More about parents of children on the autistic spectrum

A few days ago I posted a piece which seemed to me to be pretty sympathetic and uncontroversial. In it, I mentioned that the parents of children on the autistic spectrum had for many decades, at least since 1943, been noticed frequently to be a little strange and somewhat different from other parents. I speculated that this might be due not so much to their also having autistic features or mental illnesses, both popular current ideas, but rather to their experiences as parents of a child who is outwardly ‘normal’ but who behaves bizarrely. As a result, I was called ‘callous’ and accused of ‘ignorant idiocy’.

While I have been away, I have been exchanging emails with professionals in this particular field and last night did a quick trawl of the literature. As I suspected, this was not a new idea and was in fact the most reasonable explanation of what many who work with such families have long observed. One person commenting on the original piece clamed that over 70% of children on the autistic spectrum have a parent who is also on the spectrum. I could not find any reference to this and would be glad to hear more about this idea. I have in front of me volume 15 of Developmental Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry, published by Sage in the USA and written by Laura Schreibman. It is a standard work on the subject of autism. On page 51, we find the following, apropos of the etiology of the disorder:

It has been widely demonstrated that a child’s behaviour has effects on the behaviour of the caretakers (e.g. Bell 1968, 1971; Yarrow Waxler & Scott, 1971). It is certainly reasonable to assume that any lack of social responsiveness evidenced by the parents might be a reaction to the lack of social behaviour, excessive tantrums and bizarre behaviour of their autistic children (e.g. Rimland, 1964; Rutter, 1968; Schopler & Reichler, 1971).

I found other references to this phenomenon but, as I have remarked before, this is a personal blog and not an academic journal and I do not think it necessary to reference these posts too extensively! It is enough to say that this was not some weird idea of mine but is part of mainstream thinking on this subject.

I think that rather than taking issue with what I specifically said about this matter, those objecting wished to close down any discussion about the origin and etiology of the syndrome. This does not strike me as being at all a good idea. I mentioned the old idea that parents were solely responsible for their children’s autism. It is careful research which exploded this notion. I really don’t see that it would be a good idea now to stop any further debate or research on the subject. I have seen this sort of thing happen before with autism. Some years ago, it was noticed that a greatly disproportionate number of African and Caribbean children were presenting with autistic features. In one London borough where I worked, this group represented around 40% of the population and yet about 80% of the children on the autistic spectrum were black. This was such a hot potato politically, that nobody would discuss it and this delayed research, with bad consequences for the families concerned. Suppressing facts and trying to prevent discussion of these things is seldom a good idea and almost inevitably harms the kids themselves in the long run. The more that we discover about this disorder and its causes, the better.

This topic is important for home educators, because autism seems to be commoner among home educated children than in the wider school population. When we find that one particular group has higher incidences of autism, whether it is Nigerians or home educating families; it is of interest. I cannot see that exploration of this could be a bad thing.


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