Psychology has always been plagued by the objective measurement problem; hence the tendency to oversimplify the inner world of people into external patterns of behavior. Autism is not merely a set of problem behaviors. Hence, the fact that a person no longer fulfills the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria does not automatically mean a successful recovery. Instead, the person must also have completed the inner developmental milestones (e.g. maturing of emotions and executive functioning) that a typically developing person of the same age will complete.
[It is my view that autism (without the issues that typically accompany it) is not a disorder or illness, but a different neurological functioning much like how male and female brains think differently. However, this article is written assuming that we still subscribe to the deficits/disorder model of autism so as to enable us to explore the topic more completely.]
I have a theory that at a sufficiently early age, when the brain is “deciding” which pattern to branch into, it may be possible to push it one way or the other (e.g. NeuroTypical or autistic modes). After that age, it is impossible to rewire it no matter how hard we try.
A parent once told me that his son was showing signs of autism but these signs disappeared by themselves within a year. At that time he did not know about autism and so took no action. It was only when his daughter showed the same signs and retained them for a few years that he found out about autism. The change in his son was not unusual because some children ‘grow out’ of autism without any intervention.
I also like to cite the case of John Elder Robison, an autistic man who underwent experimental Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in 2008. He ended up writing about experiences similar to my own. Read more about this development here and here. However, TMS did not make his autism vanish. He merely opened up to a few previously dormant parts of his brain which helped with his social awareness and people skills.
I found this passage about the experience of Danielle Feerst very interesting.
I was in a coma for a few days, and at some point during that coma, I died briefly – for a total of about 15 minutes. I came back to life, woke up, and asked the nurse “Where am I?” because, despite the cliché, it was what I wanted to know first. The doctor was relieved too, because my question meant that I was at least roughly intact, mentally speaking.
As it turned out, I was alive, yes, but not everything was normal. Over the next several weeks, I noticed that something odd had happened to my mental processes. The world – or at least the people in it – had become distant and strange for me.
I couldn’t figure out affect – intent – in other people. Their words seemed hollow. I couldn’t tell what they were thinking or feeling. I knew I should be able to tell what was going on with other people, but I couldn’t. Everyone around me seemed like automatons, robots, without the affect I was used to from before the accident. Something in me had switched off, I had no idea what, and it meant that people were suddenly complete mysteries to me. It was terrifying.
So I began to study body language consciously, in a deliberate and indeed panicked attempt to figure out what people were feeling, what their intent was, what they actually meant. I focused obsessively on gesture, facial expressions, posture, the ways people revealed tension in their arms and shoulders, the way they moved closer or further away from each other, their smiles and frowns – everything, in short, that I could see that might tell me something about what they were feeling.
And then, after a couple of months of agonized and largely unsuccessful efforts to read people, efforts that were making me more and more anxious and depressed, something switched on again. The part of my brain that read other people effortlessly, more or less, switched back on as mysteriously as it had switched off.
Before 2003, I felt very simple pure emotions of happiness, anger, sadness, anxiety and calmness. As I got in touch with my emotions between 2003 to 2006, I went through a stage where I felt very strong emotions that felt like uncontrollable wild horses. This cumulated in the realization of human individuality and the acceptance of my own life on Planet Earth.
After that, my emotions mellowed. I began to feel conflicting emotions such as gratefulness and anger towards the same person at the same time. In 2011, I started intuiting the character of the people I interact with. For instance, I got an impression if they dislike me, are prone to anger or are reliable.
Although my social skills are not good enough for handling office politics (which automatically excludes me from managerial positions), I am able to participate in many social activities without issues. I have even worked in a demanding job requiring multi-tasking, customer service and managerial skills for 1.5 years without revealing my diagnosis.
Does that mean I have ‘recovered’? Yes, I no longer fulfill the DSM criteria for autism. No, because I still retain some of the characteristics from autism, including an enhanced ability to think laterally and systematically.
I was chatting with an autism parent who was also the founder of an autism center. As we chatted about my autism work, he mentioned to me that “a cancer patient can lose their diagnosis by taking a medical test to confirm that they no longer have cancer. Why can’t a person with autism do the same too?” I agree with him that we should have an official option to lose our autism diagnosis if we so choose to do so. [After all, not every autistic is proud of having autism.]
I have been contacted by two people who claimed to have ‘recovered’ from autism spontaneously. One of them is a young lady from England who ‘recovered’ at age 16, but was not taken seriously when she wrote to some autism professionals about her experiences.
Assuming that we set aside our skepticism and imagine that it is possible to rewire the brain during one’s teenage years, this may mean that a few thousand people in the world have similar experiences too. They live relatively satisfying lives in contrast to their counterparts who often suffer from depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and a lack of fulfillment. They blend silently into mainstream society and only the close family members and childhood friends have any idea what they experienced.
It will not be in their interest for them to disclose their past experiences with autism. Why cause insurance companies reject to reject their applications, potential employers and lovers to shy away while making friends awkward or doubtful of their past diagnosis? Why bother to convince a skeptical autism community who does not believe in such a phenomena? Why not just live life free from the limitations of a diagnostic label?