The Myth of Autism Part 3

Timimi et al continue to attract attention with their book, The Myth of Autism. Others have been kinder than I was in my previous post. Take this offering from The Psychologist

An alternative voice

The Myth of Autism
Sami Timimi, Neil Gardner & Brian McCabe

Just looking at the brief biographies of the authors of this book, I could not help but be intrigued, and a little bit excited. Written by a child psychiatrist and two adults who have received a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, the book is an exploration of the conditions that have constructed a spectrum, one that they claim is ill-defined and unsupported by evidence. The authors waste no time in making their beliefs very clear within the preface of the book with the bold statement that ‘there is no such thing as autism and the label should be abolished’. This is a brave statement indeed, given the inevitable emotions attached
to such a subject. What follows however, is an in-depth analysis of the scientific, social and political conditions that contribute to the construction of the concept of autism.

The book sometimes loses balance, but you cannot help but be moved to intrigue throughout. As an example, a discussion of dominant social structures that value service industry, and thus social communication skills, implied that there is nowhere for people who are ‘different’ in this respect, to hide. Fundamentally, this book caught my imagination. There were many facets of the book that I have no doubt will feel challenging to a variety of readers, but there were parts that also put words to my own concerns as a practitioner. Writing on autism tends to be heavily weighted towards the contrary view, and as the literature around the apparent genetic contribution to autism continues to gather momentum, it is refreshing and I feel, necessary, to hear an alternative voice among the clamour.

Never mind that the book is plain wrong in many important respects, it is “an alternative voice” and so, rather than subject its claims to the same rigorous analysis that it purports to bring to the concept of autism, we are supposed to welcome it.

Someone else has been reading “The Myth of Autism.” My thanks to the blogger at Three Mile Limit for pointing me to Tony Humphrey’s article in the Irish Examiner on February 3rd. According to his website Tony Humphreys is “Ireland’s most influential psychologist.” To judge by his article on autism this does not bode well for psychology or Ireland. In a nutshell he attempts to resurrect the refrigerator parent thesis that was thoroughly debunked in the 1960s but still holds sway in countries like France, and now it seems, in Ireland, where adherents of psycho-dynamic theories of human development have refused to give way to more evidence based theories based on neurology.

Humphreys begins by taking issue with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and his team at Cambridge University who are researching whether or not autism is more common amongst the children of parents in professions like computer science and engineering.

In studies in 1997 and 2001 it was found that the children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be autistic and that mathematicians had higher rates of autism than other professions. What is shocking is that Dr Baron-Cohen and the team of researchers are one: assuming that autism is a scientific fact and, two: missing the glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominently in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children will need to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity.

So autism is not a scientific fact and people who work in the realm of ideas are emotionally defective. This twaddle has been roundly criticized by Three Mile Limit mentioned above, The Family Voyage, Maman Poulet and Bock the Robber. It is also criticized by The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and Irish Autism Action on their FaceBook pages.

Then he brings in Timimi et al to support his argument.

Sami Timimi, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and two colleagues rigorously examined over 5000 research articles on autism and ASD and found no scientific basis for what they now refer to as mythical disorders. They outline their findings in their book ‘The Myth of Autism’ (2011). The conclusion of their indepth studies is that “there is no such thing as autism and the label should be abolished”.

The authors are not saying that the children are not emotionally and socially troubled. What they are saying is – and I concur with them – that focus needs to be on the relationship contexts of these children’s lives, and to take each child for the individual he or she is and to examine closely the family and community narratives and discover creative possibilities for change and for more dynamic and hopeful stories to emerge for both the children and their carers.

I do not know how much of “The Myth of Autism” Tony Humphreys has read. Or how well he has read it. The authors never claim to have rigorously examined 5000 research papers. They do refer to the fact one of the authors had a database of over 5000 articles that he had reviewed while working on a thesis on autism. That thesis is not included in the 300 odd (not 5000) references at the end of the book. What they did do was to carefully choose

a mixture of reviews of certain areas and detailed analysis of particular papers.

