Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Toxic Myths About Autism

The most common response I get when I talk about Autism is -- "You aren't really Autistic. Or at least not very much.  You can (speak coherently/empathize/more or less put on your own clothes/or insert whatever the speaker thinks Autistic people can't do)."  It is often followed by the suggestion that my pride in my neurological difference is somehow insensitive to the parents of people who are "really Autistic."   The fact that I can pass in some situations as neurotypical doesn't diminish the reality of my Autism and the gifts and struggles it brings me.  Neurotypicality exists at the level of performance.  Autism is a fundamental set of factors shaping my experience of the world.

But the most common discourse I encounter about Autism in spaces where my neurological difference is invisible is built around the idea that Autism is an epidemic caused by vaccinations or aluminum cookware or GMO's or whatever toxic bogeyman is in vogue at the moment.  Now to be clear, there are real issues involved with the safety of some vaccines, aluminum cookware is not good for anyone, and I am highly skeptical about the safety of GMO's especially when developed in a capitalist context.  But the idea that my neurology is a pathology caused by toxicity is highly offensive.

I spoke to the issue of the pathologization of Autism in my last blog post on Autism as neurological Queerness.   And there are actually some strong parallels between discourses around endocrine disruption and sex and gender and around neurotoxins and Autism.

Popular discourse around endocrine disruption tends to focus on the idea that xeno-estrogens are feminizing male bodies.  Its telling that such discourses often refer to xeno-estrogens as "gender bending" compounds -- language that conflates gender (a socially constructed category based on performance) with sex (a socially constructed category based on perceived biological difference, similar to race in its origin and its problematic claim to scientific reality), and defines expressions, experiences, and bodies that fall outside the accepted male/female binary as "bent" and aberrant.  The anxiety about feminizing male bodies reflects both a misogynist bias and an implied pathologization of Trans* bodies.   This is not to say that endocrine disrupting compounds are not a huge public health problem  -- but rather that framing the problem in terms of the bending of gender further marginalizes people who fall outside the bounds of culturally sanctioned gender expression while deflecting focus from the real problem of the non-consensual altering of our endocrine makeup by corporate polluters.

Popular discourse around Autism and neurotoxicity puts forward stories of parents who either experienced their children "becoming" Autistic after a toxic exposure or witnessed a decline in symptoms and behaviours they saw as undesirable after detoxifying their children's bodies in some way.  (Ever notice that people only talk about Autistic CHILDREN and Autistic adults are generally invisible in the culture?  But that's a rant for another day.)   These stories frame Autism as a disorder, Autistic traits as something to be reduced or eliminated, and parents as victims and protagonists in the drama of Autistic peoples' lives.

There is a possible grain of truth to the relationship between toxicity and physical health problems in some Autistic people.  Many of us do seem to have slower detoxification pathways than the general population -- and especially reduced methylation.   I theorize that in an ancestral context this may have served to help us process phytochemicals from the environment over a longer period of time, rendering us more sensitive to some forms of communication from the living world.  But in a contemporary context it does render us vulnerable.   If I can't methylate mercury and other neurotoxins as rapidly as most people it is conceivable that I would experience symptoms of mercury toxicity from lower levels of exposure than than other people -- such as the levels I experienced breathing in the air in an area with three incinerators, or maybe, maybe, maybe the levels contained in now sidelined vaccine adjuvants, especially if that mercury was added to a high load from ambient sources.   But that does not mean my Autism was caused by neurotoxins or can be "treated" by their removal.

But you know what else causes an increase in inflammatory diseases and neuro-endocrine dysregulations?  Trauma.  And that is something we Autistic people experience plenty of:  bullying by peers as children, feelings of alienation, harrowing experiences with the medical world to name a few experiences most Autistic people I know share.    And when our experience is pathologized, we experience deeper alienation.

So instead of "searching for the cure" to Autism lets search for the cure to environmental and emotional toxicity:  remaking the society that has become the coal mine where we Autistic people are the canaries who are punished for showing the mine owners that we can't breathe the air.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Autism: Neurological Queerness

William Blake famously spoke of the doors of perception which, if cleansed, opened into infinity.  For me, those doors of perception, my sensory gating channels, have always been wide open -- though I am often a bit far sighted, seeing the laticework underlying the structure of this world while missing parts of the human exchange going on around me. And I sometimes get overwhelmed.

It changed my life to find out that this experience is called Autism.

