Claims Require Evidence

One of the things I emphasize to my students in composition classes is that claims require evidence. All claims in a paper should be backed by evidence. Not simply stated and assumed true. Not propped up by fallacies. Backed by evidence.

Writings relating to autism (like many topics) are often evidence-free. One of the ways we can back claims up is to offer examples. To back up my claim that writings related to autism are often evidence-free, I'm going to dissect a recent post at io9 about how autism is changing the world for everyone, not because of my opinion on the major claim itself, but because the evidence we use for claims is so important.

George Dvorsky's article at io9 kickstarts with a claim: "How Autism is Changing the World for Everybody," but not the direction of the claim. How is not immediately offered. One might think, given the language of the major autism organizations who fundraise for research that the "how" is by the increased medical and educational costs or the need for an increase in spending on transition training, job training, assisted living. Autism is a condition that is recognized by problems in communication, socialization, and narrowly defined interests, according to the DSM. And in the DSM it isn't called a condition--it's a disorder.

Given the increase in autism diagnoses, the rising costs of special ed, and the lobbying for insurance coverage for autism treatments, parents and professionals might rightly assume that these are some of the "hows." After all, according to Peter Bell of Autism Speaks, 500,000 children with autism are due to become adults in the next decade. That's a lot of young adults who've previously needed a range of services to access a free and appropriate education. It's reasonable to ask if those needs are suddenly going to disappear once a high school diploma or certificate is issued.  Is transition into an independent adulthood assured? A recent study shows that "One in 3 young adults with autism have no paid job experience, college or technical schooling nearly seven years after high school graduation."

There is an obligation when making claims to offer evidence, not generalizations, not fuzzy sentences that don't offer substance. In the above paragraphs I've provided numbers as evidence. I've provided sources for you to go look at. You can question and should whether I've given you good evidence and you'll have to make a decision based on the evidence itself. For example, you might be an individual in the autism community who immediately cringed when I cited Peter Bell and Autism Speaks as a source, and you may want to dismiss the 500,000 upcoming young adults because you hate Autism Speaks. But you have to remember--it's not the person making a claim--Peter Bell is making a claim there--it's the evidence for the claim. 

You can go dig deeper and see if those numbers hold, and then you can assess whether I've left sufficient evidence for my unstated claim that Dvorksy's claim about how autism is changing the world is insufficiently supported. Is my main claim completely laid out? Not quite, but there is enough for readers to infer.

Is autism changing the world for everybody? The CDC (again, numbers) has recently upgraded the numbers on autism, saying that 1 in 88 kids have autism. However, this is an estimate based on information from four years ago on 8 year olds who are now 12. No one knows what the incidence of autism is in children being born now, in adults over the age of 50, or in adults between 18 and 34, for example. Instead, there is an estimate based on 14 sites that is an average of their estimates.

Depending on who's doing the talking, either there's a tsunami fixing to hit us or professionals have just gotten better at counting. On one hand, there's an anti-vaccine site insisting it's a tsunami, and on the other hand, a scientist whose expertise is in biology and who has spent a great deal of time becoming well-informed on the science of ASDs saying it's a combination of factors: widening the criteria and getting better at finding individuals (which backs what the CDC says and almost all mainstream scientists). Is this an appeal to authority by suggesting that Emily Willingham's essay on the autism rise is more credible than Age of Autism's? Yes, but it is a reasonable appeal to authority, not a fallacious one, where the "authority" in question is speaking on things outside his or her realm of expertise.

Before even looking at the content of Dvorsky's essay, his claim is already being actively assessed, autism and the idea that autism is changing the world for everybody has been examined. Is it, either way--a dreaded tsunami or a better accounting--changing the world for EVERYBODY. Claims must be defended. I tell my students they can say some without much evidence, but to say NONE, MOST, ALL (and perhaps even many), evidence is required, and the more absolute the claim, the more evidence is required.

Having dissected the title, it's time to move to Dvorsky's essay: "There's not much doubt that autism, along with Asperger Syndrome, is finally becoming accepted as a normal part of the human fabric." Is there really "not much doubt?" Is this true everywhere, some places, many places, across all cultures, some cultures? This sentence is a claim even though Dvorsky offers no evidence to back it up. How do we know it's "becoming accepted as a normal part"? Just because numbers of autistic individuals appears to be increasing doesn't mean they're being accepted as "a normal part of the human fabric." What we can see and say is that there are more self-advocacy groups for autistic individuals and that they are advocating that they are not disordered, but simply differently-wired (see ASAN, for example)--again offering evidence for a claim that is offered with a lack of absolutism.

