The National Autistic Society website proudly proclaims that they are now hosting the Autism Education Trust.
The National Autistic Society is delighted to host the Autism Education Trust and welcomes the opportunity to work in partnership with colleagues across the sector. The trust will play an important role in sharing best practice, influencing decision makers, developing high quality support for early years and school staff and involving children with autism and their families in shaping provision.
So far so good.
The Autism Education Trust (AET) is a new organisation established with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is dedicated to coordinating and improving education support for all children with autism in England.
About the AET
The aim of the Autism Education Trust is to create a platform for voluntary, independent and statutory providers to plan and develop appropriate autism education provision across all education settings, including early years.
This is excellent news. I went straight over to the Department for Children, Schools and Families to get some more information … and found no mention at all of the Autism Education Trust. So back to the NAS website to learn that the Department for Children, Schools and Families has only made an initial commitment to fund this for one year. It is actually an initiative of the The National Autistic Society, TreeHouse and The Council for Disabled Children.
The best estimates available to the UK government indicate that perhaps 1% of school children are on the autistic spectrum. Is it me or should the government be making a more long term commitment to financing this initiative?
Never mind, the money is there for now and full marks to the voluntary sector for taking the initiative and persuading the government to provide some backing. The question is, “How can we make the best use of this opportunity?” I suggest that people contact Judith Kerem, the project manager <email@example.com> if they have anything to offer to this project.
The Independent today published a letter signed by leading members of Treating Autism, [TA] a UK charity which believes that autism is treatable using the biomedical methods championed by Defeat Autism Now! Their main complaint against the National Autistic Society’s Think Differently Campaign is that it paints too rosy a picture of autism, ignores the suffering of their children and refuses to acknowledge that autism is treatable using the aforementioned biomedical methods. Here is the letter in full, interspersed with my comments
We, parents of autistic children, wish to repudiate the National Autistic Society and its claim to speak for us and our autistic children. In particular, we demand the withdrawal of the latest leaflet (“Think Differently about Autism”) calling for public understanding of autism, complete with a website of supportive celebs.
Hope for people with autism does not lie in celebrity endorsement and a pretence that autism is normal but in the torrent of medical research pouring out of the United States. A model of autism as a genetic predisposition combined with precipitating environmental damages is being developed in the US, with new discoveries almost weekly. These developments offer real hope for those affected by autism.
The leaflet does not pretend that autistic people are normal. What is normal about the words on the front of the leaflet, “He gave you lovely hugs but then he’d bite you.” ? The autism model emerging in the United States is just a hypothesis. Nobody disputes the truism that autism results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. But I am unaware of any “environmental damages” that have been reliably identified in the scientific literature.
What is the contribution of the NAS at this exciting time? The only contribution is a leaflet with pictures of people who “choose not to speak” and a plea for public understanding. The public should know that the NAS is riven with feuding between those who believe autism is “normal” and those who believe it is a disability which should be treated.
Actually the leaflet pictures one young adult who “prefers not to speak.” I am certain that the NAS would not have used those words without checking first with the young man in question and his family.
The NAS reflects the diversity of opinion that exists within the world of autism and we have some vigorous debates. But they are conducted with mutual respect by people who continue to work together for the greater good of all autistic people and their families. That is why the NAS has experienced 20 per cent growth this year. Not what you’d expect from an organization “riven with feuding.”
One of our number signed this letter en route to a conference run by the National Autistic Association of America whose speakers include a representative from the US-government National Institute of Health speaking on the part played by the environment in the autism epidemic. Only an ocean but a world away from the patronising claptrap put out by the National Autistic Society of the UK.
This is potentially misleading. Thomas Insel of the NIH is speaking at the NAA conference. But he is not a member of NAA and it is unlikely that he is going there to endorse the NAA opinion that there is an autism epidemic caused by the mercury content of vaccines, which can be cured by chelation.
The NAS has a research arm called Research Autism. It has a website. None of this US research gets a mention. People with autism are sometimes said jokingly to be on another planet. It must be the one where the NAS is a well-informed, authoritative campaigning organisation and a powerful voice for change.
