Exploiting Autistic Children with Unscientific and Dangerous Treatments

While autism occurs in people of all ages (obviously, as people on the autism spectrum don’t drop dead when we hit 18), autism among children occupies the vast amount of column inches, attention, focus, medical research, and other resources dedicated to autism. In part, this is because of lobbying on the part of autistic parents, who fight hard for their children (though sometimes very misguidedly), and in part, it can be attributed to the overall trend to focus on disabled children to the exclusion of disabled adults.

Autism is cast as a horrible, scary, terrible thing, and autistic children are framed in a very tragedised way that not only harms children, but also their parents. When you present a simple natural variation of human diversity as something wrong that needs to be fixed, you’re also implying that people manifesting that trait are wrong, broken, needing to be elided from society somehow.

Much of the focus in discussions about autism isn’t on accommodations, isn’t on establishing communication with autistic kids, isn’t on creating a better world for autistic people. It’s about curing autism, or, in the short term, about ‘mitigating symptoms.’ What’s a ‘symptom’ is largely left up to neurotypical people, who are apparently the ones that get to decide which things about autism are undesirable and need to be eliminated. If an autistic child sometimes expresses herself angrily, that’s a ‘temper tantrum’ and she needs behavioural modification therapy or medications to suppress her — even though she may be acting out because she’s frustrated that no one is paying attention to more subtle communication cues that she’s using to try and establish contact with the inattentive neurotypical people around her.

Of note when it comes to ‘symptoms’ is the fact that anything that inconveniences or upsets neurotypical people is usually a symptom, and it’s usually viewed as something that needs to be corrected in some way. Often, the focus is on eliminating ‘bad behaviours’ and not on examining their root causes; for example, maybe an autistic child hates going to school because he’s sensitive to textures and he hates his school uniform, which makes him feel like he’s trapped inside a crinkling, horrible, itchy, scratchy vice. He associates the uniform with going to school, and assumes that if he can stop going to school, he won’t be forced into the uniform anymore, so he starts getting extremely upset every time he’s told to prepare for school. Rather than trying to force him to like school, maybe the focus should be on communicating with him to see why he’s upset.

As the attempt to ‘cure’ autism and suppress the expressions, communications, and manifestations of neuroatypicality progresses, it becomes even more sinister. It’s not enough to try to get a child to stop stimming, or to train echolalia out of someone. No, instead, autistic children must be subjected to ‘treatments’ that are often unscientific, sometimes actively cruel, and even worse, dangerous to their health, safety, and comfort. All of this is done in the name of ‘helping.’

When modern people read about medieval and Renaissance medicine, they’re often horrified by some of the cures used. Until relatively recently, harmful substances like mercury were used in medical practice and administered in the treatment of disease. Physicians couldn’t figure out why their patients actually grew more sick in addition to not responding to the initial treatment, not comprehending why, for example, the popular mercury treatment for syphilis attacked the brain and central nervous system.

When people read about this, they also falsely assume that such ‘treatments’ are a thing of the past. And shouldn’t they? After all, thanks to the miracles of modern science and medicine, we know have a much greater understanding of how the human body works, we understand toxins, we comprehend when medicine becomes harmful. But in the area of the ‘treatment’ or ‘management’ of childhood autism, such practices are actually alive and well in the form of unsound, unscientific, and sometimes horrific ‘medical treatments’ that are supposed to address autism.

This reflects an exploitation of autistic children, who are legally subject to whatever their guardians want done and thus can’t fight back or oppose treatment. It’s also an exploitation of their parents. Parents are taught that autistic children are bad, and that having an autistic child is somehow a reflection on them — they did something wrong, and now they must do something to fix it. Next comes the quackery and the nonsense, promising a fix to the ‘problem’ that will liberate parents from the responsibility and the burden of having an autistic children, so yes, yes they say to things like chelation, refusing vaccines, extreme diets, hyperbaric chamber therapy, hormone therapy, extended courses of antifungal or antibacterial medications, bleach therapy (which is exactly what it sounds like), magnet therapy, and more.

Such ‘treatments’ often amount to little more than torture, and in some cases, they are extremely dangerous. Forcing bleach down the throat of a person of any age is bound to have some serious health effects, even if it’s allegedly diluted and offered in controlled doses. Not only does it endanger the health and safety of the child, it doesn’t work. By convention, when we administer toxic therapies (chemotherapy being a classic example) to people, we do so only after careful evidence-based evaluation weighing the risks and benefits of the therapy to determine if the benefits (controlling or curing cancer, say) outweigh the risks (serious side effects caused by extended exposure to chemical toxins).

People using such treatments are torturing their children, and they largely get away with it, even when they’re using fairly extreme means. When autistic children are killed by abusive ‘therapies,’ their parents typically get off — the logic is that, well, the parents had such a heavy burden, they can’t possibly be treated like regular people. After all, having an autistic child was such a tragedy, can you really blame them for trying every possible thing to help?