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Don’t blame parents for autism

I am the proud (and loving) parent of a child with autism and the chairperson of Galway Autism Partnership.

I hold a BA in psychology and am currently studying for an MSc in autism and I would like to add my voice to the chorus of an enraged public. Psychologists are behavioural scientists and should only engage in evidence-based practices. The hurt, anger and indignation that Tony Humphreys (Feelgood, Feb 3) has caused parents of children with autism in blaming them for the condition is inexcusable. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological pervasive developmental disorder that results in significant underlying neurological and psychological impairments. These impairments can be perceived as a triad of deficits affecting communication, social interaction and imagination (Wing, 1993). Problems with a range of emotional, cognitive, motor and sensory abilities are also common (Greenspan & Wieder, 2006). Autism is a scientific fact. Yes it’s a condition replete with paradoxes and mystery but only somebody who has not come into contact with the condition could deny its existence. Humphreys firstly refers to Prof Baron-Cohen’s research. Yes, it’s true that autism is a heritable condition but the large majority of children with autism do not have a parent on the spectrum. To overtly imply that those in professions such as engineering or mathematics “live predominantly in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities” is a gross unfounded stereotype. The belief that autism was caused by cold, unloving and mechanical parenting styles originated in the middle of the last century. Bettelheim, an American psychoanalyst, believed that an unaffectionate maternal relationship (“refrigerator mothers”) caused a psychological disturbance. From the 1960s on, it has been recognised that parental behaviour plays no role in pathogenesis of autism (Volkmar & Klin, 2005). However, the whole debacle caused much pain and damage to the parents, who were wrongfully blamed for their child’s disorder. It has taken a long time to recover. !Humphreys further lets himself down by confusing the terminology regarding autism. What he refers to as ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, is not Asperger’s Syndrome. Autistic spectrum disorder is the umbrella term which includes Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Incidence of ASD has increased dramatically since first described by Kanner in 1943, but this is due to it now being regarded as a spectrum and also due to improved awareness of the condition. Parents of children with special needs are amongst the most loving, tireless, nurturing people I have ever encountered.

We have to fight on a daily basis for services, for therapies, for basic entitlements, for equality and for inclusion in society. An article like Humphreys’ puts the campaign for autism awareness and inclusion back 50 years. Don’t add to our list of battles.

Leigh McCann


Galway Autism Partnership



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