Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Social and Ethical Implications of Autism Research
Autism has excited the curiosity of researchers in various fields since it was first reported in 1940s by L. Kanner and H. Asperger: it has been a good reference point for investigation of human abilities concerning communication and sociality. However from the perspective of the affected people—autistic persons and their families—, autism research has influenced their lives profoundly. For example, in 1960s, B. Bettelheim and many other investigators of autism in the United States shared the belief that parents’ inappropriate attitudes were the cause of autistic reaction in their children, thus branding such mothers “refrigerator mothers” and condemning these women to lead very hard lives. (R. Pollak 1997; D.E. Simpson 2002)
Since the late 1970s the focus of autism research has shifted to genetic-biological causes (J. G. Steyaert and W. De La Marche 2008). While this shift has relieved parents of autistic children from baseless charges, the genetics of autism seems to have burdened them with other loads: it has revealed the high heritability of autism. Moreover, genetic-biological studies have investigated autistic traits as the effects of genes liable to autism in the parents and siblings of autistic children. It has introduced terms such as “broad autism phenotype” or “autism family,” which can generate new stigmas unless used very carefully.
Meanwhile, since the 1980s autism has been studied in connection with the “theory of mind,” the ability of attribution of mental states to others. Autism has been studied as a good reference point for investigation of the theory of mind, while apes have been studied as another reference point. Since the 1990s the new field of “social neuroscience” has emerged, which studies the relation between neural processes and social processes. In this context, autism can be regarded as disorders of the “social brain.” While this social brain approach may contribute to a better understanding of autism, it should be applied very carefully. At least researchers should consider whether or not this term is indispensable in order to characterize the disorders of autism.