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There`s no excuse for using bleach as a `cure` for autism.

Once again there are stories in the news about parents making their autistic children drink bleach in a vain attempt to “cure” them of their autism. I don’t think I really have to say why this is so bad, or the harm that it can do. We all know you can’t “cure” autism, and I would hope we all know how bad drinking bleach can be. The so-called cures at best burn your insides and cause immense pain, and at worst put people’s lives at risk. As I say I should not have, in 2018, to be writing up an argument for why giving bleach to children is not a good idea. But it seems to keep coming up. Every few months or weeks there will be a new story about it in the news, or online. Someone else in the UK or USA has worked out they can make some money out of selling a “cure” for autism. So they make up a mythology around it – namely that autism is caused by parasites of the gut, and that drinking the cure will kill the parasites, and therefore cure the autism. Of course there is no truth to any of that.

The people who try and sell this just see a way to make money, and don’t care who they hurt as long as they get paid. There have always been people like this, and there always will be, it’s just a sad fact of life. People who will pray on others fears and exploit them for money, no matter the cost. What worries me more is why the level of fear is so high in the first place?

This is not meant to in anyway excuse the people selling the bleach, but the truth is that people are willing to buy it off them, and feed it to their children. OK they might not know what is in it, but lets take this point by point.

  1. We should all know by now that there is no cure for autism. That is just a fact. We see so- called “cures” all the time, and they range from diet to bleach. But if you have an autistic child you owe it to them, and to yourself to make sure you fully understand what autism is. It is not something that can be cured – this is not a statement about alternative medicine vs real medicine, it’s just a statement that whatever the “cure” it’s a lie. I don’t think it’s too much to hope that parents should understand and grasp this most basic of facts if their child has been diagnosed.

  2. I have seen more than a few comments along the lines of “ This is shocking, you can understand why the parents got so desperate, but it’s still shocking.” My reaction upon seeing comments like that is always the same “No, I can’t understand why someone would want to poison their child.” I am not trying to make out like autism is always a good thing, or that it can’t be hard at times. I could not even begin to count the days of my life that have been ruined by meltdowns, overloads and other autism-related stresses. Autism is never wholly good, it always comes with some bad parts that make life harder, and yes can make the lives of the parents of the autistic child harder too. Add to that the worry a lot of parents have about how the world will treat their child after they are gone, the knowledge of how cruel the world can be to anyone who is different/vulnerable, and the wish to spare their children from that, and we can see why some parents might feel anxious about their child’s autism. But again I say, even knowing all of that, I can not for one second imagine why someone would feel that slowly poisoning their child would help make things any better. I think sometimes there is a desire not to attack parents, and to even sympathise with them to a point, but there has to be a limit to that. I have seen the same kind of comments on stories where parents have killed their autistic children in premeditated and brutal murders “ Well it’s sad, but you can understand what drove them to it”. This has to stop. I don’t care how hard you think your life is, I don’t care how stressed-out you are, killing or hurting your children is beyond the pale in the eyes of any decent society, and it’s about time we stopped using being stressed-out with the child’s autism as a way to bring sympathy back to the perpetrator.

  3. There is still a fear of autism, that much is clear. Despite all the good work autistic people have tried to do over the years to convince others that our lives are worth living, and that we are not something to be feared, it’s clear that old-fashioned attitudes are still worryingly prevalent. To see that fear in people who have never had any contact with autistic people is worrying enough, but to see it in people who’s own children are autistic is the real worry. Have these parents not taken the time to read the books, articles and blogs written by autistic people that debunk pseudoscience, and talk about how autism is not something to be scared of? They must know their children are autistic, but it feels like they would rather talk about made-up cures on secret Facebook groups than face up to facts, and educate themselves. Ignorance, as we know, is a great breeding-ground for fear. Far from being bliss ignorance is like a fog through which we can only glimpse the shape of something we are dimly aware is out there, and of course when half-glimpsed through fog anything will look scary. But wilful ignorance of the kind where you choose to ignore decades of research in to autism and pretty much everything ever written on the subject by autistic people, and believe that feeding your child bleach will make everything OK is like being given a torch to illuminate a path through the fog, and deciding instead to hurl it away from you at one of the shapes you can’t quite make out.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the deeper we go in to the 21st century the more we as a society would reject pseudoscience, and outright lies about health. But that’s not true. This can be seen in the resurgence of the anti-vaccine movement as well as in the desire for wilful ignorance in regards to the use of bleach on autistic children. We should be living in a time where autism and autistic people are accepted and understood, and it’s true that we are more than ever before. But it’s also clear that those levels of acceptance and understanding are nowhere near as high as they need to be. There is still far too much fear out there, and sadly, despite the best efforts of autistic people, it does not look like this is going away anytime soon. While there are still parents out there who choose to shout down the voices of autistic people who dare to suggest that autism might not be the worst thing under the sun, while at the same time choosing to buy in to a scheme that is only going to hurt, and potentially even kill their child out of fear of something they choose not to understand, then there is still work to be done. I would love to live in a world where a story of parents forcing their autistic children to drink bleach is shocking, and not just repetitive. Because that’s what makes it even more scary, the fact that we have all heard this story before, and I know for a fact we will hear it again, and more than once before 2018 is over.