Research Autism has been established with NAS support but is independent of the NAS. It seeks to promote evidence based research on the efficacy of interventions for autism. If the US research is not mentioned it is because it does not satisfy Research Autism’s criteria for inclusion.
Autistic people sometimes refer to themselves as coming from another planet and they are not joking. They are made to feel like aliens by the lack of understanding and acceptance that they encounter on a daily basis. If the Think Differently campaign helps to change that, both it and the NAS will have nothing to be ashamed of.
Today the National Autistic Society launches its “think differently” campaign. We want to spread the word that autism need not be so devastating and disabling if only people would take the time to understand it and make the effort to adapt our schools and workplaces and public spaces to make them autism friendly.
Download the campaign pack and join us. And check out yesterday’s article in the Observer for some useful background information. And for some grim reading about why we need to think differently read yesterday’s blog that features a Sunday Times article on the truly awful Judge Rotenberg Center in America.
GENE GENIE by Professor Anthony Bailey
The first article, by Professor Anthony Bailey of Oxford University’s Autism Research Unit, seeks to summarize recent developments in genetic research. Considering the complexity of the subject and the nature of his audience (mainly parent members of the NAS like myself with no specialist scientific training) he does a remarkable job in under a 1000 words. I find that those experts who can write coherent and concise accounts of their work for a lay audience are usually the ones with the soundest grasp of their subject matter. Professor Bailey is no exception.
He starts by emphasizing how little we know. This cannot be stressed too much. There have been a spate of recent reports in which journalists, and some scientists who ought to know better, have hyped up the latest genetic “breakthroughs” as harbingers of an imminent cure. But all we have so far are “candidate” genes. This is not to diminish the work of the scientists involved. Genetic research has been marked by a massive collaboration of scientific and funding institutions. It is detailed and difficult work that is only now beginning to accelerate with access to improved technology.
The most likely candidates are genes on the long arm of chromosome 7 and on chromosome 2. Again, caution is necessary. These are not genes for autism. They are potential genes for autism susceptibility. There is no single gene for autism. According to Professor Bailey, “the risk of developing autism seems to be conferred by the interaction between at least 3 or 4 genes (and possibly many more) and there were no clues as to what these genes might code for.”
When a gene is finally identified scientists will still want to learn more about what it does, when it is expressed and which other genes it interacts with. They will also try and identify the environmental factors at work. These factors need not be “known neurotoxins.” They may be neutral or even beneficial in the absence of particular genetic combinations.
[OK I realize that some of my readers may regard autism as a beneficial outcome. I look forward to your comments so that we can explore the nuances of meaning around accepting autism and welcoming autism.]
Our knowledge of genetic factors in autism leans heavily on work with families where more than one sibling is affected. The evidence from twin studies is that autism is a highly heritable condition. So it makes sense to look at families where this is most obviously the case when seeking the genetic causes of autism. But many parents who read Professor Bailey’s article will have no obvious genetic traits of autism in their families. A new study may help to explain this. Dr Michael Wigler is a molecular geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboraory in New York and he has just published a pilot study suggesting that spontaneous mutations in the parents’ sperm or egg cells may be the cause of autism in a majority of cases. Prometheus discusses this in more detail on his blog, Photon in the Darkness, and provides a link to Dr Wigler’s paper.
This all goes to show how complex the science is. It is increasingly unlikely that we will find a simple genetic cause or even a simple genetic predisposition that relies on an obvious and preventable environmental trigger for autism. I am fascinated by the science of autism but it is not going to provide any immediate answers or easy fixes. Social policy will have a greater impact on the quality of life for autistic people in the foreseeable future. This is why public attitudes to autism are so important – a point addressed in the second article.
CHOOSING THE FUTURE by Dr. Phiippa Russell
Dr Russell is a Disability Rights Commissioner and Disability Policy Advisor to the National Childen’s Bureau. She wrote about the ethical implications for genetic testing and research. She began by pointing out that alongside the potential health benefits of genetic science there is also the danger that “the primary focus of new genetic technology might not be on improving the quality of life and healthcare for vulnerable individuals. Instead, it could be lead to eugenic attitudes, which devalue disabled people and encourage discrimination in employment and other areas of life.”