While Autism is classified as a disorder, it is actually a set of neurological variations that allow for a profoundly different experience of the universe.  Autistic people have always existed and we serve a fundamental ecological role in a healthy community, mediating between worlds.  Some of my Autistic predecessors were the people who lived at the edge of the village, maintaining connection between the human, the wild, and the divine.  My herbalism and my magic are in many ways an inheritance from these ancestors of the Craft.

The variation in human neurology is as profound as the variation in human sexuality and impacts our experience just as deeply.   As with sexuality and with gender, monotheistic religions and their capitalist descendants (the relationship between monotheism and capitalism is one brilliantly pointed out by Rhyd Wildermuth) decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variatiom from the norm.

The way in which hierarchies are created within Autism diagnoses designating some of us "high functioning" and some of us "low functioning" points to the role of capitalism in establishing and enforcing compulsory neurotypicality.  Functionality is defined largely in terms of ability to play economic functions.  "High functioning" Autistics are those of us who were and are verbally precocious and able to give name and voice to complex layers of reality.  To the extent that our creative perception can be harnessed for lucrative purposes, we are tolerated as eccentrics.  More so if we learn to mimic neurotypical traits, putting on a convincing performance of social fluency.  That performance has its cost, however, in the form of stress-induced illnesses like the hypertension I struggle with.    Those whose expression does not include language are deemed "low functioning" and their silence is presumed to reflect a deficiency in mental processing.  But I can tell you that I have those silent places in me too, and sometimes using words at all feels like a betrayal, and I recognize those places when I see them.

For me, Autism is a neurological Queerness, a way of being in the world rendered transgressive by a culture intent on total control and infinite growth.

But we cannot be controled, and our power grows at the edges.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Rethinking My Thoughts on Fukushima and Radiation

In the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, with an abundance of good intentions, but not quite enough discernment, I put out into the world some initial thoughts on how North Americans could protect ourselves from any radiation exposure from the accident.

As a teacher, a practitioner, and a person, I feel like its important to admit my mistakes.   After a great deal of reading and research, and conversations with my friends and colleagues (especially Ryan Drum and Yarrow Willard,)  I no longer believe that seaborne radioactive contamination poses a significant threat to people on the west coast of North America.   For a good explanation of the issue see http://deepseanews.com/2013/11/true-facts-about-ocean-radiation-and-the-fukushima-disaster/

Absolutely, the accident at Fukushima has had devastating effects in Japan.

And, yes, we could do with better monitoring of radiation levels in fish caught of the US and Canadian coasts that migrate to Japanese waters.   Frankly, we could need better monitoring of contamination in fish and shellfish generally.

And it is likely that everyone in the world was exposed to some airborne radioactive contamination in the days following the accident that may contribute to cancers down the road in those made more vulnerable by elevated systemic inflammation, poor detoxification, or immune dysregulation -- the same people who are already most vulnerable to cancer from the myriad physical and emotional toxins in our world today.    The best way to deal with these risks is to do all the things we do to mitigate other cancer risks:
  • Eat a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids (from foods from animals that eat their natural diets) and low in Omega-6 fatty acids (from grains, nuts, seeds, and the creatures that eat them.)
  • Eat an abundance and a wide variety of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Support the liver with herbs like Milk Thistle, Reishi, and Schizandra (unless contraindicated due to effects on liver clearance of medications).
  • Support lymphatic movement through exercise, bodywork, and herbs like Cleavers and Red Clover.
  • Take a variety of immune modulating mushrooms.
  • Work to reduce stress and get support in healing trauma.

But the idea that people in North America are at risk from Fukushima radiation seems ill founded to me.  And I am disturbed by the proliferation of alarmist articles by unscrupulous websites like Natural News (which also peddle articles denying the reality of global warming, claiming that the Boston Marathon bombing was a government conspiracy, and asserting a variety of bizarre and insulting theories about autism.)    These articles are always claiming to present the truth that the ubiquitous "they" don't want you to read.   But let's turn the tables on Natural News and their ilk:  what are the stories the conspiracy theorists aren't telling you?

  • We are living in a world awash in ionizing radiation right now -- from routine tritium releases from nuclear power plants to the legacy of nuclear testing to the radioactive pollution from nuclear medicine.  The greatest radioactive threats we face come from close to home, and are in our power to address through political organizing.
  • The people suffering most from radiation related health risks in North America are never talked about in places like Natural News:  (mostly Indigenous) people who have lived near or worked at uranium mines, (mostly poor) people who live near nuclear waste repositories, workers in the nuclear industry and in nuclear medicine, people living downwind and downstream from places where nuclear weapons have been manufactured or tested.
  • We are seeing massive die-offs of sea life not because of radiation, but because of global warming.
Unlike the stories about Fukushima poisoning the Pacific, these are all well documented realities.   And the panic generated by sensationalist stories about Fukushima is making people too focused on their own safety to pay attention to these slow but devastating effects of the nuclear age. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Midsummer's Dying Light

The petals are falling off the Blackberry blossoms as the fruits begin to form.

Just as Yule marks the return of the light, Midsummer marks the return of the darkness, which will come first in the sweet flesh of summer fruit and then in the dryness of seed.

Its in this liminal time that I seek intimacy with dying things.

My friend Kathleen Maier speaks about how our culture doesn't teach us how to give death to things.  So we carry our grief with us and it gets heavy and weighs us down.  Something I know all too well as a watery person who has spent most of my life burying emotion deep and holding it tightly -- even when the phlegm of grief clogged my lungs, and my liver grew hot and congested from the anger I refused to feel, and the tension of trying to hold it all in made my blood pressure rise.

Kathleen says that she makes time to grieve each year at the Autumn Equinox, releasing sadness and pain, giving death to that which has been lost, so that she will not need to carry it into winter's darkness.

In the space that is opened, new seeds can be planted, waiting to be wakened by sun and rain in springtime.  (Which, here on Vancouver Island, begins at Imbolc.)

For me, though, this year, Midsummer is the time to begin letting go of what I no longer want or need to give my life-force to, so I can reclaim it for the work I choose and the pleasure I desire in this world.

There is still enough light that I will not be overwhelmed by darkness -- remembering how pneumonia struck me last year at Samhain and at Yule when I waited until the nights were long and dark to begin turning inward.   But the dying of the year has already begun, so I will not be swimming against the tide.

In the cool, dark of the woods, Ghost Pipe is beginning to emerge, opening the way to the world beneath the forest floor.

But at the edge of the field, the last wild Roses still bloom, calling me back home with their sweetness when I begin to dive too deep.

The same gate opens in both directions.

What will you give death to here in Midsummer's dying light, that it might return to the earth before its time for seeds to fall to the ground?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Quick Notes on Herbs for Grief and Fear

This winter, when a student of mine died in a fire, I put together these notes for my class.

I offer them now, rough and quick as they are, for all in Boston who are feeling grief and fear in the wake of today's explosions.

Please remember that plants are allies in healing but are not substitutes for psychotherapy or for ceremony in the process of healing the mind and heart -- as you move through deeper dimensions of pain and trauma you will need skilled support.

Be careful and conscious in the way you manage the influx of media information.   It is good to be well informed, and having accurate information is important to establish a sense of safety.  But also be aware that repeated exposure to the same traumatic stories and images has a cumulative effect.

Above all be kind and gentle to each other and yourselves.

And also remember the deep healing to be had just by being present to the beauty of the living world, human and wild.


As I am writing this, Cedar and Douglas Fir are drying in the kitchen for incense, their scents filling the apartment, and there is ocean water on the table in front of me to take in some of the grief moving through.  


Bleeding Heart -- Dicentra formosa when given during a time of acute crisis will help to calm shakiness and fear.  I give 2-5 drops of the tincture generally.   Once the body has settled out of immediate shock and panic, the medicine works differently -- helping to bring the tears you have been holding back flowing to the surface.  A beautiful gift, but one to be received when you are in a place where its safe and right to let the tears flow.

Pasque Flower --Anemone pulsatilla, Anemone patens, Anemone tuberosa, etc. will help someone when intense grief or terror come on suddenly, as if brought in by an ill wind.  Think of the downy hairs on the flowers and leaves as a signature for being that kind of soft, warm blanket.   Contraindicated when there is a strong, forceful pulse or a lot of redness is the face.   2-5 drops.

Ghost Pipe -- Monotropa uniflora -- When pain, physical or emotional, is so intense as to overwhelm a person completely, Ghost Pipe helps to regulate sensory gating so that the pain is processed differently - the person will still be aware of the pain, but will feel, as one of my clients said, "as if everything I was worried about was taken outside of me and put in front of me where I could see it and work with it."   I initially give 3 drops, but some people less sensitive to the medicine will require 30.

