CHIP THERAPY: A Cure for Autism?

Apologies in advance to anyone anticipating the usual mix of waffle, rant and, hem-hem, “humour”. Today’s blog falls more into the category of ‘getting it off my chest”, and is a bit long-winded too at almost 2000 words. If you have no interest in the subject of autism then this is not the post for you and feel free to just pass on by. I’ll try to remember to post something a bit lighter tomorrow to make up for it – probably in the “Hackenthorpe Book of Lies” section.

For those who might be interested:

As the parent of an autistic child I am increasingly worried by the number of ‘woo’ therapies and interventions being promoted these days as alternatives to good, old fashioned, sensible parenting. The best of them at least encourage aspects of sensible parenting along with the rubbish elements, but can cost thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours only to take all credit away from the children and sensible parents whose combined efforts have actually achieved the results.

The worst kinds of therapies and interventions can, IMO, actually do harm, both physically and psychologically, to parents and children alike, further disabling autistic children by enabling dependencies and accommodating potentially manageable antisocial behaviours in ways that work to further isolate the child from the real world. Other therapies seek to ‘normalise’ children by forcing them to adhere to rigid medical models of neurotypical excellence that are often wholly inappropriate or unsustainable for autistic people. Watch a video of a DAN rally ‘stage parade’ if you want to see normalisation in action.

Of course there are many things that can help autistic people – PECS, for example, is a great communication tool for those who haven’t developed language or need to augment their speech – but even useful tools like this need to be used with caution lest the means to social communication become a strategy for social withdrawal. When used properly the benefits of something like PECS can be clearly seen, but sadly for every PECS there seem to be half a dozen alternative interventions where people claim evidence of a connection between strategy and outcome that is wildly subjective to say the very least.

I’m not going to write about any specific intervention here because there are far too many to cover, but the following can be generally applied to most of them…

If I, as the parent of an autistic child, came up with the idea of, say, ‘eating chips therapy’, and gave my son lots of chips to eat I could perceive ‘results’ that actually weren’t there purely and simply because I was looking for and anticipating results. I could, also, unconsciously (or even consciously, as part of the ‘treatment’) modify my own behaviours in ways that were conducive to the emergence of new behaviours (or modifications in old behaviours) in my child that I perceived as positive, chip related advances, but which were in reality completely unconnected with his increased consumption of chips. This doesn’t apply only to behaviour but to academic achievement and all other aspects of a child’s development too.

Intellectually, I know from experience that my own son often makes quantum leaps of understanding rather than learning in the linear way that most neurotypical children do, and I’ve anecdotal evidence that this applies for many other autistic children. Were ‘Chip Therapy’ to be introduced at around the same time a child achieved one of those leaps, it would be very easy to draw the conclusion that the leap occurred as a direct result of ‘Chip Therapy’.

For many high functioning autistic children quantum leaps can actually be anticipated by age, in much the same way that linear development in non-autistic children can be predicted. While the timescales and triggers may differ, there do seem to be patterns of behaviour and these seem related, as they are in non-autistic children, to the development of theory of mind. A good example is the onset of speech, where many ‘late’ talkers (as distinct from those who speak at the usual age or who remain non-verbal) start to talk between 3.5 and 4.5 years, when wider social inclusion tends to trigger a need for communication that may have previously been negated by parental intuition and/or intervention. If children were specifically targeted for Chip Therapy at this age, it would be very easy for a ‘Chip Therapist’ to take credit for the emergence of speech when it was actually a completely natural and potentially predictable development arising from social rather than therapeutic stimuli.

Ideally, from a salesman’s point of view, the best time to introduce parents to Chip Therapy would be around the time of diagnosis, because parents would be more desperate and psychologically vulnerable; grieving for the ‘normal’ child they have lost while struggling to adjust to the possible implications of lifelong disability and dependency. Understandably, they would, during this period, be more likely to ‘see what they wanted to see’. That this coincides with all sorts of input from other resources is a huge bonus, because any advances made due to the efforts of those other resources can also be ascribed to Chip Therapy. Increasingly children are being diagnosed in pre-school or reception, which dovetails nicely with the advances in speech, social awareness and theory of mind mentioned above.

