Autism Myths

Some time back, my cousin Kamal chastised me for not having any photos of her adorable children on my website. I love these kids with all my heart, but these days I’m reticent to put any more photos of children online, after having been sent a seemingly predatory email in response to a post I once wrote about my cute toddler neighbour. So, Kamal, I will not place images of your perfect progeny on this site, but I will address something else you brought up.

See, Kamal’s handsome 6 year old son Joshua is autistic. Being incredibly doting and sensitive parents, Kamal and her husband have managed to invest a great deal of time (and money) in giving Joshua every opportunity to have a normal life. And after years of simply unbelievable attention, Joshua is functioning at a very high level –much higher, I must admit, than I had earlier hoped for!

Kamal had asked that I occasionally bring up some autism issues in this space, and so that is what I will do today. I have previously tackled the issue of the MMR vaccine being linked to autism. Bottom line: the evidence does not indicate a linkage. But there are some other myths/fears/assumptions that need addressing.

This site offers a few debunkings of some of the common misconceptions people have about autistic individuals, as does this site. In fact, if you google “autism myths“, you get almost 2 million hits. Probably the biggest little known fact (how’s that for an oxymoron?) about autism is that it’s a so-called spectrum disorder, meaning that there’s a long continuum of potential severities. This essay on the issue was actually written by an autistic person, showing that the disorder doesn’t have to be a disability.

Of course, the big question is what causes autism. This is by no means my area of expertise, so please do not turn to me for any deeper insights into this question beyond my ability to parse the existing published evidence. But conventional current thought holds that genes play a distinct role in making a family susceptible to autism (which is possibly why so many families have more than one autistic child) –but what is the environmental trigger that allows those genes to manifest phenotypically? There’s still a strong lay belief that one cause may be the cumulative mercury burden of childhood vaccines. But as mercury (usually in the form of thimerosal) is phased out of vaccines, will the autism rates decline?

This is a job for Epidemiology Man. Or Woman. Surely, someone somewhere is doing a population study looking at autism rates in association with the presence of mercury environmentally. This is what we call an “ecological” analysis, which is not very strong, but nonetheless useful.

Time will tell.