January 1, 2007

The Age of Autism: The AOA Awards '06

The Age of Autism: The AOA Awards '06
UPI Senior Editor

WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- As this column heads into its third year, the time is right to cite those who made 2006 a memorable year in the history of autism -- and set the stage for even more remarkable ones to come.

And the winners are:

Person of the Year: Anne Dachel. This Chippewa Falls, Wis., mom and member of the National Autism Association keeps chipping away at the mainstream media's wall of indolence and incuriosity.

She sent e-mails to just about every reporter who wrote about the subject this past year along with letters-to-the-editor of their publications, as well as penning articles of her own.

She praises, she pushes, she relentlessly raises the questions at the heart of the matter: Why have the number of cases risen so dramatically? Why aren't journalists asking tougher questions of Important People?

A recent example: "We need the press to continue to investigate and report on the generation of affected children in the U.S. We're being overwhelmed by a disorder that was unheard of a few years ago, yet the press isn't calling for answers. If one in every 166 children were suddenly developing blindness, I'm sure it would be a front page story."

Some no doubt find this a bit much. But what Dachel represents is persistence. Private citizens have every right to question elected officials and keep the media on their toes, whether the pooh-bahs like it or not. It's an old-fashioned thing called citizenship.

Person of the Century: Bernard Rimland, who died this year, is all that. What's more, you can pick the century -- in the one just past, he made a massive contribution by demolishing the idea that parents' behavior can make their children autistic.

In his landmark 1964 book, "Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior," he laid out the case against the then-conventional wisdom. What's more, he laid the foundation for all serious research on the subject when he wrote that "conviction (must be) subordinated to evidence. The history of science proves this to be the first step toward progress."

Using that same approach, Rimland concluded that medical treatment could help many autistic kids. That's his contribution to the century just begun and the promise it holds for both prevention and treatment.

He thus exiled himself from most of mainstream medicine, but he may have helped thousands of children. Which would you rather have as your legacy?

Because of his guts, grit -- and perseverance -- he'll be remembered for leading not one, but two, medical revolutions.

Not So Hot National Magazine Story of the Year: Newsweek, which did a cover story on the looming caregiving crisis as thousands of autistic children "age out" of mandated care into an uncertain adulthood.

So far, so good. But the magazine failed to come to grips with the obvious: Why are there so many kids with autism?

Fishy Factoid of the Year Award: ABC News, which did a story much like Newsweek's and simply asserted that "up to 1 million" adults are living with autism.

Where are they?

Quote of the Year: From Irva Hertz-Picciotto, chair of an expert panel convened by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the request of Congress. The panel poked some gaping holes in the kind of data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to assure Americans that there's no link between autism and the mercury preservative in vaccines called thimerosal.

"I think there's more work to be done," said Hertz-Picciotto, a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

"We know there's a major genetic component to autism, but genes cannot explain a rise over a short time period of a few decades," she said, sounding a lot more like Anne Dachel and Bernie Rimland than Newsweek, ABC and the CDC.

"It's an 'open question' whether anything about vaccines -- timing, dose, preservative -- is related to the rise in diagnoses," she said.

That's right -- an open question, one that requires an urgent and definitive answer.

Not So Hot Magazine Story of the Year, Local Division: The Washingtonian, which ran an article in its November issue titled, "Something Happened and We Don't Know Why," about twins with autism.

Although the twins' mom thinks vaccine mercury did trigger their autism, she is brushed off with the author's comment that "many large-scale studies have disproved a link between thimerosal and autism."

Yeah, large-scale studies like the one the NIH expert panel just dumped a bucket of cold water on.

Prediction for '07: The pace of change is accelerating in ways that are not entirely in the control of the government and its often defensive bureaucracies.

I believe 2007 will be a very good year for the truth -- for the subordination of conviction to evidence, as Bernard Rimland so elegantly put it. And that would be a very good year, indeed.

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