Title: Lithium: A Drug, A Doctor, and A Breakthrough Author: Walter A. Brown Date of Publication: August 2019 Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Lithium, as its subtitle suggests, tells three interwoven stories: that of the life of John Cade, the doctor who discovered lithium’s most important medical use; that of lithium itself from its first discovery as an element to its recognition as both a drug and a toxin; and that of lithium’s bumpy road to acceptance through research trials, scientists’ feuds, and governmental wariness.
“The absence of effective treatments for manic-depressive illness in earlier times did not mean that these patients were not treated. They were treated with all sorts of substances and procedures from ancient times onward. It’s just that none of these treatments worked, and most were harmful.” – Walter A. Brown, Lithium (emphasis added)
When I came across this quote I thought instantly of modern treatments for autism – not the few designed to help an autistic individual learn to cope with the neurotypical world, but those that claim to cure the condition. Even the most mainstream behavioral therapy is concerning (particularly to autistic adults who endured it as a child), and desperate parents who can’t handle having an autistic child try many stranger and more dangerous “treatments.” Different restrictive or elimination diets are supposed to reduce the behavioral symptoms of autism, according to parental observations; given the oral and textural sensitivities of many autistic people, those diets are likely to become even more restricted to the point of being unbalanced, or very costly for the parents (and objective, blinded research observations show no difference). Parents may choose not to vaccinate to prevent autism, and instead create opportunities for potentially deadly preventable diseases to flourish. And one has only to read about the “bleach cure” to see how supposed cures can cross the line from unwise to abusive.
Autism may not even be curable. It’s highly unlikely a single compound will be found that renders the autistic mind essentially neurotypical, like lithium can regulate and even prevent the mood swings of bipolar disorder. And yet so many people invest so much time, energy, and money into making autistic people act like and think like neurotypical people – even when those efforts are harmful to the autistic people they claim they want to help. It’s like forcing deaf children to speak orally and lip read instead of encouraging sign language, or shaming a wheelchair user for not trying harder to stand and walk. Instead of hurting autistic children to try to mold them into conformity with some neurotypical standard they can never completely reach, support them by making the world more aware and accepting of neurodiversity. Help them develop social skills, adaptive and pragmatic skills, and language skills without trying to change the core of who they are, and learn to see each child for the unique and beautiful person that they are, needs and struggles and gifts all bundled up together.