Ethics

The autism debate: Disability or diversity?

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Autism spectrum disorder has a relatively short history as a recognized diagnosis, but sparks strong debate over whether it is an illness or a feature of neurodiversity. With April being Autism Awareness Month, take a closer look at the current and historical ethical perspectives on these contested issues.

This month’s issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics features artwork by people with autism (pictured right), offering a glimpse of the world through the eyes of those living with the disorder.

The April issue features:

  • The autism paradox.” As a pediatrician, the editor of this month’s issue is torn—should autism be considered a disease, or a variation of normal diversity? The complexity of the question encourages physicians to consider the many ethical dilemmas that autism raises.
  • Conflicts in family-centered pediatric care for patients with autism.” The author of this commentary believes that physicians treating children with autism should reframe the common dynamic—the family wants medication that the doctor is withholding— as a shared goal of the family and physician—the patient’s well-being.
  • The myth of normal: Embracing neurodiversity.” In this piece, the author discusses a judicious approach to autism—replace a “disability” or “illness” paradigm with a “diversity” perspective, taking into account both strengths and weaknesses of the condition.

The journal’s April podcast, featuring Deborah R. Barnbaum, PhD, examines the theory of the mind and its implications for treatment of people with autism. Dr. Barnbaum is chair of the Department of Philosophy at Kent State University and coordinator of the department’s Health Care Ethics program.

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