Well Being

The truth about autism: It’s not toxic

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There is a lot of mythology, a lot of lies, out there about autism. According to Anne McElroy Dachel, an autism mother and a Generation Rescue “rescue angel,” the “really big lie about autism” is that better diagnosis is the reason for the rise in the prevalence rate of autism—1 in 150 among American children according to the latest figures from the CDC. I would rather say that, to claim that vaccines, and specifically the mercury-based preservative thimerasol cause autism, is misleading and potentially dangerous.

Even more misleading, though, is what Dachel suggests that autism is. In her February 25th op-ed, The Really Big Lie About Autism, Dachel characterizes autism is an “environmental neurological disorder” and singles out thimerasol as a culprit (not surprisingly, as Dachel is a member of A-CHAMP (Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning). While (as I note below) she cites various statistics indicating a rise in the prevalence rate of autism, she does not otherwise refer to what autism is in her op-ed on the “really big lie about autism” except that it is, indeed, some kind of poisoning of children today by environmental toxins.

The truth about autism is something far simpler, I think.

The truth about autism is our children who have autism—is autistic persons themselves—and the daily round of joys and struggles that they go through, and that parents of autistic children try very hard to understand. Some parents, like Dachel, appeal to seemingly scientific theories to explain to themselves what autism is. But, even though Dachel attempts to debunk the “lie” of “better diagnosis” as the reason for the increase in the prevalence rate of autism, in truth an op-ed like hers only increases misunderstanding about autism.

Here is one example of what autism is like—-of “the truth about autism”:

My son Charlie went for a walk in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his grandmother (my mother; he calls her “PoPo,” the Cantonese word for maternal grandmother) on Washington Avenue tonight. It was starting to snow and Charlie held onto her hand and shuffled his feet in the little piles of flakes that were starting to accumulate on the sidewalk. I was walking behind them and we had just had dinner at a restaurant, the letters of whose name—-“The Mile Square”—Charlie had read out loud for us with a big smile. He identified both the “i” and the “l” in “mile” as “l”: Charlie seems not always to see the space between the line and the dot of the “i” and so calls it “l” until this is pointed out to him. When Charlie was younger, I would have been alarmed at his still, at the age of 9, not knowing the difference between “i” and “l.” More important to me now is that he takes pleasure in reading the letters out loud, in a pre-reading skill: Charlie can identify several sight words, but he cannot yet read as far as looking at a page in a book and pronouncing the words—but this will come.

While life with autism is not easy—-as I have sought to convey in chronicling almost two years of our life raising our autistic son Charlie on my blog, Autismland—neither is it some dreadful phenomenon. “The autistic kids keep on coming, and coming and coming. They will bankrupt school systems, public services, and social services,” writes Dachel towards the end of her op-ed in language that suggests a vast horde of autistic children descending upon us and eating up all manner of resources, economic, educational, and otherwise. It is precisely this kind of alarmist statement, of a seemingly infinite number of disabled children draining our resources and, indeed, our future that is characteristic of advocates of a mercury-autism connection.

Dachel structures her op-ed in the usual way that advocates of the mercury-autism theory (such as David Kirby and Dan Olmsted) use: After briefly mentioning an opposing theory in the opening paragraphs, Dachel attempts to show the theory's “illogical” nature, incorrectness and just plain falseness by presenting an array of statistics and other numbers from an array of sources, and by appealing to our common sense: Surely we are not so….stupid…..not to see the evidence before our eyes, so many—-an epidemic—-of autistic children.

Thus, in her opening paragraph Dachel mentions the better diagnosis theory:

About six months ago I wrote an OpEd piece called “The Really Big Lie About Autism” in which I described the persistent yet illogical claim that all the autistic kids filling speech therapy sessions, classrooms, and even whole schools, are the result of “better diagnosing and greater awareness” on the part of doctors.

She then cites the CDC's recently released figures on the increased prevalence rate in autism (1 in 150; 1 in 94 in New Jersey) and singles out a few “experts” (Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of the CDC's developmental-disabilities program at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities; Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Dr. Fred Volkmar, director of the Yale Autism Center). Dachel gives the appearance of showing the lie in their arguments by noting that, while the DSM-IV definition of autism was expanded in 1994, the 1990s were “also the decade of the dramatic increase in the number of mercury-containing vaccinations in the childhood schedule” (she none too accurately conflates a change made in the diagnostic definition of autism in one year, and one almost halfway through a decade, with the time period of the entire decade). Statistics of rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism from several states (Texas, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan) are cited as “evidence.”

Dachel closes her op-ed by stating her main point in simple and clear language, the use of the device of the rhetorical question:

The truth will come out in the end, but the question is, will it be our end as well?

By “the truth,” Dachel refers to her own definition of autism as an “environmental neurological disorder” whose rising prevalence we ought to be alarmed by. A rhetorical question “affirm[s] or den[ies] a point strongly by asking it as a question” (see the Forest of Rhetoric); Dachel suggests that the notion that “autistic children haven't always been with us or called something else” will most definitely “be our end as well” unless we wake up from the “big lie about autism” and recognize the truth.

Characterizing autism as some sort of environmentally-rooted, toxic disease, is to misrepresent what autism is by boiling it down to some kind of condition caused by a single toxic agent. Dachel draws on a predictable rhetorical structure to make and to support her claims. For the truth is already with us, in the autistic persons, of children and adults who are here and now with us, not through some theory based on some chance, and not entirely credible, correlations.

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