Sunday, July 19, 2015

Autism Miracle Cures

Stephen Hawking once said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” When we think we know something, we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary and look for things to support what we think we know. This isn't much of a problem when it comes to things like Hawking's area of expertise, black holes. However, there are some more commonplace subjects where the illusion of knowledge can cause some real damage.

One particular case that jumps to my mind is so-called miracle cures for autism. I will say up front that there is no cure for autism, nor do I think there ever will be one, short of a complete brain transplant. Despite this, there is no shortage of self-proclaimed experts selling their miracle cures over the internet, usually at great costs to their customers. It should also be noted that the intended recipients of these treatments are typically children, who are at greater risk of harmful side effects.

Some miracle treatments are relatively harmless, such as broccoli or camel's milk. These can even be beneficial, in that they provide nutrients that everyone needs. However, after having read about them, I'm unconvinced that there is any benefit to be gained from either beyond what a neuronormal person would experience.

There is one miracle cure from the 1990's that I'd like us to keep in mind throughout the rest of the list: auditory training. The theory was that autism is caused by a sensitivity to certain sound frequencies. Those selling this therapy hoped that by regularly exposing autistic people to these often painful frequencies, the sensitivity would be overcome, and therefore, the autism would be cured.

You may or may not see some problems with this theory. Either way, we'll come back to it later.

Looking back again at current miracle cures, one of the more common is chelation. Chelation is meant to extract harmful heavy metals, such as mercury or lead, out of the body. Its use as a treatment for autism stems from the belief that autism is caused by exposure to mercury from vaccines or other sources. The problem is that there is no evidence that autism has anything to do with heavy metals of any kind.

Further, chelation can be dangerous. When administered properly, it can cause low blood calcium, dehydration, and kidney damage. When it's used improperly, including when there is no heavy metal poisoning, it can cause an increased risk of cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, and even death.

If I were experiencing obvious symptoms of heavy metal poisoning, I would probably take my chances on chelation. However, there is no medical or scientific reason to use chelation as a treatment for autism. Doing so can be very dangerous.

Another treatment that has been under scrutiny since 2008 is a solution called Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS). MMS is sodium chlorite dissolved in distilled water. It's said to cure anything from colds and flus, to cancer, to HIV, and yes, even autism.

What its promoters do not say is that the combination of sodium chlorite and water produces industrial-strength bleach. I shouldn't have to tell you that even small amounts can cause some very unpleasant side effects, up to and including death. Knowing that, it should be common sense to stay away from it.

Other common miracle cures include CocoKefir products, which have fallen under FDA investigation for false claims, and Epsom Salt.

We all know that Epsom Salt can be relaxing, which can benefit anyone who lives with a lot of stress, including overwhelming sensory input. However, long term use can have some unpleasant side effects as well, including dizziness, heart problems, skin irritation, and muscle weakness. I would suspect there wouldn't be a problem with periodic use, but don't expect it to cure your child's autism.

I should probably say something about gluten-free or casein-free diets. There is a movement claiming that autism is caused by gastrointestinal problems. I've seen several studies claiming anywhere from a strong link to no link at all. I don't know the details of most of them well enough to comment on the accuracy, but I can say a few things.

If you have a child that is unable to properly digest certain foods, it's obviously a good idea not to feed your child those foods, regardless of any other diagnoses they might have. I can also imagine the combination of autism and gluten intolerance to be a huge problem. Imagine if your stomach is in horrible pain, and you have little to no ability to communicate that to the person controlling your diet.

On the other hand, if there are no apparent issues with digestion or food allergies, it doesn't seem like there's any reason to avoid certain foods.

I won't talk about all of the products and therapies out there purported to cure autism. There are simply too many to list here. If you find one, some words to watch out for are “miracle” and “scientific breakthrough.” If you see those, view the report with a healthy amount of skepticism. You should also be suspicious of long lists of conditions the treatment is supposed to cure. And let me reiterate, there is no cure for autism.

So what about auditory training? It seems that for the most part, science happened to it. For one, we know that hypersensitive hearing and autism often go hand in hand. In this case, I think we can agree now that we may have mistaken the symptom for the cause.

Additionally, it's auditory training has not been convincingly proven effective. A huge part of this is having never been tested against a control group, partially because no convincing placebo has been found. It's difficult to prove the effectiveness of a treatment when you can't tell how much of the progress came from the illusion of receiving treatment, or even how much would naturally happen without treatment.

Before I finish, I want to say that I do understand the desperation that some parents go through when their child is diagnosed with autism. You're often given some very bleak predictions. You probably only want your child to reach their full potential.

The thing is, your child's full potential may not be less than if he/she were neuronormal. It's probably just on a different path. I'm not even talking necessarily about the Temple Grandins or the (possibly) Bill Gates's of the world. Severely autistic people have proven themselves as highly talented artists. Some have also shown more practical skills, such as assembling IKEA furniture.

