With his latest thoughtless and inflammatory remarks, Michael Savage has done great harm to autistic people and their families, including my own. And his latest efforts to backtrack and clarify are not very convincing. Part of me just wants to write him off as a jerk and be done with it.  But because he has such a wide audience, and also because of his supposed credentials as a scientist, I feel compelled to post a response to his remarks.

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First, let me explain that I have two children, a 22-year-old daughter and an 18-yr-old son. My son has a form of high functioning autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. Although many autistic persons are mentally retarded, some are high-functioning: that is, they have an IQ at average or above, they are verbal, and they are able to function with support in regular society. It is this high-functioning group that Savage evidently has problems with.  This is the group that is growing, that is part of the autism “epidemic” he complains about. But he is wrong when he states that these cases are not “truly autistic”; wrong again when he claims that parents and doctors make up the diagnosis to get services and funding; and outrageously wrong when he asserts that all these kids need is more discipline from their parents. I will address these concerns in order:

High-functioning autism is still autism

As Mr. Savage would know if he had done his research, the common deficit in all forms of autism is thought to be a form of cognitive deficit called “mind-blindness” –which has been linked to problems with mirror neurons in the brain.   At risk of over-simplification, this deficit means that autistic persons have difficulty with putting themselves in the place of another and being able to predict what that other person knows; they tend to think that any knowledge they have is common knowledge.  The lack of this ability (as measured by the Sally-Anne test among others) differentiates autistic children (even high-functioning) from other disabilities: Down’s Syndrome children perform better at this task than autistic children with high IQs.  Of course, there are also a range of other deficits in autism; but this basic deficit, along with problems of executive functioning, and also often sensory integration issues, makes even intelligent, verbal autistic children have problems with basic social skills and communication. As well, even high-functioning children with autism often have other psychiatric issues: anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.  These can lead to behavior disorders as well, and these problems will not be outgrown, and cannot be “disciplined” away by spanking or telling them to “stop being a moron” (Mr. Savage’s suggestion). Thus  high-functioning autistic children also need services and therapy as much as low-functioning autistic persons do.

Which leads to the next point…

Parents and professionals do not “make up” the diagnosis to get funds and services.

There is dissent over whether the autism “epidemic” is because of better diagnosis or whether there is an increase in the percentage of cases. While it is true that many of the children (like my son) now diagnosed as autistic would have been overlooked before, that doesn’t mean that autism is a “fraud” or a made-up diagnosis, even in the case of high-functioning children.  High-functioning autism, or what is now called Asperger’s Syndrome, was described by Dr. Hans Asperger in 1944. His paper was little known in the U.S. until it was translated into English and published by Lorna Wing in the early 1990s.  Asperger’s Syndrome gave a name to something that U.S. doctors had been seeing but lacked the vocabulary to describe, having only Leo Kanner’s description of autism (which only deals with low-functioning autism). However, that diagnosis has taken much longer to make its way into the vocabulary of insurance companies, and into legislation covering school-based services. Although Mr. Savage is correct that there is competition for funds and services, the problem is that often funds and services are only given for children diagnosed autistic – not children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Parents of high-functioning children can all tell horror stories of the struggle to get services and funding – many (including our family) spending over a hundred thousand dollars out of our pockets for therapy and services. Without treatment and services, high-functioning autistic children often end up in jail, commit suicide as teenagers, or live with their families all their lives. Very few manage to have what we would consider a normal life, despite their intelligence.

Autism is not caused by poor parenting or lack of discipline

Disciplining autistic children is certainly a challenge, but they are not “brats” (to use Mr. Savage’s word). While it may be true that a few parents of autistic children make no effort to teach or correct their children, the vast majority of parents are working much harder than the average parent does for an average child, with much less success in terms of behavior. Frankly, caring for an autistic child is exhausting, frustrating, and often overwhelming, and over 80% of families with an autistic child get divorced because of stress. And while the behavioral challenges of an autistic child can be extreme, most parents are working very hard to discipline and teach their children proper social behavior. Autistic children do not learn social behavior the way normal kids do; that’s the point of their disability. The things that motivate normal children to behave well (the desire to please others or the fear of punishment) do not work with autistic children. Therefore spanking or scolding do not deter bad behavior, and praise does not encourage good behavior.  As well, autistic children often have sensory issues (like ultra-sensitivity to smells, sounds, textures) that cause them great pain and/or discomfort.  Because of their challenges, autistic children also tend to struggle with great anxiety, and want to adhere to rigid rules and schedules in order to reduce that anxiety. Between the sensory issues, the anxiety and the frustration over communication issues, even normally well-behaved autistic children sometimes have tantrums (called “melt-downs” in the autistic community). Medication can help alleviate some of the symptoms (many autistic children are on meds for depression or anxiety), but does nothing for the core deficit. That is another reason parents must spend lots of money on special behavioral plans and training to help their children learn how to behave, how to cope and communicate, how to connect with the world around them. Families also need support and family counseling or other therapy to help them cope, because the disruption to the family structure and support system is extreme. Lack of such support may result in some bad parenting, but the stress of dealing with autism is the cause of the bad parenting, not the other way around.

So please, please, PLEASE do not accept Mr. Savage’s views without researching the issue for yourself. Don’t underestimate the challenges high-functioning austitic persons face; don’t begrudge parents of high and low-functioning autistic children the funds and services they need; and above all, don’t blame them for being bad parents if their autistic kids act out in public. Parents of autistic children have to face enough guilt, condemnation and embarrassment already without it being added to by people who don’t know any better.  Don’t let the ignorance of someone like Mr. Savage cause you to judge someone before you have walked a mile in their shoes.

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