Friday, 9 November 2018

Autism & Broccoli

I have no strong feelings about broccoli.
It's a difficult thing to get passionate about.
It's a pretty inoffensive side-dish, not known to polarize emotions or provoke controversy.
In fact, I didn't even know broccoli existed til about 1985. 
Until the Irish economy exploded and we got strung out on complicated coffees, and developed notions about playing sports other than GAA, our dinner plates were a simple affair.  Before this, the only veg we were familiar with were overcooked cabbage and a plate of mashed spuds the size of a child's head.  Sometimes we'd go crazy with a few brussel sprouts at Christmas, but that was for show more than substance.

But a lot of changes occurred in Ireland in the 1980s.
We began to question religion and wondered troublesome things like "is it really my fault that some ancient Israeli dude was executed for being a bit of a hipster?.... I mean, I wasn't even there" and "exactly how is Scientology any madder than Catholicism?" (my religion teacher hated me).
The slow demise of catholic guilt led to crazy social reforms like the introduction of contraception and divorce; suddenly single parent families were a thing, and relieved wombs were given time to consider their options in between churning out hundreds of stalwart, god-fearing babies.
Protestants and Catholics got a bit sick of shooting the heads off each other and started to take tentative steps towards developing a peace process; it only took 800 years for god warriors to consider that maybe murdering each other was kinda missing the point of the religion they supposedly protected.
So, even though the 80s were mostly about shoulder pads and massively back-combed hair, social reform crept in with better education and shook up our rain-soaked country; it was a pretty confusing time.

But things didn't start to get seriously freaky until our mothers started buying things like oregano and bell peppers from the supermarket; it was like martians dropped the Shroud of Turin on our kitchen tables with the condition that we somehow add it to our shepherd's pie.
We had no idea what to do with this stuff.
We spent many happy Friday evenings prodding these curiosities with our fingers.... if memory serves correctly, a drill was produced in our kitchen at one point to go toe-to-toe with a particularly Stalinist coconut.
But in the middle of mistrusting chilies, and treating avocados like primed grenades, broccoli slipped unobtrusively onto our plates, and has been sitting there quietly since.

But, as it turns out, not so much sitting quietly as biding it's time.

Now it's wide-eyed innocence has been called to question as broccoli seems to be enjoying an image overhaul and has become the new darling of autism treatments. It has become the Pygmalion of the humble side-dish, and I'm beginning to long for the day that food can just be food, without needing to be a pharmacological panacea for all ills.

As ever, when I hear about another dietary treatment for autism, I feel an overwhelming urge to strap myself to a railway track at rush hour and have a nice little lie-down.  I don't so much feel tired, as tired of feeling tired.  The oncoming train of inevitable disappointment and cynicism couldn't put me out of my misery quickly enough.  Along with turmeric, coconut oil, megadoses of vitamins and some seriously dodgy cabbage soup, I assumed that broccoli would join the ranks of The Ridiculous as far as treating autism goes.

.... a number of research articles indicate that sulforaphane (a compound within broccoli already cited  as being helpful in inflammatory conditions) has been useful in alleviating symptoms associated with autism.  This small, double-blind, randomised study yielded some positive results, although the data seems to have been collected by parental observation.  Another on-going study looking at the safety and efficacy of sulforaphane in the treatment of autistic kids is giving it the green light.  A paper published in 2014  found behavioural improvements in autistic people receiving an active supplement rather than a placebo over an 18 week period. 
Research into its usefulness seems to be grinding along without fanfare, and it's a little surprising that marketers haven't pounced on this as their new golden egg.  I suppose the difficulty there is that they can't suddenly start selling broccoli on prescription.... even if they stick it in a pretty box or add some sciency jargon to it, it's still just broccoli.  Hate that.

autism cured

In fairness, in all my intensive, in-depth research (half an hour sifting through Google with a strong coffee), I didn't come across anyone promising a cure.  There are no websites promoting broccoli-themed health spas where you sign your house over to a "therapist", wrap your child's head in green vegetation and feed him nothing except, well, broccoli.  The science behind the interest in it as a treatment seems pretty solid.

Autism & Broccoli is probably not something I'd order in a restaurant, but I wouldn't rush to throw it on the compost heap either.  If it helps manage the hard stuff, so well and good.  If it doesn't, you won't lose the shirt on your back over it.  So it looks like there won't be any blood on the tracks over this one.

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