‘New research says yes, but how to spark recovery remains a mystery’
I found this non committal, fence sitting headline in this months edition of ‘scientific american mind’ hiding between an article on the brain of Buddha and a selection of ‘geek holidays’. Talk about being overly modest I thought, surely this ground breaking stuff should be given a whole magazine of its own!? Then again the article seems unsure of itself and I can almost see the thin ice underneath it cracking.
Can you ever trust a claim that autism will soon be curable? Any more than you could trust a claim that Down syndrome or Cerebral Palsy could be cured. Not to say that any of these conditions are similar, I’m using them as examples because they are conditions children are born with, they do not acquire them as they develop. Yet several mothers have come forward saying just that, they’ve cured their child of autism, some through their diet alone.
After attending a talk by Dr Munro, Helen Bennet was led to believe that autistic children have morphine-like chemicals in their blood stream, which are often produced from eating foods high in gluten, sugar and dairy. So Helen set out to exclude these sensitivities from her son’s diet after he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Just four months later his behaviour had apparently dramatically changed. He’d emerged from his shell more aware of others around him, interested in their lives, the ‘tell tale’ dark circles round his eyes had faded and he had even found himself a girlfriend. Obviously this was the only reason I had taken so long to find myself a girlfriend, it was just my diet! Phew. Jokes aside this isn’t the only story of its kind, one mother helped improve her son’s symptoms with music and coordination therapy, others through painfully time consuming behavioural therapy, 30 hours a week in fact. Admiration must be handed in bucket falls to those parents who committed to this full time, I fear my own parents would have quit after an hour of failure and tears and decided my Asperger’s would sort itself out one way or another.
Although in many of these cases the mothers stress that they have not been ‘cured’, they just function better, and often the professionals stress that autism may be ‘outgrown’ rather than eliminated. But the word ‘cured’ has been thrown in one too many times to just be a flippant remark and the overall message is worryingly definitive and simple: it could be possible to cure Autism.
A recent study, which sparked the article published in Mind, certainly has this message painted over it in big bold letters. Researchers found that some individuals who had been diagnosed with Autism as children no longer had symptoms; a previous article from 2008 had reported that this figure could be as high as 3 – 25%. The study investigated three groups of 8-21 year olds; recovered individuals, high-functioning individuals and control subjects. The criteria for recovery was high, participants had to show they have typically developing friends and be included in regular education classrooms as well as be free of autism symptoms. If anything I’d say that this was the wrong way round, someone with autism can surely function in a neurotypical world without having been rid of their symptoms; I’m sure my ‘typical’ friends would agree with this. Anyway, the study found that those in the recovered group were on par with the typically developing individuals and better than the high-functioning autism group, hurrah the study worked! Or not… For starters the research glosses over the fact that even the recovered group showed some milder autistic traits; 20% still having eye contact, gestures and facial expression difficulties. Apparently the researchers deemed these ‘non autistic related’, clearly not biased reviewing at all (insert sarcasm). More longitudinal studies have however backed up these findings, one by the director of the Centre for Autism and the Developing Brain who has been following 100 people from the time they were diagnosed at age two through to their early twenties, revealed that some lost their autism symptoms too.
The small print for these studies is that only ‘some’ can be cured. The authors of this last study suggest that some people have the propensity to rid their autistic symptoms more than others. For example, a more positive outcome could be predicted if as a young child the individual had rapid gains in verbal skill and decreases in restricted and repetitive behaviours. The authors are also very sure to point out that just because the symptoms have apparently disappeared it is not to say they won’t reappear as the individual gets older and faces new challenges.
I have to say that as I’ve grown older I’ve realised my ability to cope with Asperger’s has improved, but my condition itself stays firmly the same. Having been on a series of diets for stomach problems, my least favourite being the exclusion diet which consisted of apples, chicken and rice for four weeks and left me desperately licking a jar of honey in secret, I can’t say I noticed a significant pattern with my behaviour. I’ve had behavioural therapy and psychological therapy and again I am left with pretty much the same me, possibly worse as it pushed me the other way and I decided to rebel and make as little eye contact as I wanted.
Functionally things may improve and sometimes you may appear pretty damn normal, but for how long and at what cost? Brain chemistry is not easily changeable but humans are remarkably adaptable, particularly those that have more pressue to adapt and fit in. But do the symptoms define the condition a by-product of the disorder? The only way the researchers will understand this is if they speak to the ‘recovered’ and learn more about them as people and not objective behaviours and symptoms.
Richler, J. (2013) Is It Possible to Cure Autism? Scientific American Mind, 83, pp 26-26.