Last week I wrote about an alarming report out of Britain that fully a third of children coming into the education system have issues with speech, socialization and toileting. This iatrogenic, man-made, unprecedented catastrophe -- which is what it is unless you just want to argue it's always been this way -- was airily displaced onto kids having too much smartphone access, not enough parental interaction, and so on. I said it was another species of parent-blaming -- it now appears to be the primary task of moms and dads these days to keep their children away from all the appurtenances of modern life lest they be ineducable by age 5. But unless you want to turn the phone to airplane mode and go on retreat in the hills of Virginia (as I did this past week, in fact), that's not a very reasonable expectation. And I'm not sure why letting Johnny play Wib Wob during dinner at Outback is any more toxic for the kid than coloring bunny rabbits on the place mat. Is he supposed to discuss the threat to democracy posed by the presumptive Republican or Democratic nominee?
Recently the reliably tone-deaf Autism Speaks plied another version of the "parents did it" canard with one of its Weatherstone grants to post-doctoral students. From AS: "Eric Rubenstein, of the University of North Carolina, will explore the association between autism symptoms in children diagnosed with the condition and autism-like behavioral traits in their parents (who don’t have autism). The goal is to better understand how and when inherited factors play a role in the development of autism and then use this information to tailor interventions that can best meet a child’s needs. The study also promises to deepen understanding of the inherited traits and biology of different subtypes of autism."
Nothing against Rubenstein, but here's the role autism-like traits play in making your kid autistic: None. Now give me my grant money! This reeks of the Geek Syndrome, in which mere oddities in adults somehow get magnified when they mate in Mountain View et voila, you've got a disabled kid. In fact, 20 times more disabled kids than two decades ago.
Even rainy weather points to poor parenting. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 2008, a study found higher rates of autism in rainier counties. Could it be (cue Church Lady's voice here) mercury? In water picked up from toxic lakes and streams and dumped on Johnny's house? No: "This week's peer-reviewed paper raised the possibility that heavy rainfall forces vulnerable children indoors, where there is greater exposure to cleaning chemicals and television, and less exposure to sunshine -- and the vitamin D it produces."
Vitamin D -- maybe, although we've had dark days since the dawn, so to speak, of time. But letting a child get within half a mile of cleaning chemicals and TV -- that's bad parenting! Get your toilet scrub at Whole Foods and play patty cake with your child all day or face the wrath of the autism causation committee! (A similar "association" followed Hurricane Katrina, in which a spike in autism cases was attributed to maternal stress, not, never, no, of course not, to the toxic sludge that spilled into neighborhoods. If only these moms had meditated for a week with me instead of getting hysterical about a little old hurricane. It's their fault, you see.)
Back when I first started writing about autism for UPI, and was just starting to suspect the role of toxins in the early cases, I wrote that "it's not who the parents were, it's what they did." But that I meant that it wasn't their personalities, or their intellectual and mathematical and science bents -- and by the descriptions of Leo Kanner and others they did seem a bit bent -- it was the unrecognized environmental risks from their occupations. People seemed to forget that doctors, scientists, engineers, researchers are the leading edge of toxic exposures to novel chemicals of all kinds. Boyd Haley used the great term "bucket chemists" to convey what lots of them did -- slop chemicals into beakers and pour them into each other and suck up (with their mouths -- really) enough liquid in pipettes to keep the experiment rolling.
I've written about it before, so let me repeat myself, to wit:
Is mainstream science and medicine ever going to recognize the real significance of the repeated clues linking parental occupation and risk of autism? I vote no. A study from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found thusly, according to Science Daily:
"Children of fathers who are in technical occupations are more likely to have an autism spectrum disorder, according to researchers. Fathers who worked in engineering were two times as likely to have a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Those who worked in finance were four times more likely and those who worked in health care occupations were six times more likely to have a child on the autism spectrum. There was no association with a mother's occupation."
And what might account for this seeming hodgepodge of risks? According to a study author, "Parental occupation could be indicative of autistic-like behaviors and preferences and serve as another factor in a clinician's diagnosis of a child with suspected autism. Medical students can be taught that this is one of the things to consider."
I guess that means that perseverative and detail-oriented anti-social types would be drawn to those fields It makes no sense that fathers, not mothers, would be 100 percent of the risk factor, unless both were in technical fields. I suspect that points to the real clue here -- toxic exposures. The workplace is where engineers, lab workers, chemists get the exposure and bring it home one way or the other. (Finance, I would guess. points to higher income and more medical interventions. And medicine points to, well, a lot of medicine!) Women get it from all kinds of things -- mercury flu shots in pregnancy come to mind -- that directly expose the fetus or infant without needing to be mediated by occupation. That adds enough noise to drown out the occupational clue for moms alone.
The bad faith that defines the mainstream medical response to autism is entirely evident here. You really need to turn away from a well-marked trail of evidence to get lost in these weeds. This is something Mark Blaxill and I have been writing about for years, and at the risk of repeating ourselves, let me marshal the evidence again.
In the 1970s -- closer to the start of autism than to today, and better able to tease out signals -- two complementary studies starkly outlined the risk between parents' exposure to toxins and the risk for autism. I wrote about that at UPI, in a two-part series in 2006 that "highlighted a study by Thomas Felicetti, now executive director of Beechwood Rehabilitation Services in Langhorne, Pa. As Felicetti described it in the journal Milieu Therapy in 1981, he compared the occupations of 20 parents of autistic children, 20 parents of retarded children and 20 parents of "normal" children who were friends and neighbors of those attending the Avalon School in Massachusetts where he taught at the time.
"The results did, in fact, suggest a chemical connection," he wrote. "Eight of the 37 known parents of the autistic children had sustained occupational exposure to chemicals prior to conception. Five were chemists and three worked in related fields. The exposed parents represent 21 percent of the autistic group. This compared to 2.7 percent of the retardation controls and 10 percent of the normal controls. The data, subjected to statistical analysis, demonstrated a chemical connection.
"The results of this study point in the direction of chemical exposure as an etiological factor in the birth of autistic children." [He emphasized that educational level had nothing to do with it. One father of an autistic child was a roof tarrier. That's chemicals, not credentials.]
What makes Felicetti's study, though small, even more compelling is that it was designed to test earlier work by Dr. Mary Coleman, one of his mentors.
In the 1976 book "The Autistic Syndromes," Coleman described her study of 78 autistic children in which she noticed "an unusual exposure of parents to chemicals in the preconception period." Out of 78 autistic kids, 20 were from families with chemical exposure; four were from families where both parents had such exposures -- seven out of eight of those parents as chemists. Still, Coleman worried that because the parents volunteered for the survey they might have been scientifically inclined, skewing the results toward careers like chemistry.
Felicetti effectively confirmed the validity of her finding by selecting the participating parents himself.
Coleman's study has an interesting origin: It was suggested by Bernard Rimland, the pioneering figure whose 1964 book, "Infantile Autism," established that parental behavior was not a cause of autism. In 1974, Coleman recounts, Rimland "and other members of the National Society for Autistic Children approached the Children's Brain Research Clinic of Washington, D.C., to discuss the possibility of the Clinic studying their autistic children at the time of that annual meeting to be held in June."
Those children were the ones on whom the research was based. And a chemical connection was a key finding: "In the preconception history questionnaire filled out by both the father and the mother, there were two areas of marked difference between the parents of the autistic children and parents of the controls," Coleman wrote. "One of these areas was exposure to chemicals."
Coleman wrote that "since the incidence of individuals exposed to chemicals in all related occupations in the United States is 1,059,000 in 91,000,000 or 1.1. percent of the population ... to find that 25 percent of any sample has had chemical exposure is quite startling.
"We feel it can not be dismissed because of the theoretical possibility that chemical toxins could affect genetic material prior to conception. Attempts to identify a particular chemical toxin to which many parents were consistently exposed in our sample failed; the parents recalled exposure to a great multitude and variety of chemical agents with no one chemical or classification of chemicals singled out in the data. Clearly, this is an area where more prospective research is needed."
(The other difference Coleman found in parents of autistic children was "the presence of hypothyroidism in the preconception history.")
And there's more. In the 2002 book "Impact of Hazardous Chemicals on Public Health, Policy, and Service," the authors review those studies and cite another -- an unpublished manuscript by Marcus and Broman: "They found a higher incidence of occupations involving exposure to chemicals among the parents of children with autism."
And the link goes back to the very beginning. As we describe in our book, The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, we found and identified most of the anonymous 11 children in the first case series report of autism, in 1943. In brief, mercury was everywhere in the family backgrounds, especially the newly commercialized ethyl mercury in pesticides and, alas, vaccines. You could see it clearly in the parents' professions -- forestry professor and plant pathologist and chemist dads; well-baby visit, vaccine-pioneer mom; nurse mom; four psychiatrist dads back when mercury was used to treat a common form of mental illness.
This is just a hunch, but I think Leo Kanner saw oddities in parents, such as they were, that pointed to their own exposure to the same toxins that injured their kids (along with the stress of having such disabled kids and knowing they were being blamed for it, to boot). One father, a chemist, was described in ways -- irascible, painfully shy -- that suggested the mercury-exposure disorder called erethism. Now that's really sick, if you think about it -- missing the fact that both parent and child had been damaged by the same substance, then assuming the parents had either induced the condition in their child through their parenting or their DNA. No wonder our understanding of autism has lagged about a half-century by missing the simple point that it's not who the parents were; it was nothing intrinsic to their psyche or their DNA or their "autistic traits" (but not autism); it's what they did.
Come on, folks! Ethyl mercury triggered the Age of Autism in the 1930s and the epidemic exploded in 1988 when the mercury load from infant vaccinations rose nearly threefold after the vaccine "court" gave manufacturers tort liability.
It's a simple tale, really. But Kanner, the psychiatrist who described those first cases, missed the "chemical connection" and speculated, as scientists still do, that something about who these perseverative, autisticky parents were -- rather than what they did, and what, thereby, they and their children were exposed to -- causes autism.
Seventy five years later, we've got a third of kids in England too messed up to educate, which means our collective future is in serious doubt. The only thing that hasn't changed is it's still the parents' fault.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.