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A reminder for neurodiversity

2 Sep

Its been awhile since I blogged about neurodiversity and why it matters to me as a concept. Two recent events in my own life has made me more aware of that than usual.

In the first event, which concerns me directly, I have had to have a change in the medication I take that helps me regulate the manic depression (bipolar) I am diagnosed with. Nobody knows why I need to adjust my medication, only that it needs adjusting and so I shall shortly have Lamotrigine added to the medication regime I have to take.

How does that remind me about neurodiversity? It reminds me that the basic tenets of neurodiversity – respect for the individual differences those with different neurological makeups have – are my best way of being able to move forward in this world. More on this later.

In the second event, which occurred to some of my new family two days ago, myself, my partner and her two daughters – of whom the eldest (she is 4) is autistic – were shopping. Lily began to have a meltdown, a not unknown event in supermarkets for her and one for which we have a carefully worked out strategy. However, this time our strategy was rudely interrupted when a young woman began to shake her head, gawp openly at Lily and make tutting noises. She obviously felt Lily was a naughty child, rather than an autie child.

My partner and I decided that we had had enough of people judging Lily and so remonstrated with this woman. We both explained that Lily was autistic and unable at the age of four to regulate herself in high impact environments but we had to eat and anyway why should we exclude Lily from coming out with us as a family?

The woman waved her hand at us both in a casual dismissal and said we weren’t ‘controlling’ her properly. I smiled through gritted teeth and asked her what she knew about autism. She refused to answer. I asked her again and she walked off with another casual wave of dismissal. My partner’s by now angry shout of ‘shes autistic and a little girl, she can’t help herself’ following her down the aisle.

Of course, this isn’t the first time either one of us have been exposed to such ignorance and I doubt it will be the last. I’m also sure that many parents and autistic people reading this will be familiar with ‘the look’ that can come from such ignorant people who believe they have a divine right to judge others. But it again reminded me of neurodiversity and why I believe in its most basic tenet.

My partner said to me later that what had upset her so much was that Lily (and you can substitute her name for your own or your child’s) would be – to a certain degree either a lot or some – be dependant on the good will of society as she grew up.

People like the woman in Sainsburys are the ‘anti-neurodiversity’. They believe we can and should judge immediately, based on no other evidence than what we see and hear right in front of us. To me, neurodiversity should sit and think, consider the possibilities and act accordingly, based on a desire to help society in the belief that society should do the same for us.

By specifying a desire to include those with differing neurological disorders/disabilities/differences, neurodiversity helps me to feel secure in the world. It also means that I can feel secure in the world my children will inherit.

A (head) space of my own

14 Nov

Four days ago the New York Times published a fascinating piece on the hypotheses of two scientists who are positing that mental disorders of an unknown variety and number are all actually one disorder. Specifically mentioned are autism (of course), schizophrenia, manic depression (aka Bipolar), depression:

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatry’s many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.

Two fascinating aspects of this appeal to me. Firstly is the idea of this proposition as ‘hypothesis generation’:

The reality, and I think both of the authors would agree, is that many of the details of their theory are going to be wrong; and it is, at this point, just a theory,” said Dr. Matthew Belmonte, a neuroscientist at Cornell University. “But the idea is plausible. And it gives researchers a great opportunity for hypothesis generation, which I think can shake up the field in good ways.”

Can you sense where I’m going to go with this yet? Shaking up the field in _good_ ways…..as oppose to _bad_ ways….I’m getting predictable right?

Well, you’d be right. This is definitely a good sort of hypothesis generation – it leans on sound scientific theory and provides a possible next step for a wide variety of mental differences (my word, ‘disorder’ is not right for me) which other scientists can break down into testable ideas. Some will be right. Lots will be wrong. And science will carry on getting closer and closer to an accurate reflection of reality.

And the bad sort of hypothesis generation? It relies on science that is either unsound, improbable or fabricated from whole cloth. It represents a bad financial investment as the return from this sort of hypothesis in terms of solutions is pretty much zilch. And as the recent letter to the IACC sent by groups pursuing such hypothesis shows what it does produce is an overblown sense of entitlement and the lack of recognition that science cannot be served up like a drive thru burger meal.

Anyway, moving on from that, the second thing that appeals to me about this proposition is the fact that it links my autistic child and I in non just the bonds of blood and familial genetics but the genetics of difference too. She is autistic I am manic depressive – we have a head space all of our own.

