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Netflix urged to take down “deeply irresponsible” documentary linking autism and gut health

The National Autistic Society has described a new Netflix documentary which links autism with gut health as “deeply irresponsible” and “offensive”.

Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut explores the link between the gut microbiome and your overall health and wellbeing, as well as how the gut and the brain are linked.

Autism referred to as a ‘disease’

Autism is mentioned several times throughout the programme. In the opening sequence, we hear autism referred to as a “disease” when the presenter says: “Diseases like anxiety and depression, cancer, autism and Parkinson’s are all related to the gut.”

The National Autistic Society highlights that autism is a lifelong disability, and words like “disease” suggest something is wrong with someone and it can be cured.

“That’s just not appropriate when talking about autistic people,” the charity said.

Links between autism and gut health ‘not backed up’ by scientific evidence

Later on, John Cryan, Neuroscientist at University College York, says co-occurrences of gut problems with ‘brain problems’ are “very common”, and he specifically mentions autism in relation to this.

“One thing I’m really interested in is when we have co-occurrences of gut problems with brain problems, and it’s very common. It’s very common in autism, Parkinson’s disease, but also in stress-related psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and depression. And so, which came first is always the question,” he said.

Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, highlights not only the problematic use of ‘brain problem’ in relation to autism, but also that this link is “casually made” and not “backed up” by any scientific evidence.

While Jack Gilbert, Microbial Ecologist, UC San Diego, mentions that he has undertaken research which found that “in many cases of autism, there are children that have diarrhoea or severe constipation”, no further information about this research is given.

The documentary also discussed faecal microbial transplants (FMT), which involves transferring healthy bacteria in a mixture of prepared processed stool from a healthy donor to the intestine of the patient.

In the United States, the FDA has approved the use of FMT for recurrent Clostridioides difficile infection, which causes diarrhoea, but researchers are now looking into whether this therapy could treat other conditions, including autism.

The documentary mentions research which took gut bacteria from humans with Parkinson’s disease and transplanted this bacteria into mice. When these mice were then given ‘missing’ healthy bacteria, their symptoms improved. However, there was no mention of whether any similar studies had taken place looking at autism specifically.

NAS have urged Netflix to take down the documentary

Mr Nicholls, says it is “disgraceful” that Netflix has given a platform to a show which “casually promotes dodgy and untested science about autism.”

“Autistic people watching will have heard themselves talked about in the most stigmatising and unacceptable ways. They will have heard that autism is a ‘disease’, a ‘brain problem’ and a chronic condition that we need to ‘get a handle on’.

“Autism is a lifelong disability, not a disease or a temporary symptom linked to gut health, and cannot be treated or cured. To suggest otherwise is wrong, deeply irresponsible, and offensive to autistic people and their families,” he said.

The National Autistic Society is now urging Netflix to take down the documentary, stating that autistic people are not “click bait for media companies to entice viewers.”

“We will challenge stereotypes, stigma and misinformation about autism wherever we see it, so we can create a society that works for autistic people,” Mr Nicholls said.

Netflix has thanked the National Autistic Society for their feedback, adding they have made a note of their complaint. We have contacted the streaming service for further comment, but are yet to receive a response.

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