As someone whose special interest is biology, it is awesome to know that the brain I was given is somehow different from most, but unbelievably frustrating to have the details of how said brain is different be kept in the dark.
By Baylie Nixon
I was at a loss for what to write this month, debating between writing more about Vienna, or expressing some emotional difficulties that come with being on the spectrum. But then something appeared on my Facebook feed, something that made me think to write about the science of autism and why I think it’s important to pursue, but also have caution moving forward. I am incredibly curious as to how the brain works, especially if we as a society are starting to accept the diversity of abilities the brain has to offer. But I also know that there is some hefty controversy with autism research; we don’t want the pursuit of knowledge to be corrupted by a desire for eugenics.
For better or worse, there have been several attempts in research to understand the autistic brain, most of them leading to contradictory or inconclusive results. As someone whose special interest is biology, it is awesome to know that the brain I was given is somehow different from most, but unbelievably frustrating to have the details of how said brain is different be kept in the dark. I like to know how things tick. I also like to know how to use things to the best of their ability. The sense of identity this wiring brings me is only part of the reason I don’t want to be cured. Another reason, and I’d argue this is the biggest reason, that I don’t want to be cured is because of the several abilities I know I do have. I feel there’s a huge risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if I were to change my neurology that drastically. I’m not, however, against the treatment and possible cure of mental illnesses that cause immense suffering to the person, regardless of how their social environment accommodates for them.
The line between neurological difference and mental illness in need of cure is incredibly blurry and individual. But I found a good guideline to follow is this: If society changes, and becomes more accepting and accommodating, is the person’s quality of life still hindered? Because I know that no matter how much progress society makes, depression will still leave me feeling depressed. However, I can already tell that living in a more autism-friendly environment allows me to function so much better than before.
In spite of the fears I have about the potential consequences of autism research, my thirst for knowledge drives me to support the efforts scientists make to better understand the autistic brain, and the brain in general. The post that appeared on my feed described skin cells taken from volunteers, some of them autistic, turning them into stem cells, and then further turning them into neurons. Apparently, the neurons from the autistic subjects developed faster than the controls. I don’t want to cover any more details than that because I don’t want to spread any misinformation. This is the kind of autism research I happily support. The autism research that I question more heavily is the genetics of autism. On the one hand, I find it super fascinating to know how genes play a role in something as complex and personal as this, but on the other hand, a misinformed and fearful public could use this information to wipe out future generations of autistics.
I believe the solution to autism acceptance is not through the cessation of research, but through the continued efforts of social progress. We’re living in an age of information where science abounds, and adapting to it is, I think, the best course of action. We’re also living in a very complicated age where there’s more debate and contemplation of what it means to live in a just and equal society. Minority groups that were once considered “invisible,” but oppressed all the same, are now in the forefront of activism. It is not unreasonable to believe that science and acceptance can coexist because it appears that it’s already starting to happen within the LGBT demographic. Now, as someone who is straight and cisgender, I can’t really speak for the LGBT crowd. I can, however, mention that being gay and trans used to be classified as psychiatric disorders. Yet because of successful activism opening the minds of the public, that is no longer the case.
The success of LGBT activism hasn’t stopped research from trying to better understand how and why people identify the way they do. One example concerns brain scans of transgender subjects, which revealed that their brains resemble their preferred gender over their assigned gender. This kind of research seems to be very supportive, rather than threatening, to its respective demographic. This is the kind of research that I hope to see being directed towards autism; research that cultivates understanding, rather than division.
My name is Baylie Nixon, I am 24 years old, and I am currently living with my family while I volunteer for an organization called Living Opportunities and study in post-bacc school. I am on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers before the DSM V was published, and have been a strong advocate for autistic inclusion since I was a junior in high school. My activism really took off during senior year of high school when I did my senior project on neurodiversity, and then later in college I was in charge of a neurodiversity club for a year.
I recently graduated from Oregon State University with a BS in Pre-Clinical Lab Science, and I am currently enrolled in further education in order to be certified as a medical technologist. I have lived in Southern Oregon for half my life, while also having lived in Forest Grove to go to Pacific University for a couple years, spending another couple back home at Southern Oregon University, then finally finishing my bachelor’s in Corvallis. I am absolutely in love with the biomedical sciences, and am excited to put my knowledge and passion to good use. I am also an Etsy jeweler, my shop is called “Bao Treasures,” and its logo is a rainbow bird. I have been making jewelry for roughly half my life.