Skullcap, as a smoke, a tea, or a tincture can be administered liberally to help bring calm in an intense situation.

Wood Betony (Stachys betonica) helps to anchor a person in the physical body after a traumatic event.


In Chinese medicine, a person's emotional self is connected with a spirit called Shen, and the heart is sometimes envisioned as a clay vessel that stores the Shen.  When the vessel is shaken, the Shen becomes scattered and disturbed -- which is marked by insomnia, restlessness, irritability, emotional upheaval, and decreased attention span.

Schizandra and Reishi are both used traditionally to settle and nourish the Shen, and I find they combine together wonderfully to support the emotional heart through difficult times.  Both also support the liver, aiding with the processing of difficult emotions.    Both are also adaptogens, helping the body to regulate its response to continual stress.  I will give both liberally, though some caution is advisable when giving Schizandra to people who are on dose dependent medications that are processed through the liver.

Hawthorn helps to nourish, cool, and repair the heart and blood vessels.  Its berries feed the heart, its leaf and flower bring lightness and relaxation to the cardiovascular system, and its thorns provide protection.   I tend to use the berries and flowers together in equal proportions in a tincture or an infusion which I will give liberally -- and if I am harvesting the medicine myself I will add a few thorns.  Thorns can also be carried as talismans for protection.   The flowers make a beautiful bath.    Use caution with internal use with anyone on beta blockers, as Hawthorn may potentiate them. 

Motherwort calms and protects the heart, especially when there is anxiety driven by unsettled emotion.   It combines really beautifully with Passionflower when emotional anxiety is driving circular thinking and creating insomnia.


Aromatic plants help to move emotions and energies -- hence their use as smudges and ceremonial incense around the world.

Our own Western Red Cedar has been one of my closest allies in moving through grief this past week.  Walking in the forest, I feel its boughs bending to brush away my sadness.  I have been burning Cedar as a smudge as well.   Other evergreens bring similar medicine.

Monarda spp. are used in the Muskogee Creek tradition to clear the ways in which death hangs over and clings onto the living.   I have been taking baths with Monarda this week.

Sweet smelling aromatic plants like Sweetgrass and Cottonwood and Rose help to remind the heart and the spirit of the sweetness and beauty of the world after intense tragedy.   They can also open the heart to bring tears and pain to the surface so they can move out.   But it is important to have a space of emotional safety and support when working with them in these ways.


The bark of the Mimosa tree -- Albizia julibrisin - known as "collective happiness bark" in China -- helps to restore the ability to feel joy after the heart has been broken.  30-60 drops/day

Gentle joy tonics include Linen blossoms -- Tilia spp.,  Lavender, and Lemonbalm.   They bring a soft lifting of worry and a subtle return of brightness to the heart.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Black Magic

"Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right." -- Ani DiFranco

Any discussion about magic ("the art and science of creating change in conformity with Will," as Crowley defined it)  is a discussion about power and the ways we wield it -- a discussion that cannot be separated from the social, political, cultural, and economic realities people inhabit.

The popular conception of "white magic," guided by the ethic "do what tho wilt, an' it harm none" feeds and is fed by the illusions of privilege that obscure the fact that that the lives we live are lived at others' expense.   In a society where the messier aspects of securing survival are shunted off to armed forces that do their work out of sight and far away, rougher edged magics are not as relevant in the lives of those who have social and economic capital as they are to those who live at the edges and in the shadows.    But magic has long been a means by which people have done what they need to do feed and heal and clothe and house and protect themselves and their communities.    The magic that has historically been the magic of the poor and the oppressed is labeled "black magic" by those who do not need it to survive and would rather not face the realities it entails.

Victor Anderson famously said "White magic is poetry, black magic is whatever works."

White magic is reverent and celebratory.  It is the right hand magic that gives thanks for the blessing and abundance that rain down from the universe.

Black magic is done with urgency, when children are starving and need food,  when someone is coming to harm your family, when someone is halfway through death's door and a witch needs to tear through the veil to pull her back into this world.     It is the left handed magic that takes what is needed and does not apologize for that need.

But ultimately, there is no white magic or black magic, there is only magic, wild and transgressive and resisting description.   To heal and to hex, to bless and to curse, are not just  identical powers that flow from the same source, they are the same action seen from different points of view.

