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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks, RIP

In chapter 2 of The Politics of Autism, I describe how the issue entered the national agenda.

The Washington Post reports:
Oliver Sacks, the world-renowned neurologist and author who chronicled maladies and ennobled the afflicted in books that were regarded as masterpieces of medical literature, died Aug. 30 at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
In 1993, Dr. Sacks contributed greatly to autism awareness with his New Yorker profile of Temple Grandin, titled "An Anthropologist on Mars."  This passage is as relevant today as it was 22 years ago:
The history of autism, indeed, has been in part a desperate search for, and promotion of, “breakthroughs” of various sorts. One father of an autistic boy expressed this to me with some bitterness: “They come up with a new ‘miracle’ every four years—first it was elimination diets, then magnesium and vitamin B6, then forced holding, then operant conditioning and behavior modification—now all the excitement is about auditory desensitization and F.C.” Facilitated communication, which has been widely publicized, is based on the notion that if the hand or arm of a nonverbal autistic child is supported by a “facilitator,” the child may then be able to communicate by typing, or using an electronic communicator or a letter board. This technique was originally used, with considerable success, in children with cerebral palsy, in whom motor difficulties may make it impossible to speak. But autism is not simply a motor problem, like cerebral palsy; it is infinitely more complex. And yet the most extravagant claims have been made for the powers of F.C. in autistic people, too (that previously nonlinguistic children, for instance, have written entire autobiographies), and its proponents range from enthusiastic to evangelical. But rigorous testing suggests that, while F.C. can be useful for children with cerebral palsy or juvenile parkinsonism, its use with autistic children is much more dubious, and that in many cases the facilitator unconsciously guides the child’s hand.