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Autism and the Puzzle Piece ………..

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The puzzle piece has become synonymous with autism, and with autism awareness over the years.  A lot of people use it, but most likely many of them don’t think about what it means.  I have been thinking about what it means, and what it represents recently, and I have to say that after giving it a lot of thought and consideration, and weighing up many arguments for and against, I am not a fan.  I am not suggesting it is immediately deeply offensive in the way perhaps racist language would be, and I am certainly not saying that people who use it mean to be offensive, or even mean anything negative about autism.  There are many reasons why I dislike it as a symbol, and in this blog I will attempt to explain what they are. This isn’t meant to be calling anybody out, and people should not feel like it is criticising them if they have used the puzzle piece.  It is simply my view, as somebody with autism, which I am putting forward to make people think.

In 1963 the NAS needed a symbol to represent autism because it had only been officially recognised about twenty years earlier, and it wasn’t really known about at all.  They wanted to be certain their symbol wouldn’t be mistaken for anything else.  There are a lot of charities out there, and finding a symbol that catches the public’s imagination, but isn’t too similar to anything else is difficult.  In the end they settled on a puzzle piece, with the image of a crying child in the centre, created by a parent member Gerald Gasson, This has to be seen in the context of the times, when the majority of people with conditions such as autism may have been institutionalised, and there wasn’t a great deal of care, support or understanding for autistic people.  The charity Scope was still known as the Spastic Society, and terms such as Moron, Imbecile and Idiot were still recognised medical diagnoses.  Virtually all the coverage of disability, learning disability, or any difference would have been negative.  So as a collection of parents who had set up what was probably the first autism-specific organisation in the world, they weren’t exactly in the best position to make sure everything was politically correct, and anyway political correctness as we see it today didn’t exist in the sixties.  When talking about why they opted for the puzzle piece and crying child, in the late nineteen eighties, one of the founding members said:

“The puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’. The suggestion of a weeping child is a reminder that autistic people do indeed suffer from their handicap.”

This type of language may have been acceptable in those days, but nowadays the concept of somebody being `handicapped` or `suffering` from autism is outdated –  that part was symbolised by the crying child, so the concept of autistic people not quite fitting in to society was therefore represented by the puzzle piece.  But there are actually still a number of problems with this idea which I will highlight below. The first and most important thing to say is that as with any point I raise in my blogs, it is not just me saying it.  I did plenty of research in to what other autistic people and their families think of the puzzle piece, and these are some of the main concerns that were raised

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  • The first point that many autistic people raise is the way this symbol assumes that we are puzzles, to be decoded in some way, rather than just people.  It is impossible to ever truly understand another person, so in a way we are all puzzles.  It has been said many times that if people would just listen to what autistic people have to say, or read what they write, then understanding autism and the autistic brain would be much easier.  It seems as if you might as well use a puzzle piece to represent people from Japan because you don’t understand Japanese culture, whereas if you simply take some time to talk to, and listen to Japanese people, things will become clear.
  • Another point – this one actually raised by people who are neuro-typical – is that the concept of decoding the puzzle of autism really seems to be more representative of neuro-typical professionals than it is autistic people.  Autistic people simply live their lives – they are not trying to put a puzzle together.  It might seem like a strange distinction, but I actually think it is an important point.  It does feel more like a symbol that would be worn by people who do research in to autism rather than people who actually live with it.
  • Although the puzzle piece is often used either without thinking, or with good intentions, people often misunderstand it, and its meanings.  Part of this may be to do with not understanding its history, and part of it may be because they assume it represents one thing, without actually thinking about it any more deeply.  This may be why so many parents, and even autistic people use the symbol.  And really it does complicate the issue because although in its origins, and with what it represents today, it is a negative symbol, it is used in a positive way by so many people.

