4Corners – The Autism Enigma

In category In The News

Did you see the 4Corners program last night, The Autism Enigma, which puts forward a theory that gut bacteria, food additives and antibiotics could play a role in the increasing rates of autism.  If not, see the transcript at  http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2012/08/23/3574441.htm

The program highlighted three things for me.

The Autism/Aspergers Industry

First, was the growing autism industry with a myriad of theories, products and promises shown in the trade stands at an autism conference.

Science and Logic – or Lack Thereof

Second, was the circular arguments so common in many discussions about autism and aspergers. There is so much emotion involved. Parents are understandably desperate and can be excused for trying anything. Professionals, though, have a duty to be more scientific, to test hypotheses rigorously, to examine the basic premises of their theories and to consider the wider repercussions of any intervention.

I don’t doubt that food makes a difference to well-being and behaviour. I would question whether children become autistic because of the food, or whether the food is simply exacerbating another issue. Why would this food or additive make some children autistic and not affect many others? I’d also wonder what effect stress levels had on the gut. Modifying a diet to include fewer processed foods and more fresh food is a good idea for everyone so try it and, if it helps, keep it up.

I am very uneasy about the idea of treating autism with antibiotics. To use a “last-resort” antibiotic to suppress a problem raises all sorts of risks for the child and society. Added to the idea presented that the use of other antibiotics can cause autism in the first place, this seems like the downward spiral of trying to get something in balance by adding a bit more of this, bit more of that… Take a hint from organic gardeners by working with nature to recreate balance in a long-term sustainable way by adding good bacteria, feeding well, avoiding quick-fixes with unknown side-effects.

Framing and Narrowing the Debate

Third, was the framing of the problem and the resulting closing down of questions. The introduction of the program mentioned the now-discarded refrigerator-mother theories. The problem now is considered to be firmly in the child and the only external influences comfortably considered are not people – ie food additives, carbohydrates, drugs.

Are we allowed to consider the people and situations that the child has to deal with in their lives – not just in the family, but in the childcare centre, the supermarkets, at school, and even the  medical and helping professionals and researchers – and whether the behaviour exhibited by the child could be a reasonable reactions to the situations they find themselves in?

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