Book Review: Challenging The Myths Of Autism by Jonathan Alderson

Filed Under (Book Reviews, Critical Disability Studies) by Estee on 07-12-2011

Review: Challenging The Myths of Autism: Unlock New Possibilities and Hope
Written by: Jonathan Adlerson
HarperCollins Publishing, 2011.
257 pages

I was more than intrigued by the title of Jonathan Alderson’s new book: Challenging the Myths of Autism: Unlock New Possibilities and Hope. In the last ten years, there have been a lot of autism books and memoirs released. My favorites have been ones written by autistic people. There are other favorites, Uta Frith, for example, Darold Treffert, who talk about autistic ability and autistic individuals in history. More recently books challenging theories about autism are receiving critical acclaim. Challenging ideas about autism indicates a massive change in the way we think about mental health and neurological difference. For my autistic son, the change doesn’t come fast enough, which is why we need more authors like Alderson.

Theories and anecdotal stories about people with disabilities, by the people who love them, have resulted in a move towards studying the value of cognitive difference. In the news recently, FRMI’s show that some people in a “vegetative state” have the same brain activity as typically functioning people when asked the same questions.  The science validates those parents who have believed for years (and criticized for those beliefs) that their children understood what was going on around them. Now fact rather than myth, the way we have treated these people has become society’s ethical question. The spotlight is turning on us.

By stating that there are autism myths, Alderson suggests that other facts exist – relative or absolute. There is not a lot of science in autism. Most of the science that exists is directed towards causation and treatment. New research is now pointing to autistic ability, not simply to cite the value to autistic people to our society, but also to derive a better education that is geared towards autistic intelligence, which society has a difficult time seeing beyond what appears to be severe disability and functioning. While Alderson is a clinician-first, and his observations are largely anecdotal, he cites this science and other examples. Mounting so many of these examples, which are supported by parents and autistic people, his points about autistic humanity and value become impossible to ignore. The autism myths Alderson challenges are those about affection (or the supposed lack thereof), rituals, socialization, scientific “evidence,” I.Q., the five-year-window, and imagination in people with autism.

Parents and autistic individuals experience lack of services and quality education because of misunderstanding and a perpetuation of myths which have misguided the treatment, therapy, and education of autistic people. Most of us are much too familiar with our daily lives punctuated by therapists and teachers only citing the deficits in order to “normalize” instead of teaching to autistic strengths. Autistic contributions and strengths, to date, have not been heralded enough because the disability can be very challenging. Many cannot see beyond it.

Alderson completed his Masters of Education at Harvard University and originally trained with the Son Rise Program in Massachusetts, although he is not promoting the Son Rise program or any other program in this book. In fact, he points towards a more well-rounded educational plan that accommodates the autistic person.

He dedicated twenty years and practice to working with hundreds of families. “The more children I met, the more diversity I saw,” he says in his book. “I think we sometimes forget that we are talking about real people, a population with a very wide range of strengths and challenges and personalities. How we talk about people with autism and how we characterize them impacts how we treat them.”

These beliefs, he states, like the myth that autistic children can’t share affection, led therapists to use holding therapies “where children are held tightly, often against their will, for hours at a time…. “Or the belief that the majority of autistic children are mentally retarded led to thousands being placed in mental institutions and pushed aside in special education classrooms.” The myths, he argues, “influence research, policy, treatment and our personal relations with people with autism, and they need to be challenged.” “Actively look for intelligence in the autistic population by removing barriers. Focus your mind and your eyes on ability,” he writes.

Maybe change is hard, and the reward too small for our educators, but I don’t think it’s a point we should give up on. My son Adam was diagnosed with autism at 18 months of age. I wish that books like these could have existed ten years ago. It would have been a much more empowering foray into the world of autism. I was one of those parents who began blogging in 2005 because from the get-go, I had difficulty related to what the “experts” were telling me regarding my son’s “lack,” which Alderson addresses in his book. They did not address the joy I felt when I was with him, or the happiness and tenderness he also exuded.

Parents need to hear what their children are capable of because there is far too much time and effort being poured into being told how deficient our children are. Millions of dollars get wasted into changing our children’s inherent nature instead of nurturing what is already there. All this money, and we ironically also have few places where our children can get an education. When children don’t become “normal,” parents can get depressed and therapists and teachers give up. Alderson quotes Carly, an autistic girl living in Toronto, who can’t speak but who types independently. Carly told a television audience, “Never give up on the children [you] work with.”

Alderson challenges the myths. Now we all need to work on redefining autism, and how an autistic person can be taught over the lifespan. I believe strongly that learning is a life-long endeavour. Our beliefs even about education ending at age eighteen or after university had more to do with getting people into the workforce in a era long past. With autistic people as well as all of society today, we are constantly learning and working at the same time. We need more talk about how to redefine the present and future for autistic people to contribute to society as they are. Also, we are just beginning to acknowledge the contributions made to society by the severely disabled, dyslexic and other disability communities. I believe the same can happen with our autistic one.

This book is an empowering tool for parents, teachers and clinicians. It is readable and accessible and may open a door that educators and others may open to provide better and more opportunities for people with autism. Hopefully we will continue our quest to understand the many attributes of autism rather than making a judgment that a difference in processing is a wrong way to be human. As myths are challenged and facts are sought through science, we don’t have to wait in order to treat people fairly.

Challenging ideas — myths  — is one of the most important endeavours of mankind. May we continue the dialogue for the advancement and successful living of all autistic individuals.

The story of Hercules (Heracles) grappling with the giant, is a case in point. Every time Hercules hurled Antaeus to the ground, he became stronger. Clearly this is what we might politely call a tall story. But maybe there is scientific logic behind it. What if Antaeus had some sort of magnet (if you don’t like the idea of a magnet, you can invent your own scenario) that made him stronger each time he hit the earth and weaker when held away from his power source? Hercules defeated another giant, Alcyoneus, only by pulling him far from his origin. The magnetic force of the earth was overcome in these examples by pulling far enough in any direction.

(N.S. Gill, Myth vs. Science, About.com)

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.