Janet Lintala on the Changing Language and Understanding of Autism


The following is a guest post by Janet Lintala, author of The Un-Prescription for Autism: A Natural Approach for a Calmer, Happier, and More Focused Child (AMACOM April 2016).




I’ve been an autism mother for over twenty years, and a lot of things have changed since my son was born in the mid-nineties.

Resources were sparse

Let me take you back in time.  In the late nineties and early 2000’s, the Internet was still young and clunky.  We had a dial-up connection and the pages loaded v-e-r-y slowly.  My husband and I searched endlessly, often far into the night, looking for answers to help our child.  There weren’t many websites or blogs about autism, and as far as being able to network with other parents, even My Space hadn’t been invented yet.  Our support groups met in person, and it was difficult to arrange activities for the children during the meeting, or to get a babysitter for those at home.

There wasn’t an autism shelf at the bookstore like there is now, conferences were rare, and finding a physician that understood the medical and sensory issues of the spectrum was a challenge.

Screening and diagnosis is better now                                                            

When our son was young, just discovering that he had autism took years.  Hardly anyone had heard of autism or knew anyone with it. Evan was always highly verbal, had a wild imagination, didn’t rock or flap, and frankly, autism wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind.  Friends, relatives, strangers and health professionals suggested our son was an impulsive and willful child, or had Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).  Some even called him a name that started with an “a” (hint:  it wasn’t “autism” or “Asperger”), and generally blamed it all on terrible parenting skills.   We hadn’t heard of sensory processing disorder, and his meltdowns were so colossal that in our ignorance, we wondered if he were mentally ill.

Screening programs and diagnostic criteria have since expanded, and fewer children are placed in incorrect mental health categories.  Resources, blogs, therapists and doctors are much more plentiful.  Pediatricians are actually screening for ASD now, and it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of it.

Dawning understanding of comorbid medical conditions

Up through the 1980s, treatment efforts focused on behavior therapy, nutrition and diet.  In the 1990s, the hunt was on for the “autism gene”, to no avail.

Research continued and during the nineties, autism support began to include medical and sensory interventions.  The irritability, poor sleep patterns, and disturbing gastrointestinal symptoms we saw in our son all make so much more sense today.   We now know that many on the spectrum may be challenged by:

  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Gastrointestinal dysfunction
  • Acid reflux, constipation and diarrhea
  • Immune dysfunction
  • More frequent colds and allergies
  • Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress
  • Brain inflammation
  • Autoimmune attack on various brain tissues
  • Impaired methylation chemistry
  • Impaired detoxification
  • Brain toxicity
  • Food sensitivities
  • Overwhelming sensory issues, including double vision
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

The evolving language of ASD

The language used at conferences and in news articles back then was about “treating”, “curing”, “recovering” or “preventing” autism, and we autism parents proudly called ourselves “autism warriors.” With time, greater understanding and awareness, this language is being replaced with more positive terminology.  Negative words such as “tragedy”, “catastrophe”, “sufferer”, and “afflicted” are being replaced with the more realistic concepts of neurodiversity and just being wired differently.

I think most of us didn’t understand what autism was initially, which increased our fear of it, and may explain the more negative terminology that was used back then.  Looking back through the lens of time and maturity, I can see that it wasn’t really autism itself that set off the sense of “catastrophe” for me, but rather the profound comorbid medical conditions, and their accompanying irritability, aggression and sleep disruption my son experienced.

The autistic brain is now being recognized as an amazing gift, and not something to be defeated or cured.  That’s not to say that the autism life is easy, and there aren’t any problems in our households, but it’s not the “tragedy” we autism parents once believed.

Although I now wince at the old language I once used, it is thanks to the early pioneers and efforts at understanding and research all those years ago that we have better understanding and so many tools at our disposal now.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater

I have been in the autism world long enough to watch the understanding, language and politics of autism morph from mother warriors and searching for genes, cures and recovery, to the enlightened neurodiversity, acceptance and celebration we see today.  With a growing sense of alarm, I notice the shift in attitude is swinging too far, and I am seeing angry parents with the militant attitude of “I don’t need to fix my child” turning away from anything that might “change” their child.  In doing so, they are missing the opportunity for improved health, which is basically throwing out the baby with the bath water, as my parents would have said.

With research revealing our ASD children can have profound improvements in health and brain clarity by taking a few simple supplements such as digestive enzymes and probiotics – things they seem to be lacking – we aren’t doing them any favors by refusing these basic steps for improved gut and brain health.

Supporting vibrant health for autistic children and adults is simple and natural, and doesn’t “change” or “fix” your child.  It does help them have a happier, healthier life, and be at their best to learn, play, work or have a good day.  A healthy life on the autism spectrum – now that’s something we can all agree on!

Adobe Photoshop PDF

JANET LINTALA, D.C., is founder and head of the Autism Health! center, offering natural health support for ASD children and adults in a dozen states. Among her three boys (all of whom are now healthy, successful young adults), she struggled with a variety of issues, including learning disabilities, OCD, panic attacks, and ASD. She lives in Beckley, West Virginia, with her husband. Her coauthor, MARTHA M. MURPHY, is an award-winning health writer who lives in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

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