We don’t need to defrost an assumption over 70 years old

More research is needed into autism, not bringing up wrong theories that were popular decades ago, argues Kevin Whelan

WHAT Dr Tony Humphreys is describing is not a new theory. In fact, he is returning to an idea popular 70 years ago, known as the Refrigerator Mother theory. The problem with that theory is that it assumed parents were universally cold and unconnected with their children, and it was wrong.

It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a clearly defined condition with a common set of symptoms that are differentiated by their severity. That’s why it is known as a “spectrum disorder” because it covers a spectrum of severity. (Dr Humphreys’ comment that “autistic spectrum disorder, often referred to as Asperger’s syndrome” is simply incorrect. Asperger’s syndrome is an autistic spectrum disorder, not a name for it.)

At least, that’s how our scientific advisers explain it to us. What we see is a little different.

We see children who are unconditionally loved by their parents. We see parents who are warm and caring, but whose emotional temperature rises whenever those children are threatened or dismissed.

We have seen them fight and cry and despair. And we have seen them get back up and keep going under pressures that would break most of us. We have seen them take on authority, ignorance, and prejudice — and triumph.

Slowly, we have seen our country catching up with what those parents know: That ASD is no emotional withdrawal. The Department of Health fully acknowledges the condition and a method of diagnosing it.

The EU is so concerned that it is funding research to determine how widespread the condition is. Irish Autism Action is part of that project and its initial figures show that roughly one in every 100 children born here has ASD.

It is true that the causes of ASD are unclear. There is clearly a strong genetic element, though how precisely it operates is not understood. There seem to be environmental elements though they are yet to be fully examined.

What people with autism and their parents need is more research that specifically addresses how the condition occurs — not the defrosting of an assumption over half a century old.

* Kevin Whelan is chief executive of Irish Autism

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

Man wielding golf club jailed for four months

Noticeable drop in footfall in Cork city due to Bus Éireann strike

Damning information found in review of ‘Mary’ foster care case

HEA spends €75k probing University of Limerick’s handling of whistleblowers


Breaking Stories

Fianna Fáil to propose Bill to extend powers of Policing Authority

High Court ruling clears way for blind people to cast secret ballot in elections

Latest: Missing woman Joanne Donoghue found safe and well

Pope Francis will 'do everything he can' to visit Ireland next year

Lifestyle

Genesis of rivalry is still there says guitarist Steve Hackett

Are we still our authentic selves with filtered selfies?

The horrors of WWII through the eyes of an Irishman

Technology in school is about collaboration and ideas - not passively swiping at a screen

More From The Irish Examiner