Autism Spectrum Disorders (“ASDs”) are something I have first hand experience of as my eldest son has an Aspergers Syndrome diagnosis. One thing I have learned while travelling the path of endless appointments, therapies and paediatrician appointments is that ASDs seem to have an inbuilt magnet for bullshit.
Everyone has their own, often outdated and uneducated, view on what ASDs are; how people with them think and behave and what causes a person to have ASD in the first place. These range from the discredited “research” by Dr Andrew Wakefield in which he claimed that the MMR vaccination caused Autism to the equally uneducated “there is no such thing as Autism, it’s all bad parenting”.
People are still avoiding vaccinating their children from diseases which kill thanks to Dr Wakefield and as such there has been a significant rise in the number of reported measles cases as heard immunity just doesn’t work if those who are able to be vaccinated aren’t (further information regarding the breakout). Although there have been numerous reports debunking the link between the MMR and Autism (see this one from Harvard Medical School as an example), parents are still so concerned due to the prevalence of Autism myths that they simply “won’t take the risk”.
Even more ridiculous than the vaccination myth is the one created by PETA that consumption of dairy products causes Autism (link here). Between the two reports it is suggested that if you vaccinate your child while giving them formula (which is derived from cow’s milk), your child has no chance.
The thing that people seem to be misunderstanding through reading the research (always done against very small groups of children) is that correlation definitely implies causation. If that were true, you could say for certainty that water kills people as 100% of people who drink water will die.
Image from http://condoroptions.com/
In truth, there doesn’t seem to be a single direct cause of ASDs. Rather than the public looking for these reasons in order to avoid them (as realistically it’s likely to be a biological factor in the same way that chromosomal abnormalities can cause Downs Syndrome and DiGeorge Syndrome), they should be educating themselves as to what ASDs actually are.
If you speak to anyone who has never met someone with an ASD, the first person they will picture is Dustin Hoffman as Rainman. They will say things like “your son must be amazing at maths” (actually he is, but that’s beside the point) and “oh, so he hates to be touched then?” (when in truth, his sensory issues mean he seeks proprioception so absolutely loves really tight hugs). Worse still are the people who once knew someone whose Auntie’s cat’s best friend’s hamster owner had Autism and they did <insert vague stereotype> and your son doesn’t so he can’t have Autism.
It also seems that even the “experts” can’t agree on what makes someone fit into a particular category of ASD. There are numerous arguments as to whether Aspergers Syndrome is just “Mild Autism” (it’s not), whether newly diagnosed people should be given a subcategory at all or if everyone should be lumped together into one big ASD pile.
What I believe is that people should realise that if they know one person with an ASD, they know ONE PERSON with an ASD. Just like with neuro-typical people, everyone on the spectrum is an individual. They have unique likes, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. All have difficulties with communication and social skills, however the severities and manifestations of those difficulties will be just as individual as the person. My son is fantastic with his select friends, if you saw him playing with them, other than a bit of stimming and the fact he can be difficult to understand when he talks if you don’t know him, you probably wouldn’t think he was any different to a typical six year old. Put him in an unfamiliar environment with people he doesn’t know, particularly other children, and he will react in one of two ways. He will have a meltdown (or as helpful people tell me, a temper tantrum that a good smack would sort out) or he will withdraw into himself, either by staying close to me and hiding his face or finding a corner to lie down in.
I think it’s important to know that the ‘S’ in ASD is really the most important letter. It’s a spectrum. You will have people who have issues such as communication on the higher functioning end of the spectrum, yet may have sensory issues on the low end of the spectrum and just can’t tolerate wearing certain clothes or eating certain foods. Just because someone is classed as having Aspergers or High Functioning Autism it doesn’t mean they don’t have elements of that which are genuinely disabling (my son is six and still wets and soils himself on a regular basis and cannot wipe his own bottom properly) and conversely, someone who has Classical Autism and may not be able to speak should not be considered to be any less intelligent than someone who communicates in a typical manner.
Regardless of what causes it, ASD is definitely real, it has nothing to do with bad parenting, it’s not something which can be taken away, it is a lifelong developmental disability. It is also an invisible disability, please don’t assume that the child you are seeing having a toddler style meltdown in the middle of Tesco when they clearly look about 8 or 9 is just naughty, no one “looks” Autistic. However, with the right therapies, early intervention and patience from everyone involved in an Autistic person’s life be that their parents, teachers or the person sat near them on the train while they recite repeatedly the names of the train stations on that particular line in the order of which the train will stop (a particular favourite of my son’s), improvements can be made to social skills, communication and sensory issues so that the person can function to the best of their ability.
For further reading regarding ASDs please click this link: http://www.autism.org.uk/