Back in July, I wrote an entry that referred to an ever-shifting Aurora of autism’. I would love to have underestimated and would like to be able to refer to ‘an ever-shifting Aurora of neurodiversity’ where I share genetics differences with my autistic child but in slightly different shifting shades. All my online and offline friends with OCD, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a wild mix of others are really my genetic family.

Neurological diversity

28 May

It is a common tactic of some people who believe that autism should be cured at all costs to state that ‘the neurodiverse’ are a small minority of adults with Aspergers Syndrome, intent on preserving themselves at the expense of their ‘low functioning’ cousins.

Take a recent post from Harold Doherty railing against Andrew Solomon’s piece in New York Magazine:

The Alleged Autism Rights Movement isn’t much help for the severely autistic, the truly severely autistic….. like my son Conor who wondered (sic) across a busy main street oblivious to the dangers of traffic; or those like the 10 year old severely autistic boy in North Carolina who was struck by a train and killed Saturday half an hour after police received a report he was missing from his home. [Or] like the 50 year old autistic woman who could not communicate to tell the world she was being abused by staff in the residential care facility in which she lives in Long Island…

The sad fact is that, if Harold Doherty would allow himself to see it, no-one from ‘neurodiversity’ is suggesting that people like his son, the 10 year old boy he describes or the 50 year old woman he describes, should not be helped to the fullest possible extent. The trouble is, that Harold (and people who hold similar views) are so caught up in what they _think_ they never actually _see_ . The other fact is that the basic tenet of neurodiversity as _I_ understand the term is that people like Conor Doherty deserve respect. The whole ‘cure’ thing is a fairly trivial side issue. Respect is what comes first.

There is no cure for autism. Does this mean then, that we should not fight for the rights of autistic people of _all_ ages, abilities and expressions? That because they are not neurotypical they do not have rights? or deserve respect?

_That_ is what (to me and I think to very many people) neurodiversity is about. Take Alex Barton – the five year old voted out of his class. That is a _lack_ of respect. There is absolutely no justification for that teacher to behave in that way toward a five year old child. Neurodiversity says ‘this little autistic boy deserves to be treated as if he were the same as anyone else in terms of his right to belong’. I fear that some people who call themselves autism advocates think the problem is easily remedied by curing Alex Barton’s autism (hypothetically of course). I think that that entirely misses the point. People used to look for cures for homosexuality – that was wrong too. The _person who is autistic_ deserves as much of a chance to be judged for who they are with their own set of unique abilities, shortcomings and character as the person who is not.

Does this mean we should ‘leave the autistic child as he/she is’? Of course not! That is the largest of red herrings. If someone cannot communicate, you help them communicate. If someone cannot use the toilet, you help them to learn.

And then, when they have reached the upper limit of the potential for learning on each of these subjects, you accept that that is who they are. For some, that might mean they can now speak. For some it might mean they can barely use one Makaton sign. The _amount_ they have learnt is not the measure of how much respect they deserve. They deserve respect regardless. So we must all work to make the environment safer for young autistic children. We must all work harder to make autistic adults living arrangements safe. These are basic human rights.

It should also be noted that, far from being an autism related term, neurodiversity touches on a whole range of things. Of course, they’re not all called ‘neurodiversity’ but well….

Are voices a symptom of illness or a variety of human experience?

Research has shown that there are many people who hear voices, some of whom cope with their voices well without psychiatric intervention, it has also been found that there are many people who hear voices who can cope with their voices and regard them as a positive part of their lives. Neither is it the case that voices have always been regarded as a negative experience.

Throughout history and even today there are people who hear voices who find their voices inspirational and comforting. These are facts that on the face of it are hard to square with the extremely negative way that the experience is regarded by psychiatry. The researchers, practitioners and involved voice hearers believe it is mistaken to regard voice hearing as part of a psychopathic disease syndrome. Rather, they consider it to be more akin to a variation in human experience – if you like, a faculty or differentiation – something like homosexuality, that it is definitely not open to cure.

Thats taken from a page on Hearing Voices from the Mental Health Foundation. I would suggest that you go read that entire page. Like neurodiversity, some members of the hearing voices community acknowledge that their condition (or the condition of a loved one) can be disabling and distressing. However, they all realise that their can be a unique benefit and comfort in knowing who they are. They believe that who they are can be best expressed as a variation in human experience.

A little closer to home (for me anyway), there is something called Mad Pride which is a movement again neurodiversity in all but name. Its a loose conglomeration of self advocates who are (or have been) diagnosed with mental illness:

About 5.7 million Americans over 18 have bipolar disorder, which is classified as a mood disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Another 2.4 million have schizophrenia, which is considered a thought disorder. The small slice of this disparate population who have chosen to share their experiences with the public liken their efforts to those of the gay-rights and similar movements of a generation ago.

Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad; they say their conditions do not preclude them from productive lives.

The people in all these movements are autistic, manic depressives, schizophrenics, tourettes and many more. None of us deny the bad things that being the way we are can bring. But we do not believe that the fact that we are the way we are means that we are second-class or fodder for nothing more than quack therapies and misplaced pity.

All these peoples – and many more – are the neurologically diverse. The Neurodiverse. Belonging to neither nation, nor politics but simply belonging to the simple idea that everyone is _not_ equal but everyone can advocate best for themselves if supported and respected:

“Broken down it means ‘speaking for yourself’, ‘communicating in other ways’, but it’s personal. For me it means that I can speak for myself. It means I’ve got a voice and even without a voice I can communicate in other ways. It means yes and no- most important- ‘No, I don’t want tea, I want coffee, I don’t want sugar’- all the things we take for granted. It means people must listen to me, I can take a risk, I can have a relationship, that can be hard. I can think for myself, I can go to the shop with support and if I need help, people can help me….

Jackie Downer, Down’s Syndrome Self Advocate.

‘Neurodiversity’ in New York Magazine

26 May

The journalist and author Andrew Solomon (author of the truly excellent and personally recommended Noonday Demon) has written a long piece for New York Magazine entitled The New Wave of Autism Rights Activists in which he paints us a picture of the heavily fractured tripod of autism activism.

Its far, far too long for me to summarise but I will try and give a very brief overview of how Solomon sees these three groups:

There are in reality three sides in this debate: those who believe autism is caused by environmental toxins (especially vaccines) and should be cured by addressing those pollutants; those who believe it is genetic and should be addressed through the genome; and the neurodiverse, who believe that it is genetic and should be left alone. These camps are blatantly hostile to one another. Gerald Fischbach, the scientific director of the Simons Foundation, one of the largest private funders of autism research, says, “I’ve never seen an advocacy community as intense and demanding. The mercuries get livid when people talk about genetics. The geneticists get furious when people talk about environmental toxins. And these activists get angry at both.”

That is a fairly accurate picture although not without it faults (ND’s believing autism should be ‘left alone’….not sure about that – and Solomon does qualify that statement later on)

I don’t really want to talk that much about Solomon’s piece. Its very, very good overall in my opinion. What I _do_ want to talk about is my reaction to it and how my slightly changed view of what ‘neurodiversity’ means to me is.

Ever since I had a large public disagreement with certain people last year about how I and other parents on the Autism Hub allegedly advocated (this disagreement led me to ‘outing’ myself as a manic depressive, handing over ownership and control of the Autism Hub and taking time away from blogging for a week or two), I have been thinking off and on about ‘neurodiversity’ as a practical construct.

I will come clean and say that Andrew contacted me for a statement about what I thought about neurodiversity as someone both neurologically different and also parent to someone neurologically different. That I didn’t make it into the final piece is testament to his skills as a journalist and my own growing ambivalence regarding neurodiversity. I started off by saying:

I felt that I had a good handle on the meaning of neurodiversity – to me it was simple: the diversity of neurology or, to lengthen that out to a truly epic state of pedantry, the many differing states of being that could be neurologically encompassed.

and I still do think that. I also said:

…what neurodiversity was, was a concept that could be embraced by people who valued difference and respected those who were different. It didn’t matter to me that those who embraced the concept were parents or professionals or autistic people or blind people or bipolar people or any mixture of the above. The important thing was that here was a group of people who were saying that being different wasn’t bad. That it (whatever ‘it’ happened to be for you) was a state of being worthy of respect in its own right. It is vital to me that my child grows up to think of xyrself as a person who is entitled to respect.

Beyond that, I am unsure what – if any – of the other things associated with neurodiversity apply to me. I am not ‘anti-cure’. I agree with Alex Plank who states in the article:

Alex Plank, who founded the Wrong Planet Website, which has over 19,000 members, says, “Since no cure exists, I don’t have to be opposed or for it. The thing now is to deal with the autistic people who are already on this planet.

What I want to do is raise my child to a point where xe can advocate for xyrself. If there was a cure invented tomorrow I would want xyr to able to ask the question xyrself: ‘Do I want this?’. This is because, as a parent, just as it is not my right to make xyr not autistic, it is neither my right to keep xyr autistic against xyr own wishes. I am a parent first and advocate second. Let me go even further. If a cure was discovered tomorrow I would not advocate against it. I would try and debate its use as something that should be used with extreme caution but I would not advocate against it point blank.

