NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 23, 2008

According to the Autism Society of America, children and adults with autism "typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities."  Autism is quite common, affecting as many as one in 150 children, and the frequency of the diagnosis is increasing, says Paul A. Offit, author of Autism's False Prophets.

What accounts for this increase?  Offit notes two likely causes:

  • The definition of the disorder has broadened over time, so that children with mild symptoms are now being diagnosed when once they would have been regarded as merely quirky.
  • In earlier times, children with severe symptoms of what we now recognize as autism were more likely to be diagnosed, often incorrectly, as mentally retarded.

But just as autism is being found more often, so are dubious explanations for the source.  The parade of "false prophets" began lining up soon after the disorder was defined, says Offit:

  • At mid-century, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim published his theory that autism was precipitated by the "black milk" of mothers who treated children with a frosty emotional distance.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, advocates of "facilitated communication" - a "facilitator" supports a child's hand helping him use devices - claimed that their approach enabled nonverbal children to express their true selves.
  • In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield announced that the disorder was caused by the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) given to young children; later, it emerged that the children studied were clients of a lawyer who was searching for evidence for a lawsuit.

Currently, thimerosal, a preservative in vaccines, is the main culprit.  In response, federal agencies have pushed to have thimerosal removed from almost all childhood vaccines.  But if thimerosal is the cause of autism, the appearance of new cases should have begun to slow.  In fact, autism diagnoses continued to climb, says Offit.

Source: Linda Seebach, "Charlatans to the Rescue," Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2008; based upon: Paul A. Offit, "Autism's False Prophets," Columbia University Press, 2008.

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