So what kinds of therapies would I suggest? There's a few things that have worked for me, as well as many of my autistic friends. Speech therapy has been shown to have a positive effect. Also, many autistic children find it easier to communicate when they have a pet to focus on.

The most important things, however, are to interact with and communicate with your child as though he/she were normal, and to nurture and encourage your child's interests, no matter how bizarre or obsessive they may seem. You never know which path may lead to your child's full potential. Be creative.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Are Autistic Hobbies Really Obsessive?

Several Decembers ago, I found myself with some newly acquired Christmas money in my pocket and some time off work with nothing to do. I went to the local hobby shop to find something to remedy both of these problems. While perusing the plastic model aisle, my eye caught a Master Grade Gundam Mk-II. I wasn't especially familiar with Gundam at the time, but the fact that it was like an action figure that you build from a kit shot the cool factor off the charts.

After discovering the variety of Gundam models available, I quickly developed a new hobby. My latest project, which I just finished applying the decals to yesterday, was a Perfect Grade Unicorn Gundam, complete with the LED unit and Full Armor unit. It took me nearly a week to build it all, and another week just to apply decals.

Full disclosure, I am not a professional model builder, nor do I aspire to become one. I would not say that what I build is suitable for display outside my own place of residence. I just enjoy building Gundam models, as well as similar types of robot models from Japan, and then posing them and displaying them.

The only reason I bring this up is because of hobbies.

One of the defining traits of autism is obsessive hobbies. Activities that we will tend to devote most of our free time to. They stay on our minds when we aren't doing them, and we talk about them a lot to other people. Whenever our minds idle, they tend to gravitate toward our hobbies.

To be honest, this is a concept that I find difficult to understand. To me, the above paragraph defines not an obsessive hobby, but a hobby. If something doesn't fit that description, I consider it to by at most a mild interest.

That has made me wonder how it is that an autistic person's interests differ from those of a neuronormal person.

To be clear, I'm not talking about obsessions that we might consider unhealthy, that negatively impact other parts of the person's life. Things like hoarding decades' worth of newspapers or losing your life savings to gambling. I'm talking about interests that those around us might be bothered or concerned by, but otherwise don't have many negative consequences, such as my Gundam hobby I mentioned at the beginning.

The first thing I think of when I hear “obsessive hobby” is how much time and resources a person spends on his/her hobby. It is true that when I'm in the middle of a project, I tend to spend the vast majority of my time working on it. Other times, I want to make sure I have adequate tools and supplies and a functional workspace.

This is not dissimilar to the habits of other autistic people I know. I personally know people on the autism spectrum who spend most of their free time painting, writing fan fics, or just sketching characters for future projects. I've also known people who spend their time drawing road maps or researching the weather or various points in history.

However, I have to ask how this differs from how a neuronormal person spends his/her free time. For example, I remember my mom used to spend hours alone in her sewing room. She seemed to lose track of what was else was going on while she was working. I also remember a coworker of mine, who enjoys metalworking, excitedly telling me about acquiring a $500 toolbox for his garage.

Another prime example is musicians. We all know how often musicians will take out their instruments and start playing, given the chance. They also tend to spend a lot of time and money customizing and maintaining their instruments. In fact, it would be fair to say that music is a full time hobby. Some may consider musicians to be obsessive, but I've never heard anyone describe that level of interest in music to be autistic.

So, if we're more obsessive about our interests, I don't think it's because of the amount of time and resources we put into them. Maybe it's how much we talk about our interests.

Again, I'm going to have to disagree. If you know a car guy, you have almost certainly seen pictures of his latest accomplishment. It's not unlikely that you've even seen before and after pictures, along with verbal descriptions of what he's done. He's not obsessive. He's just sharing his interest with you, whether you care or not.

I'll also have to point to sports culture. Before and after every game, I'm always surrounded by talk of football, something I have absolutely no interest in. People talk about not only the players and coaches, and who they think will win and why, but also how the results of the game will affect the rest of the season and who will go to the playoffs.

This aspect of sports culture is fully acknowledged and accepted, as evidenced by the fact that some will ask that others around them not talk about the game that they recorded to watch later. That request is almost always respected.

Of course, when an autistic person is talking about his/her hobbies, the conversation seems a little more one-sided. I will not dispute that. However, I will dispute that it's indicative of obsession. You have to remember that autism is a social disability, which affects our conversational skills. We have a tendency to monologue at people when we talk, no matter what the subject is. Taking that into consideration, I think we can discount that as well.

Looking at the evidence, I think it's only reasonable to conclude that either autistic people are not obsessive about their hobbies or that neuronormal people are. It's simply a normal human behavior, filtered through a different type of brain.