The phrase “autism epidemic” sounds harsh but we must recognize the fact that autism is the fastest growing developmental
disorder. Once considered a “genetic disorder,” autism is now being diagnosed at an astounding rate. Yet while parents, health
professionals, teachers, and a growing number of researchers confirm the overabundance of autistic children, this biological
condition seems to have touched off an epidemic of public concern. There’s much criticism concerning denial of both the fact
of a rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism and the possibility that genetic factors may have influence the
increase. This denial only threatens to accelerate an educational, financial, social and human catastrophe in future years.
Living in Epidemic Denial
Diagnoses of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) or autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have increased
since they were first exposed there has been a rapid increase over the last decade. Where rates were once 3 in 10,000, they are
now 1 in 91 to 1 in 100. This is an increase from the prior statistic of one in 150 children reported in 2007 by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This increase is apparently to be nationwide.
Although no other state has kept comparable statistics, the US Department of Education has recorded a nationwide average
increase of 544 percent in autistic students from 1992-93 to 2000-01, and comparable rates have been found in a number of
local studies. A CDC study showed a tenfold increase over the last decade. There are several ways in which these figures
considerably underestimate the extent of the inflation. Mainly, autism affects boys three to four times as often as girls;
furthermore, the rates in California reported only the most severe cases; when mildly but still notably impaired children are
included, the numbers can be significantly higher. And many people consider other disorders, such as Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and many learning disabilities, to be on a spectrum with autism.
Perceived to be an epidemic, autism may affect a range of millions worldwide to as many as 20 percent of children in the U.S.
Such an extreme growth implies the influence of non-genetic or environmental factors, since, there is no such thing as a
“genetic epidemic.” But research continues to focus almost exclusively on studies of brains, screening and genes, as well as on
denying the increase or disproving the connection of controversial environmental triggers, especially immunizations.
Autism a Genetic Condition
What does it mean to describe a condition as genetic? Every disease, including viral and infectious ones, involves vulnerabilities
or resistances that relate in somehow to genetic influences. But for many autism researchers, genetics is not about infliction or
vulnerability it is about “cause” and “purpose.” These researchers justify their search for autism genes by presenting a study of
twins: while a range of 36 to 96 percent of both identical twins have autistic features, this is true for only 0 to 33 percent of
fraternal twins. The irregularity in the numbers shows that claims of entirely genetic roots are frivolous; but these figures can
also be used to argue that environmental factors must play a role, since the link for identical twins is not 100%.
However, the “genetic” approach to autism has secured upwards of $60 million in research funding. To date there have been
as many as eight inheritable traits scans and dozens of genetic studies. As in so many other gene research studies, at least a
few specific regions have been located on nearly every chromosome, but they have not led to particular gene for investigation.
Autism a Biological Disorder
Many established autism researchers understandably pride themselves on ejecting the discriminatory “refrigerator mother”
theory, which thought that autism was a behavioral response of children to mothers who failed to display affection. Findings in
the 1980s of abnormalities in autistic brains freed parents of this blame and shame, and opened the way to treating autism as a
biological disorder. These brain abnormalities appeared to be of prenatal origin, and this seemed to fit with the evidence for
genetic causes and the lifelong, apparently irreversible impairment of people with autism.
Researchers concluded that autism was determined by the genes, and originated before birth, and is treatable by behavior
modification. This has established the recent research guide, which is mainly driven by genetics, neuroscience and psychology.
But this theory is now evolving. New evidence is emerging from both within and outside the dominant research areas that
makes autism look more like an environmentally designed condition. Many autistic children turn out to develop abnormally
large brains, and do so after birth, in the first 2-3 years of life. Recent studies suggest that other brain changes, previously
thought to be prenatal, could have occurred after birth.
It also turns out that autistic children have considerable ailments not only in their brains but in their bodies. While the
researchers and health community considers physical symptoms to be “circumstantial” to the root autism, and pays little
attention to them, subgroups of autistic children have common patterns of significant biomedical illness notably immune
system disturbances, disturbances in various biochemical passages (including impaired detoxification, which may explain
increased susceptibility to toxic exposure), and painful gastrointestinal conditions. When treated biomedically, many autistic
children have shown great behavioral improvement and improved receptiveness, suggesting that their behaviors aren’t entirely
From a general perspective, which defines autism in terms of a rigid genetically originated brain disorder, it is unfathomable
that nutritional or metabolic interventions could have any effect on the condition. Therefore, such approaches are dismissed,
usually without investigation, as “controversial.” But for those who see autism as an environmentally driven condition, it makes
perfect sense that the body as well as the brain should be affected. Why would toxins only inflict illness to the brain? A
growing social movement of parents and doctors who take environmental causes seriously feel that the genetic approach has
letdown autistic children by assuming that biomedical treatment can’t help. They argue that they look at their physically ill
children and “believe what they see,” while the genetic advocates “see what they believe.”
The Bio-Medical Approach
The mainstream’s refusal towards new approaches to autism exposes two sets of rules about evidence. While parents and
practitioners offering these methods are unable on their own to bear the overwhelming cost of double-blind controlled studies,
neither have the accepted pharmacological and behavioral approaches been tested in this precise manner. No one in the field of
autism treatment has much support for achieving an acknowledged formula of “Evidence Based Medicine”.
Progress in biomedical treatments will only happen once researchers move beyond a persistently gene-brain link and coordinate
funding to physiological and toxicological autism research. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to investigate
biomedical approaches for autism, since many of the most promising nutritional interventions have little potential for patent as a
result there is little profit. Because the environmental triggers underlying the autism epidemic are supposedly harming not just
the brain but the body as well, researcher should be testing and analyzing biomedical approaches, rather than just searching for
new psychological drugs, behavioral treatments and gene recognition.
First we must understand the source of these two sets of denials. The denial of increasing incidence in autism and the denial of
non-genetic biological and environmental factors are essential both to responding to autism and understanding the ideal role of
genetic research in modern America.
At a conference in October 2002 at Rutgers University entitled “Autism: Genes and the Environment,” leading researchers of
the genetic background shared the stage with toxicologists in what seemed to indicate the careful beginnings of a new
culmination. But there is still no coordinated step toward a research study that includes genes and environment. There are
probably several reasons for this. Certainly there are significant economic forces that stand to gain from the current direction
The idea that identifying genes and brain connections will lead to targeted drug development not only benefits the
pharmaceutical industry, but also leads researchers to down a path that is familiar and realistic. In the belief of many
researchers, is that genes dominate, while environmental factors seem trivial and secondary. Furthermore, examining
environmental agents as causes opens up a difficult situation exposed to imperfections.
It’s difficult to envision that toxic results found in autism were triggered by the environment, without doubting one’s own
health and the health of our family. The thought of human actions, rather than genes, being responsible for exposing the health
of a huge portion of a whole generation is, unimaginable. And if there are environmental causes, then there may be liability and
corporate accountability. If mismanagement with chemicals can harm children so extensively, ultimately manufacturers will
have to reinvent the way they do things. This is a controversial issue where precautions will have to be taken, and the way we
live would change. This is so significant that companies will go through great lengths to avoid.
The Social Cost of Autism
At the same time, the dedication of many researchers, regulators, legislators, investors, as well as some parent groups to
explain away the increased incidence of autism will have serious social effects. School districts have an excess amount of
autistic children. These children are often unable to function within a mainstream classroom, for several reasons because of
violent or self-inflicted behaviors, lack of toilet training, or inability to communicate. The cost of providing them with
individualized behavioral therapy, which requires up to forty hours a week for maximum effectiveness, can run from $30,000
to $60,000 per year, per child. As a result, the already low budget, public school districts will rather avoid providing these
services, and parents without the financial means are left with few options for their children, since Medicaid will not cover the
complete amount of behavioral therapy.
Autism was once thought to be a genetic disorder in origin, the extreme rise in the number of cases during the last decade
shows that environmental triggers may also be to blame. The huge increase in autism rates coincides, with the early 1990s, the
release of two new thimerosal vaccines to the infant immunization schedule. In 1999, the FDA disclosed that the amount of
mercury in vaccines surpassed EPA safety guidelines. Manufacturers were asked to remove thimerosal, although existing
substance were left on the shelves. Parent groups like Safe Minds demonstrated that the symptoms of mercury poisoning
matched the abnormalities they saw in their children. Scientists are now showing that vaccine levels of thimerosal can cause
neuronal apoptosis, immune imbalances, and autistic like brain lesions and behaviors.
Not only are lawsuits a threat, but the presence of an untested toxin in infant vaccines raises the question of whether vaccines
are being properly evaluated before being released to the public. Vaccines are considered a lucrative business for
pharmaceuticals now and in the future. Hundreds of vaccines are in various stages of development. Revenues are expected to
reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Parents of autistic children are making a recognizable interference, but the
pharmaceutical giants are avenging with denials.
According to Safe Minds, full-spectrum autism (low functioning), even if treated early and intensively, continues to have a
poor prognosis. As this generation of children ages and their parents are no longer able to provide full-time care for them,
residential institutions will be unable to provide facilities for even a fraction of these autistic adults. Estimates of the lifetime
costs of care for a child diagnosed with autism today range widely from conservative predictions of $2 million, to published
figures as high as $12.4 million, depending on the extent of therapies, care, and support services figured into the equation.
Over the next decade, the autism epidemic is likely to cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
A children’s epidemic opens up an outpouring of concern and sets off a crucial search for effective action. While discoveries
that abnormal events may be occurring after birth should initiate a search for environmental triggers, it also opens up optimistic
views for prevention and for treatment.
Time and time again we hear about conferences victoriously announcing that “scientists are closing in” on the genetics of
autism. The objective of genetics researchers, in failure of their efforts, has been simply increasing the number of genes they
expect to find. Currently, the number of genes identified in autism is up to twenty or more, where it used to be as few as three
or four. The attempts should focus on to recognizing the increased susceptibility for autism in small subgroups.
To persist on a genetic explanation for autism, and insist that the epidemic is a consequence of heredity rather than toxic
effects, is a desperate attempt to maintain new chemicals and technology, which always brings advancements. By simplifying
a complex genetic theory researchers are obscuring the epidemic, because it carries taboos within the scientific community
against potentially controversial ideas about environmental factors, and it distracts governments from addressing the financial
and social demands that this epidemic generated.
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