By Jess Wilson
A Drug to Improve Social Skills
The big, bold headline in USA Today read, Experimental Drug Gives Hope For Rare Disease, Autism. The sub-heading read Doctors Hope Abaclofen Will Also Improve Socialization Skills In People With Autism.
It went on to describe the success of STX209, or Arbaclofen, in early trials with a small number of patients with Fragile X. The success was most notable in improving social withdrawal in the trial group. Since, according to the article, nearly a third of the population diagnosed with Fragile X also have autism, researchers have high hopes regarding Arbaclofen’s implications for the broader autistic population.
The research is exciting. To call it novel and ground-breaking are not exaggerations. This is big, new, hopeful stuff. But like a lot of exciting, novel, ground-breaking, big, new, hopeful stuff, it comes with questions that need to be answered. The biggest of which, for me, is Is it going to be good for our kids in the long run?
When I read the article, I stopped short at this:
“If an intervention makes progress in helping someone navigate the world on their own terms, that’s good news,” [Ari] Ne’eman says. “But let’s remember that “looking and acting normal” aren’t necessarily the only or best way to do that. … It’s important that we have a meaningful conversation about whether or not we’re focusing on the outcomes that matter for making autistic people happy, instead of focusing on making us appear more non-autistic.”
Hopefully, Arbaclofen does the former. Hopefully, it helps people like my daughter navigate the world more easily ON HER OWN TERMS. Hopefully, it simply mitigates some of her toughest challenges and allows her to still feel as though she is fundamentally who she is. But before we run headlong into embracing any of these revolutionary drugs or ground-breaking therapies, I think we have a responsibility to ask those questions. To, as Ari’s quote implies to me, engage in a meaningful dialogue about the cost to our kids. Because, like it or not, there’s always a cost.
Is Repetitive Behavior Really Hamful?
One of the ‘core symptoms of autism’ that is mentioned in the article and that many drugs seek to address is repetitive behavior. I have to wonder, for whom are we addressing repetitive behavior? Is it really harmful to autistics? Is finger flicking or rocking or otherwise stimming really an impediment to a successful life? Or are they really problems more for US – the NTs who become uneasy because we have no idea how to react to someone who doesn’t fit the mold of what makes US comfortable? And most importantly from my perspective, what happens to the impulse to stim when we quell the behavior that it results in? Does it disappear? Blow off into the wind? Break down into waste and find its way out of the body?
Stimming serves a purpose. All behavior does. Ask someone autistic. I have. And the answers I’ve gotten are “Calming. Soothing. Shutting out an overwhelming world. Focusing. Freeing. Comforting. “
So take away the vehicle for all of that – for calming, soothing, shutting out an overwhelming world, focusing, freeing, comforting – and what do you leave in its place? Without the behavior that served those purposes, how does a person who might very well live in a constant state of high alert, who is unable to filter the constant sensory barrage of this life, for whom there is no natural hierarchy of input, supposed to compensate for all of that overwhelm? What tools do you leave them in return for the one that you’ve taken away? Or do you simply take it away because it’s not normal and not normal is harmful?
I wrote the above and put it into my Drafts file the day that I first read the article. And then I walked away. It was too big to process in one sitting. I needed to sit with it awhile, to chew on it and to think through its huge and frankly, kinda scary implications. I had to reach a point where I was ready to say out loud, Yes, there was a time, early on, before I knew anything different, that all I wanted was for my kid to look normal. Because looking normal meant acting normal which meant being accepted by society which meant an easier life. Right? Isn’t that the formula? Isn’t that how it works? Change behavior, change a life. Right?
Life Is Not Formulaic
And then I had to figure out how to say No, that’s not it. This isn’t math; it’s life and life is messy and sticky and doesn’t lend itself to nice, neat equations and pretty little formulas. That suppressing who we are without a valid and comfortable and AUTHENTIC means to express what we NEED to express can be far more dangerous than not fitting in. That being taught to pass for something that you’re not and succeeding at it may mean success on the outside but what the hell does it mean for the inside? That being taught that what you are is not okay and that you, therefore, need to pass as something that you’re not can be deadly. That self-esteem and confidence and self-love and the deepest of personal truths are what are on the line. That I’m not being overly dramatic in taking it there. That I know that because I’ve read so many blog posts and had so many conversations with autistic adults who teetered on the edges at various points in their lives – who literally contemplated suicide, or tried, because the message that they got – whether it was the one that was intended to be delivered or not – was that who they are was not okay.
I walk the line here. It’s not a free-for-all. There ARE behaviors that are not okay. We live in a civilized society. There are some reasonable expectations within that structure that we, as participants in it must learn to meet. That we won’t hurt others. That we will respect others’ privacy and safety and dignity just as we need and expect them to respect ours. There are skills that are necessary to enable us to interact with others, to make friends if we so desire, to find and keep employment. They are important to learn.
And so too, life is absolutely, positively, without question, easier when you have the ability to make yourself understood in some fashion. And it’s sure as hell easiest when that fashion is the same as everyone else’s.
So by no means do I mean to imply that I think that we should not teach our autistic kids to play by society’s rules just as we do with any kid.
But for me, the underlying questions loom large in every single attempt I make to give my child the tools to conform, to communicate, to participate.
At what cost?
Is it still going to be good for her when she’s no longer a kid?
When she looks back will she say that I gave her the tools to succeed as she was or will she ask why I seemed so intent on changing who she was?
How Far Are We Willing to Go to Change Behavior?
Yesterday, with this post and all of its big, scary questions still safely tucked away in my Drafts folder, I read an article about California’s ban on Gay Conversion Therapy for children under 18. For the blissfully uninitiated, GCT is the highly controversial and nearly universally condemned practice of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation through some twisted version of psychotherapy. There is overwhelming evidence that the practice tends far more often to result in depression and suicidal ideation than heterosexualization (no, that’s not a word, but it’s as absurd as the whole concept.)
Just for context, let’s play a little game. Are you straight? If so, do you think that if I gave you aversion therapy – you know, like an electric shock every time I showed you a picture of heterosexual sex – that it might turn you gay? How about if I inundated you with photos of homosexual acts and rewarded you for showing arousal? No? What if I simply told you that your heterosexual feelings were wrong. That they didn’t conform (or that, if not society, then God, had a problem with you acting on them). That you could still BE gay, but you couldn’t ACT gay anymore. So what would happen then?
Well, according to story after story from those who have participated in this practice, what usually happens is that you either fail miserably at being what you’re not — OR — you ‘succeed’ and manage to live the life of someone you’re not. Which leads us back to the ‘overwhelming evidence that such therapy tends far more often to result in depression and suicidal ideation than heterosexualization.’
So what if you’re autistic? And I tell you that it’s okay to BE autistic but not to ACT autistic? Then what?
Is homosexual conversion therapy a perfect parallel to administering drugs for social impairments? God, no. Really, really far from it obviously. But do I think there’s a common lesson in them? Well, yeah, I do. Because when I read the second article, I found myself thinking immediately of the first.
So here I am, dragging this post kicking and screaming from the Drafts folder and out into the light of day.
I don’t have answers. I never claim to. I just have questions that I think we need to remember to ask.
I’ll end with this – based on my limited reading about Arbaclofen, I lean toward thinking that it’s likely a win. That it will indeed not just offer some relief to those who struggle to communicate, but at the same time hopefully give researchers vital information on how the process all works. But long before I’d give it to my own child, I’d have to do a LOT more research. And then I’d have to ask the big questions.
At what cost?
What’s the REAL end game?
Thank you to Ari for making me think, forcing me to examine my approach and keeping me honest about what matters most.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new feature images and formatting.