Does autism happen the way we think it does?

Illustration Kouzuo Sakai, courtesy Spectrum Magazine

My latest story, about how autism starts, starts like this:

One of the oldest ideas in autism — as old as the naming of the condition itself — is that it comes in two forms: one present from birth, and one that abruptly emerges in toddlerhood. The latter type, or so the idea goes, announces itself through a rapid loss of skills.

In this classic picture of ‘regression,’ a talkative, curious 2-year-old suddenly withdraws. He grows indifferent to the sound of his name. He begins to speak less than before or stops entirely. He turns from playing with people to playing with things, from exploring many objects and activities to obsessing over a few. He loses many of the skills he had mastered and starts to rock, spin, walk on his toes or flap his hands. It’s often at this point that his terrified parents seek answers from experts.

The distinction between regressive autism and innate autism has shaped both scientific and cultural views about autism (including the spurious vaccine-as-cause controversy). But it increasingly appears this divide may be illusory.

Get the full skinny at Rethinking regression in autism, at Spectrum.