Couple those factors with the onset of a ‘treatment programme’ that involves huge changes in daily routines and a ‘raising of the bar’ in terms of expectations and it would actually be more remarkable if advances – real or perceived – weren’t observed in a child.

There could be other changes that occurred not as a direct result of Chip Therapy, but because of new expectations implied by Chip Therapy. A parent might, for example, apply more rigid portion control at mealtimes which resulted in their child eating less, or, if the child had previously been able to ‘snack’ on biscuits etc at all hours of the day, in the child being incentivised to eat full meals at the designated mealtimes. Dietary restrictions could also prompt the child to eat a wider range of healthy food along with the chips, purely and simply because the unhealthy options previously chosen were no longer made available. Table manners might improve generally as a result of introducing rules and expectations regarding chip eating.

None of these things would make Chip Therapy anything other than snake oil, but if I could convince people they did, I could charge desperate parents large amounts of money for my ‘secret’, weaving more and more bullshit around the theory to disguise the fact that it really wasn’t very much at all and to justify the workshops, seminars, training and costs. If I then set up an official sounding ‘Institute of Chip Therapy’ that offered official looking qualifications in Chip Therapy Practice this would add weight to the perceived value of Chip Therapy and offer opportunities for increased turnover via pyramid style training schemes that turned every parent buying into the therapy into a qualified and practicing Chip Therapist who could then convert other parents. The power of word of mouth and personal recommendation is worth thousands in advertising, as any good con artist, spiritualist or faith healer would be able to tell you.

If business was brisk I could expand the operation by marketing special ‘Chip Therapy’ plates and cutlery, star charts and/or ‘complimentary’ therapies. I could perhaps work in partnership with pedlars of other brands of snake oil to create a ‘multidisciplinary clinic’, with each branch of the clinic adding a perceived (but totally imaginary) degree of credibility to the claims of the others. An added advantage here would be that the additional layers of the practice’s infrastructure would make it much easier to conceal the fact that each branch was effectively self monitoring and all professional certification self generated. The more anecdotal evidence there was that Chip Therapy worked (and there would be, because other people would replicate the accidentals and incidentals I created accidentally and incidentally and perhaps add more of their own) the bigger my Chip Therapy empire would get.

Of course, not everyone would fall for it and not every child would develop positive skills that I (or any other chip therapist) could take credit for – it’s an unfortunate fact that some autistic people never develop speech or respond other than out of necessity to any sort of social interaction. Having said that, when it didn’t ‘work’ for some (which of course it wouldn’t because it’s all bullshit and subjective projection), I could either blame the parents (“you’re not doing it right”), or the child (“there must be something else going on here, has he/she been checked for…”), or just use the ever popular cop-out of a small shrug and an explanation along the lines of “well, there are no guarantees, Chip Therapy doesn’t work for everyone, and, no, you can’t have your money back”. Any of those, or combinations thereof, sound familiar to anyone?

The implications of failure for the parent are of course devastating, because it implies a failure either on their part to deliver Chip Therapy correctly or on their child’s part to ‘respond to treatment’. If they buy into the idea that there ‘must be something else going on’ they might spend many years and thousands of pounds chasing inappropriate and unhelpful diagnoses, and if they encounter the wrong kind of ‘professionals’ in that quest actually end up buying into therapies, treatments and interventions or applying labels that are even more damaging or abusive.

On the other hand, they might just invest even more time and money in Chip Therapy, because if there is one thing that is absolutely established about human psychology it is our capacity for self delusion. You’ll find it in any psychology text book, in any book about the methodology employed by con-artists or snake oil pedlars and in any exposition of frauds, charlatans and purveyors of woo: The more an individual invests in something in terms of time, money, emotion and resources the more likely they are to ‘see’ results that aren’t real, to reinvest further, to promote and endorse the product to others and to deny/be in denial about any negatives that might arise.

In that respect, Chip therapy could be a highly successful and very marketable product – but its success would not prove it was valid, or that the results attributed to it were real. It couldn’t, because it isn’t and they ain’t.

