HomeADHDAutism, Dyslexia, ADHD, Neurodiversity – Are They Diseases?

This weekend, I finished reading Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma and Allergies. (You can read the review on my book review/writing/life blog here.)

Unsurprisingly, the authors view autism and ADHD as diseases. The few times they mentioned dyslexia or other learning disabilities, they were also viewed as illnesses.

I don’t agree with that point of view.

My opinion stems from a lifetime of experience, from speaking with people with other labels and near constant research. Why should we try getting rid of something that makes us who we are for the comfort of others who don’t understand us?

Furthermore, by “curing” what must be wrong with us, we may also be getting rid of valuable contributions our unique ways of thinking offer the world.

Logically, I can see where people in the LD/DD (developmental disabilities) as a disease camp,

That’s a lot of pills. Wow.
by Erich Ferdinand, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr


The symptoms can be devastating to a family, especially when no one really understands what’s going on, how to communicate with the person with the problems and they’re unable to get help. I can see why a desperate family would want to find a way to make their lives, and that of their children, easier.

There’s something soothing about the possibility of a cure, especially when times are especially rough. It’s like a light at the end of a tunnel.

We’re all taught by our culture that if someone doesn’t fall within a narrow set of societal norms, something must be wrong with them. They’re diseased. If they can’t be cured, they must be separated from the populace for the greater good.

Where does that leave parents, families and the individuals themselves?

No one truly wants to be banished to society’s fringes. No one wants to see their child suffering with no end in sight.

Unless they’re able to accept these difficulties and find ways of teaching their child how to cope with them, the only thing left to do is find the malady’s cause. Once that’s done, you can prevent it from happening to other kids and find a cure for those currently suffering from it.

That makes sense, right?

When someone gets the flu, they’re encouraged to stay home until the problem is resolved. Vaccines exist to prevent virulent diseases like polio from coming back. Hospitals are places where sick people are supposed to get treatment.

That line of thought works with diseases, injuries and severe disorders, but when it comes to learning or developmental disabilities, it falls short.

I’m all for getting a deeper understanding of how dyslexia, autism, ADHD and the myriad of neurological diversities work. That way, we can further refine therapies to help people better cope with the more difficult aspects of neurodiversity, preferably without chemical or surgical intervention. That way, they can better use their energy to focus on their talents and passions.

I’m also interested in causation, but that’s also based on better coping mechanisms. Why am I dyslexic? Is it strictly genetic? Was it triggered early on by something in my environment? Is there a psychological element to it? If we can figure those things out, can we spot the differences early enough along to teach the individuals how to cope sufficiently with the world around them?

I find those questions interesting, but I view their answers as ways to nurture the whole person, not as a way to eradicate a “defect”. I find the most value in finding ways to enhance communication, encourage creativity and foster a deeper understanding of how these difference are of value in our world.

Therapies are still valuable, as are accommodations. Medication is also needed in some cases, though I believe it’s overused in western culture.

This debate also makes me wonder how well attendant disorders are understood.

Autistic people are usually more prone to digestive issues. There’s a lot of literature out there stating the gut issues autistic folks face actually causes autism, because toxins leak into the blood stream, nutrients aren’t digested properly and malnutrition becomes an issue.

Those systemic disorders may contribute to cognitive difficulties, but I doubt they cause true autism. If one person’s symptoms go away completely when these issues are addressed, they had a diseased gut, not autism.

If a person with true autism suffers from the same thing and gets treatment, their symptoms might improve, but they’ll still have autistic traits afterwards. Their neurology remained the same, and their bodies benefited from better digestion.

Similarly, I’m dyslexic and am very prone to inflammation.

I have asthma, allergies, tendinitis and occasional migraines. As far as I know, I was fully vaccinated as a child, as well. Those first four things can make my life difficult, and when they’re particularly bad, my dyslexia gets much worse.

Treats only acute asthma attacks. No help with dyslexia.
by NIAID, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr

There are some people who think inflammatory responses like the ones I deal with, and which may result in some kids from some vaccinations, actually cause dyslexia.

The thing with these disorders is that they can be managed. If I detoxify my body, keep a tight reign on what I eat, exercise regularly and stay trigger free, my inflammatory issues aren’t noticeable. I feel much healthier, and I have much more energy.

However, I still make dyslexic errors. If I took anti-inflammatory medication to get rid of any lingering swelling, I’d still have dyslexic traits.

If I were able to minimize or get rid of all inflammation in my body, and my dyslexia were to suddenly vanish for good, then I doubt my learning difficulties were caused by my neurology.

By the way, the inflammation theory isn’t popular, and I’ve never seen any scientific evidence to back it up. It was just a theory that fit my individual situation.

That brings me to the fact that some disorders have symptoms which mimic autism, ADHD or dyslexia.

Heavy metal poisoning, like lead, mercury or aluminum, can mimic autism. So can various brain injuries, food sensitivities and systemic diseases.

The problem arises when the individual is diagnosed with autism based on the symptoms shown, and the true behavior causes are discovered later on. Once those causes are resolved, the autism symptoms go away. That seems to be how so many people mistake that medical attention as a “cure” for autism, which further supports the whole idea of autism as a disease.

As mentioned above, kids can be autistic and still suffer from disease, poisoning or injury. When problems are remedied, their challenges may lessen, but someone who is really autistic will still have autistic traits after treatment.

When someone has dyslexic, autistic, or any other neurodiverse wiring, they’re not diseased. They’re just different.

We need to learn unique coping techniques, and we need to figure out how we fit in this crazy world, but we don’t need to be cured.

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