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.

3 comments:

Lauren Stauber said...

Wow, Sean. Very thought provoking piece of writing. I continue to appreciate your sharp, subtle mind in all its queer glory, and the way you grapple with the heart of things. Tons of respect for how you reflect upon and dissect the assumptions of the masses. Humbled to have studied with you. Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks... <3
Lauren

Trish McCaul said...

Thank you.

jodi said...

This makes so much sense right now, thank you.