FYS-122 Autism: Facts, Myths, and Controversies

Instructor: Associate Professor J. Matthew Kittelberger
Department: Biology

Course Description:
Autism is simultaneously one of the most prominently discussed and one of the most poorly understood of modern psychological disorders. Autism arises during childhood, and is primarily characterized by problems with social bonding and language development, and by abnormally repetitive behaviors, but is clearly a highly variable disorder with many different forms and manifestations. Autistic individuals often demonstrate pronounced learning disabilities, possibly related to their difficulties with normal social interaction. Nonetheless, autistic people can often display remarkable and focused talent, rising to the level of the genius, in music, art, math or memory; such people have historically been called “idiot savants.” To date, autism has proven highly resistant to treatment: there is no known cure, though many autistic people learn to live happy and productive lives. Over the course of the semester, we will explore this devastating disorder from numerous angles, from the psychology and biology of autism, to the current medical approaches to diagnosis and treatment, to personal narratives describing what it is like to be autistic, or to care for an autistic child. Finally, we will discuss several prominent myths and controversies related to autism, including the idea that autism is caused by early childhood vaccines, the “chelation” diet for treating autism, and the possibility that we are in the midst of an epidemic of autism. Why do these myths persist in our society despite, in many cases, overwhelming scientific evidence that they are false?