There are some areas where genetic screening ought to be non-controversial. But what if it leads to discrimination in obtaining employment or essential life insurance? Dr Russell has an interesting take on this. She argues that women with a known genetic susceptibility to breast cancer may acually live longer than other women who are less likely to have regular mammograms and more likely to have their cancer detected later, when treatment options are less effective.
This kind of logic may appeal to actuaries. But most people will react negatively to the idea of disability, especially if it is a genetic disability that is predictable and, disregarding David Hume, therefore ought to be prevented. Dr Russell thinks that “If we accept this view, then we risk
- reducing embryos, foetuses and, in consequence, individuals to their genetic characteristics, thereby reversing the progress made concerning human and civil rights for disabled people
- increasing responsibility (and social exclusion) for familes with disabled children, where the disability was related to genetic predisposition
- ignoring the multiple talents of disabled people and the real contribution which they make to family and society.”
Genetic science will advance, regardless of the ethical dilemmas it creates. People with disabilities ought to benefit from these advances. But according to Dr Russell “there are challenges in avoiding unnecessarily negative pictures of quality of life and value to the local community. “
She does not mention autism by name but goes on to say, “Many readers will be both aware and proud of their disability. It is unique to them and carries benefits as well as some challenges.”
Dr Russell ends with his quote from an unidentified disabled man.
“Disabled people themselves must join the debate about the ethics of genetic testing – you cannot close Pandora’s box once it has been opened, but the challenge is in using new information proactively to improve quality of life, not to shut down someone’s work and other opportunities because of poor understanding and low expectations. Knowledge is power – but it is essential that it is controlled by the person directly affected and used for his or her benefit, rather than used by others as a means of social exclusion.”
This is one reason why next month’s meeting on the Politics of Autism is so important. Anyone who can attend should ring up and book a place now.
According to Communication “The NAS is keen to hear the views of members and others on this complex issue … email firstname.lastname@example.org with the words ‘gene ethics’ in the subject line.” The full articles in Communication are only available to NAS members. If you want to join email email@example.com
I am greatly encouraged by the NAS inviting this sort of debate. I do urge people to respond.
My article on biomedical interventions for autism in Communication has provoked a largely hostile response. Some people disagreed with me. That is fine. I welcome debate. Others thought the NAS was wrong to publish my article at all.
My article was clearly labelled as an opinion piece. I was described as a National Councillor but that does not mean that I speak for the NAS. It means that I was elected by members who broadly support my views. There are also councillors who do not share my views. The NAS has always been about plurality. That is our strength. We are united by our concern for autistic people, not by our adherence to this or that theory of autism, or by our support for one intervention above all others. Plurality also means that when my term is up you get the chance to re-elect me or not. Those members threatening to resign because of my article really ought to stay and vote me out next time next time if they feel so strongly.
I do support medical interventions for clearly identified problems like sleep disorders, ear infections and problems with diet and bowel movements. But they must be targeted at specific symptoms and they ought to be properly tested first.
I do believe that these kinds of problems aggravate the difficulties faced by autistic people and their families and that they are often dismissed by medical practitioners who ought to know better. In my opinion dealing with these symptoms turns a sick autistic person into a healthy autistic person. It does not cure their autism.
I have not read any research that persuades me that there is an epidemic of a new form of regressive autism caused by vaccines and curable by chelation. Chelation is a drastic intervention that has not been tested and approved for therapeutic use with young children. It is used to treat heavy metal poisoning. It is not a treatment for autism.
I do object to people who prey on parents and offer them false hopes at great price. In one sense we were lucky because our son was not diagnosed until he was 12. At three years old he had ear infections, sleep problems, tantrums and no speech. If we had been introduced to the biomedical movement then, we would have bought it all. Now he is 20 and applying for a degree course at college, done without the benefit of any biomedical intervention.
Just because these interventions were not essential for my son does not mean that I condemn them out of hand. It does mean that I want research to provide evidence based treatments for all the problems associated with autism.
The key features of the ‘biomedical movement’ are that it is parent-driven and that parental concerns are dismissed by mainstream professionals. Those professionals who do take up the parents’ case often gain iconic status among parents. They are ignored by the mainstream scientific community at first, but expect to be vindicated eventually.
It is parents who have been instrumental in changing attitudes to autism over the last 50 years. Autism is not caused by bad parenting, is not a form of mental illness and our children are not ineducable. We won these battles and we often find ourselves fighting similar battles today with professionals, who think they know autism but do not know our children.
This explains why so many of us are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to parents who support biomedical interventions. But it is not a coherent movement.
The ‘Mercury Moms’ argue that their child’s autistic are not ‘real’ autism but are the result of an environmental insult whose effects are reversible; they have been poisoned by the mercury content of the vaccines, routinely administered in the USA.
Others accept that their child is autistic, but argue that whatever caused their child’s genetic predisposition to autism has given them a weakened immune system that cannot cope with environmental insults, such as vaccines, infections or allergies.
There are those that view autism as a metabolic disorder that will be alleviated by special diets and/or vitamin supplements. Then there are attempts to synthesize all these diverse and sometimes contradictory ideas into an overarching theory.
A number of features of the biomedical movement also persuade me that it is not comparable to the autism movement as a whole.
Those of us in the wider autism movement tend to be open to new ideas but sceptical as well. People in the biomedical camp often seem to have made up their minds and are just looking for the evidence to back up their opinions.
There is debate and differences are freely discussed at our conferences and in our journals. Biomedical conferences seem less open to criticism. Every point of view is equally valid except the one that suggests they might be wrong.
Biomedical research is funded by parent organizations. When independent research contradicts them they claim that it is tainted by government influence or the drug companies.
Our pioneers made sacrifices to prove their point. Many biomedical experts profit by selling their own therapies to the grateful parents whose prejudices are confirmed by their research. To his credit, Paul Shattock, Director of the Autism Research Unit, has not pursued any commercial advantage from his work on biomedical causes of autism.
But let’s not dismiss the whole shebang as being about gullible parents who are ripped off by snake oil merchants. Some children do regress after an apparently normal early life. Autistic people do experience atypical responses to all sorts of environmental inputs, including medications. Autistic children do contract painful gut disorders. Some autistic people do benefit from restricted diets.
The first thing we have to be clear about is that the child’s symptoms are real. Some parents have had their worries dismissed because it is assumed that autistic children will have poor sleep patterns, scream a lot and be difficult to feed anyway. It is experiences like this that explains some parental support for Andrew Wakefield and his theory of the MMR link to autism. If memory serves, Nick Hornby author and a father of a son with autism, stated that he had no axe to grind regarding MMR but the doctors at the Royal Free were the first to take his son’s gut disorder seriously and offer him treatment.
The second point is that some of these symptoms may be connected to a child’s autism. But we do not know how. If you are non-verbal and you have constant earache, you will head-bang. That does not mean that your earache caused your autism. Nor does it mean that alleviating your distress will cure your autism. It means you are autistic and you have an earache.
Anyone with an autism diagnosis should be given a full medical work up in case there any other conditions that need treatment. Too often the diagnostic process stops when autism is identified. There are autistic children who have other conditions that may respond to safe, targeted biomedical interventions. To subject children to treatment of questionable benefit and unquantifiable risk, because of a hypothetical possibility that their autism might have some connection with a biomedical disorder, is unacceptable. As such, chelation should be roundly condemned as a therapeutic intervention.
Autism can be a devastating blow to individuals and their families. But it can be positive as well. The NAS approach is all about maximizing the positives, minimizing the negatives and standing up for the welfare of autistic individuals, above all else. Most of the time we can stand together with parents on this. But, when it does come to a choice between the wishes of some parents and the welfare of autistic people we must have the courage to put autistic people first.
Mike Stanton – Communication Vol 39, No 3, pp36 – 37