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Is Autism Epidemic Denialism Starting to Crack?

Posted Aug 17 2010 4:23am
Kev Leitch has reluctantly, very reluctantly, begun to acknowledge that maybe there are environmental factors involved in causing autism. For reasons that just aren't clear he calls his LBRB comment on a New Scientist article on autism increases   The autism ‘epidemic  no more   even though the article does not provide any evidence to support the conclusion asserted in that title.  In the New Scientist article   Autism explosion half explained, half still a mystery Jim Giles reports that Dr. Peter Bearman and colleagues  at Columbia Unviersity conducted a three year study and found that only approximately half of the startling increases in autism diagnoses can be explained by diagnostic change, increased awareness and increased parental age.

Giles  references two primary sources to comment on the implications of the unexplained half of the autism increases, Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland and  Roy Grinker, anthropologist at George Washington University. Dr. Tom Insel:

 But now a series of a studies have shown that diagnostic changes alone cannot account for the increase. They suggest that other causes, perhaps environmental factors, are also contributing to the rise in cases.

"These studies give me the feeling that there must be a true increase in the number of children affected," says Tom Insel , director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland.
Insel says that environmental factors are most likely to be behind the rise, although research to pin down which are to blame will take years.

For a contrary view Giles referred to Roy Grinker of George Washington University who trotted out his pet theory, the "stigma" theory,  to question the existence of a real increase in autism:

"Autism used to be highly stigmatised, in part because it was thought to be due to poor parenting. The removal of that stigma has made doctors and parents more willing to recognise the disease, which will have contributed to [some of] the extra cases, says Roy Grinker , an anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington DC.

This and other social causes, together with uncertainty in the number of cases that can be attributed to the factors already studied by Bearman, could account for much or all of the unexplained half, says Grinker."

The article does not explain what Professor Grinker meant by the "uncertainty" in the number of cases that can be attributed to the factors already studied by Bearman and his colleagues who studied these cases over a three year period and explained roughly half of the increase on diagnostic change and awareness. To my knowledge Grinker has not conducted a similar lengthy or extensive study to substantiate his "stigma" theory that autism is not really increasing. 

Kev Leitch, a Neurodiversity blogger,  who has long denied the existence of an autism epidemic grapples with the Bearman study implications with even more confusing and convoluted logic than Professor Grinker:

"So what can we take from Bearman’s work? In my opinion we can take the fact that as soon as the questions regarding non-environmental causes were actually looked at and studied, there were numerical values that could be applied to their contribution. There are other non-environmental causes which Bearman didn’t look at which would probably be found to contribute to the other half.

What about the alleged environmental causes? It would not surprise me in the least if it were found that there were some."

From that observation we then go back to the title of Leitch's comment "The Autism Epidemic No More" which makes absolutely no sense at all in light of the Bearman study, the New Scientist article or Leitch's own painful acknowledgement that environmental factors might be involved in explaining the increases in autism diagnoses.  Autism epidemic denialism is beginning to crack but it is a painful process for those, like Roy Grinker and Kev Leitch,  who have been loath to admit that environmental factors are involved in causing or triggering autism disorders. 

Perhaps Professor Grinker and Blogger Leitch will have less difficulty accepting the role of environmental factors in causing autism if and when the grotesque imbalance which favors genetic autism research over environmental autism research by 19 or 20  to 1 is eliminated in favor of more balanced distribution between genetics and environment.  Perhaps then they will see the Autism Epidemic that has been staring at us in recent years.

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