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
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 150. A recent state funded study conducted by the M.I.N.D.
Institute in California confirmed a 273 percent increase in autism from 1987 through 1998, originally
reported in a March 1999 study conducted by the California Department of Developmental Services, which
disagrees that the rise is not due to more aggressive diagnosis, improved detection, or certain populations.
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
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 fixed.
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 of research.
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
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.