The signs have been emerging for a while now – the idea that people with autism are just differently abled, maybe socially awkward but a wonderful raindow of diversity rather than a wounded spectrum of damage; reports claiming the autism rate among adults is 1 in 100, the better to make it "old news” when the latest CDC data arrive; dismissal of the idea that anyone with autism can in any sense “recover” when diets are changed or metals are chelated; the furious attack on people who talk about anything but genes and ABA as denialists, purveyors of “junk science,” liars and frauds who endanger children -- a deadly serious charge.
It’s the New Normal.
You can see it in little things, like the Washington Post article I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, in which the reporter asked the authors of a new book about babies, “Sensory processing issues seem to be so common now. Do most children grow out of them or should parents be more proactive about getting their kids therapy?” The experts’ reassuring answer: “A lot of people don’t really realize that we all have sensory sensitivities.” And a few pages away, another “expert” from Johns Hopkins assures readers that the mercury in the flu shot has been proven safe.
I was surprised by the strong response to that piece, and by the number of commenters who articulated this “new normal” idea:
-- From Paul Shapiro: “If things continue at the present rate, in twenty or so years, most children will be on the spectrum, so being on the spectrum will be the new normal.
Children that we consider normal today, will be the oddity. I guess at that time the tables will have turned, the FDA, CDC and society at large will be searching for what causes these formally considered normal kids to act so odd. Huh!
Where did I go wrong? Please help me?”
-- From jen: “somebody needs to film what's going on in the schools. It's crazy! The new normal is not normal. Remember the scene in Titanic, when Rose, after the Titanic has sunk, tries weakly to blow the whistle and she gets louder each time, and finally, a rescue boat hears her blow the whistle. I wish the rescue boat would hear us.”
-- From Deutsche Demokratische Republik, 1985: We can now consider ourselves, at least organized-medicine-wise, to be living in some Eastern Block country regarding the blatant rewriting of history. Hey, but as long as the typeset is nice...
None of this stuff was common when I was a kid -- an epidemiological scan of past medical records and US Census data and a poll would easily establish this fact. The problem is, as you're pointing out, that any such findings would be Bowdlerized in the mainstream press.”
I love that “Deutsche” moniker, because the degree to which state-sanctioned Correct Speech is taking hold is a big part of the whole picture. I was reading a piece in The New Yorker about famine in North Korea. What famine? According to the state-run news agency: “All people live a happy life without any worries about food in our land. The state supplies the people with food at a cheap price next to nothing so that people do not know how much rice costs. This is the reality of the northern half of Korea.”
Michael Specter’s new book “Denialism,” a big mess that I wrote about recently, captures this reality. Specter is a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter who is now a staff writer for The New Yorker – in short, the pedigree every journalist would die for. And he has had it, simply had it with the know-nothing nonsense being spewed by fringe outlets like Age of Autism, which he incorrectly (nothing new there!) calls “anti-vaccine” (we are not anti-vaccine; we are anti-autism).
“Denialism comes in many forms, and they often overlap,” Specter writes. “Denialists draw direct relationships where none exist – between childhood vaccinations, for example, and the rising incidence of diseases like diabetes, asthma, and autism.”
Yes, denialism comes in many forms – and using the vaccine-mercury-autism debate as a mere “for example” of wacky thinking is, well, an example. It says something about how far we have to go when we’re relegated to mere chapters in books pushing a much larger point about the decline of scientific rationalism and respect for duly constituted authority.
Even so, it may seem extreme – “hysterical,” to use a word that people toss at us – to say that anything about autism could ever become normal. Yet there is historical precedent. Mark Blaxill and I, in working on our book about the natural history of autism, came across a fascinating and disturbing 19th century parallel – the normalization of schizophrenia.
This has been so effective that you may not even know (I didn't, despite the presence of the illness in my family) that there is a convincing argument for the fact that schizophrenia is a relatively new disease, at least in its current and widespread incarnation, triggered (like autism) by environmental factors in vulnerable individuals. A masterful book called “The Invisible Plague,” by E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, shows exactly how this normalization happened. They write:
“Living amid an ongoing epidemic that nobody notices is surreal. It is like viewing a mighty river that has risen slowly over two centuries, imperceptibly claiming the surrounding land, millimeter by millimeter … Humans adapt remarkably well to a disaster as long as the disaster occurs over a long period of time.”
So yes, we can get used to anything, even autism and the idea it has been around forever and it’s not so bad after all. It’s the new normal. Watch what you say.
PEOPLE OF AMERICA, LISTEN TO DEAR LEADER: DO NOT BELIEVE (join) THOSE WHO CLAIM AUTISM (the) IS RISING BECAUSE SOMETHING EVIL IN THE ENVIRONMENT (rebel) AND MAYBE IN UNTESTED BABY SHOTS IS (alliance) HURTING OUR CHILDREN IN LARGE NUMBERS! (!)
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism