Thomas Sowell

BACK on September 28, 1993, a group of parents of late-talking children was formed for mutual support, with my help, and grew until there were 55 families, scattered from coast to coast. Some of their children were diagnosed as autistic, though most of these diagnoses would prove over the years to be false.

Eight years later, almost to the day, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on September 25, 2001 about a little girl in Nevada named Amanda, who had been diagnosed as autistic. That case illustrates the uncertainties and dilemmas involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children as autistic.

The legal issue was whether Amanda's parents had been given copies of the evaluations that declared her autistic. By law, the parents have a right to "examine all relevant records," according to the Court of Appeals. A much bigger and more profound practical problem is the combination of the uncertainties of knowledge about autism and the excessive certainty of the laws and of too many "experts" on the subject.

A psychologist who evaluated Amanda with the help of an "Autism Behavior Checklist" found the results to be "mixed." But a speech pathologist involved in the same evaluation, but using a different checklist, declared Amanda to be "severely autistic." Later a physician "confirmed the diagnosis of autism," according to the court, but then another organization that examined her "did not diagnose Amanda as autistic" -- and yet another organization reached the opposite conclusion.

In short, there is no definitive word to this very moment as to whether Amanda is or is not autistic. This is not uncommon. Many parents report conflicting diagnoses as regards autism. As the 9th Circuit decision says: "No single behavior is characteristic of autism and no single known cause is responsible. Perhaps most distressingly, currently there is no cure."

There are lists of things that autistic children do, but many other children who are not autistic do those same things. Amanda, for example, liked to spin herself, as autistic children do -- but so have many other children, including yours truly as a child.

Against this background of troubling uncertainties, there are nevertheless dogmatic certainties proclaimed by various zealots, bureaucrats and movements. One claim is that accurate diagnoses of autism can be made as early as age 2 by "professionals experienced in the diagnostic assessment of young children."


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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