A Doctor Responds to Terry Gross’s Interview With Steve Silberman About Autism

"I look forward to the day when the doctors, researchers, and journalists who refused to look honestly at the autism epidemic apologize to our children."

I listened to Terry Gross’s interview with Steve Silberman about the history of—and myths about—autism with great interest. I love Fresh Air. I’ve always been impressed with Terry Gross. But I was baffled and sorry to hear Silberman, an award-winning science journalist, make several incorrect assertions about the current prevalence of autism in America. He may be the darling of the mainstream media right now, but some of what Silberman said to Terry Gross was sadly, and dangerously, wrong.

Autism is an umbrella term that we apply to children and adults who have very different illnesses. I agree with Silberman that when autism is neurodiversity it can and should be celebrated. Those with autism or ADHD or ADD or ______ [add your label here] are unique and wonderful and blessed and should be honored for their gifts. Some people who are considered autistic, like Temple Grandin, Ph.D., lead healthy, happy, and productive lives. They are the ones organizing the retreat like the one that Silberman attended. They are the ones capable of reading this blog. But the problem is that Silberman is conflating children and adults who have some neurodiversity with children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism and related health issues like gastrointestinal problems and severe pain.

While Silberman may be correct that the numbers of people who are neurologically different have not increased exponentially, he is incorrect in his assertion that there has only been a “tiny” increase in severe autism.

Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., explains it best. As he wrote to NPR this morning:

“I am a Dartmouth-trained M.D. and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics in private practice in Portland, Oregon. I have over 11,000 children in my practice and I can tell you definitively that autism rates among America’s children, particularly boys, have risen exponentially since I began practicing in the 1980s. This is not a ‘tiny’ increase and it is not a question of ‘neurodiversity.’ I am talking about children with severe autism who cannot speak, are still in diapers at age 9, and do not grow up to be adults who are able to organize or attend retreats. The California Department of Developmental Services, which keeps the country’s most reliable statistics, reports a 21 percent increase in severe autism in a 5-year period (source) and a peer-reviewed article by Stanford-trained researcher Dr. Cynthia Nevison, Ph.D., confirms that, though changes in diagnostic criteria may account for 20-25% of the increase in autism, between 75-80% of the reported increases are due to a real rise in the disease: ‘Diagnosed autism prevalence has risen dramatically in the U.S over the last several decades and continued to trend upward as of birth year 2005. The increase is mainly real and has occurred mostly since the late 1980s’ (source).”

Silberman is correct that we have wasted millions of dollars looking for a genetic cause of autism. But he is incorrect that we should stop looking for a cause and putting money into finding cures. The money has been wasted because severe autism accompanied by other health problems is not caused by genes. Something in the environment—or perhaps two or three things—is causing brain damage to our children that we call autism.

What are the plausible culprits?

1) Prenatal exposure to ultrasound, which both disrupts cell membranes and encourages brain cells to divide and migrate when they should not.

2) Acetaminophen, a coal-derived medication that is known to interfere with the body’s production of glutathione, a chemical necessary to rid the body of neurotoxins like aluminum and mercury. Read more about this here.

3) A combination of toxic environmental exposures, perhaps including glyphosate and the ingredients in certain vaccines, that creates an inflammatory response in the body, leading to sometimes irreparable brain disruption and autoimmune dysfunction.

I am glad that Silberman’s book is drawing attention to the autism epidemic and the needs of people with autism.

I look forward to the day when the doctors, researchers, and journalists who refuse to look honestly at the autism epidemic apologize to America’s children.


For Further Reading:
* A balanced review of Silberman’s book
* Face It, There *IS* an Autism Epidemic by Lisa Wiederlight, director of SafeMinds
* A comparison of temporal trends in United States autism prevalence to trends in suspected environmental factors (PDF text of full article)


Jennifer Margulis, author and journalist.

Photo by Bryon Devore

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, author of Your Baby, Your Way, and frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly, an NPR affiliate magazine.

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Categories: autism.


  1. Thank you for writing this post. I listened to the interview and was perplexed by what seemed a simplistic way of looking at the problem. Severe autism has indeed greatly increased over the last decades. I was interested to read that you believe glyphosate may play a part. Whatever the cause, let’s hope scientists figure it out soon so measures can be taken to diminish the numbers of children with autism.

  2. Jennifer, thank you for writing this. It did sound like neurodiversity was getting confused with severe autism – diversity is important, but autism is tragic. We know how to prevent this devastating illness through good nutrition and avoiding toxins – especially those known to be neurotoxic.

