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Olmsted on Autism: Roy Grinker's Unright Facts

FactsManaging Editor's Note: To learn more about Dr. Grinker, click HERE to read JB Handley's piece called, "Grinker's Stinker: His Wife runs the IACC."

By Dan Olmsted

In some parts of the far-flung autism universe Roy Richard Grinker is a big deal -- professor of anthropology and director of the George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research and the author of five books including Unstrange Minds, which makes the case that autism is not new, just better identified. His credentials and credibility help “mainstream” this malignant notion: Time magazine says his book “persuasively argues” that there’s no autism epidemic at all.

Big deal. You’ve still got to get your facts right.

Lately, I’ve been reading the autobiography of Leo Kanner, the child psychiatrist who first described autism in 1943, which is unpublished but available at the American Psychiatric Association. I remembered that Grinker had cited the autobiography in Unstrange Minds and, out of curiosity, decided to review those references.

Oh, dear. I’m afraid Grinker’s gotten some things quite thoroughly wrong. And because the facts matter so much to solving the autism puzzle, that IS a big deal. Some mistakes don’t bear directly on the debate, but they make you wonder how many do.

Here’s one:

the fate of Leo Kanner’s family after he emigrated from Berlin to South Dakota in the 1920s. Grinker writes: “His father died just before the start of World War II, and it was to be the only natural death in the family. The Nazis shot his mother while she was napping in a rocking chair, his three sisters and their families were murdered in concentration camps, and his brother, Klias, committed suicide as the Nazis approached the small town in which he lived. The only survivors were Leo’s sister, Dora, born while Kanner was in South Dakota. … and a brother, Wolf, who fled to Shanghai, where he worked as a pharmacist for seven years before returning to Austria to become a violinist with the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra.”

Except for the part about his father, that’s dead wrong. On page 347 of his own autobiography, the one Grinker is citing, Kanner says: “Of course, I kept in touch with my relatives. I received word of my father’s death. … My sister … moved to Belgium. My brother, Max, whom I had brought over to these shores, married a Sioux City, Iowa girl and worked as a furrier for a department store. My brother Josef, using the money which I sent him, migrated to Palestine … my brothers Willy and Emil were engaged in business in Berlin.”

Who ya gonna believe, Roy Grinker or Leo Kanner? Grinker is misreading a letter written TO Kanner by an old friend, describing what happened to HIS OWN family. And Grinker appears to have read right over (or not read at all) Kanner’s personal account. Kanner makes no mention of his mother in that passage, but unless she also was shot while napping in her rocker, that’s not right, either.

It’s an unfortunate and pretty careless mix-up, but not on the critical path, so to speak, to Grinker’s fundamental argument. The next two are.

First, Grinker makes hash of a study Kanner did while a psychiatrist at the state mental hospital in South Dakota. Here’s what Grinker says: “After four years in South Dakota, Kanner had earned his stripes, and more. Indeed, his brilliance and clinical skills were easy to see. His first publication was a paper on the American Indians he had treated at Yankton. … Kanner argued that Indians didn’t have as much insanity as the rest of the population, probably because the incidence of syphilis, one of the main causes of insanity in those days, was inexplicably low in Indian communities.

“His observation seemed so simple in retrospect, but no one had thought of it before. That was the first sign of his clinical genius. Kanner received so much attention that the German physician Emil Kraepelin, the founder of modern psychiatry … decided to visit Yankton during his trip to America.”

Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. Let’s start with Kanner’s study, which he describes in the autobiography and published in 1926; the study is also listed in Grinker’s bibliography, which means he read it. Here’s what Kanner says in the ’26 study:

“Syphilis among the Indians is VERY COMMON [emphasis added], according to the statements of a great number of authors, and it is frequently, almost proverbially, said by people very near Indian reservations that the great majority of the red race have syphilis.” It is clear from the context of the study, co-authored by G.S. Adams, that they agree with this statement. What Kanner and Adams are actually talking about is the rarity of a particular kind of neurosyphilis -- syphilis of the brain and nervous system -- called general paralysis of the insane, or GPI. Kanner’s question was why, given how COMMON syphilis was among Indians, there wasn’t more GPI.

The study is titled “Paresis [general paralysis of the insane] among North American Indians,” for heaven’s sake. As far as I know Kanner never said anything about the overall rate of insanity among Indians.

