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mental health mondays :: a little about autism

today is autism awareness day, something that deserves a much higher profile than it gets. autism is one of those strange conditions like fibromyalgia and lupus, that seems to manifest differently in just about everyone it affects. in fact, it's not a single condition, but a spectrum and its definition was most recently expanded to include four previously separate disorders. probably the most widely seen autistic character of all time was dustin hoffman's savant in rain man, but that's an extreme example. [about 10% of all autistics have these sort of abilities, but even then, there is a range.] a lot of the time, autism is much more difficult to understand, because the behaviours associated with it can seem peculiar without seeming disordered. a person who is constantly interrupting and talking over others will most often be taken for rude [and most often, they probably are], but not understanding the unspoken rules of communication is a common feature of autism as well.

unlike most other mental disorders [and there's room for argument whether autism should be grouped with other mental disorders at all], autism manifests early on. children exhibit symptoms as soon as they start to communicate, or when their need to communicate exceeds their capacity. there are a number of early signs, like being slow to develop speaking skills, discomfort with being touched, or a tendency to repeat sounds or motions. none of those is a confirmation, however, so as upsetting as it is, it can take months or years to receive a diagnosis.

unlike many mental disorders, autism is permanent and treatment is about managing the condition rather than curing it. studies have shown that children fare best when they start treatment early, and such interventions are often about teaching parents and others how to provide the necessary support structure for their autistic child.

unfortunately, autism is usually part of a larger set of problems; most sufferers have comorbid conditions like sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety or even epilepsy. so treating the condition often involves treating the "extras" that come with it. there is some evidence that the types of comorbid conditions tend to appear in clusters, but it's not yet clear why.

that last line is something you see repeated a great deal when it comes to autism, because it is still mostly mysterious. we don't know why people develop it, although there appear to be both genetic and external factors that play a role. that's the case with all mental disorders, though. there does appear to be an increased risk for older mothers and premature babies, but risk is different from cause. and no, no matter what you read online or heard from someone on television, or had a skeptical friend tell you, autism is not caused by vaccines.

autism remains relatively rare, occurring in about 1-1.5% of the population. that makes it rare even by the standards of conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, let alone depression and anxiety. although there was a significant increase in the number of diagnosed cases between 1996 and 2007, that doesn't necessarily mean that the number of cases went up. during that time, awareness increased, the process of identification improved and the condition came to be understood as a spectrum, rather than a series of similar but separate things. the perceived explosion in the number of cases has provided fodder for some outlandish conspiracy theories but the facts are, as ever, pretty mundane.

as a group, people with autism may suffer more than any other with cultural ideas of what is normal. our communications with each other form the basis of how we understand ourselves and feel a sense of commonality, but people who can't interpret our vast range of nonverbal cues, or linguistic devices like metaphor, where the words we say have a meaning beyond the literal, those people are going to start any social interaction as an outsider, like someone lost in a foreign country who has only a basic understanding of the language.

it's difficult for me to find a way to wrap this post up, because there is a lot more that i could say, but i'm not sure it would make things any clearer. this is just an area where far more study needs to be done. and the voices of those who try to link the condition to pharmaceutical malfeasance, government experimentation or alirn dna need to be excised from the conversation. i hope that i'll be able to post something in the not too distant future that deals with a breakthrough in our understanding, or improved prognosis, or some other happy news. until then, though, i'll stick with the awareness of autism. because while there isn't a lot we know right now, we can at least educate ourselves a little on what it is and how we can help those who have it.


as long as you're here, why not read more?


ok, so i've been lax about posting here. i apologise. there are reasons. i don't know if they'ree good reasons, but they include:

i've had a lot of work to do, which is nice because i'm a freelancer and things tend to slow down in the summer, so the more work i get now, the less i have to worry about later [in theory].i started watching the handmaid's tale. i was a little hesitant because i didn't actually like the novel very much; i found it heavy-handed and predictable. the series relies on the novel for about 80% of its first season plot but i nevertheless find it spellbinding. where i felt that the novel beat readers with its politics, the series does a better job of connecting with the humanity in the midst of politics. i'm dithering on starting season two because i am a serial binger and once i know damn well that starting the second season will soon consign me to the horrors of having to wait a week between episodes. i don't know if i can han…

i agree, smedley [or, smokers totally saved our planet in 1983]

so this conversation happened [via text, so i have evidence and possibly so does the canadian government and the nsa].

dom and i were trying to settle our mutual nerves about tomorrow night's conversion screening, remembering that we've made a fine little film that people should see. which is just about exactly what dom had said when i responded thusly:

me :: i agree smedley. [pauses for a moment] did you get that here?

dom :: no?

me :: the aliens who were looking at earth and then decided it wasn't worth bothering with because people smoked even though it was bad for them?
come to think of it, that might mean that smokers prevented an alien invasion in the seventies.

dom :: what ?!?!?

me :: i've had wine and very little food. [pause] but the alien thing was real. [pause.] well, real on tv.

dom :: please eat something.

of course, i was wrong. the ad in question ran in 1983. this is the part where i would triumphantly embed the ad from youtube, except that the governmen…

mental health mondays :: separate and not equal

given the ubiquitousness of racial disparities in the united states, there's no reason why we should be surprised that they exist in mental health care. unlike a lot of other areas, the people in power have acknowledged the problem for decades. but the situation isn't getting any better. 
the united states surgeon general documented the differences between white and non-white mental health care back in 2001 so we can assume that it was already a known problem at that point. two years later, a presidential commission said the same damn thing and groups like the national association for mental health seized on this to develop guidelines on how to bridge the ethnic gap. from the turn of the century through 2007, the number of papers and publications talking about the mental health care gap spiked. the issue was viewed as being on par with obesity when it came to urgent problems.

starting in 2004, researchers undertook a massive project that involved the records of nearly a quart…