I listened to Terry Gross interview Steve Silberman about the history of—and myths about—autism with great interest.
Steve Silberman’s incorrect assertions
But I was sorry to hear Steve Silberman make several incorrect assertions. These included mistakes about the prevalence of autism in America.
Steve Silberman may be the darling of the mainstream media right now. But some of what Steve Silberman said to Terry Gross was unfortunately, and dangerously, wrong. Steve Silberman is an award-winning science journalist. Notwithstanding, he made many mistakes in the NPR interview.
Autism is an umbrella term. We apply it to children and adults who have very different illnesses.
I agree with Steve Silberman. That is to say, when autism is neurodiversity, we can and should celebrate it.
Those with autism or ADHD or ADD or ______ [add your label here] are unique, wonderful, and blessed. Indeed, we should honor them and their gifts. Some, like Temple Grandin, Ph.D., lead healthy, happy, productive lives. They organize retreats like the one Steve Silberman attended. They read and comment on articles like mine.
Neurodiversity not the same as debilitating autism
However, there’s a problem. Steve Silberman conflates people who have neurodiversity with people suffering from severe autism. Severe autism has related health issues. These include gastrointestinal problems and debilitating pain.
Silberman claims that the numbers of people who are neurologically different have not increased exponentially. That may be correct. But he is incorrect in his assertion that we have only seen a “tiny” increase in severe autism.
Dr. Paul Thomas responds to Steve Silberman
As Dr. Thomas 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. These children cannot speak. They still wear diapers at age 9. Sadly, they do not grow up to be adults who are able to organize or attend retreats.
The California Department of Developmental Services keeps the country’s most reliable statistics. They report a 21 percent increase in severe autism in a 5-year period. At the same time, a peer-reviewed article by Stanford-trained researcher 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.”
Finding the real causes
Steve Silberman is correct. We’ve wasted millions of dollars looking for a genetic cause of autism.
Researchers have wasted millions of dollars trying to isolate genetic causes. Genes alone do not cause severe autism. Not the autism accompanied by other health problems.
Perhaps the blame falls on more than one toxic exposure. But it is clear that something in the environment is causing brain damage to our children. And we call that environmentally-induced brain damage autism.
Sometimes, not always, that brain damage we call autism is reversible. However, this is another point that Steve Silberman ignores in his book.
3 biologically plausible causes of autism overlooked by Steve Silberman
Exposure to ultrasound disrupts cell membranes. It also encourages brain cells to divide and migrate when they should not.
2) Prenatal and post-natal exposure to acetaminophen
Acetaminophen is the main ingredient in Tylenol. It is a coal-derived medication. Unfortunately, we know that it interferes with the body’s production of glutathione. Glutathione is a chemical necessary to rid the body of neurotoxins like aluminum and mercury.
3) A combination of toxic environmental exposures
This combination likely includes glyphosate as well as vaccine ingredients. Indeed, we know that certain vaccine ingredients, including aluminum, create an inflammatory response. Inflammation can lead to brain and autoimmune dysfunction.
Finally, I look forward to the day when the doctors, researchers, and journalists, including Steve Silberman, look honestly at the autism epidemic. And when they apologize to America’s children.
A balanced review of Steve Silberman’s book and his concept of neurodiversity
Comparison of temporal trends in United States autism prevalence to trends in suspected environmental factors (PDF of full article)
Do Tylenol and Vaccines Cause Autism?
Published: September 4, 2015
Updated: December 8, 2022