Dvorsky then attempts to minimize the naysayers: "Even if some people still see autism as a condition that needs to be "treated," it's increasingly obvious that people on the autism spectrum are finding ways to succeed in our neurotypical-based society." This is two separate claims: one is that only "some people" think autism needs to be treated. Autism Speaks raises roughly 50 to 60 million a year, with 40% of their monies going to research (see Autism Speaks' website for its 990s--again offering evidence). That's more than "some"--indeed, one could argue it's many. One could bolster that claim by pointing to other national autism associations and organizations like Autism Society of American and the National Autism Association who also raise funds for research into treatments. One could argue that this evidence counters Dvorsky's "some" quite capably.

Onto the second claim, "it's increasingly obvious that people on the autism spectrum are finding ways to succeed in our neurotypical-based society." To whom? What evidence? Remember the recent study showing 1 in 3 young people with autism never having held a paying job? What about the longterm employment rates for all adults with autism? The National Foundation for Autism claims a 90% unemployment rate for all adults on the spectrum. It's essentially a meaningless claim. No evidence is offered.

He continues, "Not only that, but autistic people are changing the nature of our society as well — in many ways, for the better." Not only what? In two sentences, he's made three vague claims and backed none of them up. Now we have two more claims--that people on the spectrum are changing our society and that it is for the better.

As his first evidence, he points to artist Stephen Wilshire and the drawing of his at the top of the article. There's no doubt Wilshire's art is incredible, but how is that "changing the nature of our society," especially for everybody? Let's see if he's got more evidence.

His evidence that "autism has come to impact so significantly on mainstream culture" comes from talking to two people he labels experts (disclosure--I am facebook friends with both these individuals) and to "other people whose lives have been touched by autism." So, proof by anecdote and two appeals to authority by labeling the two named individuals experts. No actual autistic individuals talked to--who might be in the unique position to discuss how they feel they're contributing to society and steering it in positive way, making it better, since this is Dvorsky's claim. Are talking to a few people sufficient evidence for his sweeping claim? 

Remember, my issue is not with the claim itself, or the person making the claim, but the evidence offered. Do I think autistic individuals contribute positively to society? Absolutely. My son volunteers full time. That's an absolutely positive contribution. But what about those individuals who are so disabled that they reside in care facilities and require constant care? If the value of a person resides in his contribution to society, that belief robs those individuals of value--value which I believe resides not in what one can do, but in simply being. By focusing his claim on autism to those who are savants or highly capable autistic individuals, Dvorsky gives a skewed presentation of the autism spectrum and makes things harder for individuals who are simply average or who are severely impacted.

For his two experts, Dvorsky may simply have reached out to two people he knew, rather than casting a wider net. How he chose his experts is not clear. Steve Silberman is a writer for Wired and is writing a book on neurodiversity--he covers autism topics for the magazine and is active in the autism community. Does that make him an expert qualified to speak on how autism is changing the world for everybody? What makes a person an expert? I'd say it allows him to make claims, but that without evidence to back those claims, the appeal to authority may not be sufficient. Andrea Kuszewski is a professional, "a consultant and behavioral therapist for children who are on the autism spectrum, and an expert in finding alternative learning strategies for gifted kids." There is sufficient reason to accept, based on her credentials, an appeal to authority as being valid--if indeed, Kuszewski makes claims within her field of expertise. But does she make claims that back Dvorsky's main claim or does Dvorsky draw vaguely on his conversations with these two individuals to make his sweeping claims without actually offering evidence?

Instead of offering specific ways in which autistic individuals are changing society, Dvorksy punts: "Through our conversations with Silberman and Kuszewski, it became clear that autism has played a significant role in crafting much of what we consider to be modern culture — from the music and books we read, to the technological devices we all take for granted. The acceptance of radically different ways of thinking, it turns out, can be seen as an integral part of a rich and diverse overarching culture."

What specifically did they say that allows Dvorsky to make such a sweeping claim? We don't know.

Are the traits which make for good inventors ones found in autistic individuals? Let's see.

Attention to detail. Check.

Ability to focus for long periods of time on a solitary pursuit. Check.

Is that all autistic individuals? Maybe not. Which details are attended to? Irrelevant ones or relevant ones?

Do you have to be challenged both in social skills and in communication (requirements for an autism disorder) to be interested in machines, able to focus on them, take them apart and put them back together or to build new things? I think that a reasonable answer to that question is no.

