autism, demons and disordered thinking

Kev has just blogged about an interesting discussion on ABMD, an email list devoted to biomedical interventions for autism. The bare bones are that a parent asked some obvious questions about how many recovered kids there were and where was the research that followed them up. From the subsequent replies three points struck me.

 1. The Biomedical Approach is not a cohesive whole

Within the biomedical movement there are different strands of opinion. I remember discussions ten years ago about biomedical interventions in which vaccines were barely mentioned, if at all. The received wisdom then was that autistic kids were more prone to infections than their NT peers. Ear infections seemed a common culprit based on parental anecdotes and strep was in there too. (NB Both these infections regularly afflict non-autistic kids as well.) Antibiotics were prescribed that got rid of the infections but also disrupted the beneficial bacteria in the children’s guts. This led to yeast infections which led to leaky gut syndrome and allowed partially digested proteins to pass through the gut into the blood stream.

Some of these proteins would cross the blood brain barrier in sufficient quantities to bind with receptors in the brain and create a condition analogous with opium addiction. When your child was happy, flapping and rocking, he was actually high on the effects of these proteins that had a narcotic effect on his brain. And when he was tantrumming, self injuring and screaming he was suffering the withdrawal symptoms because he needed another fix of the foods that fed his addiction.

The ‘cure’ was simple enough. Exclude the guilty proteins with a gluten and casein free diet. Heal the gut with antifungal drugs and use vitamin supplements to restore a healthy balance. The science behind this theory has never been adequately tested. It could be that some autistic people do have a natural tendency to react badly to certain foods. Avoiding these foods will avoid the bad reactions. Will it avoid the autism? That depends on whether the dietary problems cause the autism or the autism causes the dietary probems. Or it may just be an unrelated coincidence.

Even if it turns out to be nonsense this is fairly benign nonsense. Plenty of people with food intolerances survive on a diet that excludes dairy, wheat and similar grain products. So can autistic people. But somewhere along the line vaccine damage and heavy metal poisoning got factored in and remedies like mega doses of vitamins, chelation, lupron injections and other powerful biochemical interruptions to the systems of autistic children were introduced. I take comfort from the fact that parents and physicians who favour the old dietary and nutritional interventions are not all convinced by the science or the ethics of the newer, more radical interventions.

2. Recovery Does Not Mean Cure

Some of the parents reported how their child had ‘recovered’ from autism and continued to improve on biomedical interventions. Others reported on ‘recovered’ children who were still autistic! Recovered seems to mean being mainstreamed for many parents. If the kid can manage in a regular classroom they are deemed to be ‘cured’ or ‘recovered’ or ‘rescued’ or whateve the word of the day that is used to describe inclusion.

Essentially these parents are saying that, “Bad things happen to kids who stand out, who are different. The fault is with the child. If I can make my child indistinguhable from his peers he will be accepted. I want a Stepford child.”  The kid has to act normal whether he is or he isn’t.

3. Parents intervene because we have to do something.

A lot of parents seem to be long term users of biomedical interventions who persist despite the lack of success. They remind me of the parents in the Autism Speaks video who were following the same interventions. At the time I wrote this.

Some of those in the video referred to doctors’ appointments, therapies and interventions costing tens of thousands of dollars a year. But the parents seemed not to expect them to work. They talk of a lifetime of battling with autism and expect their children to still be autistic when they, the parents are dead.

Autism is characterized as a barrier to be overcome. But they do not hold out much hope for their own children. They are trying every therapy under the sun but the big picture is about research that will lead to prevention and cure.

For me the video is not about autism as such. It is about a particular psychological response to autism. There is an ideology around autism that helps to shape that response. In opposing the video I am not denying the experiences of parents. I shared many of those experiences when my son was growing up. I am not denying the lack of services or support. I am not denying the lack of understanding outside the autism community. I am not denying that autism itself can be the source of immense difficulties.

I am concerned to deny the ideology that demonizes autism and distorts the facts in order to justify itself.

These parents persist in fighting their demonized version of autism because they have to. To do otherwise would be to give up on their children – the ultimate betrayal. If only they could give up on their demons instead and accept their children for who they are. That is when the real fight begins, when you fight with your child against a system that denies their right to acceptance, understanding and support.

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When Friends Fall Out

A few weeks ago in my post on Rett Reversal and Neurodiversity I wrote

Now that there is a real possibility of a cure for Rett Syndrome some time in the future, will it undermine the movement for autism acceptance and encourage those whose aim is normalization? Some will certainly see it that way. But in the short to medium term I predict that it will increase the tension between organizations like Autism Speaks that are funding research into genetic causes for autism and those like NAA and Safe Minds who think they already know the cause and the cure and are only interested in research that confirms their prejudices. 

Well, it has happened. J. B. Handley, the driving force behind Generation Rescue and Put Children First, is circulating a letter entitled Bernie versus Bryna: The Trouble with Autism Speaks 

Bernie refers to Bernard Rimland, the recently deceased founder of the Autism Research Institute [ARI] and Defeat Autism Now! [DAN] Rimland has done more than anyone to promote the idea that autism can be treated with alternative therapies like megadoses of vitamns, special diets and chelation for heavy metal poisoning. Bryna refers to Bryna Siegel who wrote The World of the Autistic Child and is very much in the autism mainstream.  Handley is upset because Autism Speaks is sponsoring a conference hosted by Jump Start in San Francisco this Friday [March 9th] at which Siegel is the keynote speaker. This is why.

