The Age of Autism: One in 15,000 Amish
By Dan Olmsted
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Washington, DC, Jun. 8 (UPI) -- The autism rate for U.S. children is 1 in 166, according to the federal government. The autism rate for the Amish around Middlefield, Ohio, is 1 in 15,000, according to Dr. Heng Wang.
He means that literally: Of 15,000 Amish who live near Middlefield, Wang is aware of just one who has autism. If that figure is anywhere near correct, the autism rate in that community is astonishingly low.
Wang is the medical director, and a physician and researcher, at the DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children, created three years ago to treat the Amish in northeastern Ohio.
"I take care of all the children with special needs," he said, putting him in a unique position to observe autism. The one case Wang has identified is a 12-year-old boy.
Like stitchwork in an Amish quilt, Wang's comments extend a pattern first identified by United Press International in the Pennsylvania Dutch country around Lancaster, Pa.
-- A Lancaster doctor who has treated thousands of Amish for nearly a quarter-century said he had never seen any autism. "We're right in the heart of Amish country and seeing none -- and that's just the way it is," that doctor said last month.
-- An Amish-Mennonite mother with an adopted autistic child said she was aware of only two other children with the disorder. "It is so much more rare among our people," she said.
-- UPI also found scant evidence of autism among the Amish in Indiana and Kentucky, two other states with sizable Amish settlements.
Ohio, with the nation's largest Amish population, appears no different. Asked if he thinks the autism rate among the Amish is low, Wang said: "I would agree with that. In this country, the Amish have less autism. Why? That's a very interesting topic. I think people need to look into it to do more research. This is something we could learn from."
Wang said the Amish boy's autism is of "unknown etiology," meaning the cause is undetermined. In response to a question, he checked the medical chart and said the boy had received routine childhood immunizations.
The Amish have a religious exemption from immunizations, and traditionally only a minority has allowed children to receive the shots. That number has been increasing, however, and Wang said most Amish parents in the area he serves do vaccinate their children, although that varies greatly by community.
The question arose because in Pennsylvania the Amish-Mennonite mother described what she said was a vaccine link to the cases. She suspects that her adopted daughter, who received immunizations both in China and again after arriving in the Unites States, became autistic because of the shots. She said a second child with autism in the community had "a clear vaccine reaction" and lapsed into autism.
Some parents and a minority of medical professionals think a mercury-based preservative in vaccines -- or in some cases the vaccines themselves -- triggered a huge increase in autism cases in the 1990s, leading to the 1-in-166 rate cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1999 manufacturers began phasing out that preservative, called thimerosal, at the CDC's request.
Most mainstream medical experts and federal health authorities say a link between thimerosal and autism has been discredited, although the director of the CDC told Congress she is keeping an open mind about the possibility.
Wang said he did not want to offer an opinion about whether the Ohio boy's vaccinations might be linked to his autism.
(A Virginia doctor told UPI he is treating six other Amish children with autism, none of them vaccinated. In four of the six cases he suspects their autism was triggered by mercury toxicity due to environmental pollution.)
Middlefield's DDC Clinic -- the initials stand for Das Deutsch Center -- opened in 2002 as a collaboration between the Amish and non-Amish communities to aid children with rare genetic and metabolic disorders.
The Amish are prone to genetic disorders because of their isolated gene pool. The clinic has identified 37 genetic diseases among its patients and formed partnerships with 10 research groups and several medical centers.
"The Clinic evolved from the desire of Northeast Ohio Amish families to find answers for their children with genetic disorders," the clinic's Web site explains. "These disorders require attention and research beyond that provided by conventional medicine."
The Amish hope "any research obtained from their efforts has the potential to benefit special needs children throughout the world. This is their gift to us."
That gift, it now appears, could also hold clues to autism.