They shoot horses, don’t they?

The anecdote The Family Doctor , published by Julie Obradovic on Age of Autism a couple of months back, is a well told story of how she finally succeeds in converting her brother, a pediatrician, to her understanding that vaccines are bad and likely a cause for autism. If you are new to the question of autism and its causes, and come across this story early on in your search for answers, chances are it might be pretty influential.

But something has been bugging me about the story since I first read it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I haven’t written about it until now. It was a discussion I had with Autistic Bitch From Hell in the comments to my recent post A View From the Middle that made me realize what was so troubling to me about the story.

Here are Obradovic’s brother’s thoughts on autism and an autistic child:

“I tell you, I would rather she got Polio than Autism. At least her mind would be in tact. At least she could talk to me, experience life with me. No offense, but some of the stories you send me about these kids? Well, if they were horses, they’d be put down just to ease their misery. What parent can watch that, or live with that? What child deserves that?”

In other words, an autistic life is not worth living. And an autistic child is not worth parenting. With this mind-set, it is no wonder that they want to find a way to eradicate autism.

I just hope those of you trying to learn more about autism take this attitude into account when you read stories and opinions about vaccines as the cause of autism.

John Elder Robison on an autism cure

This is kind of a follow-up to my most recent post. In responding to Some Asperger questions from the audience, John Elder Robinson Robison – author of the book Look Me in the Eye and a blog of the same name – takes on the cure question:

If there were ever a cure would you take it, or would you think it was like taking a piece away?At age 50, I am comfortable the way I am and I would not want to take any pieces away. As a teenager, though, life was a lot harder and I’d have had a different answer if you asked me this at age 15. I guess we become more comfortable with ourselves as we get older and hopefully wiser.

If you’ve read the book, you know that Robinson’s Robison’s life was anything but easy. Interesting, no doubt. But not easy, especially in a time when pretty much all kids – autistic or not – were left to sink or swim in the world.

(A side thought for a later post: Could the increased amount of time parents today spend with their kids, compared with previous generations, be a contributing factor to the increase in autism diagnoses?)

Whose decision is it?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to give a short talk on autism. Here’s a rough transcript of what I said.

A few years ago, a friend asked me the question: “If someone told you there was a pill you could give your son that would cure his autism overnight, would you give it to him?” Sounds like an easy question, right? (general murmur of agreement from the small audience)

I hadn’t really thought much about it for some time, as it had been nearly ten years since his autism diagnosis, so I answered with a very non-committal, “I don’t know, I guess so.” That evening I gave the question some more serious thought, and was surprised by I learned.

If the child study team that gave us the diagnosis had asked that question right after giving us the diagnosis, when our son was just barely three years old, I would not have hesitated. I would have given him the pill right then and there, no questions asked. (Well, maybe “do you take credit cards?”)

But if you had asked me five or six years later, as my son approached 10, my answer would not have been so quick in coming, or quite so easy to make. At almost 10, he was still autistic, but he was so much more. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be impossible to separate his autism from the rest of him. If we cured the autism, what would be left? Or, I should say, who would be left? Would it be the son I knew and loved, or would it be a “new” child that I would need to get to know all over again? Would I like this new child, this new addition to the family? Would he like who he had become?

Ask me now, when my son is nearly 17, and it would be even harder for me to answer. Although in some ways it would be much easier, because what I’ve realized is that at this point in his life it is not my place to make that decision for him. If someone came to me today and asked that question I would very quickly respond, “Don’t ask me, ask him; it’s his decision to make, not mine.”

This may be a surprising answer to those of you that don’t have experience with autism. But if you are a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When our kids are young, it is up to us to guide them, direct them, and protect them. As they get older, we help them discover who they are and what they want to be. And then we “let go,” we let them leave the nest.

It is the same for out autistic kids, even if the path is a bit longer or rockier.

If you are an autism parent, what are your thoughts on this? If your autistic adult (or nearly adult) son or daughter were offered and accepted a cure, how would you feel? How would you feel if they were offered a cure and declined?

