BY DAN OLMSTED
This past week I was visiting relatives, and ended up meeting a family with two children. The boy was 13, and smart as a whip – fun to talk to, quick to lift a comment made earlier and insert it in a light-hearted way at just the right moment in the flow of the conversation (that's high-verbal-intelligence stuff). It's great to be around bright kids, especially when you sense them coming into their own.
I mentioned to my relative what a pleasure it was to talk to him, and she told me that he was also musically gifted – she had taught him piano for the past five years. But alas, there was a kicker – this boy had struggled with what she called severe ADD, to the point that sometimes he would show up for a lesson and simply repeat, "I can't concentrate! I just can't concentrate." And, strangely enough, he could also be terribly upset by noises that wouldn't bother the rest of us. None of this registered with her as part of a pattern – why would it? – but to me I felt like I had encountered yet another gifted but neurologically injured child who is on some sort of generation-defining spectrum, however you want to categorize it.
Of course, children with developmental problems so severe they cannot talk, cannot interact and will not likely be able to live independently are rightly the focus of our concern, but there is a special category of empathy that should be reserved for kids like the one I just met. Here is someone with the whole world before him and a chance to excel at a very high level. Why should he have to deal with such a big problem at such a young age? It's just not right and it ought to concern us all.
Just the week before, I came across a similar situation. A former colleague with whom I had not been in touch e-mailed me, and we caught up on our recent activities. His very intelligent son – eight or 9 now, I believe, but perhaps a bit older given the way time flies – had been diagnosed with Asperger's while we were still working together. I knew he was getting intensive therapy and every advantage his exceptionally capable parents could provide (he is an only child), and that he was improving. Now, his father told me, he had lost the diagnosis. That was great to hear.
But … alas. His son now had Tourette's, the tic disorder from hell that, at least in its best-known manifestation, causes compulsive outbursts that often are profane and inappropriate.
This child, I believe, is somewhere on the same generational-damage spectrum – something happened that caused Asperger's, and it also caused a tic disorder. Medicine is helping a lot, my friend said, and his son even ran in a race to raise money to study and hopefully cure the disorder.
That's great. But isn't it also just a bit heartbreaking? Why should a boy with a disorder that (I suspect) was triggered by the medical community have to raise money to help figure out what's causing it? We know – for a fact – that tics keep showing up in studies of thimerosal exposure. Even after the CDC massaged away the autism signal, they still couldn't get rid of tics.
As David Kirby has written, tics are no small thing – maybe they seem that way to our public health officials who are just relieved they could get rid of that nasty association with autism.
But ASD, ADD, ADHD, sensory integration disorder, tics – the neurological damage spectrum -- are messing up the best and the brightest of the new generation, and every time you turn around you find another example. If the autism rate is 1 in 150, and far worse among boys, and the problems I'm talking about in these two boys aren't even included in that number, what is the true rate of significant neurological damage in today's children? And what are the implications not just for them but for us as a society?
I don't even want to think about it.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.