Some individuals with autism have challenges processing senses. Others struggle to communicate. Still others might have a tough time socializing, thinking, physically moving or just going about daily living.
People with autism have their own ways of interacting with the world, because autism is a developmental disability that affects everyone who has it a little differently, according to Dr. Daniel Geschwind, the Gordon and Virginia Macdonald distinguished professor of human genetics, neurology and psychiatry at UCLA.
Geschwind has spent 25 years studying autism and what causes it. To mark Autism Awareness Month, CNN talked with him about what autism is and what causes it.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What is autism?
Dr. Daniel Geschwind: Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills and social and communication and repetitive behaviors, resistance to changes in routine, or restricted interests. I prefer to call it “the Autisms,” because it’s not one thing, and no two autistic children or adults are exactly alike even though they may share basic features. People with autism may also have some sensory-motor integration issues, especially sensory hypersensitivity.
CNN: How prevalent is autism today?
Geschwind: It isn’t rare. The most recent statistics (from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) came out in March, pulled data from 11 sites (in the United States) and reported 1 out of every 36 kids is autistic. The study before that estimated around 1 in 40. About 10 years ago, the autism rate was 1 in 100, or even lower.
It would be easy to look at this trend and say autism is increasing, but that’s not really what is happening. The most recent data reflects that our ability to recognize autism and diagnose it early has improved dramatically. We’re now able to diagnose people with autism who might have (previously) fallen through the cracks.
Everybody is neurodivergent to some extent. For example, if you look at a simple IQ test, a substantial portion of people will perform really badly on one specific item. That doesn’t mean they have problems — it’s just that it means we all have strengths and weaknesses.
If I were being tested on artistic ability, for example, or engineering ability, I would be far below what’s called typical. I think we have to accept that intelligence is not just one thing, that cognition isn’t one thing, that there’s not just one way to behave.
CNN: What does it mean when people describe some as being “on the spectrum”?
Geschwind: About a decade ago, the term “autism spectrum disorder” was adopted to encompass everything that we called autism into one rubric. The intent was simply to describe the variability in how people with autism act and behave biomedically. There are some autistic individuals who just need accommodations and don’t need treatment. There are other autistic individuals who need a lot of treatment. The spectrum was intended to include them all.
Over time, non-autistic people began referring to the spectrum in a linear fashion: high to low. That means some autistic individuals were categorized as “high-functioning,” while others were categorized as “low-functioning.” For many, the notion of a spectrum is now a loaded term. Many believe that instead of talking about autism in a linear fashion, we should talk about it as a wheel or pie, where each slice represents a different trait and every individual has different strengths and weaknesses.
CNN: Is there a cure for autism?
Geschwind: There is no cure. At the same time, we’ve come very far in understanding what autism is, and we’re making progress on how to treat it. When I started researching autism 25 years ago, the autism rate was 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 2,000. To put it in deeper historical perspective, I think at that time there was only about $10 million a year or less in autism research being done that was funded (by the National Institutes of Health). And so, there was a huge disconnect between the research dollars, public awareness and the real needs of patients and families.
The notion of the term “curing” autism can be controversial. From my perspective, our true goal is to establish a kind of personalized medicine, or precision health in autism and other neuropsychiatric disorders, so that each autistic person is seen as the individual they are. We envision a world where individuals who are severely impacted by autism have the opportunity to get therapy and drugs that can help them — and those for whom a therapy is not warranted or who don’t want it will have opportunities to live life the way they want to as well. Patient autonomy and societal accommodation are important aspects when considering these issues.