By Gavin Bollard
The world of autism has changed a lot over the last fifty years. Back in the 1960s, it was common for autistic children to be institutionalised for life. It was common for children with autism to be subjected to painful, humiliating and often life-threatening "correctional" therapies, like shock treatment, LSD therapy and behavioural punishment.
One of the most prevalent theories of the time was the "refrigerator mother", a theory which put the blame squarely on the parents. In fact, it was Leo Kanner, the "father of autism", who suggested that these children resulted from a "genuine lack of maternal warmth" despite the fact that their siblings seemed unaffected. Like most of the negative theories of the time, this theory did much more harm than good.
Things have come a long way since then. Today, autistic children more often than not live with their families. While the nuclear family support network of the past is gone, it has been replaced by an array of support and carer groups, many of which are volunteers. It's a much better world to raise your autistic child in.
While much of the violence of the past has disappeared, the crackpot and unproven theories continue today. Today we have groups which, despite all evidence to the contrary, blame immunization for their child's condition. We have groups who seek to change their children through dangerous therapies such as chelation and of course, we still have groups who feel that the best option for these children is punishment.
There's just no getting away from some of the negative parts of human nature.
Sometimes the negative thoughts don't begin as negative thoughts. Sometimes they begin with the best of intentions. Today there are parents out there who are trying every treatment they can find. They will try almost anything to make their child "normal". The lower end of the spectrum is filled with amazing diets all of which claim to work. There are different parenting techniques and different ways of hiding the differences in these children.
I'm not saying that these gentler therapies don't work, or that they're wrong or dangerous. My point is simply that they all show a lack of acceptance. They are all about changing the child or hiding the problem rather than simply accepting your child for who they are. It's hard to accept a non-verbal child who uses faeces as drawing implements, fights constantly and without apparent reason and generally makes the smallest everyday tasks seem impossible. My own children are not affected to this degree and yet their behaviour will still often set my teeth on edge. Acceptance is hard, very hard.
We all had expectations of where we wanted to be in life. None of us factored in having children on the spectrum. It's quite probable that our expectations were unrealistic to begin with but the added difficulties of autism mean that our dreams are far removed from reality. Our acceptance issues aren't really with our children - they're all to do with accepting that our real lives are quite separate from our ambitions.
Assuming that we can accept our children as they are, we then move on to the problem of how to improve the quality of their lives and our own. Fortunately today, technology is making amazing inroads and it's not uncommon for a non-verbal child to suddenly find that technology provides them with a voice. Computers and blogging did this for the previous generation and now it seems that changes in the way we input data, the ipad touch screen for example, are allowing the next wave of autistic children to reach out to us.
We're finding that the more we talk about our issues, the more we discover similarities. Many of these children have sensory issues and every day is torture for them. Reducing these sensory issues using noise reduction headphones, light shielding glasses and touch-friendly clothing can significantly reduce the anti-social behaviour of these children. Take away their daily "torture" and suddenly our child is far less explosive.
It was adults on the spectrum using technology to talk to each other which highlighted these issues and every day this technology is revealing more about how we can make our world better suited for those on the spectrum.
At the same time, these adult discussions on blogs and forums are making it clear that life on the spectrum can be fulfilling. That success and happiness don't need to be measured on neurotypical terms. We don't need a cure; we need understanding, accommodations and support. Most of all, we need acceptance from our families, our peers and our society.
We need others to understand that our needs are different. We need changes in schools and in the workplace to reduce our sensory issues; we need opportunities and chances to work and we need our parents to stop trying to cure us and remember to simply love and accept us for who we are.
Modern autism therapy is a great improvement on the past but it seems that we still a long way to go.