Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Autism Knowledge Revolution

We are living in a revolutionary era. The hardware era is giving away to the software age, and as a result, the economic and social landscape of the world is undergoing seismic changes. The Knowledge Revolution, Noel M. Tichy, Ph.D., 2002

The world is awakening now to another knowledge based revolution - the revolutionary explosion in our knowledge of autism disorders. Like other revolutions the Autism Knowledge Revolution also promises to be seismic in its impact. Recent autism reports have brought news of the Autism Genome Project with studies providing new information about the genetic bases of autism disorders. Gene mutations are being identified as the cause of some instances of autism. A new study suggests that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional learning and fear, shrinks in people with autism, as a result of chronic stress caused by social fear in childhood.

Like other revolutions there are those who fear the onset of the Autism Knowledge Revolution and its impact. They stand on principle and cloak their fears in the mantle of human rights. Fear mongering is already spreading in relation to genetic research in autism with wild speculation about what the purveyors of such fear describe as a eugenics program similar to some of history's worst atrocities. Others express a more practical fear; that our rapidly increasing knowledge in the genetics of autism will be of no value to older autistic children and adults. As the father of a severely autistic 11 year old boy I understand that particular fear but I do not believe that genetic research will yield only clues to prevention of autism occurrence or education of the very young. It is quite possible that our knowledge of autism disorders will assist in understanding how autism works in all individuals with an autism disorder and that may lead to new ways of understanding autistic persons and how to enhance their lives.

Hopefully one result of the Autism Knowledge Revolution will be the end of some of the needless hostility surrounding the vaccine/mercury autism debate. The believers in the Mercury Theory have clung to their theory with almost no scientific support and have resorted in desperation to belief in a world wide conspiracy involving "big pharma", big government and a "bought and paid for" world science community doing the bidding of Big Pharma. Some opponents of the Mercury Theory have been just as virulent and would censor any reference to autism as a disorder, disease or medical condition by any term. More research, more knowledge, may well show some environmental factors in the onset of autism, mercury based or otherwise. Or it may disprove conclusively any such connections.

The future holds promise but never provides promises or guarantees. Some of the research currently under way may lead to dead ends; part of the scientific process of elimination. But the increase in knowledge of autism will undoubtedly increase our uderstanding of autism. Surely a good thing in and of itself.

The autism knowledge revolution does provide hope, hope of a cure for those who seek it for themselves or their loved ones. It is a hope based not on resignation or "acceptance of autism". It is a hope based on solid scientific research as most of our advances of the last 300 years have been. There are no limits at this time on where this knowledge might lead. While concern that it will not assist older autistic persons is understandable it does not automatically follow that such research will be of no benefit to them and all autistic persons, regardless of age.

Those of us who are not ourselves scientists, and do not imagine ourselves to be scientists, can still assist by involvement in organizations, such as Autism Speaks, and CAIRN (Canadian Association Intervention Research Network), which have been such powerful positive forces in the advancement of autism research.

We can all lobby, create public awareness and raise funds.

We can all join the Autism Knowledge Revolution.

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