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The Age of Autism

Authors Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill have for the first time traced the roots of autism beginning in the 1930s. What they found is electrifying and suggests the debate is about to heat up again.
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The new book "The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic" is shaking up the autism world. Orthodox scientists and medical groups have dismissed and even ridiculed the idea that incredibly toxic ethyl mercury -- still in flu shots given to infants and pregnant women -- could be linked to the explosion in autism rates beginning in the 1990s, when the vaccine schedule was rapidly expanded. Just the day before the book came out this week, the CDC issued yet another flawed study that found not only was mercury safe -- it actually had a protective effect against the risk of autism. This is obviously absurd, as is the fact that almost all the children in the study had received mercury-containing shots, rather than including a control group without any mercury exposure. Authors Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill -- two names well-known in the autism community and editors of the blog Age of Autism (, have for the first time traced the roots of autism beginning in the 1930s. What they found is electrifying and suggests the debate is about to heat up again, whether the government and medical industry like it or not.

Deirdre: What is the major point you want people to take away from your book?

Dan: That the concern about mercury and autism is far from over. We found that the medical industry and manufacturing have had a long history of the reckless use of mercury that goes back centuries, and that does include, based on our research, the rise of autism in the 1930s when ethyl mercury was first commercialized in agricultural products and in vaccines. That's the short answer.

Mark: The other thing that we want people to embrace is contained in the title -- this really is The Age of Autism. Autism is the single most devastating childhood disorder any of us have faced in our lifetime -- and it has become a national health emergency. The rates of autism have gone from effectively zero before the 1930s to 1 in 100 children today, and that's happened in the lifetime of a single individual -- in just seven decades. In our book, we've gone back to first principles and identified the roots of the disease itself, and we place mercury exposure and new environmentally toxic products at the source of the explosion.

Deirdre: That certainly is contrary to what mainstream medicine and science is saying, which is that autism is basically a genetic disorder. Many argue that there has been no real increase, that it's just more awareness and better diagnosis. And the courts have ruled against families that have claimed that vaccines cause autism, and just recently shut the final door on those cases.

Mark: That's certainly what some orthodox autism scientists have been saying, but that doesn't make it true. Some of these people, they've made careers of talking a lot, but what they're really saying is basically incoherent blather. The problem is the implications of an epidemic are so profound along so many dimensions, so foundation-shaking that the medical industry and establishment are kind of circling the wagons. But at their core, their arguments make no sense.

Everybody knows someone with autism now and so the broader public is very open to our position now. In reality, it's just a vocal and powerful core that's taking such an extreme position and they're getting a bit desperate and they're raising the bar for uncivil discourse. For our part, we're getting used to being accused of irresponsibility, when in fact, to question the reality of the epidemic is the most profoundly irresponsible thing that somebody who ought to know better could do.

Dan: When you listen to how blithely some in the vaccine development complex, like Paul Offit, insist there's no real increase, you realize the threat to them, because if the rate has exploded starting about 1990 -- which it has -- then medical interventions that have changed over the past 20 years in particular become prime suspects. That's something they really want to take off the table as fast as they can by talking about things like "the return of polio," which no one is seriously proposing.

We can have both an effective public-health program including preventing diseases, and also we can confront the autism epidemic and figure out what's going on and stop it.

Deirdre: Haven't they taken thimerosal out of vaccines and yet the autism rate is still going up?

Mark: That's a common misconception, but it's actually demonstrably false, It's simply not true that they've removed the mercury exposure from infant and fetal vaccines. Mercury has come out of some vaccines. It's still in others, and they've targeted pregnant women with flu shots, and ethyl mercury in pregnancy is even more toxic in pregnancy than it is in infancy.

Dan: Also, we don't argue that mercury is the only thing that can cause autism. It's just very good at it. One overlooked medical report in the 1970s by Mary Coleman, a respected researcher at Georgetown University, found that about 25 percent of autistic children in her sample had parents with occupational exposure to toxic chemicals. The rate in the general population was only 1 percent. She called that difference "startling" and said it begged for more research. But that never happened, as the medical industry started chasing the dream of finding an autism "gene." Billions of dollars later, they've come up empty-handed and increasingly desperate.

