Why is it that so many writers seem to have an anaphylactic reaction to the fact that the first case of autism in the medical literature recovered remarkably when treated with gold salts?
The short answer is because it suggests that the mainstream has gotten autism very wrong, and from the very first. Neither parent-blaming nor genetic anomalies nor ABA nor Floortime could explain how treating someone with a different diet, or certain kinds of medicine or alternative methods, could trigger a visible improvement in their symptoms, let along the kind of recovery seen in Donald T.
Donald, as you may know, was Case 1 in Leo Kanner’s 1943 description of 11 children with a theretofore-unknown syndrome that Kanner called “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.”
Mark Blaxill and I tracked Donald down in 2005, and in 2007 met him in his hometown of Forest, Mississippi. Meanwhile, others were on the case. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, doubtless in possession of our 2010 book the Age of Autism which outlined our reporting on Donald, made a suspiciously well-timed splash the day before with an article in the Atlantic and a gig on Good Morning America, with the always-eager-to-diminish-autism George Stephanopoulos presiding.
I don’t doubt Donvan and Zucker independently identified Donald; it wasn’t that hard to do. I don’t blame them for publicizing their work at the same time as ours (I suppose they think they “scooped” us by landing one day before, although our book had been out for review for weeks), nor do I object to the fact that their take on Donald was a very pleasant feature story – the lovely people of Forest adopted him as their own little Hobbit (he is very short and suffered from failure to thrive, a sign of what really happened), and now he had found his own little place in the Shire. If only all the townsfolk of the world would be so kind, they implied, we’d have no problem with autism at all. Now they've recapitulated all that and much more in their new book "In a Different Key -- The Story of Autism," which along with the recent "Neurotribes" paints autism as just another part of human diversity that has always been with us.
Yeah, right. Our book laid out an entirely different scenario, in which we showed that Donald really was among the earliest handful of cases that came to be called autism. That the reason was the commercialization of ethyl mercury in seed disinfectants, lumber preservatives and multidose vaccines, and that the march of industrial progress, not for the first or last time, had inadvertently (and carelessly, given the known toxicity of ethyl mercury) launched the Age of Autism (see our book, the video on our home page, and my column last Saturday).
Let’s set that aside for a second and talk about the fact that Donald, according to his brother, Oliver, developed an acute case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in early adolescence and was near death by the time his parents got him the right diagnosis and treatment at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis. That treatment was intravenous gold salts over several months, during which time his JRA lifted, with the exception of one fused finger bone.
During that time, his brother told me, Donald’s autism symptoms also cleared up to the point that he was able to take his place in the community, go to college, work at the family bank and become president of the Kiwanis.
Interesting, no? Well, no, not interesting, nothing to see here according to Donvan and Zucker’s account. In a footnote, where pesky ideas that threaten the main narrative go to die, Donvan tells a different story, one that acknowledges ours but finds every reason you could think of, and a few you couldn’t, to dismiss it out of hand.
You see, the fact that Case 1 had not just autism but (another) autoimmune disease – rheumatoid arthritis -- interests them not at all as any kind of clue to causation or treatment. What they want to do is tear down any association between the gold salts (biomed) and the improvement in Donald’s autism.
Donvan reports that Donald’s mother, long dead, believed that the fevers induced by JRA, when they weren’t nearly killing him, improved his symptoms. Now, fevers do sometimes seem to have some effect on autism – usually temporary, alas, as I understand it.
But to Donvan, that’s the ticket out of having to consider a sustained anti-inflammatory treatment as anything to do with Donald’s recovery, which he also disputes, saying Donald is clearly still autistic. (Many parents would be thrilled with that kind of “autism” in their adult children.)
Donvan attributes the fever cure concept to Donald’s brother, and makes it sound like our description of gold salts as the source of his improvement is rampant, self-interested speculation by anti-vaccine kooks. "In his initial reporting, Olmsted went so far as to suggest gold salts had cured Donald's autism," they write.
Except, that’s what Donald’s brother told me in his law office above the square in Forest back in 2005! He said a Dr. Hamilton in Memphis “began to treat my brother with gold salts – two or three months. He just had a miraculous response to the medicine. The pain in his joints went away.”
And then Oliver dropped the bomb I wasn’t expecting: “When he was finally released the nervous condition he was formerly afflicted with was gone. The proclivity toward excitability and extreme nervousness had all but cleared up, and after that he went to school and had one more little flare-up when he was in junior college they treated with cortisone.”
Later in the interview, still processing this unexpected idea, I came back to the gold salts and asked Oliver again if it really seemed like the decisive event: “It sure did,” he said. “He became more sociable.” Oliver added, “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Donvan also criticizes me for suggesting Donald had moved off the autism spectrum, but when I asked Oliver if Donald had autism he said, “No, he doesn’t. It’s just in certain areas.” Again, some peculiarities, some traits, but c’mon John, the first guy ever reported in the literature got so much better that, if he’d started out like that, he’d never have been in the medical literature in the first place. This is where the diagnostic category itself, as opposed to a concept like auto-immune environmental injury, serves the status quo. The medical establishment controls the category, and you'd best not tamper with it.
Two years later, in 2007, Mark and I met Donald and, sitting around his kitchen table in Mississippi, talked (on tape) about his early life. We ran it in our book in Q and A form.
“Q: There was a mention in some of the medical papers that when you had the gold salts therapy, all of a sudden some of the behaviors and some of the other problems got better. Do you remember that?
A: No, I don’t really remember that.
Q: Did your parents say, though, that you seemed to get a lot better in terms of your relationship with the rest of the world and that sort of thing at that point?
A: Yes, as I got older, things got a whole lot better.
Q: And did they think that had something to do with it, those gold salts treatments?
A: I have a feeling it might.
Q: And the behaviors they were calling autistic, did those change most after the first one?
A: Yes, it seems like they changed.
Q: But you don’t remember that kind of change taking place?
A: No, I don’t remember, really.”
Unlike this conversation, my earlier interview with his brother was not on tape. Reporters don’t like to share their notes, but here are two pages of mine. They show Donald’s brother, not me, musing about his amazing recovery from gold salts.
Now, maybe gold salts were not what helped Donald, although I think they did; it is at least an idea worth taking seriously and keeping on the table as the number of injured kids soars. The meta-point here is that folks like Donvan can’t stand the idea and its implications, and toss in everything they can think of to discredit it. Maybe he was already getting better. Maybe he didn't really get that much better. Maybe it was the fevers. Maybe it's the lovely people of Forest. JRA has nothing to do with autism. Autism is not autoimmune, dammit! Etc. ... Just like parents who report that removing certain items from the diet, or using chelation, or supplements, are treated like kooks. Yes, if you always ignore the evidence, people who insist on paying attention to it will remain kooks!
What can I say? I report what people tell me, and Oliver told me his brother’s JRA and his autism – in my view, a couple of co-morbid autoimmune afflictions triggered by early exposure to ethyl mercury – both cleared up with history's first biomedical intervention. Donald thought so, too, but was too young and too sick to know for sure. What a missed opportunity for the world to begin to understand what created this new disorder and what might help alleviate, and even stop, it. If the doctors who saw those early cases suspected the environmental clues that were there to see, we'd be living in a very different world today. One such clue to causation is biomedical recovery from both JRA and autism in Case 1.
But with causation comes culprits, both the compounds that triggered it and the powers that be who let it happen and allow it continue to this day.
And that, I think, is why so many have anaphylactic reactions to Donald T. and gold salts.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.