Think Differently Campaign and Treating Autism

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.

a real debate about curing autism.

A recent report in the Guardian provoked some furious responses in their  Comment is Free section. The story itself was a fairly innocuous account of another study by Simon Baron-Cohen in support of his theory that exposure to elevated levels of testosterone in  the womb carries a predisposition to autism. The furore came in response to the final paragraphs.

If it does turn out ultimately that testosterone is a causal factor in autism it may not be possible or even ethical to do anything to change it though. Previous studies suggest that the level is mostly down to the child’s genes. Researchers don’t know which environmental factors are important.

There is a very live debate about whether autism should simply be recognised as an atypical pattern of development like left handedness which doesn’t necessarily need treatment,” said Prof Baron-Cohen, “It just needs to be recognised as different and maybe supported educationally but not cured or eradicated.”

This is my summary of the criticism generated by Simon Baron-Cohen’s statement.

The very idea! How dare anyone suggest that it is OK to be autistic? It may be OK for high functioning Asperger types and their parents. But what about those of us who struggle daily with severely autistic children who cannot speak, who tantrum and self injure, who cannot manage their basic physical needs without support  and are going to end up in life-long residential care?

And it seems a very reasonable criticism to make. If your child is miserable or angry and has little chance of living an independant life why shouldn’t you want to cure him? I know parents who are actively seeking a cure for their child, who also argue for more acceptance and understanding from society for autistic people. Some of these parents are very supportive of autistic adults who have made it plain that they do not want to be cured. When I questioned this, one told me that she respected ANON’s right to be accepted for who he was but her child could not make that choice. He was low functioning and non-verbal. She would love him to progress to ANON’s level and be able to choose for himself. Until then she was going to carry on looking for a cure.

Reading through the comments on the Guardian website one or two things struck me. Parents who were angry with Professor Baron-Cohen were at pains to emphasise the negative aspects of their children’s autism. mickeydolenz wrote

Would I like my 2 autistic boys to live independently of me in the future? Absolutely. Would I want them to have families of their own? Absolutely. Would I want them to not be continuously frustrated and angry at the world around them? Of course. I really can’t see the argument against curing.

Then purelymedicinal, responded, declaring herself as Mrs Mickey D, and saying that she did not believe in a cure for autism because it was genetic. Then, when mogrammy intervened to argue that autism was a biomedical illness and the answers were all in Bryan Jepson’s new book mickeydolenz retorted,

mogrammy – no, sorry – that’s twaddle. It is a neurological condition – and that’s not theory, it’s fact. It’s utterly repugnant that snake-oil merchants like the one you cite make their living from the vulnerable.

Someone else chimed in to defend the Gluten Free/Casein Free diet and recommend Luke Jackson’s book on the subject. Luke is autistic. He is a clear example that Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mild form of autism. it can be just as severe in its own right as any ASD. The diet does not help with his autism. It helps with his food intolerances. mickeydolenz replied to this as well.

I utterly love my autistic children to pieces and I am at turns fascinated and depressed by their behaviour, as well as piss myself laughing with them. But I am ever curious as to how their brain works and how to unlock their world.

I am glad that mickey can laugh with his kids and that they are not “continuously frustrated and angry at the world  around them,” as he argued at the start of the discussion. This is not a cheap shot at mickey. At the start of the discussion he was angry at the idea that autism could be a positive thing. By the end he was arguing against the idea that his children’s lives would be forever joyless unless he bought the snake oil.

After someone posted an alert on one of the egroups on Yahoo the discussion was swamped for a while by mercury fanatics. But mickey, his wife and others kept the discussion going. They were asking questions and interested in each others answers rather than hammering home a point of view. I learned a lot from reading this discussion.

It confirmed that there are not just two camps – the curebie fanatics and the neurodiverse – slugging it out with each other in the blogosphere. The question is more complex than that.

I would like to think that those of us who advocate for autism acceptance are equally open to argument and discussion. We are not fanatics or timeservers. We are people who live and laugh and love and want, not better children, but a better world for our children. (with apologies to Paul Foot)

Disablism and autism

April was Autism Awareness Month in the USA. Its ending coincides with Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st. On this day we are invited to write on any subject, specific or general, personal, social or political, anything which states an objection to the differential treatment of disabled people.

So I thought I would write about the misrepresentation of autism in the media. There was  a lot of that last month. There were attempts to link autism to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. There were misleading press reports in the UK that ABA had doubled the IQ of autistic children. I could have selected any of the media coverage of an “autism epidemic” caused by exposure to environmental toxins, vaccines. Then there are all the articles which refer to autism as “this devastating disease.”

Instead I have chosen to focus on an article that does not contain a single mention of the words disease, epidemic, vaccines, mercury or cure. On the face of it this article is on our side. The take home message is that autism is a spectrum disorder with a massive range of abilities as well as disabilities. Instead of trying to cure them we can help autistic children by adapting our behaviour to meet their needs, especially their need to be able to reliably predict what is going to happen next. Quality education delivered by professionals who understand autism is the key to success. Multi-disciplinary diagnostic teams are necessary to make sure that autism is not missed or misdiagnosed as ADHD, OCD etc.

The problem is that it is easy to spot disablist thinking in the blatantly discriminatory articles. But the effect can be just as damaging in ostensibly sympathetic articles like this. Sometimes it can be more damaging because we are so relieved to read an article that appears to be on our side that we do not notice its implicit acceptance of many of the stereotypes that we are up against.

This is what I mean.

Last year, the department’s statistics showed 1,036 autism-afflicted students on file, said Susan Constable, director of the Autism Support Center for the department

Just as gay students are not afflicted with gayness, autistic students are not afflicted with autism. It is not something external to their lives. It is integral to who they are.

“Autism is no longer a low-incidence disorder in Rhode Island or nationally,” said Constable.

No longer? This suggests that, in line with the views of advocates of an autism epidemic, autism is on the increase. But the speaker falls into the trap of equating administrative incidence with actual incidence. The truth is that we do not know if autism has increased. We do know that about the time that US school districts were told to start recording autism the diagnostic criteria were broadened and trying to compare figures then and now is like trying to compare apples with oranges.

 Statistics indicate that more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined, according to the Autism Society of America. If diagnosis continues at this rate, the society estimates that autism could touch 4 million young people in the next decade.

The article states that the best treatment for autism is education.But it is the comparison with AIDS and cancer that will stay in the reader’s mind. The common cold is more common than AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. But nobody ever compares the incidence of the common cold to cancer. By doing so with autism you inevitably suggest that the two are comparable qualitatively as well as quantitatively. 

Many teachers know they’ve had little or no training, but will still need to reach children with autism, Constable said.

Reach children with autism? This reflects the idea that autistic children are somehow cut off or unreachable. We return to this alien affliction of autism that stands between us and the child. So what is this training for? To understand the child and reach out to them on their own terms or to tear down the barrier of autism and rescue the child within?

These are all comon sense errors. You accept the common sense assumptions that dominate society rather than subject them to critical analysis. But once you do this you can easily slip into factual errors.

“Regressive is the type of autistic child that we are seeing really increase,” Constable said. “We know that there is a definite genetic link to autism because we see families who have two or more children with autism, but the numbers are growing too fast for this to be just genetic. There are definitely some environmental contributions that play a part in it but there have been no conclusive studies as to what those areas are.”

The erroneous assumption that an increase in  recorded cases equates to an increase in actual cases is repeated. Genetic autism is taken to mean identifiable from birth and is counterposed to regressive autism which is assumed to have an environmental cause and therefore environmental insult must account for the increase in numbers. In fact there is no evidence that regressive autism has increased. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that regressive autism is triggered by an environmental insult. There are many late onset disorders that are probably genetic in origin. Alzheimers is probably the most dramatic illustration of this.

And this is the point. Adopting faulty premises leads to faulty conclusions and the acceptance of unproven hypotheses as facts. Even the most well intentioned people can end up repeating damaging ideas as facts if they lack a theoretical framework that alerts them to this possibility.

So how did we get here? It is simple. A loud and unrepresentative minority have been capturing media attention and helping to set the agenda. It is time for a loud and representative majority to restore the balance.

Reasons to be cheerful


Regular readers of Michelle Dawson’s blog [and, if you are not a regular reader, I commend it to you] will be aware that the major autism societies in Canada are fervent believers in the ability of intensive behavioural intervention, by which the mean the applied behaviour analysis of Ivor Lovaas,  to normalize the behaviour of autistic children. They are persistent in their attempts to make such treatment mandatory for all autistic children and are not above using misinformation to win their case.  

These self appointed ‘autism advocates’ argue that unless autistic children receive IBI/ABA in the early years they will be unable to learn and will face a lifetime of institutional care. Like the mercury malicia in the USA they sieze upon headline figures for autism prevalence and suggest that all of these are victims of an epidemic that robs children of their humanity and condemns them to live out a worthless existence unless they can be recovered. They ignore the existence of Canada’s autistic adults and when adults like Michelle Dawson challenge them and speak out for recognition and acceptance, she is vilified.

So I was pleased to read today of this research project in Canada

Researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan are looking to shed some light on the often-misunderstood world of autism.The group of professors and students from the division of applied psychology are conducting a study that focuses on 100 youth aged 17-21 diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. The study is designed to look at the under-studied adolescent demographic and assess the positive aspects of these points in the autism spectrum.

Positive aspects of autism? what will Canada’s ‘autism advocates’ have to say about that? When they publish their results,

the team hopes to dispel some of the stereotypes in mainstream media and pop culture.

Many of these stereotypes are being reinforced all the time by the propaganda coming from the mainstream autism societies. It is good to see that while they may be setting the political agenda regarding autism in Canada, there is still an independent tradition of enquiry amongst Canadian academe.


This is as good a time as any to remind people of The Autism Acceptance Project, [TAAP] which is also based in Canada. The website has just had a makeover and carries the inspiring title, “Tapping into Human Potential and Dignity.” and remember to add TAAP founder Estee Klar Wolfond’s blog to your feed along with Michelle Dawson’s.


Michelle Dawson is not only a campaigner for the rights of autistic people. She is also a researcher and will feature at IMFAR this year with one oral and two poster presentations. You can read the abstracts on Michelle’s blog:


I know very little about Maureen Bennie, except that she is the driving force behind the Autism Awareness Centre,

Canada’s National Provider of ASD Conferences

Leading the Way for Change!

She is also a parent of two autistic children and is running home programmes of Intensive Behavioural Intervention with both of them. I checked out the website because I am going to one of their conferences in the UK this year. I was pleasantly surprised. Maureen reviews a lot of books on the website and has some positive things to say about autism.

How To Understand Autism the Easy Way requires a beginning-to-end read because all of the chapters hinge on the first chapter’s explanation of social and computer thinking. The author does a beautiful job of explaining what it is like to autistic through the concept of social and computer thinking. The writing resonates respect and a positive outlook on this disorder. It is clear that Alex Durig feels a sense of awe about these individuals. The reader will feel this awe and develop a new awareness of autistic perception not explored in other books. [How to Understand Autism – The Easy Way by Alex Durig]

Norm Ledgin successfully puts to rest the negative connotations an Asperger’s diagnosis usually has. He’s devoted his literary energy into seeing the positive aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. Society generally looks upon people with different or unusual traits as abnormal, but Ledgin sees the Asperger’s traits as great gifts. He uses famous role models to emphasize the point of what these unusual traits have contributed to society and have made us richer for it. [Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope by Norm Ledgin]

Readers can empathize and smile at the joys of life this young man has experienced in his short lifetime. You will realize autism does not have to be a deficit but a different way in which to view the world. [The Mind Tree by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay ]

I have no wish to minimize the serious problems that advocates for autism acceptance and understanding face in Canada. But, as Ian Dury reminds us, there are reasons to be cheerful.


Amanda Baggs – advocate for autism

I was going to post about the article in New Scientist on sociable computing that featured Amanda Baggs’ latest video on YouTube. Then Amanda made it onto network TV in the USA. She did a fantastic job raising autism awareness and promoting the ideas of autism acceptance and neurodiversity. Thank you Amanda.

This must have cost her a lot in terms of nervous energy and sensory overload. Thank you again, Amanda for sacrificing your time and energy and privacy. And for anyone else reading this, please show your appreciation by following these links.

Amanda’s blog [Be aware that all the media attention has been very stressful and Amanda may be taking  break for now.]

New Scientist

Amanda’s video, “In my language”

Amanda on CNN

Amanda’s guest blog on Anderson Cooper 360

And do visit Autism Diva’s commentary as well.

Did I write that? Old thoughts, new thoughts.

A while ago I wrote a book (Learning to Live with High Functioning Autism. Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1999) about autism in which I said,

“The third thing that I have noticed is how diverse the personalities of adults with Autism are. Abrasive, apologetic, sympathetic to others, self centred, shy, confident. Just like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses. Each personality emerges unique, often after immense struggles. And, when you read the life stories there is often very little clue in a person’s childhood about the way they will turn out.
One young woman with Autism described two children, identical in every respect. They have the same problems. They inhabit the same environment. But they react in different ways and their conditions are interpreted differently. One is labelled autistic, the other is gifted but odd. In other words, there is no point in trying to pick the winners or match services to projected outcomes. The only way to pick a winner is to back them all. “

I was quite pleased with this passage from my book when I wrote it back in 1998. Now I am not so sure. I thought I was advocating equal rights for all autistics but the justification for this was the questionable premise that this was the only way to discover all the gifted and talented autistics who would benefit society. Once we have identified the “winners” what happens to the “losers” after that?

That thought never occurred to me when I wrote the passage above. I was arguing for services for all autistic children and had not thought really about the situation for autistic adults apart from arguing that,

“any adult services that are put in place need long term planning and adult services do need to be put in place. As I mentioned earlier, parents should not be expected to assume the burden of adult care. And the more independence the adult with Autism can achieve the easier the transition that will have to be made after the parents have died.”

In retrospect this looks quite horrible: glittering prizes for the few and the “burden” of community services for the rest, apart from those who will need even more burdensome insitutional care. That was not my conscious intention. I was writing from a parent’s point of view, a poor put upon parent who was forced to fill the gaps in a creaking system that was failing to provide the services that I wanted to meet my agenda for my child. My agenda at that time was to teach my son how to please other people, fit in at school and stay out of trouble so he could join the priveleged few who made it through the system. It was only much later that I learned to listen to my son. As I pointed out in another book (Asperger Syndrome in Adolescence edited by Liane Holliday Willey, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2003)

“The best advice that Mattie got was from Dave, a clinical psychologist, who asked him to think about what he wanted. Prior to this Mattie had always been encouraged “ [by me as much as any teacher or other professional] “to meet other people’s demands and expectations. Dave was the first person to give Mattie permission to put his desires before our expectations.”

So, if I am anything to go by, even well intentioned parents who think they respect autistic culture and have some understanding of autism can get it wrong. It is easy to beome entrenched in our thinking when taking up cudgels on behalf of our children. The danger is that we define our ideas in terms of what we are fighting against. But sometimes we need to reflect on and modify our thinking about what we are fighting for.