The nation’s top mental health official is questioning what gains can be achieved by deep divisions currently entrenched in the autism community.

In a blog post this week, Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that he sees at least four camps with distinct ideologies surrounding autism. There are those who see the disorder as an illness, others who view it as an identity, a third group who believe autism is the result of some sort of injury and, finally, scientists who view the condition as an opportunity to understand more about the brain, he said.

“These four kingdoms may not capture the entire universe of the autism spectrum, but they describe largely non-overlapping perspectives that now divide the world of autism,” Insel writes. “As long as each kingdom stays behind its own walls, there is little hope for progress overall.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Insel, who in addition to his role at the NIMH serves as chair of the federal autism advisory panel known as the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, says it’s necessary to find common ground and ways to cooperate in order to make meaningful progress for all of those affected by autism.

“Fifty years from now we don’t want to look back at this period and wonder why we stayed so long behind these kingdoms’ respective bastions, empowering conflict rather than cooperation,” he wrote. “Instead, by focusing now on both short term needs and long term solutions we need a collective commitment to science and service to improve the world for both children and adults on the spectrum.”

This is not the first call in recent times for greater unity within the autism community. Last August, the Autism Society indicated plans to organize a summit bringing together stakeholders with different viewpoints in an effort to establish a more united front.

“The infighting that a lot of times characterizes the autism community needs to stop,” Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society, said at the time. “Until we come together, we’re not going to be able to move the needle on enhancing autism services.”

Though Badesch indicated that there was a good deal of interest in the approach, nothing has publicly materialized from the effort to date.