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)

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Bad Science Abuses Autistics

If you have not read them already I urge you to visit Kristina Chew’s and Interverbal’s blogs where they write on an extraordinary technique employed by French psychiatrists to “treat” autism.

And if anybody is fluent in French I would be interested to know what they are saying about it on Forum Autisme My own limited grasp of the language suggests that, thankfully, a lot of French people are outraged by this “treatment” as well.

“A French treatment for autistic children with psychiatric problems which involves wrapping the patient in cold, wet sheets from head to foot is undergoing a clinical trial for the first time, which critics hope will see an end to the controversial practice.

The treatment, known as “packing”, involves wrapping a child in wet, refrigerated sheets in order to produce a feeling of bodily limitation and holding, before psychiatrically trained staff talk to the child about their feelings. Critics have called the procedure cruel, unproven and potentially dangerous, but its proponents say they have seen results.”

This is not quackery from some fringe movement like DAN! This is quackery from the heart of the French psychiatric establishment where Freudian-based psychoanalysis still holds sway. Before we get too smug it is as well to remember that the Tavistock Centre in the  UK is funded by the NHS to treat autism with psychoanalysis. And according to the Lancet

Delion recently gave a course on the technique at the Tavistock Clinic in London, which is part of the UK’s National Health Service. Maria Rhode, a psychotherapist at the clinic, points out that there are currently no effective treatments for autism, and that caring for such children presents a major, long-term challenge to health services.

Thank you to Michelle Dawson for this. Writing on her discussion list, The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists she also informs me that Professor Hobson is a member of the Tavistock Centre. As I understand it Hobson believes autism  results from a failure of interaction between child and caregiver that he regards as “the cradle of thought,” the essential foundation of what it means to be human. Here we are again. Autism is seen as a deficit that makes you less than human. So abuse of these children is OK in the name of science. I am sure scientists who experiment on animals have to follow stricter codes of ethical practise than those that apply to autistics and other victims of psychiatric research.

Autism, Genetics and Research Ethics

The latest edition of Communication, the members magazine of the National Autistic Society contains two interesting articles on genetic research.

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 communication@nas.org.uk 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 membership@nas.org.uk

I am greatly encouraged by the NAS  inviting this sort of debate. I do urge people to respond.