It's probably a requirement to read Age of Autism that you don't mind ruffling a few feathers.
But when we say a major effort should be made to "cure" autism, an affliction which at a conservatively estimated rate of 1 in 100 children is an epidemic on a scale which dwarfs polio which at its height afflicted anywhere between 1 in 1,500 - 2,000 children, (the majority of whom recovered), we're told science doesn't move that quickly.
It was with some amusement I read a recent profile of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, Nobel Prize winner, and former head of the Human Genome Project in The Wall Street Journal, HERE in which he said cancer could be cured in his lifetime. He's 82 years old. He also seems to enjoy ruffling feathers. I'm a great fan of such ambition.
I'm well aware that Watson has his detractors, from his failing to give credit to the work of Rosalind Franklin to some of his more off-color comments of recent years, but how can you not have a little soft spot in your heart for a researcher who titled his 2007 book, "Avoid Boring People: Lessons Learned from a Life in Science" in which he described some of his former Harvard colleagues as "dinosaurs", "mediocre" and "deadbeats"?
Watson's target in the article is the FDA which he says is stifling innovation. From Dr. Watson's remarks in The Wall Street Journal, "The FDA has so many regulations . . . They don't want you to try a new thing if there's an old thing that might work . . . But the regulations are saying you can't do these (new) things until we give you a lot of s--- drugs." I know that many autism researchers and clinicians live in fear that their best treatments, even if absolutely safe, will run afoul of FDA regulations.
Further on in the article is this paragraph. "He also complains that too often government and private money help support scientists rather than cutting edge science. 'That's not the aim of our money-job research, job security. It should be job insecurity. Or hospital insecurity. Empty the breast cancer ward.'"
While many researchers seem to focus on uncovering a sliver of the cancer puzzle, Watson wants to go after the whole pie. (How's that for a holiday metaphor?) Watson notes that all cancer cells secrete a certain protein, interleukin 6, which makes them resistant to anti-cancer drugs. The articles states, "Thus the key to curing cancer may be finding a drug that blocks interleukin-6. 'While this would be wonderful if it turns out to be true,' he says, he doesn't know if it is and he concedes, 'it's not conventional wisdom.'" He is optimistic that there could be a Hail Mary discovery, a single drug that can work on all cancers.
I know it's frustrating for autism parents to read about even more studies on eye-gazing, social interaction, or those elusive autism genes when research from prestigious institutions like the UC Davis MIND Institute and Johns Hopkins point so clearly to environmental factors like chemicals or pathogens at work. Much of science seems so small, unable to grapple with fundamental problems.
And yet there are people in science who are dedicated to solving the big problems. And yes, they often find themselves under attack by the medical establishment. But they continue on in their work. Much of it will continue to be unreported until all is put in order and safe from attack, but I believe we will all soon benefit from such work. If James Watson believes cancer might be defeated by a Hail Mary discovery I don't understand why it's unreasonable to believe a similar thing might happen with autism.
When I'm asked what future I imagine for my daughter, Jacqueline, I'm torn by two very conflicting visions of the future. On the one hand I note that she's twelve-years-old, has seizures, no effective language, can't run or climb a jungle gym, and is still in diapers. None of the doctors in either the traditional medical world or bio-medical community can seem to help her.
On the other hand I'm aware of the amazing capacity of the human mind to solve problems. Do I really think that the later years of my daughter's life, (probably somewhere in the 2070s or 2080s if she lives an average lifespan) will in any way resemble these early, desparate ones? No. I'm betting on researchers like Dr. James Watson who will harness the best scientific practices with a passionate committment to solving the ills of humanity.
The Age of Autism will one day pass and it will be because of impatient researchers like Dr. James Watson. They will deserve their own Nobel Prize.
Kent Heckenlively is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism