There's a reason we call this the AGE of Autism -- it's because we live in an age where autism is the most dire and widespread -- the defining -- disorder of our day. But what we really have is a generation of sick kids, and of chronic diseases of children and adults that have environmental clues and causes and potential cures -- and a media and medical establishment that won't come to grips with any of it. That's quite a saga -- it is the most important story of our time, which explains why we're all here.
That also explains why I want to briefly stray off-message -- or seemingly so, by noting the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. Since then, there have been more, and an isolated fact noted at Columbine has emerged as a pattern, at least for those with eyes to see. Eric Harris, the leader of the pair, was taking Luvox, an antidepressant.
Since then, the whole issue of minors and anti-depression medication has become a major issue, though not in these anniversary observances on the drug-dependent TV news outlets. The FDA warned in March 2004 that Luvox can lead to deeper depression and suicide, and urged health care providers to warn patients and families to watch for agitation, irritability, suicide and so on. The agency also noted increased reports of hostility and suicide attempts in children and urged caution in prescribing it to them.
Agitation, irritability, hostility, suicide. In teenagers. Let's leave it at that.
One thing I've learned in dealing with another drug-related story is that anything that can make you depressed and, frankly, disturbed enough to want to kill yourself -- to cause self-harm -- can make you want to do the same to someone else, or many others. When you're OK with dying, you're often OK with other people dying too. What difference does it make when all is lost? If you're already willing to accept the death penalty, there's not much deterrence left.
I want to add here that I have no beef with psychotropic medications. I know from close-up experience that serious mental illness can respond, sometimes miraculously, to medication. I'm all for it, believe me. And that's the point -- for serious ailments, serious medicine makes sense; greater risks, as long as they are understood rather than overlooked, understated or covered up, can be well worth taking. But the Medication Generation we see now -- a direct offshoot of the promiscuous promotion of drugs on TV and in our culture as cure-alls for ailments from arthritis (Vioxx) to weight loss (Phen-fen) to chronic fatigue to restless legs -- is obscene. When Peggy Fleming is hawking Vioxx for her achy skater's ankle, while the evidence mounts that it's killing tens of thousands of people who never needed it, you see the problem writ large.
At Columbine and in other school killings, you see it writ small but with greater impact, because the victims are kids, and they make the evening news, and they make no sense, or seem not to.
I still might not have thought to say anything about this were it not for a conversation I had this weekend with someone on the autism spectrum who -- Paul Offit and the Autism Science Foundation, eat your hearts out -- has responded beautiflly to biomedical help and a wise and loving family and his own innate strength of character and smarts. But at a couple of points he went on something heavy-duty -- Risperdol and Zyprexa. The internal world that created for him -- well, it was the one thing he wouldn't talk about. And he was on them for very short periods, because he had the words to use to tell his parents to get him off them, fast. What that would be like for someone who couldn't describe his feelings, he said, would be indescribably awful. For everyone.
So let's remember Columbine, by all means. And let's acknowledge what it really means about the world we're creating.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.