Caves, Mythmaking, & Facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder

Alabaster Cavern

(Source: http://www.visitwoodward.com/192/Alabaster-Caverns)

This past week, we took a one-day family trip to a cave system through which a ¾ mile walk/hike is possible. The cave is one of three known in the world in which black alabaster occurs. At one point during our hike through the cave, we had descended to 80 feet (26.7 meters) below the surface, utilizing a total of 330 steps to go up and down. Part of the cave visit was experiencing the unique darkness of the cave for one minute. I also recently (re)entered a cave of a different sort, the classroom, this past week, to teach summer courses. (Hence, the slow down in blog activity). In this post I am going to rely on the cave metaphor to dispel myths about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Caves have often mesmerized human beings. Caves have been characterized as gateways to the underworld in some mystical traditions. The darkness one encounters in a cave is unique and discombobulating which lends to mythmaking. Plato, famously used the cave in The Republic, to describe the difficulty of instructing uneducated people to think beyond their self-interest, giving priority to public interest.

Caves serve as a useful heuristic device illustrating the experience of moving from darkness to light, innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge that leads to significant change in one’s self-perception and worldview. Myths, as Plato warned, serve to fill the gap between ignorance and knowledge and may prevent one from leaving one’s cave of ignorance.

Myths may be spun to account for phenomena or experience that lack apparent understanding or empirical explanation. There are several such myths about Autism Spectrum Disorder that can be hurtful to people on the spectrum. I mention a few below, each followed by an effort to debunk the myth. It is not people with Autism that are in a cave of ignorance. It is those who buy into the myths about Autism without using their neuro-typical brains to critically asses such falsehoods. The burden of bringing light to the cave of Autism ignorance is carried by people on the spectrum, scientists who research and treat Autism, and loved ones who love a person on the spectrum. This is a small contribution to raising awareness of Autism, to pointing the way out of the cave of ignorance.

Myth: Autism is caused by Vaccines.

Fact: Untrue. A study published in 1998, made this claim. The study has been subsequently falsified, the author of the study lost their medical license.

Myth: People with Autism don’t want friends.

Fact: My personal experience on the spectrum, the plight of my child on the spectrum, and scientific studies of autistic children demonstrably falsify this notion. We want to be social, we want friends, and we lack the appropriate social tools. Be patient with us, you’ll have a loyal, dependable, and true friend for life.

Myth: Autism can be cured.

Fact: Autism is not a disease. There is no cure. Autism is a neurological condition in which pathways in the brain are different than pathways in a neuro-typical person. However, through behavioral therapy, people on the spectrum can learn how to display and act in a socially appropriate manner so that a neuro-typical may feel comfortable in the presence of a neuro-atypical, a person on the spectrum can camouflage their Autism in society, and risk inauthenticity.

Myth: Special diets positively affect an Autistic.

Fact: Scientifically unproven. Does the diet include ice cream?

Myth: Bad parenting causes Autism

Fact: This notion is based on a 1950s pseudo-science that has been falsified through later and recent scientific research. Autism is in the genes.

Myth: People with Autism are intellectually gifted, socially inept or underdeveloped.

Fact: Autism is a spectrum meaning that individuals display very different behavioral and cognitive symptoms.

Afterword

Our special Aspie thoroughly enjoyed the cave we visited last week. We also took a side trip to the last remaining sod house of white settlers encased in a museum that we likewise enjoyed. (When my kids get older, I’ll attempt to broaden their understanding of the tragedy that is westward expansion in US history with especial emphasis on genocide of aboriginal peoples and cultures, like their Cherokee ancestors). All this is to say, we have found that such excursions benefit our family through bringing us closer and satiating our mutual thirst for knowledge. We’re nerds. Bigly.

The added benefit is that our Aspie gets to focus his unique Aspie inquisitive superpowers on the experience. Yes, we risk public meltdown. So the ‘F’ what!? We are raising our children to have no limits other than safety and concern for others. My son will not be limited by his Autism! I’ve experienced a life being limited and desire better for my little buddy. Family excursions are necessary for my child to practice, in a controlled and safe setting, the social skills being developed through social skills group therapy. Don’t forget the 6 P’s of practice: prior proper practice prevents poor performance.

We may be unique in that I am fortunate to be married to an active and outdoors aficionado who has taken our kids, beginning as babies, on hikes, to museums, and parks. Our Aspie first went camping before he turned one and had been hiking with his mom and parents in a backpack carrier prior to that first family camping trip in the Rockies of Utah. Our Aspie’s normal is being outdoors hiking, camping, and exploring. He’s had many opportunities to practice and experience the outdoors. Being in a cave, however, is different. Of course, we were also concerned about his sibling.

Our Aspie is a child with a high degree of anxiety about, well, everything. He is especially anxious about darkness requiring two nightlights, the closet light in his bedroom, hall light, and bedroom connected restroom light to be on when put to bed. His younger sibling has picked up on and mimics this anxiety about darkness. We needed to prepare our kids for the cave experience.

And did we ever prepare our children for being in the cave. We described the cave, googled examples of caves, visited the website of the cave we planned to visit. Explained what to expect in the cave, including the minute of complete darkness, and answered their questions as best we could. We had spent a week prepping them for this part of our cave adventure, reassuring them that dad and mom would have access to flashlights in our large size fanny pack stocked with emergency essentials in the event a hike goes bad. (I’m an Eagle Scout and I watch the Walking Dead. Be Prepared!).

Fortunately, our cave guide gave us warning that the lights were about to go out. We gathered the kids, brought them close, and reassured them that they were safe. Both kids clung to us. Off went the lights. We were surrounded by the blackness of the cave. I wondered if one of the cave inhabitants (bats, snakes, rats, etc.) might come out and nibble on my toes. Then our Aspie – who else – broke the silence, exclaiming, “I can’t see my hand in front of my face!” Too chuckles in response from others also on the guided hike through the cave. Indeed, we could not see our hand in front of our face even when touching our noses. Most importantly, no meltdown experienced!

As we left, both kids made us promise to bring them back. We promised to do so, armed with the fact that such an adventure into a cave is possible, safe, and fun just as is leaving one’s cave of ignorance through accepting the facts about Autism and the special talents of people on the spectrum.

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