(If this topic sounds familiar, it is because this question – and some of my thoughts on the question – were the subject of one of the earliest posts on this blog.)

A world without autism

On one side of the autism debate are those whose mission it is to eradicate autism, remove it from the face of the earth. Which got me thinking, and brought the following questions to mind that I would like to ask those who would see autism disappear:

If autism could be cured, and if we, as a society, chose to cure it, what would the world be like? How would it impact our lives, and the lives of our children (and descendants many generations down the line)?  What would society look like 50 years from now?  100 years from now, when autism (or autism-like traits) had stopped influencing things?

If you can, I’d also like to know what you think would actually be removed from individuals and society by curing autism, in terms of behaviors, (dis-)abilities, etc.  In other words, what do you consider part of autism, and what do you consider just different enough to be not autistic?

Obviously, I’m also interested to hear what those who don’t share this goal think would happen if autism were to be completely removed from the human condition. Is this something that we would, or should, want? Or would this be a case of, “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”?

A view from the middle

I had lunch with an old friend recently, and the topic of conversation wound its way to autism. I, of course, am the parent of an autistic son. As it turns out, his nephew is also autistic. He wanted to understand autism, and I wanted to help him understand. But I didn’t know where to start.

Sure, there are many angles from which to approach the question. I could start with: Vaccines cause autism, once they have it, it’s a long struggle to recover them. Or how about: Nothing “causes” autism, it is just another aspect of this neurodiverse world we live in.

As far as treatment: Chelation, to get rid of the mercury and other metals. Or: A special diet that is almost impossible, and incredibly expensive, to adhere to. Or: ABA. Or: (add your favorite treatment here).

To tell the truth, I don’t know what to believe about autism. And it is not for a lack of trying. This post, according to my WordPress stats, is my 201st posting to 29 Marbles. I have covered a lot of autistic ground in the last 3 years. Over the course of those 3 years, and 200 posts, and numerous comments to other blogs by parents, autistics, and others with an interest in autism, I’ve considered a lot of different ideas and seen my beliefs and thoughts about autism oscillate a bit as I considered new things. I always seem to come back to the middle though, where I don’t really know what to think.

Over this time, I’ve also had the opportunity to observe how the views of others have evolved. In most cases, it seems, the longer someone has been blogging and thinking about autism the more their beliefs, and their blogging, have gone toward the extremes of the debate. Just check out Age of Autism (for the extreme view of the bio-med position) or Neurodiversity.com (for the extreme view of neurodiversity).

The thing is, I don’t really believe any of those things. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say I believe in all of those things. Autism is, after all, a spectrum of disorders, so it only makes sense that the causes and cures (assuming either exist) would constitute a spectrum as well.

For someone to say that all autism is nothing more than mercury poisoning is irresponsible, though I don’t doubt that at least one case of autism could be traced directly to mercury. To say that all autistics live miserable lives and will never be happy or able to live and function on their own is simply untrue, though it goes without saying that there are some autistics whose life will be exactly like that.

On the other hand, to say that all autism is solely the result of genetic factors – with no influence from environmental triggers – is irresponsible, though I sincerely believe that some cases of what we call autism are indeed purely genetic manifestations. To say that all autistics have the potential to live happy lives and live and function on their own is as untrue as the opposite example above, though obviously some autistics will find happiness and success on their own.

Some will say I’m just wishy-washy, a waffler, a flip-flopper. I prefer to think that I’m simply staying open minded, because when you get right down to it not all the evidence is in. Not even enough evidence is in to say anything specific about autism in general.

And that, I think, is my point on this, World Autism Awareness Day. If you are new to autism, because you have a newly diagnosed child or you are just curious, enjoy the view from the middle for a while. Listen to what the extremists and fundamentalists have to say and think about it for yourself. Pay attention to your own instincts. Get to know your child – as he or she is, not how you wish they were – and figure out what YOU think is best. Not just for the child, but for you. For your spouse. For your other children.

There is no simple answer, no matter what you hear, and there is no simple path to follow as you make your way through the world of autism.

