Talking about the Newtown mass murderer, Adam Lanza, is fraught with peril for people in the autism advocacy community, especially that part of the community which believes -- as I certainly do -- that vaccines have caused the epidemic of autism diagnoses now so apparent in schools across the country. The fact that two of the 20 dead children had ASDs just goes to show how prevalent such children are in classrooms everywhere.
Whether Lanza himself had an ASD is still an open question, despite second-hand reports that he had Asperger's. I'm proud of the way AOA responded to that story, starting with a statement that reads in part:
"Regardless of whether or not the shooter truly is on the autism spectrum, we wish to make it clear that autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are in no way associated with criminal violence. More often than not, people with ASDs are the victims of such violence, not the people committing them."
So while hard information on his ASD status is unknown, and, in any event, irrelevant as a primary cause, there is one diagnosis that was plausible from the start: Sensory integration disorder. From the Associated Press, just a couple of days after the shooting:
SOUTHBURY, Conn. — At Newtown High School, Adam Lanza had trouble relating to fellow students and teachers, but that was only part of his problem. He seemed not to feel physical or emotional pain in the same way as classmates.
Richard Novia, the school district's head of security until 2008, who also served as adviser for the school technology club, said Lanza clearly "had some disabilities."
"If that boy would've burned himself, he would not have known it or felt it physically," Novia told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "It was my job to pay close attention to that."
I know a number of parents with children on the spectrum in our community who can describe similar non-reactions to pain and burns. Once again, this does not mean Lanza had autism, nor does it mean that autism had anything to do with what he did. But it's interesting to me how little this clue to severe physiological dysfunction has registered with the public and the mainstream media.
The Hartford Courant reported a couple of weeks ago that Lanza indeed had sensory processing disorder and couldn't stand the loud noises of the school environment and hated being touched. The report also said he didn't feel pain. It noted that the sensory integration disorder diagnosis is controversial and had been rejected by the American Psychiatric Association for inclusion in the new DSM-V.
From our little slice of the world over here in the environmental-biomedical community, the fact that a child can't feel pain is a big freaking deal. Forget autism -- what has caused an epidemic of children who can burn themselves with no reaction? How damaged is a nervous system that short-circuits this most vital survival mechanism?
I certainly don't remember kids in my shop classes in the 1960s blythely running a Bunsen burner over their forearm. Once again, the reason for this disorder seems environmental, and the number of things that can cause this kind of mayhem is pretty short. Metals and mercury, of course, are one. Vaccines are one source of metals and mercury, especially in the age group represented by Adam Lanza, who was 20 when he committed his crimes. The environment at large, which contains plenty of organic mercury via fish and pollution, is another.
These kinds of problems with sensation were vividly described by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s as symptoms of "hysteria" that he took to be caused by emotional conflicts and trauma. The book that Mark Blaxill and I wrote, "The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic," makes a strong case that a lot of those so-called hysterics were actually mercury-poisoned. Check out Chapter 2: The Age of Hysteria.
Whatever the cause, an inability to feel plain old physical pain -- one of the first thing babies learn to shy away from -- is a startling symptom. So we don't need to say Adam Lanza had autism, or implicate it in his actions, to see him as emblematic of something very disturbing in his age group. And we don't need to excuse his actions in any way when we note, sadly, that the killer appears to have been among the injured.
Speaking of the environment and autism, we've got to start being able to chew gum and walk at the same time, or hold two ideas in our heads while maintaining the ability to function, or whatever the relevant image is for connecting dots that are just about flashing at us in red neon.
The latest case in point: Utah has the nation's highest autism rate, according to the CDC report of 1-in-88 children who were 8 in 2008 (easy to remember, at least!). The rate in Utah is 1 in 47 children, or 1 in 32 boys.
Separately, news reports a couple of weeks ago said pollution in Salt Lake City is so bad it can adversely affect fetal development. A group of physicians declared a health emergency. Parents are openly debating whether beautiful Salt Lake City is a safe place to have kids.
Separately, coal mining and burning is a significant part of that pollution, according to numerous sources.
Separately, coal contains arsenic, lead, and mercury.
Separately, some people -- like me -- believe mercury directly contributes to the autism epidemic.
And separately, about 80 percent of the state's population lives along the Wasatch Front, centered around Salt Lake City.
Separately, Utah has the highest autism rate in the nation.
Oh, wait, that's not separate at all. That's the first and last dot in a circle that surrounds the flashing-in-red-neon truth about autism as an environmental illness.
I like Dr. Jay Gordon. He's definitely one of the good guys in the medical world. But he really ought to rethink his criticism of Andy Wakefield's work.
On Facebook Feb. 22, he took note of the 15th anniversary of the Lancet publication of the famous paper pointing to a pattern of novel bowel disease in 12 children with regressive ASDs, most of whose parents linked the onset to the MMR shot (that is actually what the study reported, not that MMR causes autism, etc., etc.)
Gordon writes: "Dr. Wakefield, whether his intentions were good or ill, should have written a brief letter to the editor about his findings and the need for much more study." In the event, says Gordon, the Lancet was right to retract it, and he, Gordon, bases nothing he writes about autism on it.
Well, first of all, suggesting that Wakefield might have "ill" intentions is an unpleasant and too-casual way to cast doubt not just on his work but on his motives. Second, the vindication of John Walker-Smith -- and even more, the tragic replications of Wakefield's findings not just by other researchers but by the suffering of thousands more children with regressive autism and bowel disease these past 15 years -- makes Gordon's disavowal and rejection seem downright wrong-headed.
I just don't get it, frankly.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.