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This sometimes makes it difficult to keep in mind what is wrong about it.   The real issue is that it is not obvious at first glance what it`s supposed to represent; people who defend it say that the pieces represent the families and friends of people with autism, the colours can represent diversity, and overall it represents the mechanical and logical workings of an autistic persons mind.  Now personally – and I know I am not alone in this – I don’t think any of this is obvious at first glance.  In a way it kind of makes sense, but it doesn’t really because none of those things actually call for a puzzle piece.  But if you think about it for a while you can kind of make it make sense.  The problems with this is you shouldn’t have to think about it – it should be instantly understandable at first glance.  The fact that it leaves so much room for interpretation is no doubt part of the problem. *

  • The puzzle piece is a fairly child-like symbol, using primary colours and big jigsaw shapes   A lot of autistic people may like bright colours, and appreciate the symbol on this level, but in a way, because it is so simplistic it does give the impression of being aimed at children – which could be seen to be reinforcing the negative stereo-type that only children are affected by autism. And it was actually designed to represent children because at the time the National Autistic Society was called The Society for Autistic Children (until 1982)

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  • The concept that there is a piece missing from people with autism which separates them from the rest of society is incredibly problematic.  It could easily be seen to be implying that there is a template for how people should be – a template of normality that people should strive to reach – and that because autistic people don’t measure up to this template, they are not full, complete human beings.  The truth is that people are different in all kinds of ways.  Autistic people don’t have something missing from them; they might feel things differently or think differently, but this is just who they are, and is not because a piece of them is missing.  And in a way the symbol does give the impression that if this piece can be found, and slotted in to place, autistic people will finally be whole.

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It is also worth noting that although Autism Speaks didn’t create the original puzzle piece, they seem to be the organisation most associated with it nowadays.  The bulk of their time, money and resources are spent on puzzling out autism; trying to find cures, and researching the causes of autism.  I personally don’t support them, but if you do that`s your choice.  I think that for a while the puzzle piece might have changed to represent a more positive image of autism, but now I believe that because of how much this organisation have been using it, and how it has become synonymous with their campaign to cure autism, it has gone back to its original meaning – mainly that autistic people are somehow lacking.  The debate over Autism Speaks is something for another blog, and I know it seems unfair to let them have the monopoly on an image such as the puzzle piece. But I do find it strange when people I know who speak out against Autism Speaks are happy to use the symbol that this same organisation plasters all over everything it ever puts out.

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Now it would be easy to sit here and say stop using the puzzle piece – I don’t like it, and nor do many other autistic people – but that perhaps would be a little unrealistic.  It has become so ingrained within autism awareness, and campaigns for acceptance that it would be difficult for people to stop using it overnight.  In fact there is an entire industry that appears to have grown up around it: clothes, jewellery, tattoos, to name a few, all featuring the puzzle piece.  Yes, if most autistic people are opposed to the puzzle piece then it should be retired, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen overnight – it may ultimately take years. The National Autistic Society dropped the puzzle piece in 2002, probably because they realised people in the autistic community were not fans of it, for all the reasons stated above.  And maybe in time other organisations will drop it as well?  I suppose the question that I am asking is this – if the NAS created the puzzle piece and used it for so many years, but have now ultimately decided that it is not a symbol they want to continue with, why have other organisations picked it up and ran with it?  If they took the NAS lead in using the symbol in the first place perhaps they should also take their lead in moving forward, and finding a new, more positive symbol?

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But perhaps the most important thing you can do when reading this blog is just to think.  If you have not already been doing so then take a moment now to think about the puzzle piece.  How many times have you seen it in literature, on the internet, in videos, on TV and in books?  Think for a second about what it actually means to you.  Not definitions given to you by somebody else, but when you see this image, what do you think?  Some autistic people have said that they like to be described as a puzzle as they find it appropriate for them, but I was actually surprised by the amount of neuro-typical people who when they stopped for a second, and actually thought about how they would feel as grown men and women being described as a puzzle, an enigma, or something to actually be put back together, realised that they would hate it.

