By Dan Olmsted
Was it really 11 years ago that I first wrote about the Amish and their apparent lack of autism? Yes, it was. Back then I was working at United Press International and had gotten interested in prescription drugs' side effects. My colleague Mark Benjamin suggested taking a look at vaccines, and his first report, The Vaccine Conflict, ran in 2003. (That led to the wonderful moment when Paul Offit, a focus of that article, stood up in a church -- a church! -- in North Carolina, and in response to a question said, "Mark Benjamin doesn't know s--!" That's about as close to a nomination for sainthood as most of us will come.)
Mark got involved in the medical treatment of veterans -- writing the first reports on how poorly our Iraq and Iran vets were being treated, first for UPI, then for Salon, then for Time.
I took the autism beat. The first thing to catch my attention was that both Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner -- in 1944 and 1943 -- noticed the phenomenon at roughly the same time. The cases were very different, but Child 1 in both reports was born in 1933. That is supposed to be the most wonderfully fabulous unrelated coincidence in the history of the entire world, but I didn't, and still don't, buy it. As I wrote then:
This leads to a simple but significant question: Was it coincidence the first few cases of these strikingly similar disorders were identified at the same time, by the same term, in children born the same decade, by doctors thousands of miles apart?
Or, is it a clue to when and where autism started -- and why?
The question reflects a huge, and hugely important, debate. If autistic children always existed in the same percentages but just were not formally classified until the 1940s, that would suggest better diagnosis, not a troubling increase in the number of autistic children.
If, however, autism had a clear beginning in the fairly recent past (a past so recent that Fritz and Donald could both be alive today at age 71), then the issue is very different. That would suggest something new caused those first autism and Asperger's cases in the early 1930s; something caused them to increase, and something is still causing them today.
This ongoing series will look for answers by tracking the natural history of autism around the world -- a road less traveled than one might think.
Little did I know then that Donald T. was indeed alive, that Mark Blaxill and I would be the first to identify Donald T., interview him at his home in Mississippi and deduce a number of connections to new environmental risks that led to the rise of autism. In a sense everything flowed from that first article, including a new book we are working on these 11 years later.
My next stop was the present day -- autism among the Amish. It's amazing the potshots my rather modest observations have taken -- I'm somewhere between a crank and a fraud. I'm sure there will be some remarks to that effect in the comment section. But show me one Amish child with "iatrogenic autism" -- the kind not connected to a genetic anomaly or some other well-known source of causation -- and then let's talk. As far as I know, I remain the only person to find such a child -- who was removed from her home by public health authorities in a dispute over medical treatment at age 2, fully vaccinated while she was away, and returned two years later fully autistic. I even took her picture and ran it on AOA and in our book! Epidemic Deniers are welcome to submit their own selections.
It's just an accident the articles started during Autism Awareness Month. I have to say I'm feeling more encouraged this year than on previous anniversaries. Last year, for his excellent film Trace Amounts, Eric Gladen interviewed some Amish on the same topic. It's just a couple of minutes long -- check it out!
Here is the start of my first article with a link to five of many that I did on the Amish and autism.
Lancaster, PA, Apr. 18 (UPI) -- Where are the autistic Amish? Here in Lancaster County, heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, there should be well over 100 with some form of the disorder.
I have come here to find them, but so far my mission has failed, and the very few I have identified raise some very interesting questions about some widely held views on autism.
The mainstream scientific consensus says autism is a complex genetic disorder, one that has been around for millennia at roughly the same prevalence. That prevalence is now considered to be 1 in every 166 children born in the United States.
Applying that model to Lancaster County, there ought to be 130 Amish men, women and children here with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Well over 100, in rough terms.
Typically, half would harbor milder variants such as Asperger's Disorder or the catch-all Pervasive Development Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified -- PDD-NOS for short.
So let's drop those from our calculation, even though "mild" is a relative term when it comes to autism.
That means upwards of 50 Amish people of all ages should be living in Lancaster County with full-syndrome autism, the "classic autism" first described in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins University. The full-syndrome disorder is hard to miss, characterized by "markedly abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests," according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Why bother looking for them among the Amish? Because they could hold clues to the cause of autism.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism