Over the last few days, I’ve tried to show how the authors of Age of Autism have retro-fitted the symptoms of mercury poisoning to try and make them await a diagnosis of autism. They have suggested things like tremors, paralysis, reddening of extremities and various other things are very similar to symptoms of autism. Or at least, they will suggest these things in upcoming chapters (I’ve already noted a large passage on the thoroughly debunked Bernard paper later on in the book). They are also working hard throughout Chapters 1 – 4 to enforce the idea that things like schizophrenia, bipolar, Down syndrome and of course autism are new things.
Nowhere (so far) in the book is this more apparent than Chapter 4 (entitled Pollution):
But were these men really seeing something that had been missed for centuries? Or did they happen to be in a position to observe a cluster of cases of chronic disease as it first appeared?...What if they were diseases born of the newest phase of human civilization, children of coal combustion, distributed mechanical power and the Industrial Revolution?
However, a large block positioned itself in front of Olmsted and Blaxill in the shape of Dr John Haydon Langdon Down. The first person to classify what later came to be called Down Syndrome. However, as is clear from the work Of Dr Darold Treffert , he also found both early onset and late onset autism.
The authors don’t like this. It puts the carefully emerging hypothesis in grave danger. Why? If autism existed before the emergence of ethylmercury then their ideas are moot, the part of Chapter 5 I have read so far makes this clear. This is the very hypothesis they are working towards. So in order to protect their hypothesis, they rubbish Darold Treffert’s findings.
Down classified two groups that contain descriptions of autism. Groups he called ‘developmental’ (what might be called ‘regressive’ today) and ‘accidental’ (autistic from birth). First Blaxill and Olmsted tackle the problem (from their viewpoint) of ‘accidental’ autism.
Unfortunately, none of these accidental cases are ever fully described and so its impossible to distinguish between true autism cases or just the scattered presence of autistic behaviours.
And then ‘developmental’ autism.
In making the case for Down as an early observer of autism, Treffert relies on his idiosyncratic willingness to set aside the timing of onset as a relevant marker for an autism diagnosis. Most of the cases he proposes as autistic wouldn’t pass that bar for other observers.
However, in regard to ‘accidental’ autism I urge the reader to look at the following passages Treffert quoted from Dr Langdon Down:
“bright in their expression, often active in their movements, agile to a degree, fearless as to danger, persevering in mischief, petulant to have their own way. Their language is one of gesture only; living in a world of their own they are regardless of the ordinary circumstance around them, and yield only to the counter-fascination of music.”
This is the group Blaxill and Olmsted claim are not described enough. Hardly. This is autism.
In regard to the ‘developmental’ group, Treffert quoting Langdon Down describes them thus:
In these children the early months of childhood were uneventful and “intelligence dawned in the accustomed way.” But later, around age six or so, ” a change took place in that the child’s look had lost its wonted brightness; it took less notice of those around it; many of its movements became rhythmical and automatic.” There was “cessation of increasing intelligence”, deferred speech and “lessened responsiveness to all the endearments of its friends.” Dr. Down writes “I have had many examples of children who had spoken well and with understanding, but who lost speech at the period of the second dentition, and had also suspension of mental growth.” Dr. Down provides several examples. One was a boy who “attracted no particular attention during the first six years of life” but then “during the period of second dentition” suddenly lost speech. “He heard everything that was said, but never replied to a question.” This child did gradually regain some speech but “afterwards always spoke of himself in the third person.” The other case example was that of two brothers who also “both lost speech at the period of second dentition.”
Blaxill and Olmsted dismiss this second category because of the phrase first dentition proceeding stating that this means these kids were too old for an autism diagnosis. However, late regression is far from unknown in modern times. The author and ex-Guardian columnist Charlotte Moore describes her son Sam undergoing several regressions way past the modern ‘cutoff’ age of three.
I emailed Dr Treffert to see what he made of Blaxill & Olmsted’s claims. Here is his email to me quoted in full.
Please note my conversation with Dr Treffert is ongoing, I’ll publish the whole conversation in a separate blog post .
Later on, with irony so thick you could almost taste it, Blaxill and Olmsted after waving aside clear descriptions of autism say (regarding a separate matter):
There was no evidence, no proof, just an elaborate exercise in anthropological speculation that was also at odds with the facts.
So far, that’s the best description of Age of Autism I’ve yet heard.