By Dan Olmsted
The sad state of American journalism's coverage of the autism epidemic is on display today in tens of millions of Sunday newspapers, probably including yours. Parade magazine's cover story is titled: "With Children Struggling, Parents Ask: Is There Hope for Autism?"
Looking out from the cover is a child identified as "Nick Furth, 9, (who) attends a school for autistic children in New Jersey." When I saw that, my jaw dropped all the way to Beijing. This is the same Nick Furth who in May 2006 was on the cover for Time magazine's “New Insights Into the Hidden World of Autism” (caption: "Nick Furth, 8, of Mine Hill, N.J.").
Good heavenly days, as my mother might have put it. Out of thousands and thousands of children with autism, you're telling me Parade couldn't find one other child suitable for its cover? There's a technical term for this in my journalism dictionary. It's spelled l-a-z-y.
In the interest of full disclosure -- and also to make my point -- I need to say that I used to work for Parade's main Sunday supplement competitor, USA Weekend. Coming from this small universe, I can tell you these mega-circulation magazines have all the time and money they need to find and photograph anyone they want.
Both these photos were taken by the same photographer -- are they even new? I wonder. But here's what really sucks: After putting young Nick on the cover, both Parade and Time drop him like a hot potato. There's no mention of Nick, his family, his challenges and triumphs, that special school he attends and whether it helps, why his parents think he has autism, whether living in New Jersey, the state with the highest autism rate in the world, might conceivably have anything to do with it -- nothing. Two national magazine covers, and he's still a cipher.
This is the commoditization of children with autism.
I'm sure Nick's parents are proud of their photogenic son’s second appearance on a major magazine cover, and nothing I have to say detracts from that. But if you're going to put Nick -- or any other sentient being beyond a fashion model – on the cover, you need to tell us something about that person for one simple reason: He is a person. What is the implicit message if you do not?
The cover story itself is not offensive, merely insipid. But inoffensive insipidity in the mainstream media is our besetting problem. Everything from the cover line to the last sub-head is a non-committal question with no useful answer in sight. "What Do We Know About Autism? ... Is Autism an Epidemic? ... What is the Best Treatment? ... Do Vaccines Cause Autism? ... Is There Hope?"
Then there's "Does It Work?", a sidebar on alternative treatments, with this cagey wording about chelation: "No rigorous scientific studies have shown any benefit to chelation therapy." Maybe because there are no such studies at all despite parents' clamoring for years? (Last I heard the National Institutes of Health was planning one, but something went awry. Something always go awry -- it's frightfully complicated, don't you know?)
I'll quit picking on poor pitiful Parade in a second, but first I've got to highlight this assertion: "Until the 1940s, there was no autism -- in the sense it was an unrecognized condition." No! There was no autism in the sense there was no autism. This is one of the fundamental questions that lead inexorably to the heart of the matter, one I've written about endlessly and will keep writing about. You can dispute that by offering actual evidence of earlier U.S. cases (good luck), but to dismiss it in this cavalier and circular way is, well, cavalier and circular.
Why does this matter? Because if autism is relatively recent in origin, that suggests the rise of an environmental illness -- coming from the outside in -- rather than the recognition of a genetic disorder. And that would be a whole new ballgame, one that we have a lot better chance of winning.
Which brings us back to Nick Furth. As I mentioned, Time gave his hometown as Mine Hill, N.J. I looked up Mine Hill back in 2006 and discussed it in my talk at the Autism One conference in Chicago that May. The Powerpoint presentation is HERE.
By now, many readers know that I am alert (critics would say hypervigilant) for possible environmental associations in autism. Here's what Wikipedia said about Mine Hill: "Mine Hill was once a thriving mining center, with the first mining occurring in the early 1700s. The Dickerson Mine supplied much of the iron ore used during the Revolutionary War. The township had some of the richest iron ore mines in the country, until the last mine closed during the late 1960s."
And here's what Medical News Today said about iron in March 2006: "An MRI study opens new doors to preventing brain iron accumulation associated with risk of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Dementia … This largest-ever study of brain iron demonstrates gender difference in brain iron levels for the first time. Until now, researchers had considered the brain blood barrier as protection against accumulating too much iron from the body. …"
Imagine that: a neurotoxic heavy metal passes with unanticipated ease through the blood brain barrier, leads to chronic brain damage -- and displays a surprising affinity for males. And Nick Furth is literally sitting on top of it.
Forget Mine Hill if you want (and forget the vaccine mercury analogy). We all know New Jersey has the highest autism rate in the world, with one in every 60 boys – yes, one in every six-zero boys -- on the spectrum; that it is full of toxic pharmaceutical waste and environmental hot spots where autism numbers spike even higher; and that it is fast becoming the vaccine capital of the world (mercury-containing flu shots for all!). A lot of folks are looking at these numbers and patterns and waking up to the toxic dimensions of autism.
But for Parade and company, it's the same old story -- baffling illness, hopeful parents, helpful doctors. And the same old photo, too.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of The Age of Autism