The Autoimmune Epidemic

While wandering the aisles in the local Borders book store, I saw Donna Nakazawa‘s new book, The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World out of Balance and the Cutting Edge Science that Promises Hope. This description is from the book’s official site:

Multiple sclerosis, lupus, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and nearly a hundred other chronic autoimmune illnesses are part of this devastating epidemic, in which the human body, acting on misread signals, literally begins to destroy itself. Alarmingly, the occurrence of many of these diseases has more than doubled in the last three decades, signaling a disturbing trend that can be directly tied to environmental factors in everyday modern life—including our daily exposure to a dizzying array of toxic chemicals.

With the conversation around a recent post fresh in my mind, I was drawn to the book to see what the author had to say about autism in the context of this autoimmune epidemic. There is one section, consisting of two pages, where she mentions the possible relationship of autoimmune issues, vaccines, and heavy metals (specifically mercury in the form of thimerosol) to autism. I don’t recall the specific wording, but she basically left it as, “We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the research.”

Has anyone had a chance to read this book yet? Any thoughts?

The ideology and partisanship of autism

In US politics, we’ve got Republicans and Democrats, also known as the Conservatives and the Liberals. (Please feel free to substitute the two main political parties from your country if you are not from the US.) I don’t know if the following is accurate, but I remember hearing it somewhere in the seemingly constant barrage of US election year news: 30% of the population is Republican, 30% Democrat, and 40% Independent. Kind of makes sense if you think about it in terms of the “bell curve” and normal distributions in a population.

I’ve come to think that the same may hold true in the world of autism ideology. I use the term ideology quite deliberately here. From dictionary.com, ideology is defined as:

  • the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group
  • such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan along with the devices for putting it into operation

On the one hand, there is the ideology of neurodiversity, defined on wikipedia as:

an idea that asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be tolerated and respected as any other human difference.[1] The concept of neurodiversity is embraced by some autistic individuals and people with related conditions, who believe that autism is not a disorder, but a part of their identity, so that curing autistic people would be the same as destroying their original personalities.

On the other hand there is the ideology that believes that autism is indeed a disorder, an abnormality in development caused by various environmental insults to a fetus or young child that must be cured in those that are currently affected and prevented in the future. The most commonly blamed environmental cause is mercury in the form of the thimerosol preservative used in vaccines, and more generally the large number of vaccines now on the vaccination schedule for young children. (The term “curebie” is sometimes used to describe this position. Although there is not an official “curebie” site like there is for the neurodiversity movement, check out The Age of Autism for more info on this position.)

Just like in politics these two “parties” have within them a broad range of beliefs, from the extreme (“all autism is mercury poisoning” and “society should accept and accommodate everyone, no matter how different”) to the moderate (“we need to make society aware of the special needs of our autistic kids – and adults – and help those kids and adults make their way in the society to which they belong”). And, again like in politics, you have that overlapping area where the moderates of the opposing parties seem to be more like each other than the extreme element of their own party. (You may have noticed that I only gave one example of a moderate view, instead of separate ones for each party.) It is in this middle, the meeting point between the moderates of the two parties that you find the independents.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I fall somewhat in the middle, though I lean a bit more toward the neurodiversity side. But sometimes I get very frustrated at the whole discussion, the absolute statements from both parties that leave no room for deviation from the party line. I believe that this can be dangerous in politics, I also believe it to be dangerous in our efforts to understand autism and its affects on society. And at times, I feel like just dropping out of the discussion altogether because it just seems to be the same things over and over again.

But then I’ll come across something like …there of necessity will be much arguing from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge that makes me remember why I continue to write here:

If something matters, it is worth arguing about; consensus is for the ordinary and inconsequential things of life. Of course it does need good [wo]men if argument is not to degenerate into bitter polemic. Exploring ideas, supporting a position you do not necessarily believe in to test an argument, taking a contrary view for the sake of argument are all mechanisms by which human knowledge can advance.

I have seen the discussion about autism “degenerate into bitter polemic” all too often, and would like to think that I am one of the “good men” that help advance our collective knowledge about autism and what to do about it. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but for this year I resolve to continue the discussion, stir the pot, and keep the arguments as honest as I can.