thoughts from a recently-diagnosed autistic queer feminist

Archive for the ‘Medical/Scientific’ Category

Environmental causes and triggers

For those who can’t watch it, the video above is a song listing some of the things infamous British ‘newspaper’ The Daily Mail claims cause cancer:

Age, air, alcohol, aspirin, calcium, ham, honey, eggs, dogs, dieting and soup. Being a woman, Being a man, bubble bath, food from cans, being black, wearing bras, left-handedness, speedy cars, oestrogen, climate change, baby food, the menopause, beef, beer, pizza, pork, cereal and worcester sauce, childlessness, children, vitamins, bacon, chocolate, retirement, deodorant and facebook!

Unsurprisingly, I think of this every time there’s a discussion around what causes autism. And I’ve been having a few of those discussions in various forums, so I’m going to try and consolidate some of my thoughts into a blog post.

First, I don’t consider the cause that important. I can think of a few possible reasons for wanting to know the cause: development of a cure, early diagnosis and therefore access to support services, to make a political point, to stop the spread of misinformation or for pure interest value. Well, I don’t believe a cure is possible and wouldn’t believe it if I did. The early diagnosis has some currency, but the age of diagnosis is much younger than it was, and seems to have achieved that by better awareness. To reduce prejudice? Reminds me of the people in the queer community who insist sexual orientation is ingrained because as soon as people realise it’s not a choice or damage by environmental factors, homophobia will end. “Because once people realised that skin colour was genetic, racism disappeared,” the argument goes. Stopping the spread of misinformation is admirable, but the vaccine link has been disproven (no, I don’t want a discussion about this) and that doesn’t seem to have stopped that one being trotted out at every opportunity. And yes, I am interested in the subject, but not half as much as I am in other aspects.

So there’s pretty limited reason for all this research into a possible environmental cause, as far as I’m concerned. On the flip side, this constant looking for causes does a fuckload of harm, harm that goes beyond simply those causes being wrong, or that it diverts attention from other areas. I find it quite worrying that so much of this plays into food moralism, and that given the risk of negative reactions to “food pickiness” resulting from sensory issues leading to eating disorders, children are being further restricted by being placed on GFCF diets irrespective of whether or not they show actual signs of intolerence, simply because they’re autistic. But the harm is far more fundamental than that.

At the heart of it, any attempts to search for a cause, irrespective of the nature of it, are a pathologisation of autism. Rather than looking at why some people are autistic and some are neurotypical, looking for a cause presents autism as something a person has or lacks, an addition to or deficiency in, a standard person who is by definition neurotypical. It’s like how the body we generally consider male is considered standard, and a female body is a male body without the genitalia (and the genitalia that women’s body has ignored). Our lives would be easier if the dominant view was more that some people are AS and some are NT – the latter are the majority and better accommodated in the world, but no more standard.

Second to the discussion about causes is the one about triggers, about environmental aspects which make our autism better or worse. I’m not talking about things like sensory overload but things like food or medicine that accentuates autistic aspects or a person. I’d dispute the idea of making autism better or worse; people are autistic, and they have different abilities and are disabled in different ways. It doesn’t make them more or less autistic.

Still, I understand the point being made here. There are foods I have limited tolerance for. Large amounts of one send my anxiety through the roof – and my own limited reading indicated this is likely to be related to my being autistic. Would research into this be helpful? Quite possibly. But as long as we view autism as a separate _thing_, autistic people are excluded from much research into (for example) anxiety because they have an additional “condition” that would complicate the results.

I know I’m going to have to keep saying this for the rest of my life, but I wish all those people who were so keen to ‘unlock the mystery’ and find a cause or cure or whatever else would show a little more consideration for what they actually can do to make things more accessible. Things like turning music down, explaing a process beforehand, turning up at an agreed time. Without the stress of those, we’d have more resources to speak for ourselves, as well.

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