That was on page 4. Skip to page page 293 when the authors clearly state

We are NOT saying any of the following: 1. Autism is a condition caused by poor parenting.

That is concurring with Humphreys attack on parents who possess few or no heart qualities? It seems only right that ill-written books should be ill-read. But, bad as it is, The Myth of Autism does not deserve to be as badly read as it was by Tony Humphreys, if he read it at all.


The Psychological Society of Ireland call for Humphreys article to be retracted.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY of Ireland has criticised clinical psychologist Tony Humphreys over a controversial article on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The article by Humphreys in the Irish Examiner last Friday was “not supported by the vast body of research” said Dr Michael Drumm, the head of the PSI.
Dr Drumm said that the asserts made in the article were “unhelpful and likely to cause upset” and that the article should be retracted. Humphreys is not a member of the PSI.
The article had been heavily criticised by Irish Autism Action, parents of children with autism and neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, among others.
In the piece, Humphreys suggested that there was a link between autism and parents not expressing love and affection to their children. The Irish Examiner has since removed the article from its website.
The PSI said this afternoon that it does not support the assertions made by Tony Humphreys.
“Tony Humphreys’ assertions made in the article are not supported by the vast body of published research in the field of Autistic Spectrum Disorders and are unhelpful and likely to cause upset,” said Dr Michael Drumm, president of the PSI. ”It is hoped that the article would be retracted”.

9 thoughts on “The Myth of Autism Part 3

  1. Sharon

    So glad to have your take on this Mike. He’s a lone crank- before this I never heard of anyone in Ireland advancing the refrigerator parent theory. Interesting to read more on how he misrepresented even the Timimi book.

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    1. Mike Post author

      Refrigerator parents – a new perspective? Well it was 60 years ago. Never mind. Humphreys adds to his errors when he claims that Timimi and one of his co-authors were diagnosed with autism when they were children. Wrong again. Timimi has never been diagnosed with autism. But both his co-authors were diagnosed as adults.

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  5. NM

    Looking at what has been written by all on both sides of the fence and even those who sit on the fence it is very upsetting and alarming. Labeling children is wrong and always will be wrong!!!!! We have done it since the beginning of time. Its as if we as humans get comfort in the fact of knowing that such a child or adult has a certain “defect”. Then once we know what the “label” is then thats all we see….. the help the person needs is defined by the label……. don’t we all as children and adults need and deserve help to develop and to become the best we can be. A label shouldn’t be the focus but the person and his environment……

    1. Mike Post author

      So how do we define the help a person needs without using labels? Most clinicians of my acquaintance do not see diagnosis, the “label” as the end point. Diagnosis tells us what a child or adult has in common with other people with similar needs. Next comes the individual assessment that identifies what is unique about that person’s needs and attributes. If this step is flawed or absent blaming the label does not help. Campaigning for individual assessment of needs will help. Mislabelling or misdiagnosing autistic people as the victims of emotional neglect rather than the possessors of a different neurological set up will do harm. Diagnosis is a signpost, not a label and we need to know that it is pointing in the right direction.

  6. J. Alderson

    Hi Mike- I realize your post was several years ago, but I’ve just come across your review and perspective on Mr. Humphrey’s book. I had similar thoughts about it. Coincidentally, I had just submitted my own book Challenging the Myths of Autism for publication (Harper Collins, Aug 2011) when Humphrey’s “Myth of Autism” was released just five months earlier in February. However, like you, I had read and cited Feinstein, Murray, Osteen, (fellow Canadians) Dawson and Mottron, all of whom provide compelling (re)contextualizing of the autism construct. For my part, “Challenging the Myths of Autism” was an attempt to debunk some of the more negative stereotypes about people diagnosed with autism. Using science, research, and anecdotes from my own 25 year personal experience working with families and children I hope that this book arms parents and educators with facts that empower their children and students toward greater acceptance of individual differences in the first instance and toward more hope for what is possible when the strengths of the child with special needs are recognized and nurtured. I would be happy to send you a copy of Challenging the Myths of Autism if you would like.

    Sincerely, Jonathan Alderson


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