I come from a viewpoint that views a cure for autism as something that should not be necessary, not as something that should not exist.

What I mean by that is that I do not think it should be _necessary_ for someone who was autistic to be made not autistic in order to enjoy their life. I see plenty of autistic people clearly enjoying their lives and who they are. I want to see respect, tolerance and caring to come _first_ – not only after someone has been ‘cured’. This is (to me) at the root of the recent issue involving Alex Barton. One argument is that because Alex is autistic this is only to be expected. I disagree with that totally. I think that Alex was/is worthy of respect whatever his neurology. Its the same reason I don’t really like the heavy NT bashing that goes on at some ASD forums – two wrongs never make a right.

I also come from a belief that science is important. I therefore recognise that we cannot pick and choose what science we like and what we don’t. Science is either valid or it isn’t. So, when a scientist writes a _good_ paper that states MMR doesn’t cause autism I have to (by definition of science) agree with it. Likewise however, if a scientist writes a _good_ paper that states that Facilitated Communication is not valid, I have to accept that also. I do think that some neurodiversity activists are guilty of picking and choosing what science they like and saying its good and vilifying science that they don’t agree with. Which is fine if the criticism is valid. But not if it isn’t.

If a scientist works on a cure for autism should he be stopped? No way. To me, that’s pointless. If science is interested in a subject they’ll do it. Not always in the best interests of humanity I grant you but all the same – the debate about what to do with the results of said science are more practical than simply trying to stop it.

So, I’m not sure if I am ‘ND’ anymore. Or maybe I’ve just re-interpreted what I think being ‘ND’ means for myself. I don’t know.

Edit: Missed a bit

The closing of Andrew Solomon’s piece is a bit of a dichotomy.

Severe autism is a ghastly affliction that should be cured

I’m afraid that I entirely disagree with Andrew there. They key word is ‘should’. To me, the sentence would be more representative of my own personal definition of ‘nd’ if it read:

Is it important to cure ‘severe’ autism or look more carefully at how the rest of society operates around ‘severely’ autistic people?

.

However, it seems as though Andrew was reading my mind when he wrote:

It is unproductive to rail against the incurable; if you can learn to love it, that’s your best chance of happiness. For some people, the love is self-evident; for others, it is acquired through struggle; others cannot do more than pretend to it. Though neurodiversity activists can get in the way of science and sometimes wrap themselves up in self-important, specious arguments, they also light the way to such love—a model of social acceptance and self-acceptance that has the capacity to redeem whole lives.

Autism and Mental Illness

10 May

So, the family have been away for four days on holiday – our first ever holiday! A very, very good time was had by all 🙂

But in the meantime it seems like the Autism News Juggernaut hasn’t even slightly slowed. I came back to a deluge of emails on subjects touching on autism but one really caught my eye.

This is the story about autism being linked to mental illness:

Parents of autistic children are twice as likely to have had psychiatric illness, researchers have discovered…A child’s risk of autism was 70% greater if one parent was diagnosed with a mental illness, and twice as high as average if both parents had psychiatric disorders, according to a report in the Pediatrics journal. The finding suggests autism and psychiatric problems may sometimes have a common cause and genetic link.

I’m trying to get ahold of this paper to read for myself but its totally unsurprising to me that this should be the case. As some of you know I have manic depression (bipolar as its known in the US) for which I have been receiving treatment for approaching 30 years. I have long suspected that there is an overreaching link between many flavours of mental difference – a hypothesis, born out in the scientific work of David Porteous who has been involved in pioneering science regarding mental illness and DISC 1 mutations. Long term readers of this blog may know that DISC 1 has a high association with autism too.

Indeed, last year, David Porteous gave a fascinating talk at last years MDF Conference in which he talked about the DISC1 connection to manic depression and included ASD amongst the constellation of ‘mental disorders’ that have some kind of interrelationship.

So, this news was no surprise to me at all. Yet to some others it seemed as if it was a slap in the face. A comment from a reader who saw this item reported at CBC said:

So what is being implied here? That mental illness in parents is an indicator /cause of autism in off-spring, or autism in children causes mental illness for their parents? On behalf of parents of autistic children I feel offended by this type of garbage research…

Which is a frankly bizarre way to look at this study. The study itself seems to be saying only what is presented in its abstract.:

This large population study supports the potential for familial aggregation of psychiatric conditions that may provide leads for future investigations of heritable forms of autism.

Its step one. Nothing about _cause_ has been discussed as far as I can tell from reading the abstract. Does that make it ‘garbage research’? Hardly.