Bryna Siegel diagnosed my son. My son was the first client of “JumpStart” when it was still a part of UCSF and just in its infancy. Bryna Siegel told us that the GFCF diet was a “placebo for parents.” She has testified in court for vaccine manufacturers to ward of Thimerosal lawsuits (something she does not disclose to you while telling you the vaccine-autism link has been disproven.) She thinks the Danish studies thoroughly refute the Thimerosal-autism hypothesis. She told us our son had no “theory of mind” and that he’d probably never talk.

A parent who attends this workshop and asks a question about biomedical treatment will be told by an “expert” that biomedical treatment does not work. I should know, that’s what she said to me and my wife.

And, that’s my point about Autism Speaks: way too much Bryna and not enough Bernie.

Handley believes that there is an autism epidemic caused by mercury in vaccines. He believes in special diets, supplements and chelation therapy. He is using them to try and cure his son. He is mad at Autism Speaks founders Bob and Suzanne Wright because they have not publicly embraced and endorsed DAN and ARI. He finds this particularly galling because their autistic grandson is being treated by a DAN practitioner.  

But that is not the whole story. The Autism Society of America [ASA] and ARI announced a research partnership in October last year. But Rimland died shortly afterwards and there is little evidence on either organization’s website of progress in this area. At the same time Autism Speaks has been making real headway. Its video, Autism Every Day, received widespread coverage, including a showing at the Sun Dance Festival and was heavily promoted among politicians in the run up to approval for the Combatting Autism Act. Autism Speaks marked the anniversary of its successful merger with the National Association for Autism Research [NAAR] in February by finalising a merger with Cure Autism Now. [CAN] Autism Speaks was quick to announce its role (courtesy of CAN) in the recent widely publicized report of the Autism Genome Project. Autism Speaks has also established itself in the UK and in Canada. While its US website still affirms its commitment to

funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and cure for autism.

the UK website has a much more inclusive statement that avoids mentioning cures. 

Autism Speaks is a registered charity that raises funds to accelerate biomedical research to determine and understand the causes and biological basis of autism spectrum disorders; and through that understanding to discover and promote new ways of improving the quality of life for all those affected.

This is part of an inevitable process of accommodation. Autism Speaks has an ambition

to become a worldwide organisation by developing communication, organisational and fundraising models that encourage funders, researchers and those affected by autism to work collaboratively across geographies to ensure that the needs and priorities of each are met.

Collaboration means compromise. Working in the mainstream means that you adapt to the consensus. In the UK the consensus is more congenial to autism acceptance than it is in the USA.  So Autism Speaks has adapted. Some advocates for neurodiversity remain deeply suspicious. I tend towards a cautious and watchful acceptance of their good faith, in the UK at least. Handley, on the other hand, is outraged because he suspects that Autism Speaks are going to drop their support for biomedical interventions to cure autism and accept that autism is more genetic than environmental. These are his complaints against Autism Speaks.

1.      You do not mention DAN! or biomedical treatment on your website, and you have no link to DAN! or ARI or any of the groups on our side of the fence.
2.      When you eulogized Bernie Rimland on your website, which would cause him to roll-over in his grave I am certain, you did not even mention biomedical treatment or recovered children, this is a glaring, glaring omission that speaks volumes about the mindset of the people running your organization.
3.      Your scientific advisory board is populated with some of our world’s worst enemies, including some who have stated on the record that there is no autism epidemic. And, your research choices support this. (The only environmental research you can claim to have sponsored deals with prenatal insults with the notable – and commendable – exception of Richard Deth).
4.      When I met with AS in the Fall, I asked a simple question: “Are you sending anyone from your organization to the DAN! Conference?” After some silence and stumbles, everyone turned to Andy Shih and his answer was basically “No.” The only person in the room more annoyed with this answer than myself was Katie Wright.
5.      None of the research ideas presented to you by Laura and Lyn have received further study or consideration, as far as I know.
6.      Kevin Barry, our former President, was hired by Autism Speaks. On his first day of employment, Mark Roithmayr informed Kevin that he was only there “as a favor to Katie”
[ the mother of Bob and Suzanne Wright’s autistic grandson]
7.      You succeeded in completing alienating Deirdre and Don Imus, our community’s most important public advocates.
8.      The clarification by Alison Singer regarding her unambiguous statement to the Wall Street Journal only further clarified how far Autism Speaks is from the environmental camp. I’m pretty sure we are soon going to see funding to try to unravel the “genetic epidemic” we are experiencing.

I will not go into all these points right now. I expect other Autism Hub bloggers will have something to say about this. Handley ends by giving the email addresses of some  Autism Speaks luminaries for you to complain to. If they have managed to annoy Handley so much I suggest that congratulations and encouragement to do more of the same are in order.

Mark Roithmayr: mroithmayr@autismspeaks.org

Bob Wright: Bob.Wright@nbcuni.com

Suzanne Wright: suzanne.wright@nbcuni.com
With extreme annoyance and frustration,

JB Handley

It could be, JB, that you might be wrong. Just something to think about.