Thursday, August 16, 2007
In terms of understanding autism, we in 2007 have little right to scoff at our ancestors who treated diseases with leeches, as our understanding of this surprisingly prevalent variety of neurological and development disorders awkwardly called "autism-spectrum disorders" stands at approximately the blood-letting stage. A great deal of misinformation about this "set of disorder sets" is available, some of it pushed by people with well-intentioned and/or venal agendas. Some have heard that mercury in vaccinations has a scientific causal link to autism; it has no actual link but rather a sloppy pseudo-scientific one, i.e. pure gahhr-bazzh. While a skeptical, evidence-demanding approach to life is always of merit, it is particularly important when one is dealing with disorders about which little is known but a great deal of money and human emotion hangs in the balance.
My interest in the topic is personal, so a little of our personal background. Both of our sons, Sam 4, Noah 2, are autistic. Their personalities are quite different; Sam is fairly narrowly focused, quiet verbally and easily frustrated but never manic, whereas Noah is a ball of whining energy and eager beaver chatter to himself We assume that both boys developed autistic neurology through genetics, though no one else in the family has a diagnosis. While the adult men of my family, myself included, tend towards "nerdish" ways and are mostly introverted, we do not stand on the autistic spectrum. Among my wife's family, ditto except perhaps for one uncle. We do not live in a part of the country where autism is particular prevalent; the highest rates of autism in the U.S. are said to be in Silicon Valley, i.e. Santa Clara County, CA, though the extent to which sample bias, confirmation bias, better testing, a more educated pool of parents or other factors may cast doubt on that statistic's weight is unclear.
It is very likely that different genetic conditions cause the many of the same or similar symptoms of the different autism spectrum disorders. Autism is more common among boys than among girls but not overwhelmingly so in the manner of, for example, hemophilia, adding to the likelihood that some autism results from Y chromosome recessive genes while other autistic manifestations may not. It is also possible - indeed practically guaranteed - that our own perceptions are gender-skewed, both on what "normal" [sic] is for either gender or how different autism-spectrum disorders may play out differently (or similarly) for girls and boys.
Also, today on NPR's Morning Edition, there was a brief story about an incredibly dedicated group of women in South Carolina who successfully crafted and helped enact legislation requiring insurance companies to cover autism treatments, which are extremely expensive.