Then there is the slight matter of the father of modern psychiatry, Emil Kraepelin, supposedly beating a path to Kanner’s out-of-the-way door in Yankton, South Dakota, to pay homage to the 30-year-old genius. Except, well, Kanner hadn’t yet written the paper about Indians that supposedly caught Kraepelin’s eye. What actually happened was that Kanner found out Kraepelin happened to be coming to a nearby asylum for Native Americans, and he wangled himself an invitation to meet him.

“I learned from a notice in the Sioux City newspaper that Emil Kraepelin, the famous German psychiatrist, was visiting this country with the purpose of studying the occurrence of general paresis among North American Negroes and Indians,” Leo Kanner wrote. “He was accompanied by the serologist Felix Plaut ... They were to spend four days at the Federal Government Asylum for Insane Indians at Canton, South Dakota.”

Kanner persuaded Adams, the Yankton superintendent, to get them and their wives invited to meet the great man. When they did, Kanner told Kraepelin he was treating a Native American with GPI, and Kraepelin urged him to write it up for publication.

So, contrary to Unstrange Minds, syphilis was not rare among Native Americans and Kanner never said it was; Kraepelin did not come to see Kanner, of whom he had almost certainly never heard, to discuss a study Kanner hadn’t written; and Kraepelin never set foot in Yankton.

Of course, this goof is not deliberate on Grinker’s part, but it’s getting into tendentious territory. Once made, it serves a useful purpose -- Kanner is such a blinding genius that the old order bows before him; only he notices the obvious that in retrospect has been ever thus.  You can see how this paradigm comes in handy when Kanner, in 1943, writes Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact about 11 children born in the 1930s. Kanner describes them as “markedly and uniquely different from anything described so far;” but if you accept that, you’ve got to accept the idea that autism was a new disorder and that something triggered it. Better that Kanner be sui generis, a genius of observation and insight.

I’ve written lots about those early cases, of which I’ve found several despite Kanner’s first-name-and-last-initial-only identification.  Based on that intensive investigation, my theory (co-developed with Mark Blaxill) has nothing to do with the simplicity of clinical genius. But it does happen to be backed by some actual facts, and it goes like this: Autism was triggered by the commercialization of ethyl mercury in vaccines and fungicides in the 1930s.
The reason Leo Kanner was the first to describe it can be explained by the “alert clinician” phenomenon -- cases of a new disorder (AIDS, for instance) start popping up, and someone of reasonable skill and experience, in the right place at the right time, is the first to spot them and write them up.

In Kanner’s case, the fact that by then he was at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was serendipitous, to use one of his favorite words, because several of the parents of those first kids were cutting-edge researchers in medicine and agriculture, a number of them working nearby and for the federal government. A classic instance is Case 2, Frederick L. Wellman, who when his son was born was a plant pathologist investigating ethyl mercury fungicides for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md., in suburban Washington. The agriculture center was right on the Baltimore-Washington Road, and it led straight to Johns Hopkins and Leo Kanner.

That leads me to one more mistake in Unstrange Minds. I’ve written about it before, in a column in which I reviewed the book. I found it “beautifully written” and useful for the way it laid out the argument against an autism epidemic. But I said I fundamentally disagreed with it.

And I pointed out that Grinker had messed up the math in a reference to Case 3: Richard M., in Leo Kanner’s landmark 1943 paper on autism. At about age one, Richard got a smallpox shot that was followed by a fever and illness that lasted a week, and later his mother told Kanner she recalled him losing skills he had started to develop. If you carefully track the chronology contained within that case study, you realize this regression started about the time of the smallpox shot and subsequent reaction. But Grinker gets the chronology wrong -- he puts the regression at age TWO, not age one. At that later age, the regression obviously could have had nothing to do with the shot at age one.

To my mind, this association between shot, illness and autistic regression in Case 3 is not a minor matter -- it is a clue, a warning from the very beginning of the Age of Autism. But Grinker misreads his way right past it. Here’s what Grinker writes: Richard “showed signs of normal cognitive development -- or at least this is what the parents retrospectively argued -- until he was about two. Then, as his mother wrote to Kanner, ‘It seems that he has gone backward mentally gradually …”

No, not at age two. At age one. When he got the shot and got sick. And regressed. Wrong again.

