International Autism Research Society Denounces Trump's Immigration Restrictions

Emily Willingham 

In a strongly worded statement dated February 1, the board of directors of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) has expressed its “unanimous denunciation” of what it calls “restrictive immigration policies” as laid out in what is likely Donald Trump’s most controversial executive order (EO) to date. The complete text was posted to INSAR’s website January 31.

Geraldine Dawson, INSAR’s president and a professor at Duke, signed the order on behalf of the organization’s board, which includes some of U.S. autism research’s best-known names. The statement expresses that the board is “deeply troubled” about the possible negative effects of the executive order, emphasizing that INSAR’s mission is to promote global collaboration for the betterment of autistic people and their families worldwide. INSAR's primary networking mechanism for collaborators is its annual international conference.

The seven countries cited in the EO certainly have their share of interest in autism research but already are underrepresented because of the strong emphasis on autistic populations in western nations. Autistic people in these countries need more insights and understanding and more exchange of ideas, especially ideas at the forefront of a shift from cure-focused research and toward more facilitation and accommodation.

Research publications involving autistic populations in these nations can number in the single digits or are simply nonexistent. That gap is not desirable. However, it represents an enormous opportunity to make this cutting-edge research an entry point for investigators from these nations, allowing them to bypass decades of hyperfocus on everyone but autistic people themselves and jump straight to studies that might lead to the best supports for autistic populations.

Many of these countries lack services for autistic people. Those who engage in research in this field have sufficiently heavy lifting without the added burden of worrying about being detained or summarily returned to their countries when trying to attend a conference. Autistic people and autism researchers from these regions won't be able to benefit from this exchange of ideas if they are unable to attend and engage with colleagues at the world's premier autism research science gathering. That's a disservice to everyone.

INSAR's board notes the hit to science that the EO portends, which extends far beyond autism research, having already affected scientists, clinicians and researchers who have been unable to return to bench or bedside following the EO’s signing. Dawson notes that the Association of American Universities has already issued a statement urging an end to the restrictions “as quickly as possible,” which INSAR supports, she writes.

The INSAR board is unequivocal in their indictment of the content of the EO, calling the restrictions “perplexing and unsettling.” One key activity of INSAR is an annual international meeting, and this year’s meeting is currently planned to take place in San Francisco in May. As Dawson notes, a quarter of attendees at this meeting will be coming in from outside of the United States, and about 30% of INSAR members are from non-U.S. countries. She expresses a concern echoed throughout the halls of science that this ban could interfere with the ability of those outside the U.S. to attend such international conferences. Last year’s INSAR conference had 2,000 attendees.