Not every engineer or scientist has Asperger's or autism. Not every artist is autistic, either. Not every autistic individual is a savant.

Will traits in the autism community overlap the neurotpyical community? Yes. Is it a continuum? I think it's reasonable to say that it is--scientists such as Ami Klin recognize the broad autism phenotype and how traits appear in autistics' family members to a lesser degree.

Dvorsky then claims through another individual, a writer for Gawker, that the inventor of facebook is on the spectrum, among other individuals in the technology field. This is offered as evidence for Dvorsky's claim that autism is changing the world for everybody in positive ways.

Having gone through his article, we have the evidence for his claim. Is it sufficient and of good quality? Can we safely say that there have been individuals who have been on the autism spectrum who have made significant contributions to society and changed it as a consequence? 

It's a reasonable argument that there are autistic individuals in technological and scientific fields who have created technological advances that have shaped society. For example,Temple Grandin has certainly changed the way slaughterhouses function in the world and has made an enormous contribution on that front. She's also helped to bring autism awareness to the mainstream and been a tremendous positive force.

If that were all Dvorsky were attempting, to say that it's important to be aware that autistic individuals have an important role to play in society, are an asset to society, then that would be fine. Evidence of that wouldn't even really be necessary.  What he appears to be doing, though, throughout his essay, is to redefine what it means to be autistic--to confine it to those who are less impacted or who have savant skills by listing a number of prominent individuals he says are autistic.

There is abundant evidence that the majority of autistics do not have savant skills, and it is a disservice to all those on the spectrum who don't have "amazing" abilities, but are instead like most people--good at some things, not so good at others, and bad at a few things.

Wouldn't it be better to be trying to create an environment and a society that appreciates the individual as he or she really is instead of attempting to impose restricting, inaccurate and potentially damaging stereotypes on people with autism? Expecting autistics to be whizzes at technology or art or into science fiction is no better than assuming that all autistics are in corners rocking and incapable of accomplishing the perfectly ordinary task of living their own lives on their own terms.

Hyperbole and fluff-filled sentences might sound nice, but they do not replace evidence to back up claims. Bold claims require strong evidence, an evidence that can only be found in a careful, scientific examination. Why should we care what one writer on a website has to say if it's not backed with real evidence. Sure, it sounds good, and it's something parents of autistic children really want to hear-- but it doesn't make it true in and of itself. And any discussion about autism ought to actually involve autistic individuals themselves, not conjecture, not armchair diagnostics, but real conversations with the actual individuals, and some statistical evidence to back the sweeping claims.


farmwifetwo said...

Ahhhh... yes.... another "the only true autistics are the one's with Asperger's" writers.

Then the next gripe is "but they are changing the diagnostic criteria".

Jan's coming... Jan's coming... Jan's coming... The number of cases of autism will probably come down looking at the "isn't it awful that the new criteria is taking us off the lists" posts by both ends of the spectrum autism bloggers...

And the "passing for normal" crowd will be moved to "social communication disorder"...

Jan's coming... Jan's coming... January's coming....

melbo said...

This is just fabulous, Kim. I've only just read that article you're referencing.

I agree with you - the stereotypes are doing more harm than good. They actually decrease acceptance in my view.

I have no evidence to back that claim up. Heh. =)

Barbara @therextras said...

You might find evidence that I retweeted from someone who believes the increase is real, once. My mistake. I will be more careful but admit to not being sure of all the players in this game.

Is Dvorsky a key player? I would place Dvorsky's piece in the 'editorial' category, and that is not a compliment from me. Nonetheless, this is an excellent dissection, Kim.

K Wombles said...


The increase in diagnoses is definitely real--whether the increase in the number of people with autism is real--no one really knows, but at least in terms of diagnoses of children, it does appear that a wider net, diagnostic substitution, and better recognition are responsible for the rise in numbers.

It'll be interesting to see in the coming years what happens with numbers.

Dvorsky does not appear to be a major player in the autism community, but a mainstream psychology and neuroscience writer at io9.

@melbo-- thanks. :)

@fw2--will we see the same old arguments come the dsm5 or a change in rhetoric from the various players? It's going to be interesting.

What is interesting to me, as a side note, is how people can read a piece (this piece is posted elsewhere, too) and take away such drastically different messages. If anything, I hope those comments will prove useful for demonstrating to students how important it is to try to, if not set aside one's biases, to recognize they exist and work to make sure they give someone's work a fair shake. It demonstrates how important it is to focus on claims and evidence, and not on the person making the claims. It all comes down to evidence.