The condition, traditionally seen as genetic and originating in the brain, is starting to be viewed in a broader and verydifferent light, as a possible immune and neuroinflammatory disorder. As a result, autism is beginning to look like a condition that can, in some and perhaps many cases, be successfully treated.
The treatments mentioned in the course of the article include chelation, supplements such as trimethylglycine, “unconventional nutritional therapies” and “drugs to fight viruses and quell inflammation.” Aside from some brief references to speech and occupational therapy, barely any mention is made of educational approaches for autistic children and the word “special education” is not used. “The devastating derangements of autism also show up in the gut and in the immune system. That unexpected discovery is sparking new treatments that target the body in addition to the brain” proclaims the lead-in sentences to the article. These two sentences indeed provide the reader with a clear and simple sense of how “autism” will be represented in what follows: It is “devastating” and is characterized by some sorts of “derangements,” which are not only of the kind “in the head” but are “gut and immune system derangements” as well. These additional derangements in the rest of the body are an “unexpected discovery” that has led the way to “new treatments.”
Notable is the contrasting portrayal of parents, desperate and despondent (Erin Griffin of Colorado is quoted as saying “‘When your child gets a diagnosis of autism, you lose the child you were dreaming about, the one who will go to college, get married, become a parent’”) with that of medical practitioners who, in the manner of revolutionaries, are going against mainstream medicine and indeed daring to research “novel strategies to help autistic patients” and even to reconceptualize what autism is. The Discover Magazine article opens with Griffin noting days when she wanted to kill herself in her own garage with the car running; later, the sad case of another mother who “killed herself after seeking every possible treatment for her autistic daughter to no avail” is cited. In contrast, practitioners who offer alternative treatments and views of autism are compassionate and capable, and are depicted as wholly responsive to the needs (the biomedical ones) of autistic children. Neimark writes of “highly unconventional molecular biologist and naturopath” Amy Yasko:
Her program is intensive and steeped in molecular biology; her twice-yearly conferences are extremely dense, scientific, and intended to help parents become at least semiproficient in the biology and chemistry themselves. It is a far cry from the old doctor-patient model–Yasko works primarily on the internet now — with phone consultations, to interpret test results. She decided to do this when her waiting list for individuals stretched to five years, and, she says, she felt she was not helping enough children.
(It is not clear from the Discover Magazine article how often patients are actually seen by Yasko. Some families, as I understand it, consult primarily via phone and the internet with their practitioners regarding their children’s biomedical treatment protocols, with twice-a-year or so in-person appointments.)
The Discover Magazine article highlights the research of Harvard pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert, who reconceptualizes autism not “as a disorder of the brain but as a disorder that affects the brain” and in terms of a “full-body perspective.” She says:
“What I believe is happening is that genes and environment interact, either in a fetus or young child, changing cellular function allover the body, which then affects tissue and metabolism in many vulnerable organs. And its the interaction of this collection of troubles that leads to altered sensory processing and impaired coordination in the brain. A brain with these kinds of problems produces the abnormal behaviors that we call autism.”
As Neimark writes (using something of a militaristic metaphor such as one sees often in descriptions of autism), “a vivid analogy is that genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” Herbert, who also holds a Ph.D. from the program in the History of Consciousness from the University of California-Santa Cruz, also compares autism to a hologram: “‘Everything that fascinates me is in it. It’s got epidemiology, toxicology, philosophy of science, biochemistry, genetics, systems theory, the collapse of the medical system, and the failure of managed care.’” The Discover Magazine article indeed summarizes research studies from a number of these fields—Herbert’s own research in morphometric brain imaging, neurologist Carlos Pardo’s research on inflammation in immune-responsive brain cells of autistic patients, neuroscientist Pat Levitt noting that a “common variant of a gene called MET double the risk of autism”—-and builds up to the “provocative research” of Jill James on autistic children having a glutathione deficiency.
Glutathione infusions via IV are one of the “novel” biomedical treatment strategies administed to autistic children. Of the three children mentioned in the Discover Magazine article, one, Joshua Beck, is said to no longer meet the criteria for autism as (thanks to chelation and other unspecified biomedical remedies) he is “responsive, curious, and active, able to engage in the test without a problem, able to express himself clearly.” Erin Griffin’s two autistic sons, Brendan and Kyle, are not cured but, thanks to a combination of biomedical methods and “mainstream treatments” (speech and occupational therapy), “the incessant tantrums, digestive problems, and infections have vanished.” Writer Neimark describes her own meeting with the family:
Kyle, who stopped speaking entirely at age 2, is now a font of creative language. I know this because Erin and the boys spent a weekend at my house. At lunch, Kyle poured a Vesuvius of ketchup onto his plate and began transforming his french fries into boats that sailed across the ketchup before they were disposed of in his mouth; he then began to entertain us by pretending he was an announcer at a regatta, where he, of course, was winning the race. What had once been autism had erupted into a geyser of quirky creativity.
The allaying of the Griffin brothers’ digestive issues can only have increased their health and physical well-being but this out-of-the-box creativity—far from suggesting that someone is not autistic—says much about what autism is, and indeed much more than descriptions of “the latest” research and treatments can. (Thus do teachers and therapists who work for many hours one-on-one with a child know them well.) Tantrums per se are no hallmark of autism (but perhaps of childhood) and I am not so sure that the “geyser of quirky creativity” that Neimark describes Kyle exhibiting is, rather than a sign of “what once was autism,” but rather a cheerful scene of an autistic child, “quirky” and “creative” indeed, eating french fries drawn through a pool of ketchup. Far from needing to cajole a “mysteriously shuttered brain and body back toward normal” as Neimark notes at the end of the Discover Magazine, why not, biomedical and health issues ameliorated, foster that “quirky creativity”?
Autism is indeed “not just in the head.” It is what it is.