We are faced with a variety of challenges in our lives with autism.
The ones officially known as autism (communication, behaviour, interests, social skills), are the least of them. The bigger challenges, for us, are medical, though they are often conveniently re-sized by being placed under the carpet we call ‘autism’.
It won’t surprise anyone that as the parents of a child who is struggling, obviously, with everyday life, we want to seek help for him. What may surprise anyone a few years behind us on this journey is how freaking hard it is to get the help you need, and how even freaking harder it is to get the help that actually helps.
In the words of Julius Sumner Miller, I find myself asking, ‘Why is this so?’
Short diversion. I love science. As a kid I was thrilled by the egg in the bottle. I lived for The Curiosity Show. I was driven by the idea that there were answers to the things that vexed me, I just needed to think the right way to find them. I have zero systematic thinking skills, and the memory of a very specifically trained butterfly, so a life in science was never going to be mine. But the big picture gave me comfort, and a certain self righteous drive around ‘the truth’. I took those and channeled them into a life of letters.
Back to why getting care for an autistic child is so challenging.
I’m fairly sure that it’s not that Billy’s doctors are lazy good for nothings who are more interested in their golf score than him. In this respect, perhaps we’ve been fortunate.
I’m also fairly sure it’s not because there’s an agenda discussed over the doctor lunch table about shutting the nagging autism mothers down. Again, maybe that’s just because we’re not sophisticated enough in Australia yet, for this to be a policy driver. I’m certain there are many of us the doctors don’t relish seeing.
I’m fairly certain it’s simpler than either of those things.
The mainstream doctors we see, as good as they are, and as at the top of their game as they claim to be, really don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do for one solid reason. They do not know what autism is. Officially, no cause, no treatment, no cure.
Conveniently, if they care to look outside of their field to the seething mass of service providers set up to placate desperate families, they will learn that autism doesn’t require a cure as it’s not a disorder, or a disease, but a manageable variant of normal that should be accepted and even encouraged by actively NOT treating it medically. Because it’s not a disorder or a disease.
Rinse. Repeat. Go play another round of golf.
While you are there, talk to the Health Minister and see how well he or she has effectively swallowed this framework. It is waaaaaay easier to manage this systemically than address why 2% of your paediatric population are mysteriously and increasingly disabled. So… back to building buildings, keeping trains running on time and such.
Which is fine (I guess) if you are happy for children to be sick without cause and resistant to conventional treatment.
I’m not so fine with that. Not theoretically, and definitely not personally, it being something that directly involves my kid.
So, where are we?
Back with the wire haired professor, (seriously, he’s fabulous, indulge yourself)… why is this so?
This year, faced with intractable epilepsy on top of the GI issues, auto-immune disease and crippling sensory issues, we have made a couple of big decisions. Actually, it may have been expedited by the severe physical and emotional side effects of the epilepsy medication. Or the fact that after YEARS of being told by reputable gastroenterologists that our son (who couldn’t tolerate gluten without losing control of a very important set of sphincters) had nothing resembling a coeliac profile in his bloodwork and so shouldn’t be scoped, we discover that he has the genetic haplotype for coeliac disease (like the multiple coeliacs among my first degree relatives).
Do proper, as much as can be accommodated by current technology, science and finances, genetic testing on Billy.
This has manifested in three separate approaches, which is, I will admit a little over the top, but I’m figuring they can act as their own validity checkers (which will make me feel better while we are eating baked beans cold from cans as a financial result of my actions).
The first is 23andme. A rash decision I made when I had a spare $300. I’m waiting for the results and thinking they will be like an intellectual bone to gnaw on in my down time. Actually I will need a scientifically minded friend with co-occurring down time.
The second is a random letter from our state health service asking if we want Billy included in something called a Genetic Gold Service in 2014. ‘Sure’, we said, at the vague promise of a publicly funded Dr House style program that looks closely at the kids they have met that clearly have something going on, but they don’t know what.
The third is a broad based study of the genetic profiles of children with existing autism diagnoses. More about that as time progresses.
It’s early days in this game, and we have absolutely no idea what we are going to learn.
But we know one thing for sure – we are going to learn something.
Because, here’s the thing.
