About six months ago I wrote a piece called "The Really Big Lie About Autism" in which I described the persistent yet illogical claim that all the autistic kids filling speech therapy sessions, classrooms, and even whole schools, are the result of "better diagnosing and greater awareness" on the part of doctors. In other words, autism has always been a major childhood disorder; we just didn't recognize it for what it was.
That article focused on the Really Big Lie About Autism as told to parents by the medical community. Regardless of the number of autistic kids sitting in their waiting rooms, doctors are satisfied that it's all due to their keener sense of observation.
The Really Big Lie About Autism has just been updated and expanded.
This past month the Centers for Disease Control released the findings of a major study on autism. There were actually two surveys done looking at eight-year-olds, the first in six states and a second looking at eight-year-olds in 14 states. On average, they found that about one in 150 children born in 1992 and 1994, or 6.7 per thousand, have autism. New Jersey was on the high side with one in every 94 children, including one in every 60 boys.
The CDC announced this latest mind-boggling rate with an air of pride. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding explained that the new numbers were because "our estimates are becoming better and more consistent."
Now it seems that the CDC is on a par with the medical community with the news about this new autism rate. Not only are doctors better at diagnosing, but also CDC officials are better at counting.
Incredibly, the CDC still cannot say with any certainty that autism is actually affecting more children despite all the autistic kids everywhere. The CDC has been studying autism numbers for more than ten years, yet they don't know if it's more prevalent.
Dr. Gerberding explained it this way, "We can't yet tell if there is a true increase in ASDs or if the changes are the result of our better studies."
The CDC still can't tell? This agency gets billions of tax dollars each year to run health care in the US. They can give us statistics on any other disorder or disease broken down by age, sex, and ethnicity, including changes in the incidence rate -- except autism. The study's lead author, Dr. Catherine Rice, made it clear that nothing in her research can tell us about trends. "We hope these findings will build awareness," Rice said.
A number of experts quickly rallied to the defense of the "no real increase" position. Doctors have come out officially to remind us that there is nothing to be alarmed about concerning the new one in every 150 children rate.
Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of the CDC's developmental-disabilities program at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities was interviewed in Newsweek and agreed that it isn't that "the rates of autism have gone up, just that now we have some more definitive data."
On ABC’s 20/20 on February 23rd, Dr Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, explained that the increase in autism is due to the fact that "people that we once called quirky or geeky or nerdy are now called autistic."
He further stated that with a label of autism, it would "allow that child then to qualify for services which otherwise they wouldn't be qualified to get."
Incredibility, there are those who are using the new autism numbers for children born in the 1990s to create statistics all the way back to the 1980s. Doctors are citing this 2007 study as proof that the autism rate hasn't increased in the last twenty years.
In the Atlanta Journal Constitution article, "Are Autism Cases on the Rise in the US?" child psychiatrist Dr. Bradley Peterson told us "the numbers are comparable to what they were 20 years ago."
In the New York Times article, "Study Puts Rate of Autism at 1 in 150 U.S. Children," Dr. Fred R. Volkmar, from Yale University School of Medicine was quoted as saying, "It appears that the rates are unchanged over the past 20 years or so."
Correspondent Lesley Stahl reported on the one in 150 rate on 60 Minutes on February 18th. She interviewed Dr. Stephen Goodman, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has studied autism statistics for the past 30 years. He stated, "The explosive increase that has been claimed is almost certainly not true."
Dr. Goodman believes that "if the numbers are rising, they're not rising very quickly, if it's going up at all."
He added that the expansion of the definition of autism in 1994 is the reason for more children diagnosed as autistic.
Dr. Goodman failed to mention that besides a wider meaning being given to autism in the 1990s, this was also the decade of the dramatic increase in the number of mercury-containing vaccinations in the childhood schedule.
Dr. Goodman doesn't accept that mercury-laced vaccines are a factor in autism. Furthermore, he told us that he was on a national medical panel that found no evidence connecting the use of the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, in children's vaccines to the high autism numbers.
