May 26, 2016
(++++) ANYTHING BUT MEDICINE
No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey Through Autism. By Jennifer Noonan. Da Capo. $15.99.
The Un-Prescription for Autism: A Natural Approach for a Calmer, Happier, and More Focused Child. By Janet Lintala with Martha W. Murphy. AMACOM. $18.95.
The disdain, bordering on contempt, with which some authors treat what they dismissively call “traditional” or “Western” medicine could be said to have reached epidemic proportions – but that sounds funny, and the authors involved are a singularly humorless bunch. The notion that doctors cannot cure every patient or every disease and therefore cannot be trusted to take care of any patient or any disease is a rather offensive one, and delivered with stunning hypocrisy unless an author can conclusively show that he or she has not benefited personally from, say, antibiotics or vaccinations. Books about alternatives to traditional medical approaches to patient and disease care therefore tend to be more or less successful based on how willing their authors are to confront their own biases and consider both the pluses and the minuses of standard medical approaches. This is particularly true when it comes to an incurable condition affecting children, as in the case of autism (or, as it is now called, Autism Spectrum Disorder). Thus, Jennifer Noonan’s well-written, affecting memoir is more involving and likely to be more useful to families dealing with autism than is Janet Lintala’s well-meaning but more-strident approach to autism treatment.
The genre of first-person narratives of medical adversity is not an especially compelling one, but Noonan’s book stands out partly because of its writing style and partly because of the author’s willingness not to minimize the huge physical and mental toll that her son’s autism takes on her and on the entire family – but not to wallow in self-pity, either. There are setbacks aplenty here to balance the periodic successes; Noonan’s ingenuity in tackling intractable problems comes through again and again, whether she succeeds or fails in any particular instance. Readers familiar with autism are an obvious target audience, but in fact No Map to This Country reaches out to anyone concerned about the condition, because Noonan shows herself to have had a series of preconceptions about autism that were systematically demolished as she learned the truth about her son’s behavior and what could and could not be done to help him. Noonan does get into some of the medical evidence and medical disputes about autism, and from time to time her writing does degenerate into polemical name-calling in regard to medical and insurance personnel. By and large, though, she keeps the book’s focus firmly on her son, Paul, and on his individual circumstances and needs – indeed, it is her emphasis on the individual nature of each child with autism that is among the book’s major strengths, because this is a condition that can manifest itself at many times, in different ways, with different consequences both in childhood and in later life (hence the use of the word “spectrum” in its current medical description). The tremendous physical and emotional demands that Paul created for Noonan, and that she is well aware autistic children create in general for their families, are heightened by the fact that even as Paul’s behavioral displays became more extreme, Noonan was pregnant again – and later, heartbreakingly, her daughter began to show signs of autism as well. Ultimately, parents of autistic children want the same thing that parents of all children hopefully desire: for their child to attain his or her full potential. In the case of autism, however, it is extremely difficult to know what that potential is and exceptionally hard to bring the child along the road toward it. Certainly there are obstacles to treatment thrown up by uncaring or ignorant members of the healthcare profession and by insurance companies that by definition classify patients and diseases by group and number, not with the individuation that autism care requires. But a parent who accepts medical help when it is available and offered, turns it down when she does not believe it fits her child’s particular, unique needs, and moves on from crisis to crisis without developing a chip-on-my-shoulder attitude, has at least the potential of coming through an extraordinarily difficult time with the best possible results for her child. Noonan appears to have done just that. Her harrowing story reads like a valuable teaching tool for anyone concerned about autism, and especially for those dealing with it in their own families.
Lintala, also the parent of an autistic child, approaches the topic differently and with a more-aggressive agenda. She founded and heads a 12-state organization called Autism Health! The group’s exclamation point is indicative of Lintala’s intensity, which translates into a focus on “integrative health” (she is trained as a chiropractor) and a thorough dislike of conventional medicine. Everything autistic children need, she indicates, can be handled with non-prescription approaches. Specifically, she focuses on the gastrointestinal system: she believes that parents who get it properly regulated will find their children much calmer and better-behaved, although even Lintala stops short of calling her advocacy of probiotics and supplements a cure. Traditional medicine has in fact been placing greater emphasis in recent years on gastrointestinal issues, with the balance of gut bacteria having been shown scientifically to affect various conditions. There is no reason that autism should not be among them. And Lintala offers a variety of diagrams and examples, including ones from her own life, to back up her points – anecdotal material, yes, but sometimes parents of autistic children will learn more from anecdotes than from, say, books. Certainly Lintala is on the right track when she warns against over-medicating autistic children: in the not-too-distant past (although to a lesser extent today), these children might be treated with a host of separate medicines for constipation, rashes, sleep problems, hyperactivity, etc. And certainly it is possible that irritability, anger and hyperactivity may be traceable to digestive issues, with an autistic child unable to express himself or herself clearly as to what the problem is. But as Noonan makes clear in her book, every child, every case of autism, is different, and blanket approaches, medical or otherwise, are at the very least unwise. Besides, being dismissive of, for example, medicine to control behavioral issues, means subjecting other people’s children to an autistic child’s outbursts, and that is scarcely fair to those children (a point that neither Lintala nor Noonan ever really deals with). Lintala does agree, somewhat reluctantly, that traditional medicine may be needed for some symptoms in some cases, but her predisposition is that medical treatment of autism is by and large a bad thing. There are some genuinely useful recommendations in The Un-Prescription for Autism, including one for an enzyme that eliminates the need to go on a diet that is both gluten-free and casein-free. In fact, Lintala’s whole approach to dietary matters is a good one: she does not insist that a single diet is right in all cases. As a whole, The Un-Prescription for Autism is a (+++) book with a great number of good ideas and helpful suggestions, balanced by a foundational skepticism about medical treatment that becomes a blind spot and makes the book, unnecessarily, into part of an anti-medical crusade that in the long run does no good either for autistic children or for their families.