By Benison Anne O’Reilly, co-author of The Complete (formerly Australian) Autism Handbook
Is autism curable? Is that even a question we can ask?
Parents are often devastated when their child is first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They begin to rethink the hopes and dreams they had for their child and a new reality sets in. At this time, it can be very easy to lose faith. Struggling with grief and anxiety, many parents will turn to the internet in search of a miracle cure.
With the growing issue of ‘fake news’ and misinformation, it’s all too easy to find people and organisations who will claim that they can ‘cure’ autism. They will talk of special diets that eliminate gluten and dairy, of supplements, injections and probiotics. They will offer anecdotes of children being ‘cured’ of all their symptoms. What they will not be able to provide is good quality scientific evidence to support their claims. When these alternative treatments have been subject to scientific scrutiny in the form of clinical trials, they’ve never yet lived up to their promises.
Simply put, ASD is a disorder of brain function, not a disease. If autism was easily cured with diets and supplements, then there’d be no need for the plethora of therapists, clinics
and special services that are available today.
So, what is next?
While research is ongoing into new treatments for ASD, such as medications and gene
therapies, these largely remain experimental. Right now, the best we can offer children diagnosed with ASD is timely, evidence-based early intervention. Through early
For a small percentage of children — around 10-20% — this transformation will be so
dramatic that they will seem ‘cured’. In the short-term, this will mean they are able to attend mainstream school without support, able to hold their own academically, able to
have friends. Longer-term, they may no longer fulfil the criteria for autism on validated assessments such as the ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule), in essence losing their diagnosis.
When researchers looked at what factors these people tend to have in common, most had milder symptoms at diagnosis and received intensive behavioural intervention as a young child.
While all parents start out hoping their child will be one of the 10-20%, the reality is that most people diagnosed with ASD as a child won’t go on to ‘lose’ their diagnosis. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have the opportunity to go on and lead fulfilling lives. Many people on the spectrum go on to study, work, have hobbies and interests, and partners. The aim of early intervention is to equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to be as independent as possible.
Which brings us to the second question: Should we even want to cure autism?
In recent years, the ‘neurodiversity’ movement has emerged as a powerful political force.
Advocates — usually autistic adults themselves — argue that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are simply the result of natural human variation; that autism should be viewed as a difference, not a disability. They consider it offensive that anyone would want to cure them of a way of thinking that’s intrinsic to them.
Unfortunately, they often find themselves at odds with parents of children with severe ASD
who would do anything to relieve their child’ genuine struggles.
Is there a middle ground? Leading autism researcher, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
explained it this way:
…to talk about a ‘cure for autism’ is a sledge-hammer approach and the fear would
be that in the process of alleviating the areas of difficulty, the qualities that are special…would be lost. Autism is both a disability and a difference. We need to find ways of alleviating the disability while respecting and valuing the difference.
Here at Rockmelon, that’s our aim. To give parents the tools, resources and support, so that in turn, they can help support their child on the autism spectrum be the best version of themselves.
Start Your FREE Trial Today!
The Parent Edition is available for download from the Australian and New Zealand Apple App Stores now.