Deirdre: The crux of your book is that you say you've found a strong chemical connection, particularly a link to mercury, in the first cases. What is the basis for that?

Dan: Autism was first described in 1943 by Leo Kanner, perhaps the leading child psychiatrist in the country at the time and a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He identified 11 children born in the 1930s with the syndrome and described it -- and we think these words are very important -- as differing "markedly and uniquely from anything described so far." In other words, it was new -- and this was the man who had written the landmark textbook, "Child Psychiatry," in 1935 describing every known disorder, but not autism.

So we decided to look more closely at this group of children, who were identified only by a first name and last initial. In this Internet age, we were able to identify 7 of those 11 children -- and what we found was a startling link in those families: both to mercury exposure in general and specifically to the new ethyl mercury compounds that were first commercialized around 1930. There were three initial commercial uses for ethyl mercury -- in agriculture as seed disinfectants and lumber treatment, and in medicine as a preservative in the new diphtheria vaccine.

We identified Case 2 as the son of a plant pathologist who was working with ethyl mercury seed disinfectant dusts at the time his son was born. Imagine what it was like to identify the second case of autism, find his father's archive at North Carolina State, open the first folder, and be staring at an experiment using mercury as a fungicide. Case 3 was the son of a forestry professor who also had exposure to the new lumber treatments. And the mother of Case 7 was a pediatrician who helped pioneer the well-baby visit and whose writings repeatedly refer to the importance of early and frequent vaccination. There are other agricultural and medical links but these really stood out to us.

Deirdre: Couldn't this just be coincidence?

Mark: We think the pattern of evidence is much too strong to be dismissed as pure chance. Kanner's initial case series was a small cluster of 11 children and the mercury link really jumps out. The problem is that Kanner noticed the parents' professional accomplishments and focus and all the working mothers -- many working in the medical industry -- and suggested there were "very few really warm-hearted fathers and mothers" in the entire group. Although he later backed off of that accusation, people like Bruno Bettelheim turned parent-blaming into the prevailing theory of autism causation.

Dan: Then, when it became clear that there was a higher rate of autism in twins, parent-blaming was discredited. But scientists misunderstood the gene studies to conclude that autism was therefore a genetically-determined disorder that could not be prevented or treated. But there are plenty of identical twins who are discordant for autism -- one has it, the other is typical -- and there are also fraternal twins, who are no more identical than they are with other siblings, who both have autism. That suggests some sort of environmental injury in genetically vulnerable children.

Deirdre: What got you going down this road?

Mark: I have an affected daughter, Michaela, which is really the most important motivating force for me. When we first got an autism diagnosis, it was a real wake-up call, I started searching for ways to help her and pretty quickly realized that the stock answers we were hearing from the medical establishment made very little sense, I realized pretty quickly that if we were going to do anything to help Michaela, we were going to have to buck the system because the system was in disarray. In the process, it became obvious to me early on that thimerosal was completely capable of causing the kind of developmental damage that can lead to autism. So I became more and more active scientifically. I've written a number of peer-reviewed papers that have looked at the rising incidence of autism; I also am director of the autism advocacy group SAFE MINDS. Long story short, I eventually realized that the only way to get some of these ideas out there, I needed to take more responsibility myself. I was grateful, though, to run into an investigative journalist like Dan, who wasn't afraid to speak the truth to power and who really had a nose for the truth and a good story.

Dan: I've had a pretty traditional print journalism career. I worked at papers in Illinois and New York and then was an original staff member at USA Today. I ended up at UPI and started investigating a malaria drug that had some really bad side effects, including psychosis and suicidal and homicidal behavior. The strange thing was how rabidly the CDC supported this drug because it was so effective at fulfilling their mission -- disease control. They seemed to overlook, minimize and even hide the truth about the rate and severity of side effects. After we wrote a series about that, my reporting partner Mark Benjamin started looking into whether vaccines -- which certainly prevent disease but some parents believe caused autism -- might have a similar problem.

