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Reading Age of Autism Part 4 – Stretching the truth

Posted Oct 13 2010 1:43am

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?

Page 125

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.

Page 129

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.

Page 129

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.”


“I know nothing more painful than the long motherly expectancy of speech; how month after month the hopes are kept at high tension, waiting for the prattle which never comes. How the self-contained and self-absorbed little one cares not to be entertained other than in his own dream-land, and by automatic movements of his fingers or rhythmical movements of his body… they have well-formed heads, finely-textured skins, well-chiseled mouths, sparkling eyes, features when in repose leading one to augur only brightness and intelligence… he runs to you when called but makes no response in words. He returns your kiss with a bite, and runs away with agile steps, rolling his head with a horizontal swaying motion…”

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.

The authors, to the contrary, understate the remarkably perceptive and accurate observations Down made of what is unmistakably early onset and late onset autism. I discuss those highly accurate before-their-time observations by Down
in my internet posting of an article titled “Dr. J. Langdon Down and Developmental Disorders” in the articles section of the savant syndrome website at . The authors omit many of Down’s terms and traits which apply so often to autism—speaking in the third person; “fearless as to danger”; “living in a world of their own”; fascination with music; “self-contained” and “self-absorbed”; in a “dream-land”; “automatic movements of fingers or rhythmical movements of the body” and “runs to you when called but makes no response in words”. And so on and so on. Likewise Down makes clear reference to what we now call “early onset” and “late onset” forms of autistic disorder. I refer your readers to the article above where Down, while not using those present day terms, clearly lays out the existence of those two differing-onset scenarios.

Of equal interest is the fact the Down choose the term “developmental retardation” to describe this form of disorder separate from “congenital” and “accidental” types of “retardation”. Now in fact, over a century later, autistic spectrum
disorders are classified as “Developmental Disorders”. Another before-its-time credit to Dr. Down.

I read Down’s lectures in my effort to trace the beginning descriptions of savant syndrome. As I read about savant syndrome, I was surprised to find such an early description of “developmental retardation” which we now call autistic spectrum disorder by Dr. Down more than a century ago. I wrote my article above to provide some context for present day consideration of an ‘epidemic’ of autism. I wanted simply to point out that autism did not begin with Dr. Kanner’s description of it in 1943, but rather has no doubt been present in some portion well before that time. Dr. Down’s accurate description of both early onset and late onset autism, while he did not use that terminology, provided some documentation, and perspective, that autistic disorder has been around for a very long time. And that fact needs to be considered in looking at incidence and prevalence at present day levels.

The best way to answer the book’s portrayal of my observations and conclusions regarding Dr. Down and autism, is for the reader to go to my article and draw their own conclusions. I am sure they will agree that what Dr. Down described was early and late autistic disorder in unmistakable terms.

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.

Page 134

So far, that’s the best description of Age of Autism I’ve yet heard.

  1. Tweets that mention Autism Blog - Reading Age of Autism Part 4 – Stretching the truth « Left Brain/Right Brain --
    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mentalhealthuk and Catherina+ScienceMom, Dave Kahn. Dave Kahn said: RT @justthevax: RT @kevleitch Reading Age of Autism Part 4 – Stretching the truth A MUST READ [...]
  2. Julian Frost:
    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.
    *snicker* Good one Kev.
    But were these men really seeing something that had been missed for centuries?
    Somebody should refer Blaxill and Olmstead to a biography of Isaac Newton.
  3. Leila:
    When you're doing any kind of investigation - be it scientific or journalistic - you have to be open to the possibility that your initial hypothesis or hunch will be proven wrong. When you start to dismiss evidence and tailor the facts just to fit your initial hypothesis, you're doing a terrible job. Thanks Kev for pointing out the authors' failure to accept the facts, and thanks for introducing us to Dr. Treffert's work.
  4. livsparents:
    It finally came to me a few days ago what Danmark reminds me of... In the US, we have the concept of reasonable doubt; where the juror looks at the evidence with an eye to say would a resonable person convict given the evidence presented in his or her defense. The Toxic Twins seem to be under the impression that if they cast enough doubt on ANY other autism explanation, this will lead to the CONVICTION of vaccines/thimeresol as the de facto explanation of every percentage increase over the past 20 years. With that type of logic, OJ Simpson would not only have been exonerated, but the first poor schlub who the defense pointed the finger at would be convicted in his stead...
  5. Prometheus:
    Well, of course, if B&O ignore all the data that contradict their (dead) hypothesis, all of the remaining evidence points their way. By analogy, if you ignore (or refuse to accept - another B&O tactic) all of the data supporting the heliocentric solar system and only focus on biblical accounts and your own naive observations, then naturally you would conclude that the sun orbited the earth. If you eliminate - a priori - all of the rational conclusions, then only the irrational remain. Prometheus

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