Magic is neutral.  Its application is not.   Its our right and responsibility to wield it with precision and intention, knowing and choosing the blessings and the curses we enact as we do.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

7 Problems With the "Obesity Epidemic"

Here are 7 reasons why I cringe every time I hear someone talking about "the obesity epidemic"

1. "Obesity" is not contagious.

Consciously or unconsciously, when most of us hear the word epidemic we think of a virus rapidly spreading through a population.   And consciously or unconsciously we tend to think of its "carriers" as a threat.   Speaking of "obesity" as an epidemic thus further stigmatizes fat people who are already having to deal with discrimination in a society that privileges thinness

2. "Obesity" is not a disease.

The idea that high body weight or high percentages of body fat correlate to poor health are based on just that -- correlation.    Most studies that suggest a link between a high BMI or high body fat percentage fail to account for confounding factors such as behavioural patterns around diet, exercise, and yo-yo dieting.   When those factors are taken into account, differences in mortality between "overweight" or "obese" people and people whose body weights or health percentages are considered "healthy" begin to disappear.   People at the extreme high end of the spectrum for BMI or body fat do have higher mortality rates -- but the same is true for people at the extreme low end of either spectrum.    A disease is a physiological disorder that causes impairments in biological function.  Hence obesity is not a disease. 

3. BMI, the primary measurement of "obesity" is a virtually meaningless indicator.

The much vaunted "Body Mass Index,"  used to "measure" obesity by many physicians, and increasingly, educators and public health workers, is a crude ratio of weight to height that does nothing to take into account even obvious factors like bone density and muscle mass, not to mention the wide diversity of body types that exist around the world.   Its definitions of "overweight" and "underweight" are also pegged to already dubious assumptions about the "proper" weight of people of European descent that are even less applicable to people of non-European ancestry.

4. Public education campaigns about "obesity" tend to focus on giving people information about better food choices, while glossing over the real problem of malnutrition in North America rooted in a broken food system that denies many people access to good food.

 There is a real public health crisis in North America related to food -- malnutrition, which can express itself in weight gain, in weight loss, and in chronic disease.   At issue is the accessibility of food that provides people with their nutritional needs.   The nutrient poor "Standard American Diet" is the result not of poor education about nutrition, but of the fact that a carbohydrate and sugar rich diet is the most affordable diet for many people  a) because of agricultural subsidies for corn, wheat, and sugar and b) because carbohydrates and sugars are sources of quick energy that can more easily satisfy cravings when people haven't had enough to eat.   The problem isn't that people don't know that Kale is healthier than Kraft Dinner.   The problem is that people are trying to feed their families on wages too low to pay the escalating costs of food, housing, transportation, clothing, and medical care.    As a brilliant post at the Fat Nutritionist blog points out:

"You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food. "

5. The pathologization of fatness tends to lead health care practitioners to pay less attention to other causes of health problems in fat people.

Over the years I have had many doctors simply chalk chronic health problems I was dealing with up to weight while ignoring other factors.   The expectation that fat people will be less healthy tends to lead many healthcare practitioners to accept a lower quality of life as normal for fat people.   As I have dealt with many of my own chronic health issues, addressing them through diet and exercise, I have lost weight.   But some problems doctors previously chalked up to weight have remained.   And the underlying problem was not that I was fat, the underlying problem was that shaming about my body had made me believe my health was hopeless.   If instead of just telling me I was too fat my doctors had encouraged me to see how I could make changes in my life that would make me feel better regardless of my weight, I probably would have started making those changes at least 10 years earlier than I did.    And I also would have sought guidance from health care practitioners earlier and more often I had expected something other than shaming.

6.  Defining weight or body fat as the problem tends to encourage people to take drastic measures to lose weight rather than focusing on health.

There are lots of ways to lose weight -- and most of them are taxing on the body and difficult to sustain.   Pressuring people to lose weight makes them more likely to focus on whatever will bring off the pounds rather than on finding sustainable practices to integrate into their lives that can make them healthier in the long run.

7.  The campaign against "obesity" is rooted in a puritanical ethic.

Anti-obesity campaigns judge, criticize, and shame people not only based on their body size, but also based on the often erroneous assumption that fat people lack discipline and just need to say "no" to immediate gratification in order to lose weight.   The underlying ideology is one of denying pleasure in order to achieve virtue -- a repressive ideology that cuts people off further from their bodies.  And its in truly learning to find comfort and pleasure in their own bodies that people can best find their way to health.

There are dozens of other reasons I could give, but these are just a few thoughts to further questioning and discussion  . .