This blog isn’t intended to make anybody who has been using the puzzle piece image feel guilty by the way – it`s not a big deal – just have a think about whether you want to continue using it, or whether you want to use something different?  I read a comment on an old Facebook page a while ago that I think perhaps could be useful.  The person in question was saying that when they first saw the puzzle piece it made them think that autistic people were a piece of society that had been ignored for a long time, and that it was society that was incomplete because of its refusal to accept different groups of people, so that instead of being a puzzle themselves, autistic people were just parts of a larger puzzle – that being humanity in general.  If  the puzzle piece isn`t to be retired completely,  may be it is worth thinking about this, and deciding exactly what it is you are trying to say or represent when you do use  the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism – what is your message, and if that message were aimed at you, how would you feel?

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A Cure for Autism?

A cure for autism is probably one of the most controversial topics right now.  The debate over whether there could ever be one, or should ever be one has been going virtually since autism was discovered and first documented.  Some people claim there may already be one, and some people argue that it is impossible to cure something such as autism.  A lot of people take issue with the use of the word `cure`, because it implies that autism is some kind of disease.  I should just say, before I go any further, that personally, even if a cure existed, I wouldn’t take it.  But despite, that I have absolutely no issue with people with autism who would like a cure, and I have no intention of having a go at anybody in this blog.  This is simply my personal opinion on this subject.

Should we create a cure?

As I say, my personal view is that I wouldn’t take a cure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t think it`s ok to try to find one for those people with autism that want one.  The issue I have is this; autism isn’t some kind of disease – it is the way our brain is wired.  There are a lot of things that can lessen the negative impacts of autism; things such as diet, or the techniques I have talked about in previous blogs, but these aren’t a cure as such.  Personally, having no real medical knowledge, I have to admit I have no clue how a cure could or would be created.  But if somebody thinks they can come up with it, then I wouldn’t try to discourage them.  I have no desire to actively pursue a cure, and I think there are much more important things that the money and time could be spent on; such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.  At the same time I know there are a lot of people out there with autism who wish that there was a cure for it, and who am I to stand in their way if they feel that their lives could be better by taking a cure. 

Should you cure your autism?

Now would probably be a good time to explain why I wouldn’t take a cure if there was one: as I say, autism isn’t some kind of disease, you are not one person, and then you get autism and have the negative side-effects, take a pill and go back to being who you were before.  Autism affects the way your brain works.  It influences how you think, how you feel, how your senses work, how you perceive the world around you and everybody in itWhat else is there apart from these things, that makes you who you are?  Every thought you have ever had, and every feeling you have ever felt has been influenced by your autism in some way.  Sure, a cure sounds lovely for things like outbursts and sensory overload, but there are things that can already help you to deal with these issues.  Curing autism would change your entire being.  You wouldn’t be who you are now.  You would never be able to think, or feel or experience in the same way again.  If you wanted to take that risk then that would be completely up to you – we are only talking in hypotheticals anyway as there is no cure.  But from my point of view, I quite like who I am now, and I don’t feel like becoming someone else any time soon.  

I suppose it keeps coming back to this point – just because I have autism I can’t talk on behalf of everybody else who has it.  I can advise and give my opinions, but that`s about it.  So no, I don’t think it is worth changing who you are just to fix some negative behaviours, or some things that you may find distressing.  I don’t want a cure for my autism, but I can`t speak for others.

 

A cure is always going to be a touchy subject – even the word itself is controversial.  It implies a disease, and I know I said I wasn’t going to have a go at anybody, but my belief is this: people with autism who are fed up of it, and don’t feel that any techniques are working to help them, are perfectly entitled to say that they would like a cure – because we might as well keep using that word, seeing as though it is one everyone understands – but I do think it is out of order for non-autistic people to call for a cure; it basically implies that they think there is something wrong with autistic people, and that a cure would make autistic people like them.  So while I am not one hundred percent opposed to people investigating a cure for the small percentage of autistic people who want one, I do take issue with non-autistic people viewing autism as something that should be removed.

 

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