Is Autism Really a “Genetically Based Brain Wiring”? – Psychology Today

I often hear other neurodiversity advocates refer to autism as a different “brain wiring.” This is a rather unclear term, and I am not fully sure where it originally came from. But I take it the point is that we have something different about our neurology that makes us autistic—some kind of essential difference that provides the basis of and legitimization for our autistic identity.

In turn, this claim is often accompanied by the further notion that “autism is genetic,” a claim which is often justified with a link to some newspaper article or another that reports how a new study has “shown” or “found” that autism really is genetic after all.

There is something obviously right in these claims, but they can also be highly misleading, especially when taken together. It is true that autistic people often share various cognitive tendencies that seem to have a strong hereditary basis. But if we understand the claim to be that all autistic people share a genetically-based neurological essence, this framing encounters two highly significant issues.

The first is a scientific problem, namely, that such biological essentialism is not supported by the evidence. In fact, there is no known biological basis that is clearly definitive of autism at all. True, some studies have indicated certain tendencies in neurological functioning or structure, but often these findings are based on very small samples and are not reproduced; and in fact, each autistic brain is unique, rather than being the same as other autistic brains.

And the same problems emerge with so-called autistic “risk” genes. Over 1,000 have been identified, and they rarely come in the same combinations or through the same epigenetic processes, making it very hard to claim that there is anything like a shared genetic basis for autism.

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