Conditions with an incidence of 1 per 5,000-10,000 people don’t get much attention – by doctors, the populace or the press. That is, unless patients exhibit curious features (Elephant Man) or other really interesting characteristics (My Left Foot). You don’t see movies about people battling their asthma or lupus, but the savant in Rain Man fascinated us.
At the time when stories of heroism and struggles with adversity were becoming popular, medical science was pretty much leaving the parents of children with ASD to their own devices. Even as Dr. Lovaas demonstrated that nearly 1/2 of affected children could show significant improvement, psychiatrists continued pontificating about poor parenting and neurologists declared that infantile autism was a fixed disorder of the brain which left sufferers with a life of mental retardation. In the latter half of the 20th century, electroshock therapy was a common treatment for self injury.
3. A real break in the state of illiteracy was offered by Dr. Bernard Rimland as early as 1964. He had the temerity to publicly declare that the cause of his own child’s autism was due to other-than-poor child-rearing and offered evidence for the possibility of recovery from the condition. In the 1960’s, he became the founder of the Autism Society of America and the Autism Research Institute. He assigned a neuro-developmental cause to the disorder and helped give lots of parents hope for their affected children. That’s the good news. He documented a 6,000 percent increase in autism and implicated mercury and the measles virus vaccine as a possible cause. That’s the bad news. I’m pretty sure that the powerful drug companies and AAP at the time (or at present) didn’t (don’t) want to expose the medical profession as a culprit in a new medical condition. Even Dr. Leo Kanner acknowledged Dr. Rimland’s findings and came to change his original views that laid the blame on unaffectionate parenting.
4. In 1976, Dr. Mary Coleman, a noted neurologist and author of The Autistic Syndromes, documented “an unusual exposure of parents to chemicals in the preconception period” in a series of 78 autism patients. Twenty children were from families with chemical exposure; four were from families where both parents had such exposures — seven out of eight of those parents as chemists.
…since the incidence of individuals exposed to chemicals in all related occupations in the United States is… 1.1. percent of the population … to find that 25 percent of any sample has had chemical exposure is quite startling… Attempts to identify a particular chemical toxin to which many parents were consistently exposed in our sample failed; the parents recalled exposure to a great multitude and variety of chemical agents with no one chemical or classification of chemicals singled out in the data.
5. In 1981, Thomas Felicetti compared the occupations of 20 parents of autistic children, 20 parents of ‘retarded’ (sic) children and 20 parents of “normal” children who were friends and neighbors. ”The results did, in fact, suggest a chemical connection… Eight of the 37 known parents of the autistic children had sustained occupational exposure to chemicals prior to conception… Five were chemists and three worked in related fields… The exposed parents represent 21 percent of the autistic group. This compared to 2.7 percent of the retardation controls and 10 percent of the normal controls.”
“The data, subjected to statistical analysis, demonstrated a chemical connection…The results of this study point in the direction of chemical exposure as an etiological factor in the birth of autistic children.”
In spite of mounting evidence of a possible environmental connection to infantile autism, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, with an authoritative German accent and compelling storyline about Nazi concentration camps won over audiences and professionals with his insistence on the “Refrigerator Mother” theory. To demonstrate, try viewing the ‘doctor’ on Dick Cavett (something like Oprah) in 1979. His performance on the show is a clear example of style over substance – a good story versus a more complicated and scientific analysis – leading to incorrect popular theories and even influencing medical thought.
6. By the beginning of the 21st century, two somewhat differing theories about ASD were taking shape. Autism Speaks and others were helping to fund universities who wished to explore the genetics of this disorder, and other researchers – led by Dr. Martha Herbert – began to explore the disorder in a more holistic light.