More Likely Causes of Autism are Ignored

Setting the Stage for this Point

One of the most vigorous debates in autism involves whether autism rates are actually increasing. There is no question that the number of autism diagnoses given each year has increased drastically, both absolutely and as a percentage of the population. However, most scientists who study this topic believe that most or all of this increase can be explained by various factors, such as the popularity of the diagnosis, the substitution of the autism diagnosis for other conditions previously labeled as learning disorder or mental retardation, and parental demand for a diagnosis so they can have access to treatment. Most people involved in the autism debate who are not scientists believe the exact opposite – that there is a dramatically increasing actual number of autism cases. Some call it an autism epidemic. I am doing a separate paper on this topic that will be posted on this website in early 2009. I have not yet reached a conclusion. However, this section is based on a presumption of an actual increasing number of autism cases. If that presumption is wrong, then this section loses its relevance.

Another important concept to understand involves the causes of changing rates of disease. Diseases/disorders can result from genetics (i.e. Down syndrome), environment (i.e. smallpox), or both in wildly varied combinations (i.e. malaria in non-resistant populations, cancer in susceptible populations). Typically, there is a combination of some sort. It is very complicated. However, one general rule that tends to hold true is that when disease incidence starts to change quickly, that change is being driven by environmental causes such as increasing levels of cigarette smoking. This is because human genetics are pretty stable across populations. For a genetic mutation to result in changing levels of disease, many generations are required.

What this means for autism is that the basal rates of autism in history (and autism stretches back millennia) were largely driven by genetics. However, to the extent that autism rates (not just diagnoses) have been increasing in the last few decades, any such increase would largely be driven by environmental factors. The trick to starting to treat autism effectively (if rates are actually increasing), of course, is figuring out what the relevant environmental factors are. Vaccines are a potential environmental factor. However, so are tens of thousands of other factors.

Environmental Factors

For most of history, people died relatively young, (average life expectancy in England at the turn of the last century was in the 40’s) and most frequently death was caused by violence (predators, war, accidents etc…) and infectious diseases (tuberculosis, influenza, malaria, pneumonia, smallpox etc…). Modern society has greatly reduced the percentage of us humans who die from violence. And, modern medicine has been remarkably effective at controlling, particularly in western societies, infectious disease. Vaccines have been a big part of this effort.

However, as rates of infectious diseases have dropped precipitously, rates of chronic disease have risen just as precipitously. Some of that increase has to do with the fact that we all live longer, at least in westernized countries. And, if you live long enough, you will get a chronic disease, like prostate cancer in men. However, chronic disease is striking younger and younger persons – think adult onset (oops, Type II) diabetes, lupus, and irritable bowel syndrome.

There are three facts about this increase in chronic disease that are particularly interesting related to autism. First, a curious fact is that the greatest rise in these modern chronic diseases has occurred in the last 20-30 years, the time period during which we know autism diagnosis has increased – though we have been able to keep many of these diseases under control with increasingly sophisticated technology. Second, whether the chronic disease is cancer, heart disease, or Crohn’s disease, or psychological disorders like depression, we know many of the factors that contribute to the growing incidence of these diseases, which list includes poor diet, restricted exercise patterns, disrupted sleep patterns, high stress levels, obesity etc… These are all features of our modern society. Third, many of these chronic diseases (autoimmune, gastrointestinal, psychological, etc…) are highly co-morbid with autism in both the individuals afflicted and their family members. These individuals are being affected disproportionately by the destructive aspects of the society we have built.

These three facts allow the construction of a hypothesis about the environmental factors that are behind my presumed increasing incidence of autism – that the reason autism rates are increasing are the same that the rates of so many other chronic diseases are increasing, that we have built a world that is generally toxic to humans, and the toxicity comes from many different interacting factors, from chemical-based agriculture, to a culture of sedentariness, to a diet stripped of essential nutrients. We know our society is toxic to us. Doesn’t it make sense to think maybe, just maybe, the increasing levels of autism is caused by the same basic, non-sexy factors working in concert that cause pretty much all the other chronic diseases we suffer from, rather than vaccines which have never been demonstrated to cause disease at all except in rare cases. Occam’s razor would clearly point to the simpler explanation, which is that the modern rise of autism rates results from the changes that we are all aware of that are making us increasingly fat, depressed, and sleep deprived, but that we all try to ignore because changing things would mean altering the lifestyles we have all adopted under the assault of culture.

This is a quote from a mother on an autism site that, like most, are obsessed with vaccines: "My child did regress at about the same time as she became very interested in watching TV. I've wondered for years if it wasn't a factor in her gradual social withdrawal. I was so interested that I set up a survey. I asked parents if they had found various therapies helpful (or not). One of the questions was about 'Cutting back on television/video watching'. That received 24 favorable votes, compared to 4 unfavorable, which compared quite respectably to the top therapies which were speech/language therapy which received 38 votes for and 4 votes against, and ABA which received 31 votes for and 3 votes against. Chelation was much less favored, with only 6 postive, and no negative votes." Chelation is the only of the above therapies rooted in the vaccine theory of autism – it theoretically works through removing mercury. All of the other techniques, such as the reduction of TV, work through less exotic means – engaging autistic children with other humans, something we are less likely to do than ever in our modern societies.


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