In truth, the Institute of Medicine panel that Dr. Goodman served on used a host of easily manipulated population studies to show that adding a known neurotoxin to vaccines is safe. These are the same kinds of studies devised by the tobacco industry in the 1950s as proof that smoking wasn't harming people's health.
It should be noted that Dr. Goodman isn't able to do the one thing that would settle the debate over vaccines and autism. He can't show us the rigorous testing done on thimerosal before it was ever allowed in our children's vaccinations. He can't do that, because there was none.
The drug company Eli Lilly developed thimerosal back in 1930. They said it was safe and after the creation of the FDA, its use was simply continued. It's hard to understand how a federal panel could claim that thimerosal is safe when they knew it was never tested for toxicity. That's hardly oversight information that either the CDC or FDA wants publicized.
Dr. Goodman may think autism numbers haven't changed, but he would have a hard time convincing school district officials across the U.S. that all the autistic kids everywhere are the result of an expanded definition of autism and better recognition of the disorder.
These are just a few examples of how autism is affecting state and local communities.
Two months ago, Raquel Eatmon, at CBS 11 News in Fort Worth reported, "According to the Texas Education Agency over the last five years autism has nearly doubled from 8,972 to 17,282. Some researchers insist the numbers are higher."
In New Jersey they spent $3 billion on special education last year. New Jersey also reported a 30-fold increase in autism since 1991, with 7,400 students now diagnosed as autistic.
The Concord Monitor in New Hampshire reported this week that the number of autistic students had tripled since 2001. School board president David Immen said that the increase in students with autism "is not a bubble passing through; it's a wave that's coming."
The Salem Statesman Journal in Oregon reported that there are now 700 students in the Salem-Keizer school district who are autistic.
The Grand Rapids Press announced this past week that the number of students with autism has increased 200 percent since 1999 in Holland MI. The school board is seeking a $1.3 million increase over the current tax levy for special education.
In the Oakland Press in MI, Tom Brown, executive director of an autism support center, and a psychologist said, "Largely, the parents of children with autism forced the issue of getting the government involved in trying to get more funding for research."
He called autism, "a medical crisis," and said, "Twenty-five years ago, the incidence of autism was 1 in 10,000."
Remember polio? At the height of the polio epidemic in the 1950s, the disease affected one in 3,000 Americans. Polio was a health care emergency. A massive effort was made to address it. Not so with autism. Amazingly, the CDC isn't sounding an alarm over the autism numbers.
Members of the press never ask officials whom they're always quoting to prove that autism hasn't increased. All we seem to hear about are autistic kids. Where are all the autistic adults who were missed in the past--in the days before all the better diagnosing?
Show us the autistic kids from the 1980s who are now the autistic adults in their twenties and thirties at the same rate as children with autism today. Where are the forty, fifty, and sixty year olds with autism at a rate of one in every 150?
What are they doing?
Lots and lots of parents desperate about the future for their autistic children would like to know. News sources never give us the proof and neither does the CDC.
Regardless of the hoopla over the new CDC autism rate being presented in the press, it changes nothing. While news coverage makes this seem like officials are addressing autism, it doesn't impress parents.
The 2007 CDC Autism Study does nothing to help our kids. In the long run, worthless efforts like this will destroy the credibility of this agency because they simply can't explain the numbers.
Dr. Kenneth Stoller of Santa Fe, NM, a pediatrician who treats mercury toxic children and uses hyperbaric oxygen therapy summed up the reality of the autism crisis:
Despite all the official denials . . . there is just one little problem . . . the autistic kids keep on coming, and coming and coming. They will bankrupt school systems, public services, and social services. No, autistic children haven't always been with us or called something else any more than the toxins that are causing this environmental neurological disorder have always been with us in such great amounts.
The truth will come out in the end, but the question is, will it be our end as well?
Anne McElroy Dachel of Chippewa Falls, WI is a member of A-CHAMP (Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning) and NAA (National Autism Association). She can be reached at: email@example.com.