This is an interesting question about autism and the future of society.
With the rising rates of autism found in the general population, how do you think society will adapt to the cultural changes that will inevitably follow in the future as more people are born with the condition? Do you think the increased prevalence will reduce the stigma for autistic people and their parents?
Please don’t publish my name.
We’ve talked about the evidence that autism is on the rise as a result of assortative mating patterns in certain sub-sets of humans, as evidenced by the vastly disproportionate rates of autistic children in parents who work in Silicon Valley. This isn’t a new topic, by any means but, personally, I believe your question will not be relevant.
To borrow a phrase from finance, though far from a sure thing, the most probable indicator of future performance is past behavior. I think you need a very compelling reason to believe that humans will behave differently under a comparable set of circumstances. That is, generally speaking, any time you bet against human nature and conservation of one’s own resources by a mammal, you are going to have a bad time. When viewed through that lens, I don’t think the hypothetical upon which your scenario is founded will ever come to fruition. The reason is somewhat horrifying, but I can’t see a way in which it will be avoided under present laws.
Consider that as a result of advances in prenatal testing, 93 out of every 100 fetuses with Down Syndrom are aborted. It cuts along all political, religious, racial, and economic lines. No matter what you say, no matter what you believe, when your doctor informs you that your child has an almost certain probability of having Down Syndrome, the statistics show that there is a 93% probability you will terminate the pregnancy and a 7% chance you will decide to stick with it. That is the cold, hard fact. We can have deep discussions about whether that is good or evil, what that says about us as a civilization, what the implications are for the future of human evolution, and much more. We cannot, however, argue that it is happening; that an overwhelming supermajority of individual citizens, when given free will, decide they are not willing to sign up for the challenges and rewards of such an experience. It doesn’t matter if you are a raging pro-choice feminist living in a big city, or an evangelical pro-life crusader picketing abortion clinics. The numbers show what you’ll actually do.
Though medicine is not quite fully there despite some major advances in this arena since 2011, it is close enough that relatively soon in the future, there will be prenatal screening for autism spectrum disorders. Based on demonstrated behavior of people when acting in their own self interest, I think it is highly probable that once this is achieved, the incentive system currently in place, combined with human nature, will cause the autism birth rates to reflect those of Down Syndrome. I have no reason to think that human nature has changed; what factors would cause this condition to be treated any other way? It matters not what people say they value; it matters what they do. On issues of reproduction, pregnancies of anything less than perfectly “normal” children are almost never allowed to result in a natural birth.
To put it bluntly, all evidence points to a future in which virtually all children with autism will be aborted once the condition can be accurately forecasted in the womb. If you think otherwise, I believe you are deluding yourself because facing that reality is unpleasant. We can have discussions about disabilities, social stigma, and coping strategies, but when push comes to shove, the data shows how people will behave. Resource optimization is part of human nature and some people simply are not capable or willing of signing up for a lifetime of financial and emotional support to a disabled child.
It is unquestionably a form of eugenics. The consequences of a smaller distribution of progeny as we homogenize the human genome is certainly going to be fascinating, though none of us will be around long enough to see it as the ramifications of this behavior will take thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years to unfold.
The only way to prevent such an outcome would be to somehow curtail the level of reproductive freedom currently permitted in the United States, which would result in significant backlash from certain segments of society even though this generation is the most pro-life in history (abortions have hit an all-time low, both in absolute number and relative to total pregnancies). I think that is probably politically impossible.
In mental model terms, there is also an “operating leverage” effect in that it will only take a handful of parents choosing to abort such pregnancies before the economics are skewed even further against those who decide to give birth, increasing cost-per-patient and cost-per-student expense ratios, tilting the incentive system even further in favor of termination, causing a cascade effect. As this author points out correctly:
There are, however, powerful economic forces arrayed against those with autism. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, play therapy, special education, are all essential services in the successful treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders. Over 95% of these costs are carried by school districts that are being bankrupted in the process. The cost is necessarily shifted to homeowners through property taxes. Parents must fight like lions every year in many school districts to maintain their child’s level of services. All too often, unscrupulous school officials mislead parents, wear others down, in the attempt to reduce services to children because of budgetary constraints.
If you know that there is no support in your local school district for your child’s needs and you are like most people, it’s probably going to influence your decision of whether to go to term or not.
I will leave it to you to determine whether you think this is a good or bad thing as that was not the question you posed; that way, you can come to your own conclusion without me influencing it one way or the other until you’ve had time to think about it.
Bottom line: There will be no young autistic community of which to speak, at least in the wealthy countries, 50 to 100 years from now. Thus, to answer your question, society won’t adapt in any meaningful way as there will be no need.