My son has achieved far more than many 1000’s of children who have had thousands of pounds, hours and energy invested in them under the guise of various therapies and interventions. You could say that’s ‘luck’ or whatever (‘every child is different’ is the ultimate cop-out phrase in this regard, implying everything but actually meaning nothing), or even give him and/or me some credit for it, but one thing nobody with a vested interest in any of these therapies would do is accept it as evidence against the efficacy of their particular brand of snake oil. Which is odd, because statistically there are undoubtedly more kids like my kid, who have achieved sans snake oils, than there are who can be conclusively shown to have achieved as a direct result of them.

Oh no, actually, that’s not odd at all… it’s what the psychology books tell us is perfectly normal.

PS: My book on Chip Therapy will be available from Pingwing Publications just as soon as I’ve cobbled it together. Just £19.99 and every copy will come with a voucher redeemable at Iceland for a free 1kg bag of oven chips. If you really care about your child, pre-order your copy TODAY


Motivational Monday

9 thoughts on “CHIP THERAPY: A Cure for Autism?”

  1. NB: I received the following comment on this post, attached to which was a link to the website of a lady offering ‘parenting training services’ for parents of disabled children:

    Comment: “Early Childhood Training Maximizes Future Potential.”

    I would endorse this completely. It applies not only to disabled children but to every other child too. I think the words ‘Early Childhood Training’ and ‘Sensible Parenting’ are completely interchangeable. While I fully accept that some parents need steering in the right direction I do not think that parenting skills are something that parents need to pay through the nose for, or that helping children to achieve their potential need involve any ‘woo’, or round the clock indoctrination and/or normalisation. Most of what parents need to know can be found in books freely available from local libraries or by sitting down in front of the TV and watching a few episodes of Jo Frost’s ‘Supernanny’.

    Consistency, concrete boundaries and realistic expectations provide an environment where parents and children can engage with each other in positive ways. From that foundation everything else can follow, with any needs or skillsets identified and responded to in appropriate and fun ways that encourage child and parent interaction and mutual respect. When ‘learning’ is an enjoyable and inclusive pastime rather than a mundane chore children delight in it. When children know what is expected of them and know that boundaries exist and that real sanctions will come into play if they overstep those boundaries they feel comfortable and reassured. When parents clearly enjoy spending time with their children and don’t respond to them as though they are an intrusion on their hectic lives children feel loved in a way that can never be compensated for by ‘stuff’ or money or over-indulgence or by mawkish emoshunal outpourings on high days and holidays or in the aftermath of a blazing row.

    Really, it’s all common sense.

    To the Lady who posted the link – I have removed the link because I don’t know what your website is about. If you make a living from selling your services then I’d rather not have my blog appropriated as an advertising space for those services. If, on the other hand, you offer all of your services completely free of charge and all other commercial interests are excluded from your site (i.e. to therapists who charge or books you / others have written or self published etc) I’ll be happy to reinstate the link…

  2. Here, Here! Good for you that you so eloquently put what I feel many parents probably feel though may be too ‘invested’ in such a programme to admit it. I work as a support for learning teacher but have learnt far more from pupils with autism than I have managed to teach and for that I am very grateful. I am deeply suspicious of any therapy that seeks to ‘normalise’ and have had most success from working alongside parents, the child and a good practical occupational therapist than anything else. Flexibility opens up a world of possibilities and it is up to us ‘neurotypicals’ to be the flexible ones and work out ways to adapt in order to properly be ‘inclusive’

    1. Yes, it would be lovely if the world were more accommodating of difference, wouldn’t it? Evolution has always recognised biodiversity as a positive thing, and it’s widely acknowledged that most of histories great thinkers, inventors, artists, musicians etc had more than a pinch of the ‘autie’ mindset about them, so it’s crazy that society seems increasingly determined to take only a negative view…

      Of course, I’m not suggesting that profound autism is anything other than a devastating disability (as can be ‘mild’ autism or Asperger’s, though that more often than not is because of the value judgements made and social responses rather than the disability itself), but it IS part of the same continuum…

      Evidence suggests that our cave-dwelling ancestors were more accommodating and supportive of their elderly, disabled, infirm etc than we are today. That’s devolution, not evolution. As you say, a healthy dose of flexibility from the neurotypical population would make a huge difference to the quality of life of all disabled people. Such a pity, then, that in 2013 we still use a neurotypical model of excellence as the yardstick, regardless of how inappropriate it might be for the individual.

