Darwin is the origin of new thesis on Asperger's

 

MEDICAL MATTERS:In light of the fact that Asperger’s may have helped Darwin evolve his ideas, such conditions should not be seen as all bad, writes MUIRIS HOUSTON

FURTHER TO my recent column on stammering and its link to Charles Darwin and others, comes a suggestion that the father of evolution owed his extraordinary creativity to Asperger’s syndrome.

In a presentation to the Royal College of Psychiatrists last week, Prof Michael Fitzgerald, professor of child psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, said he believed Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, could be responsible for Darwin’s great creativity.

“Asperger’s syndrome gave Darwin the capacity to hyperfocus, the extra capacity for persistence, the enormous ability to see detail that other people missed, the endless energy for a lifetime dedication to a narrow task, and the independence of mind so critical to original research,” Fitzgerald told the meeting in Cardiff.

Creativity is extremely complex but much valued, and it is good to see it linked in a positive way to autism, a condition that has attracted so much controversy in recent years.

That controversy is the subject of a new book: Defining Autism – a damaging delusion by Mike Fitzpatrick (Routledge 2009), an East London GP and father of a boy with autism. His central thesis is that the crusade to “defeat autism” promotes an unhelpful attitude towards children with the condition.

“Parents who share the unorthodox biomedical outlook project a negative view of autism, as a destructive disease process which is sometimes described as ‘worse than cancer’.”

And he says that some parents implicitly dehumanise people with autism by describing “their own predicament in terms of grief and loss and as one of unremitting battle against the corrosive impact of autism on their child, their marital relationship and their wider family”.

Many readers will remember the furore surrounding the unproven linkage of autism with the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine given to young children. Dr Andrew Wakefield and others published a paper in the Lancet in February 1998 claiming MMR caused bowel inflammation that facilitated the leak of toxins into the bloodstream, which in turn allegedly damaged the child’s developing brain.

The uptake of the MMR vaccine plummeted as parents wavered in response to the alleged MMR-autism link. This led to localised outbreaks of measles as the level of immunisation fell below that needed to guarantee community protection against the disease.

Apart from considerable morbidity from the complications of measles, a 13 year old died from measles in Britain in 2006.

Even though the MMR controversy has subsided, groups of parents remain angry and continue to look for an external cause for what they see is an autism epidemic.

Mercury remains in the spotlight; there has been a growth in treatments aimed at removing mercury from the body. And the notion that toxins in the form of junk food and electronic entertainment are “poisoning” today’s children and causing autism has grown in popularity.

This, in turn, has led to the blossoming of biomedical treatments for autism, provided by both conventional and alternative practitioners.

Fitzpatrick questions this unorthodox approach, saying that most treatments are untested. Biomedical interventions include special diets, supplements (vitamins and minerals), immune system treatments and regular medication including antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal drugs.

The most popular is a gluten-free, casein-free diet, based on the exclusion of dairy products. Despite anecdotal claims of success there is no scientific proof that diets improve the symptoms of autism.

Another characteristic of biomedical treatments is the amount of tablets and capsules children are expected to swallow. One protocol even says, “tip the child’s head face down and the capsule will float to the back of the throat to swallow”: advice that is likely to cause choking.

In fairness to Fitzpatrick he does not resort to ridicule. He has clearly studied the “scientific” arguments of biomedical practitioners and offers a constructive criticism of the data they put forward. But he argues strongly that an unrelenting quest to “cure” or “defeat” autism means there is less time for families to develop relationships with the autistic child. “Our starting point is not the quest for recovery, but, accepting that our son is autistic, we try to do the best we can to strengthen his engagement with the world,” Fitzpatrick concludes.

Dr Houston is pleased to hear from readers at mhouston@irishtimes.com but regrets he is unable to reply to individual medical queries