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

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