Saturday, December 15, 2007

Autism Reality from Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

I have not always been a fan of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. He enjoys status as a world renowned autism expert, as the Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, who has actually worked with autistic children from across the entire autism spectrum matter. When Professor Baron-Cohen talks about autism the world listen. In the past though, I have been concerned that he was contributing to the trivializing of autism, a serious neurological disorder, by some public comments apparently supportive of the view that autism should not be cured, that it is a "culture", or "way of life". Whether my interpretation of those remarks was accurate or not I admit to being pleasantly surprised by some of the autism facts articulated by Professor Baron-Cohen in Freedom of expression published December 15, 2007 in the TIMESONLINE.

In this article Professor Baron-Cohen addresses many of the myths and misconceptions about autism disorders and at the same time gently, but candidly, describes some of the realities of this disorder, realities which unfortunately are all too often ignored, or disputed, by some anti-autism cure ideologues:

"Autism comes by degrees. People with the milder form, Asperger’s syndrome, display communication difficulties and “obsessional” interests. In severe cases, however, it can be as if your child is locked in a glass bubble, staring vacantly past you as you desperately try to make eye-contact. The thought of never being able to fully communicate with your child, or to know what is going on inside his or her mind, can be heartbreaking."

This statement may seem straightforward and obvious to many. It certainly is to me as the father of a severely autistic boy on the threshold of his teen years. Yet there are many in the internet autism "community" who take offense at any attempt to distinguish between levels or degrees of autism severity. Professor Baron-Cohen's acknowledgment of this reality will be hard from them to dismiss. So too will his description of some autistic children as existing as though they were locked in glass bubbles with vacant stares. Such comments from other sources might elicit internet petitions protesting the "harsh-upsetting" language used to describe some children with autism. Professor Baron-Cohen is unlikely to receive the same treatment for his honesty.

The article contains other comments which should also be uncontroversial but which still generate considerable debate. Professor Baron-Cohen addresses misconceptions about autism such as those that blame autism on the MMR vaccine or bad parenting or those that attribute autism entirely to genetic causes:

Studies of twins have established that it is not 100 per cent genetic, since even among identical twins, when one has autism, the likelihood of both twins having autism is only about 60 per cent. This means there must also be an environmental component, but what it is remains unknown.

Professor Baron-Cohen clearly distinguishes between Autism and Aspergers and states that persons with autism may also have below average IQ, language difficulties and social avoidance on a much different level than those with Aspergers. This article reviews some of the recent research which has advanced our understanding of the neurological bases of autism disorders.

Professor Baron-Cohen also refers to a helpful autism educational approach being practiced at TreeHouse school which he describes but does not mention by name:

Schools such as TreeHouse in North London are excellent examples of what can be provided: small class sizes, at times even one-to-one teacher-child ratios, where teaching is aimed at building simple skills and rewarding the child for every small step they make. Specialist teachers shape such skills into more complex ones, giving the child the experience of success and thus self-confidence. Such schools have to be highly organised because such children have problems in coping with unexpected change.

The educational approach described by Professor Baron-Cohen sounds suspiciously like ABA
and a visit to the TreeHouse web site confirms that suspicion on the ABA and Teaching at Treehouse page:

ABA and Teaching at TreeHouse

ABA is the comprehensive application of scientific principles, such as reinforcement, to developing skills and promoting positive behaviour and learning. Specific teaching strategies, programmes and other interventions are individually tailored and adapted. The principals of ABA underpin the teaching and learning of pupils at TreeHouse school. The responses and progress of the pupils are very carefully defined and monitored through appropriate data collection methods. .......

It says much about the intensity of the anti-ABA ideological movement, led by Laurent Mottron and Michelle Dawson in Canada, that a distinguished Professor who has spent much of his adult career actually working with autistic children would feel the need to cloak his helpful advice concerning the effectiveness of ABA in educating autistic children. Nonetheless, with this article Professor Baron-Cohen has helped address many of the distortions and misconceptions that plague discussion of autism.

A large helping of autism reality from such a credible source makes for a fine holiday season gift for autistic children, adults, their families and caregivers.

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