Get well? Get bent!

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

Get well? Get bent! Yet another harmful ‘cure’ for autism shows its face.

Magazines. Not as harmless as you might think

You ever bump into someone from school, who you haven’t seen for years? When they’re older, bigger, and look almost entirely different? Then you spend a few minutes catching up and realise that you never actually liked this person as a child? And no matter how much they’ve grown and changed, they’re still the same arsehole underneath?

Apparently, this can happen with publications too. It happened to me today. Activist and author Sophie Walker flagged up this magazine called ‘Get Well’, for sale in Waitrose. Sophie, the mother of an autistic daughter, reasonably took great exception at the front page splash which declared:



Obviously, as someone whose job it now is to convey accurate neuroscience to the masses, this made me very angry very quickly. There’s literally nothing about it that isn’t wrong and/or dangerous, and to see it portrayed so blatantly on a magazine that looks disconcertingly like New Scientist is the rotten cherry on the maggot infested cake.

It also seemed oddly familiar. And closer inspection reveals why. ‘Get Well’ magazine is actually a rebranded ‘What Doctors Don’t Tell You’. Anyone remember that grim rag? Myself and many others in the sceptic community called it out for shamelessly peddling dangerous woo over 5 years ago now. The negative media coverage actually got pretty extensive, which was a pleasant change.

But hey ho, something widely condemned as dangerous and misleading is back with us once again. How very ‘late 2019’.

So, where to begin with this cavalcade of harmful woo?

You can’t treat autism by ‘reigniting’ your brain.

Let’s get this out of the way; autism is a tricky subject to talk about. People are very passionate about it, and there are so many different perspectives on what remains a complex and still rather mysterious issue. What’s happening in the brain of someone with autism seems to incorporate a very wide range of factors, including the genetic, environmental, immunological, developmental, and more. And it often manifests in a similarly diverse range of ways.

Even referring to it as a disorder is something many take issue with. It suggests there’s something wrong, something definitively negative about the individual, rather than just something different. Sure, autistic children can have a greater number of problems and issues interacting with the world, but then does the problem lie with them and their internal brain workings? Or with the fact that we force them to exist in a too-rigid society, with demands and expectations that are unreasonable by those who don’t develop in the same way as everyone else, through no fault of their own?

These are the questions, and everyone involves seems to have their own particular answer. Although a lot of these issues also apply to many other things that fall under the mental health umbrella. Not that autism is a mental health problem; it’s officially a neurodevelopmental disorder. At least according to the current system. That itself could change in time. I wrote a book all about this exact sort of thing.

So, it’s difficult, and often risky, to make any firm statements about autism and how it works. However, I’m willing to do that here, because one thing I can and will say about autism is that ‘reigniting’ your brain will do nothing about it whatsoever.

To clarify, I’m interpreting ‘reigniting’ as ‘increasing activity’, because otherwise it means setting the brain on fire. Although, with this sort of magazine, who knows? Pyroneurotherapy sounds like a potential money maker, I guess.

Point is, the implication is that an autistic brain is suppressed or shut down in some way. It’s not. There’s nothing wrong with the activity in a brain with autism, it’s just different to the norm. There’s nothing to reignite to begin with, even if your methods are valid. The brain of someone with autism is ignited just fine, thank you.

And let’s not overlook the disturbingly unsubtle implications of these front cover claims; that autism is something that can be, that should be, ‘cured’. That an autistic brain is underpowered, suppressed.

The meaning is clear; people with autism are inferior, and need to be fixed.

As a neuroscientist who has regularly worked with, and is indeed closely related to, people with autism, I can assure you that this conclusion is as wrong as it is deeply unpleasant.

The advised method of ‘reigniting’ the brain is both ludicrous and dangerous

Let’s say that ‘reigniting’ the brain could treat autism. I mean, it can’t, but let’s assume the author of such claims genuinely believes it to be a viable approach. How do they suggest we go about reigniting the brain of someone with autism?

If we’re talking about raising brain activity, you know what’s known to be good for that? Ketamine. That’s why it’s a promising candidate for improved antidepressant therapy. But surely ‘Get Well’ magazine isn’t advising parents give ketamine to their autistic children?

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No, of course not. Although, I’m not sure what they are suggesting is a great deal better.

Apparently, the approach espoused by this autism-curing wizard is craniosacral therapy.

You may not have heard of this, but it sounds scientific, right?

Yeah, it’s not.

According to the Wikipedia page, it involves palpitating the bones of the skull. The skull bones, you see, move with a natural rhythm, and this rhythm keeps us healthy. When this rhythm is disrupted, then we become ill, in all sorts of ways. Craniosacral therapy restores this rhythm, by rubbing or beating the skull bones until they’re back in harmony. Or so my understanding goes.

If you got to the end of that paragraph without rolling your eyes once, I applaud you. Imagine how I feel, I had to write the cursed thing!

As you can imagine, this whole concept is nonsense. Human skull bones do NOT move around (not including the jaw, which obviously does). I’ve handled dozens of skulls in my time (don’t ask), and they’re always uniformly solid. The main point of even having a skull is to protect the brain, and if the different bones moved around all the time the skull would be flexible and malleable, and that’s no good for protection in the wild.

Although, in fairness, there is a time when the bones (the cranial plates) of our skull aren’t fixed together; when we’re a baby, and until the age of around two. Our brains are rapidly expanding then, and our skulls need to grow with them.

Ergo, when someone is very young, you really shouldn’t persistently rub their skulls. Alarmingly, this is pretty much exactly what Get Well magazine are advising people to do, if their child is autistic.

This is, in fairness, exactly the sort of thing doctors won’t tell you to do. Because it’s genuinely dangerous.

Autism isn’t a convenient bogeyman with which to spook parents

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Get Well magazine’s cover is the tagline ‘Alternative treatments proven to work’.




So how is this “you can cure autism by reigniting the brain via craniosacral therapy” claim ‘proven’, exactly? Well, it seems that the originator of the claim had an autistic child of their own, and fourteen years after devising the therapy, said child is now ‘cured’ and ‘attending college’.

Well, I’m convinced. An autistic person growing up to be a functioning adult and attending further education? That’s not something that literally happens all the bloody time. An educated autistic person? Can you imagine! It can only be down to the miraculous curing of the issue via an intervention that makes no sense whatsoever any way you look at it. It’s the only feasible explanation.

But this highlights one of the persistent problems with the cultural perception of autism. Yes, it’s confusing. Yes, it’s mysterious. Yes, it can be a problem, often a serious one, for both parents and children, for a wide variety of reasons. But this doesn’t in any way excuse anyone exploiting people’s fears, and fuelling stigma and suspicion, in order to peddle their own pet theories and ideologies, usually for personal profit.

Autism, whatever you think of it, is not something that can be ‘cured’. It’s a fundamental aspect of who someone is. Attempting to cure or remove it is basically the equivalent of gay conversion therapy, with all the harms that causes, no matter the ‘good intentions’ of those who promote and use it.

It’s unforgivable. The children deserve better. Their parents deserve better. And we all deserve better than the stuff churned out by certain unscrupulous magazine publishers.

Dean Burnett doesn’t usually get this angry about stuff, but come on!

His own book for children and teens, based on actual neuroscience, is titled ‘Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up The Wall And What To Do About It’, and makes a good stocking filler.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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