      Whoops – I’m off on another rant! Thanks for comment 😀

  3. I think there’s already a version of chip therapy out there i’m afraid – it’s called “let’s ignore your child and see if they just grow-out of it”.
    I do like chips though – wonder if they’d solve my problems.

    1. Yes, Chip Therapy comes in all sorts of guises… That said, though, if anxious parents see a positive effect from just giving their kids a bit of time and space then ‘wait and see’ is probably good advice. I’m more concerned about those parents whose anxieties are exploited to draw them into iffy ‘treatment programmes’. Once they’ve invested in that programme any advance the child makes will be invariably ascribed to the treatment, regardless of any other factors that are relevant. All ‘woo’ tends to work on that premise, including Chip Therapy!

      Thanks for comment 😀

  4. Hi, nice piece. God damn I wish chip therapy worked as if it did my girl would be “cured.” I am very wary of all the “treatments” available but at the same time am constantly looking into them. I’m ashamed to say I tried the GFCF diet (epic fail) but other than that its just one to one with a TA and getting her statement through before she starts (special) school next year. It’s a bit of a conundrum as my daughter is fairly low functioning but fairly intelligent and the thought of her never becoming more functioning is scary… I guess that’s the reason I’d be prepared to throw any money I could get together on something that seemed realistic. Speech therapy, communication, toilet training etc. There’ll be no ABA or any other hardcore military schemes in my house (because they scare me more.) But as a parent I feel I need to do something, anything to help!

    1. Hi mamarsme – thanks for comment. Coincidentally, GFCF diet IS something my son followed until very recently and with very good results! That said, he had a non-specific bowel disorder and as a baby would vomit alarmingly on a regular basis (at least 4 – 5 days a week, sometimes 3/4 times per day/night), so the dairy connection was signposted from the outset. After over a year of chucking all sorts of meds and fibre drinks down him with no change and after being told by the specialist consultant that it ‘couldn’t be milk related’ I stopped giving him dairy and the vomiting reduced pretty much overnight. Further investigation (blood tests and an endoscopy) revealed anaemia and leaky gut (‘stomach lesions’), which seemed to tie in with Paul Shattock’s GF/DF theories so I get a urine analysis done and trialed GF too… It may well be that the behavioural improvements had more to do with relief of discomfort, but there were definite improvements, and when I ‘challenged’ the diet by reintroducing gluten every couple of years there were definite negatives. So what I can say is that GF/DF did help my son, but there were all sorts of indicators that he had wider medical issues (outside of autism) predicting that. I’m not a great believer in the idea that tiny ‘trace elements’ of gluten can trigger huge reactions, however, and there seems little evidence in Paul Shattock’s research and the ‘blood / brain barrier’ theory to back that up.

      Quick observations about your daughter and statement etc – if this is for primary and she’s still pre-school is there an NAS run ‘early birds’ group in your area? I attended one with Ben, and it was helpful and reassuring, iykwim. Very best with that transition, and thanks again for your comments 🙂

      1. Hi, yes it is for primary. I’ve done the rounds with the CDC communication courses and have looked into the NAS ones but tbh as a single mum of two toddlers I just haven’t gotten round to it. We are in a good place (autistically lol) I’m not one to go through the grieving process, more take it on the chin and google the hell out of it!

        Glad the GFCF diet works for your boy, do agree that there will usually be an underlying condition and the relief can appear as symptoms lifting.

      2. Yes, I can see you would be kept quite busy! Glad you’re in a good (autistically) place, and taking it on the chin is definitely the best way to go! Things do creep up and bite you on the bum sometimes, though, especially if you’re trying to do it all on your own, so allow yourself some space for that too 🙂

        Early Bird – the things I got most from it were a – it helped me feel less isolated, and b – some lovely videos of Ben and I during ‘Golden Time’ that just wouldn’t have got filmed otherwise…

        GF/DF – Ben’s no longer on the strict diet, but doesn’t do much of either. The ‘side effects’ seemed to disappear around 12-14yrs, but earlier challenges to the regime definitely brought negative results…

        Lovely summer we’re having – I hope you and the kids are getting loads of opportunities to make the most of it. Thanks for comments 😀

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