I picked that thread up and started writing a column called The Age of Autism in 2005. That's when I began looking at the early cases and also at the autism rate in never-vaccinated and less-vaccinated populations like the Amish and patients of Homefirst Medical Services in Chicago and some home-schooled kids. The rate did seem to be lower, but what amazed me the most was that such a study - the autism rate in a never-vaccinated U.S. population -- had never been done. And there seemed to be no interest on the part of public health authorities in doing one. I thought that was -- and is -- suspicious.

I started working with Mark and his aptitude for statistical analysis as well as his passion for finding out what happened really complemented my approach.

Deirdre: Even though you say vaccines weren't the only causes of the early cases and that new compounds may also be causing autism, you've been accused of being anti-vaccine. How do you respond?

Mark: We're for vaccines as part of responsible overall public health policy for children. We're also for safe vaccines, and the fact is that the overall effect of the burgeoning vaccine schedule -- 26 shots with 32 doses of 13 different antigens by two years of age, compared to eight shots with 15 doses of seven antigens in the 1980s -- may well be too many too soon. It hasn't been adequately tested in the aggregate as more and more shots like Hepatitis B, chickenpox and rotavirus have been added to the schedule, that's for sure.

Deirdre: Some say autism is just a difference, not a disability.

Mark: That's just nonsensical propaganda. It's great that some of the highest functioning autistics are taking strong positions of self-advocacy, however misguided a few of them might be. But the harsh reality is that most children with autism are severely disabled and have no idea what some of the most strident self-advocates are talking about. Most of them will never be able to live independently let alone concoct elaborate theories to normalize their condition. And many have co-morbid disorders like seizures and severe intestinal issues that make simple issue of managing their personal health incredibly difficult.

Dan: The families I've met are deeply affected and usually financially devastated.

Deirdre: Are there other diseases that have links to mercury?

Dan: A lot. The first half of the book looks at illnesses that for the most part have not been linked to mercury exposure. We start with syphilis, which became an epidemic around 1500, almost certainly after Columbus brought it back to Europe. This led to the wide-scale use of mercury salves and external treatments for the sores and disfiguring lesions it caused. Mercury is biologically active, so on the surface at least it seemed to work.

This led to the idea that internal administration of mercuric chloride -- a much more toxic form than elemental mercury or quicksilver -- would be even better, first by drinking and then by injecting it. We believe this actually led to a new and horrible and fatal form of syphilis called general paralysis of the insane.

We also think that several of Freud's key hysteria patients -- who became the foundation of his psychoanalytic theories -- were actually suffering from mercury poisoning. This sounds pretty radical, but when you look at the cases closely, signs of mercury poisoning are everywhere. Freud himself noted that most of his patients had fathers with longstanding syphilis and that a high percentage of his clients came from nursing careers. And one of his most famous cases, the Wolf-Man, later told an interviewer that his physical problems stemmed from being given a mercury compound called calomel. He laughed at Freud's claim to have cured him through talk therapy.

Deirdre: What do you think should happen now?

Dan: Our research suggests that it has always been a mistake to use mercury in medicine or as medicine, and it's an especially bad mistake with this kind of mercury injected into pregnant women and infants. We need to stop that, period. We can still provide vaccinations for serious diseases. It may cost a little more but it's worth it.

We do believe that mercury is the big clue to the roots and rise of autism. Autism is not ancient, despite what may have been a few scattered cases. It's not inevitable. And it's treatable. Kids can and do recover.

Mark: We need better research into environmental factors conducted by honest, independent scientists who are not afraid of what they might find. That research agenda must include including investment into a program of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated science, including both animal studies as well as studies of the total health outcomes in vaccinated vs. never-vaccinated kids.

The Age of Autism lays out disturbing evidence that mercury from many sources is a major factor in the rise of this tragic epidemic. Make sure your doctor sees a copy of this timely book.