I’m going to venture a guess that at least the first two screw-ups I cited came by way of research assistants. But if you’re going to stake your professional reputation on the idea there’s no autism increase and no epidemic -- no worries, mate! -- you’ve got to get in there and read the early literature for yourself, and read it carefully, and get it right. I’ve spent so much time in archives over the past four years that I feel like I have a permanent coating of dust on me and haven’t seen the sun since 2005. Right now I’m flipping through my library cards for the D.C. public library, the University of Maryland, the Maryland State Archives, North Carolina State, John Hopkins Medical Archives, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the National Agricultural Library, the Arlington Public Library, the Falls Church City Library and the National Archives. It’s slow and tedious work but my motto, apologies to The X-Files, has become “The Truth Is IN There.” And it is, believe me.

Of course, all this seems like quibbling, not anything consequential, to the medical mainstream, those who already know autism didn’t start in the 1930s, who already know it doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines or mercury, who already know it isn’t increasing. They rather pity us poor misguided purveyors of Internet inaccuracies.

“The debate about whether thimerosal [vaccine mercury] is linked to autism has been fueled by a recent book on the subject, … high-profile articles by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and stories by Dan Olmsted of United Press International [now of Age of Autism],” Grinker writes in Unstrange Minds.

“The widespread dissemination of information via the World Wide Web sometimes makes us ordinary parents believe we are experts, or at least paraprofessionals. …” So, fellow ordinary folk, and especially you out-of-your depth parents out there, let’s back off and let the “experts,” the ones who have the professorships and the degrees and who write the books and publish the papers, handle these things. We can trust them to get this right.

On second thought, I’m starting to wonder whether that is such a good idea.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism


Sandra Petrik

I am the step daughter of Max Kanner, Leo Kanner's brother. Max was a furrier in South Dakota. He later moved to Omaha and became an insurance salesman. When his first wife died, he married Lena Garey, my mother. According to Max, his mother was shot in the back while escaping from a train that was taking her to a concentration camp. One of his brother's died in a concentration camp. One of his brothers came to New York and became a diamond cutter in New York City.


Not that I ever felt Grinker had any credibility to start with but thanks for adding evidence to my gut instincts. Dan, we are so lucky to have you in this fight!
thanks again!

Rob Sidell

I think it is also interesting to note that the standard treatment for syphilis was to dose mercury and that Indians may have forgone such treatment and thereby avoided GPI.


Did Grinker actually mention the smallpox vaccine for "Richard"? Because I could not find it, and well... neither did another blogger:

Are these errors along the same line as claiming the Amish don't vaccinate, nor do they have autism... or that they do not have limited genetic diversity?

Editor's Note: You're right, HCN. I reversed the regression and smallpox references. That's why you couldn't find the reference to the smallpox shot. That was my error. But the point remains, and you're still wrong about the most important issue -- Grinker separated the timing of the regression from the timing of the smallpox shot. Both actually occurred around age 1, whereas Grinker said the regression occurred around age 2. As for the Amish, read Mark Blaxill's review of my reporting. I've corrected the post and am happy to acknowledge when I make a small error. When Grinker makes a big one, like the misreading of Kanner's life history I described above, I certainly hope he'd be prepared to acknowledge his errors in the same spirit.

Wendy Fournier

Wow, this is incredible work Dan! Thank you!


I do believe that I read somewhere that Roy Grinker has a child with autism. Now, what I don't understand is why he would spend so much effort denying the autism epidemic when he could be putting that effort toward recovering his son.

Leslie Feldman

Thanks for great work Dan. I never took Grinker's claims seriously. It was great to read your article about how he gets his facts wrong.

joann mrozinski

thanks for all you do...


Thank you Dan!

That was great detective work!


Remember the James Frey scandal, when the author of a supposed factual memoir, "A Million Little Pieces", was caught fictionalizing significant portions of the book after appearing on Oprah?

There were class action lawsuits by readers who claimed they'd been defrauded, since they believed they'd purchased a memoir, not fiction. The settlement was merely a refund.

What's Grinker's refund for the parents who were falsely reassured by his skewering of facts? Is his publisher going to return the souls of their children?

The Frey scandal was over a memoir on addiction. Grinker's falsifications are actually serious, with actual consequences to actual lives. I'm wondering if he can be sued or at least have the possibility waved at him to force an official retraction at least as public as Frey's.

Maybe Oprah would host it.

Kevin Barry

Hi Dan,

As I'm sure you know, the most common treatment for syphilis at the time was mercury. Perhaps the mercury cure did not make it to the Reservation, causing less neurological damage.


