The Autism Science Foundation’s “Science and Sandwiches” program this week featured a presentation by Dr. Richard Grinker, Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University and author of critically acclaimed and extremely popular book “Unstrange Minds: Mapping the World of Autism”. Dr. Grinker spoke about the science of autism as a cultural system. He emphasized the importance of culture in understanding how societies view illnesses, and discussed how in a variety of different historical contexts, radical shifts in how illnesses are identified, treated, and counted resulted not from new scientific discoveries but from cultural changes. Grinker then noted that a number of factors produced the global rise in autism awareness, with some being more salient than others depending upon cultural context. For example, autism awareness has increased significantly in South Korea as the result of a new documentary film, highlighting both the strengths and deficits of people with autism and their families, while in the United States, awareness was a result of deinstitutionalization, diagnostic substitution, and changes in disability rights, among others, all acting in concert.
Despite the increase in awareness, Grinker noted that there is little scientific knowledge about ASD outside of North America and Western Europe. Indeed, there are insufficient data to estimate the prevalence of autism in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the entire continent of Africa. Although, he said, most researchers expect that the onset and core symptoms of ASD are consistent across cultures, this remains an assumption. He stated that ASD experts to date know little about how genetic heterogeneity and cultural differences interact to influence the kind and range of impairments that are associated with ASD, its prevalence, course, or familial patterns. He concluded by praising advocates – including his own autistic daughter – for showing that autism can be reconfigured as possibility rather than limitation.
Additional “Science and Sandwiches” presentations are currently being planned for Philadelphia, South Florida and New York City. If you’re interested in hosting an event, write to firstname.lastname@example.org