Top critical review
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Promising, but not yet there
on November 12, 2002
What "Children with Starving Brains" gives is an up-to-date (2002) review of possible bio-medical causes of autism, and for each cause, a relevant course of treatment. The book gives an overview of such causal theories such as leaky-gut, viral infection, heavy metal poisoning, and more. This is the first book I've seen that lists specific and mostly common medical diagnostic tests of blood, urine, stool, and how these tests can suggest a possible bio-medical cause and thus a relevant course of treatment. This is certainly a more reasoned approach to treatment than the older "just try everything until something works".
There are several red flags, though. The author's 14th granddaughter was diagnosed in 1996, and from that time she switched her medical specialty to autism. The book is largely based on her own reading, discussions and clinical experience over the last six years. Somehow, six years doesn't seem long enough to be sufficiently expert on autism treatment to write a book. Her conviction that most cases of autism have a bio-medical cause, and that these autism will be reversed when the cause is removed seems more dogmatic than factual. She cites statistics like "90% of autism has some bio-medical cause" and "bio-medical treatments are more effective before age 5", but she doesn't include the source of these facts, leading me to believe she is relying more on her own observations than on studies. Without any evidence she includes ADD, ADHD and dyslexia in the autism spectrum throughout the book, suggesting the same root causes and treatments for these disorders. The tone of the book alternately reflects the title, then the subtitle: sometimes leaning towards the sensational and emotional, other times the clinical and factual. Strangely, an appendix presents the argument to just accept individuals with autism as they are, and not treat their condition. Overall, however, the book keeps perspective and balance, which keeps it credible.
The only mention of ABA (which I personally advocate for) I could find in the book was in the foreword. The author thanks numerous people at length. Second on the list the author thanks Dr. Lovaas, noting that her granddaughter greatly benefited from ABA treatment. I wish the author had emphasized this point a little more strongly throughout the book. Removing the cause of autism is important, but these children still need intervention to help them adapt around any neurological damage caused before being cured, and to help them catch up to their peers.
Overall, the proponents of the bio-medical causes of autism need to keep working on the theory and treatment of autism. Broadly, this book indicates that bio-medical theories of autism have developed a great deal and will continue to do so. A few more years, and maybe some of these causality theories will be conclusively proven right, and the corresponding treatments shown to be wonderfully effective. Until then, parents should be aware of such options, but continue to make their treatment decisions carefully.