Rosie McDonel

Fascinating, well written article. Amazing research.

Carolyn Kylesmom

The fundamental problem is that Grinker et al do not wish to KNOW the truth. It sounds like an article or documentary about Minamata's Disase (mercury posioning in Japan) and lead poisoning in Rome's water might be the next stop. And--when researching always go to to find previous versions of websites you swear the CDC changed all there. What other illness advocacy groups have to spend half their energy fighting conflicting false statements:
A) it doesn't exist
B) it has always existed and isn't that bad
C) it's incurable
D) if someone "recovers" they never had it
E) it's impossible to fix no point spending energy on the kids
F) if we'd just tell them to "cut it out" it would go away.

The big "IT". Poisoning. And another line someone needs to research if we're talking about historic mercury poisoing and 'autism' prior to vaccines? STEEL MILLS. They emit mercury.

Kelli Ann Davis


A portion of the conclusions from the Senate HELP Committee investigation:

Allegation # 2: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) convened the Simpsonwood Conference to cover up the finding that thimerosal causes autism.

Findings: The allegation is not substantiated. The CDC organized a discussion regarding Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) information on June 7 and 8, 2000 at the Simpsonwood Retreat Center in Norcross, Georgia. Approximately sixty persons, twothirds of whom were not CDC employees, participated in the discussion. The subject matter of the discussion was whether VSD data showed that thimerosal causes autism.

The CDC’s failure to invite to Simpsonwood representatives of advocacy groups, in combination with injudicious remarks by several Simpsonwood participants, did give rise to an appearance of impropriety. Allegations of a cover-up are not substantiated,however.

Instead of hiding the data or restricting access to it, CDC distributed it, often to individuals who had never seen it before, and solicited outside opinion regarding how to interpret it. The transcript of these discussions was made available to the public. The data was also discussed at the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a public forum held on June 21 and 22, 2000.

Simpsonwood participants generally agreed that the VSD data set was weak, it was difficult to assess causality, and further study and investigation were warranted.

Here's the full press release from Enzi:



I got cut off on my last post. Thanks Dan for asking about and researching these important issues!

The truth is IN there is right on target!


Grinker and Chew were on the right track but could not remove themselves from CDC bias in their conclusions. They were correct in asserting that families of professors and others in the sciences have higher rates of autism. This should be common knowledge by now, but it is published at least, so that is a good thing.

The problem was that they decided to stand on the flimsy island of neurodiversity and attempted to show that the rate of autism has not changed. Once they chose to do that, and support the CDC, they missed the ball completely.

What should be done with their book now is to take some of their work (science parent = higher autism chance) and use that in discussions about susceptability to environmental insults. Their conclusions are useless, but the work going into it is actually pretty valuable.


Maybe we need to print the Simpsonwood Transcripts (relevant portions) as an ad in the NYT...even then, I'm sure very few would read it. sigh...
It takes a lot of work to peel away the layers of BS - thanks for all of the hard work. THis article is wonderful.

Joe Shlabotnik

I've said it before, but it's bears repeating - thank you Dan for caring enough to get the facts right, and for pointing out those who don't. Attention to detail *does* matter, even to trivial detail. How can *any* problem be solved if one is incapable of navigating details to identify the source?


Very interesting facts.

Sounds like in addition to Grinker needing to go back to Fact Gathering 101, or Honest Writing-The Basics, he needs to renew his library cards.


There is this myth out there that we parents are a bunch of idiots who don't know what we're talking about. Most parents of autistic kids have done hundreds, if not thousands of hours of research looking at all kinds of obscure research reports, legal transcripts, govt. papers etc. These doctors don't have the time, OR the motivation to look at all the autism research, so they dismiss it, because it's easier AND safer to spout the CDC/AAP position. Hamsters, monkeys and mice get autism from Thimerosal, it's not a big leap to think that children are at risk also. Has anybody except for Olmsted, Kirby and us crazy parents read the Simpsonwood transcript???????

Harry Hofherr

Great article, Dan.

I love it. Thanks for peeling away another layer of BS.

Keep it up.



Great work, Dan.
You're right, if someone is going to publish, they better get it right, and judging from the mistakes you found already, I'm sure there are more to be found in Unstrange Minds.
Thanks for all your hard work.

Harold L Doherty

Excellent article.

I find Grinker's entire argument to be little more than speculation but you certainly poked some serious holes in several of his specific factual statements.

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