  3. So neurodiverity only applies to those whose divergence is minimal? Those of us who can pass as neurotypical in ways considered crucial by societal standards of fulfilling our “function” in a capitalist society?

    You imply that that proud Autistic people and our allies aren’t interested in finding solutions to mitigating conditions that are common among Autistic people such as gastrointestinal problems and autoimmune conditions. Helping fellow Autistic people get to more happily inhabit bodies is on of my passions as an herbalist, and most of my Autistic patients have become amateur medical scholars of their own conditions — we get obsessive about or special interests, or so the diagnostic manuals say. One thing many of have found is that conditions we are most prone to are also common among trauma survivors. To a large extent, they are likely linked to the experience of being neurodivergent in a culture of compulsory neurotypicality.

    More troubling is your position that that we need to make a distinction between “adults who have some neurodiversity” and “children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism.”

    As I have written elsewhere, such a distinction is false, and serves to further capitalist agendas that value us according to our ability to participate in the creation of wealth. Those of us who are assigned the category of “high functioning” maintain a performance of neurotypicality at a high cost to our health in order to get access to the things we need to survive in this culture. And, just as the late Dr. Oliver Sacks found with silent Parkinson’s patients who were presumed to be mentally vacant, we are discovering that non-speaking Autistics have inner worlds that are rich and uncannily similar to those of speaking Autistics.

    Tolerating those of us whose visible divergence is minimal while pathologizing those whose obvious divergence is more dramatic defeats the point of even acknowledging neurodiversity. It mimics discourses about another aspect of human diversity that was pathologized until recently — sexuality. “Quiet gays are ok, but not the flamboyant ones. Don’t shove it in our faces.” We will take none of that.
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  4. C

    The ignorance of this and the mental gymnastics you did to arrive at your conclusion astounds me. Also, nice job contributing to the use of functioning labels as if human beings are hard drives or can openers whose value only matters if they “give back” to society. They don’t matter because they’re human? Really? Because that’s what you’re saying.

    I’m autistic and I’m irked by this journal, but you don’t care what autistic people have to say and you’ll call me “high functioning” because I can write(it doesn’t matter that I can’t speak, take a shower or dress myself without help, right? Any excuse to ignore autistic voices!) so I expect this comment won’t even get published.

    Stop listening to quack scientists, Autism is genetic. It’s becoming more prevalent because people are better at spotting and diagnosing it in infancy. Genes determine when the autism “turns on” and in some children that means they appear to regress and others show it almost from birth.

    Get off your high horse and stop calling me an epidemic.

    • Evie

      This response is full of assumptions about the author. She obviously cares deeply about this topic. She most certainly isn’t ignorant.

  5. R

    Beautifully written. What continues to amaze me is that any time vaccines come into question so many just turn a blind eye. Autism is not genetic and is a result of a number of factors including vaccines. I am a nurse and I have worked with children. I am heartbroken over the current state of health of our children. We give theost aggressive vaccine schedule to our kids yet they are sicker than previous generations. We need to stop giving so many vaccines and clean up their diets. Our govt is so corrupt and it’s the children suffering as a result. Sen Posey’s testimony regarding the whistler blower and the CDC cover up linking African American children and autism is bein ignored and out govt is doing all they can to protect Monsanto while other countries are banning GMO foods. Wake up America!! You have been sold out by Pharma and your govt.

  6. Sadly, vaccine makers have no incentive to change their ways. They make huge profits but are totally protected from lawsuits because

    Congress granted them immunity in 1986. Families are paying for the damages vaccines are causing. If you want to change this, please

    sign this petition


    Protect kids, not drug makers!The law is corrupt and immoral.

    Kindly pass this on to everyone you know. Together, hopefully, we can make a difference! LIKES are good, but PLEASE sign and share!!

  7. Janem1276

    I firmly believe there is a genetic component to autism. The fact that autistic persons have higher levels of porphyrins and testosterone and lower levels of glutathione, to me as a scientist, shows that that portion of the population has always been around, we just perhaps have more toxins in the environment to trigger the cascade that leads to autism (much like diabetes has a genetic predisposition but is triggered by environmental factors such as illness). If vaccines caused autism, just in and of themselves, everyone vaccinated would be autistic, and no one unvaccinated would be. However, we see autism in unvaccinated persons as well so clearly vaccines are not the only culprit.

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