioral therapies (I had those for my ADHD as well).

There were no drugs to treat autism. In my opinion there most likely never will be any either. People with autism have brains that are wired differently from people without autism. A drug that would rewire the brain? I actually hope not!

But does the lack of a drug mean there can be no change/improvement/getting better?

Of course not!

The fact that people with autism are offered treatment should be the first clue to if they could improve/get better (whatever you like to call it, change their situation for the better). Why would there be any offer of therapies if no one thought the situation could improve?

It’s important to separate the underlying condition (brain being wired differently) from how this affects communication, relationships and other important aspects of life.

Just because a person with autism can’t have their brains rewired, there is nothing preventing them from applying cognitive tools to have their lives improved with better communication, better social interaction, better handling of emotions, better use of the often limited energy resources and a bunch of other aspects.

(Thought: or does cognitive therapy cause brains to rewire themselves? After all, isn’t that how all change in the brain happens? But likely not on such a massive scale that would be needed to cure autism. And, what would such a cure do to personality? Would it turn the patient into a pod-person? I’m not autistic anymore… I’m a pod-person… oh… yeah… no!)

Speaking of improvement. People without autism improve their lives every day, and I am pretty sure their brains aren’t rewired to do it. If they can do it, a person with autism most certainly can as well! Maybe just not to the same extent, or as fast as needed, in some situations.

While there’s no cure for autism, it is most certainly possible for someone with autism to improve their situation (which in some cases would be called “getting better”).

Saying anything else is causing a bunch of problems: you look like you’re applying victim mentality, your kid hears you and gives up, public opinion starts questioning spending money to treat people with autism–why not just institutionalize them? and so on.

Don’t say people with autism can’t get better. What we can’t do is getting cured!

And, how about Atypical? Well, the whole show is about Sam, trying in every episode to improve his situation. Sometimes it goes according to plans, sometimes it doesn’t.


Header image: By Katy Warner, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link, the image has been edited

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