Autism is something I have first hand experience of as my eldest son is autistic, and since writing this blog post a number of years ago, I have also received diagnosis. One thing I have learned while travelling the path of endless appointments, therapies and paediatrician appointments is that autism seems to have an inbuilt magnet for bullshit.
Everyone has their own, often outdated and uneducated, view on what autism and being autistic are; how autistic people think and behave and what causes a person to be autistic in the first place. These range from the discredited “research” by Andrew Wakefield (I will no longer refer to him as a doctor as he was stripped of his medical licence due to this issue) 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 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 reason why people are autistic. 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 and listening to autistic people so they can accept and embrace the autistic mind.
If you speak to anyone who has never met an autistic person about autism, 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 neither you or your son do that so you can’t be autistic.
It also seems that even the “experts” can’t agree on what makes someone autistic. There are numerous arguments as to whether the controversial Aspergers Syndrome is just “Mild Autism” (it’s not, we’re all autistic) and actually functioning labels are of no benefit to the autistic person, so realistically newly diagnosed people shouldn’t be given a subcategory at all.
What I believe is that people should realise that if they know one autistic person with, they know ONE AUTISTIC PERSON. While we share common traits (sensory processing differences, communication differences, a need for routine, often – but not always – introverted), just like with neuro-typical people, autistics are individuals. We have unique likes, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. We all typically have difficulties with communication, however the manifestations of those differences can be just as individual as the person.
Regardless of what causes it, autism is definitely real. It has nothing to do with bad parenting, it’s not something which can be taken away, you don’t grow out of it; 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 (not ABA, but that’s another post for another time) 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), an autistic person’s life can be made more comfortable and they can stop surviving, and start thriving.