Civil war, or just insurgency?

The article in yesterday’s New York Times about the upheaval at the umbrella group Autism Speaks–in addition to being a sad story about how children’s disabilities can tear families apart rather than knit them closer as the Hallmark cards and After-School Specials always insist–is a sort of high-speed version of what goes on every day at every multi-modal social service agency.  That is, it’s a battle about what really causes the problem, and every day the people who run the Head Start program and the people who run the food pantry go head-to-head, if not explicitly, over whether the real cause of poverty is lack of education or just lack of money. 

The autism charity’s big tent/agnostic approach in funding research into both [all] possible root causes is exactly right–just as it’s exactly right for the Salvation Army to operate work programs AND drug rehab programs in battling social disconnection among recently homeless men.  It seems elementary that the biggest agencies, with the best access to resources, should share the wealth among different approaches unless and until one shows itself clearly superior.  Isn’t that what program evaluation is supposed to be all about?

But then the Autism Speaks story is also a sort of cautionary tale about the risks of nonprofit mergers.  There’s a place in the charitable universe for the tightly targeted approach of a freestanding counseling center or preschool or microcredit program as well as for the broad-spectrum behemoths.  People who are really committed to the idea that mercury in vaccinations is the culprit in autism should certainly focus on that to the exclusion of other possibilities–but only on their own, and on their own dime. 

Maybe the dispute isn’t really over causes but over the relative priority of symptomatic relief (food pantries) and thoroughgoing cause-based cures (education).  In the autism struggle, of course a parent would be most interested in symptomatic relief.  That doesn’t mean the grandparents are wrong to fund basic research. 

So it’s not clear whether we should root for Autism Speaks to heal itself, or whether it’s not actually an "it" but a "them" whose constituent parts need to go their separate ways.

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