In traditional medical practice, treatment is pretty much trial and error. Let’s try this medication, and if it doesn’t work, or there is a bad reaction, we’ll try this other one. If you are in robust general health, I guess this isn’t an entirely harmful way to proceed. If you are Billy, and countless kids like him, it’s downright terrifying.
On the most easily understood level, his reaction to epilepsy medication is testament to this. The doctors go, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen that before’, and we take a child home with (a) no viable treatment plan and (b) potentially irreversible side effects and a bonus (c) NFI why or what to do next.
So, just like the coeliac genetic test shows us that symptoms plus atypical bloods plus haplotype means ‘don’t eat gluten’, discovering more about Billy’s make up might just help us understand how other foods and medications/chemicals/supplements may interact with his system.
At least, that’s the logic.
And after all he’s been through, we simply cannot afford to ignore that logic anymore.
I see the cynicism around genetic tests and autism. I respect some of it because some of it is coming from people I truly respect.
I understand ‘it’s genetic’ is a get out clause for the medical profession. To be honest, I think it’s a ridiculous statement. What does it even mean, practically? A long history of no-one with autism, and a few people with mental health issues. Then a generation full of autism. Yeah, clearly, it’s genetic. Cos in the past, some of my family got a little bit of cancer and then in this generation they got lots of it. Not.
If the genetic traits that lead to autism are in my family, given three of my mother’s grandchildren are diagnosed currently, then surely it behooves all of us to find out what the hell those markers are. If I has known there was a strong genetic potential for me to give birth to a child with a lifelong debilitating disability, I would have thought very very seriously about proceeding with the process of procreation. What the outcome of that thought process would be is my business alone, but I would have appreciated the heads up. For absolutely sure.
Moreover, if my child, in utero or as soon as he was born was showing recognizable, medically respected genetic markers for the medical conditions that are the basis for the thing his doctors call ‘autism’, then I could have made very very very different choices about his lifestyle – BEFORE those choices had the impact they did. I’m talking about my diet, his diet, chemical exposures, vaccines, stress factors etc etc etc.
Finally, it’s a simple matter to test us as parents and ascertain what’s ‘genetic’ and what’s ‘epigenetic’, and that’s where the interesting stuff can start being talked about.
I have no time for the eugenics arguments, because I hold absolutely zero concerns about such things. Despite being resolutely pro-choice, I see absolutely no evidence of a worldwide conspiracy to rid the world of any type of person pre-birth, let alone autistic people. I see people making choices, with their own free will. If I see anything dodgy from underneath my tinfoil hat, it’s the opposite of eugenics. The lack of attention to autism prevention makes a mighty profitable future for the medical industry and the grotesque autism industry that has grown up around selling false promise therapies and services to vulnerable families.
The key for us is that every single thing we put into our child’s body has some kind of unexpected effect. And we are done experimenting with that process.
We’re looking for reliable solutions for our child.
We have started an official journey with a integrative medical practitioner, to join with all the allopathic medical practitioner relationships we have now. This is the reliability part of the exercise. I’m not keen on experimenting with my son, or with our life. We want to know what’s going on, we want to know why, and we want to know what we can do about it. We want measures and data and evidence.We want reasons, not promises. We want strategies, not risks. Where ever those things are technologically possible.
We have been watching Breaking Bad like it’s a documentary in the hope of paying for all of this. Because the painful irony is that this will bankrupt us. Plain and simple. Unless we win the lottery or a leprechaun leads us to the end of his rainbow.
There has to be a why.
Nothing like what we are seeing right now, with regard to the acceleration autism diagnosis, and in particular what is obviously medically concerning in autistic people, happens in a vacuum. We take responsibility for the increase in diabetes. We see our part in the rise in heart disease. Yet we are encouraged to write off autism as a diagnostic or statistical anomaly.
There is always a why.
We just have to know how to look for it. And right now, the beginnings of accessible knowledge in genetic screening seems as good a place as any for us to start looking anew. ‘We don’t know’, is not a good enough answer. There is no way we will stop looking, while we have eyes and the odd un-engaged brain cell.
Which probably means we should lay off the chocolate and fluoride products.
Thanks Professor Sumner Miller, the dude with just a moustache and the dude with just a beard, and Mrs Marsh. See what you’ve done?