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Autism and the Amish

January 30th, 2008 · 69 Comments · Housecleaning, Urban legend

In the spring of 2005, UPI reporter Dan Olmsted wrote that autism is rare among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. “Where are the autistic Amish?” he asked. “I have come here to find them, but so far my mission has failed, and the very few I have identified raise some very interesting questions about some widely held views on autism.”

Olmsted’s anecdotal evidence is cited ad nauseum as evidence that thimerosal causes autism. The case rests on twin assumptions: that the Amish don’t vaccinate, and that they don’t have autism. But Olmsted never visited the cryptically-named Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, where doctors treat dozens of children who exhibit autistic behavior. It’s not even necessary to visit the clinic. A simple phone call to a staff physician, such as the one I made recently, is enough to debunk “the Amish anomaly”, as Olmsted calls it.

“The idea that the Amish do not vaccinate their children is untrue,” says Dr. Kevin Strauss, MD, a pediatrician at the CSC. “We run a weekly vaccination clinic and it’s very busy.” He says Amish vaccinations rates are lower than the general population’s, but younger Amish are more likely to be vaccinated than older generations.

Strauss also sees plenty of Amish children showing symptoms of autism. “Autism isn’t a diagnosis – it’s a description of behavior. We see autistic behaviors along with seizure disorders or mental retardation or a genetic disorder, where the autism is part of a more complicated clinical spectrum.” Fragile X syndrome and Rett Syndrome is also common among the clinic’s patients.

Strauss, along with Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD, authored a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which described a mysterious seizure disorder that resulted in mental retardation and autistic behavior in nine Amish children. The study was published one year after Olmsted’s mythic voyage, so it would seem a story correction would be in order.

In an email exchange with AutismNewsBeat, Olmsted said he made several attempts to contact Dr. Morton, but Olmsted would not say if those attempts were made before or after his Age of Autism stories ran. Strauss said Olmsted never visited the clinic, and added “I don’t think he spent much time in Lancaster County.”

Strauss said the clinic treats “syndromic autism”, where autism as part of a more complicated clinical spectrum that can include mental retardation, chromosomal abnormalities, unusual facial features, and short stature, as well as Fragile X syndrome. “We see quite a few Amish children with Fragile X,” he said.

Strauss says he doesn’t see “idiopathic autism” at the clinic – children with average or above average IQs who display autistic behavior. “My personal experience is we don’t see a lot of Amish children with idiopathic autism. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, only that we aren’t seeing them at the clinic.”

Strauss says a child in the general population is more likely to have autism detected early and to receive a diagnosis than an Amish child. “An Amish child may not be referred to an MD or psychologist because the child is managed in the community, where they have special teachers,” he says. “We know autism when we see it, but we don’t go actively into the Amish community and screen for ASD.”

Strauss adds that the Amish have a high prevalence of genetic risk factors and are protected from others. The low rate of idiopathic autism “might have more to do with genetic structure or population than lifestyle, environment or diet.”

So what’s up with Olmsted? Did a UPI reporter fabricate a story, then pass it off as true? Science blogger Prometheus offers three possible explanations:

Mr. Olmsted didn’t look all that carefully for autistic children, having already concluded that there wouldn’t be any.

Mr. Olmsted found autistic children, but didn’t count them – either because he either didn’t feel that they had real autism or because it conflicted with his forgone conclusion.

The Amish families – being somewhat suspicious of “outsiders” (not without good reason) – didn’t confide the details of their family medical issues with Mr. Olmsted.

I’m still waiting for Mr. Olmsted’s side of the story.



69 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Should Homoeopaths really be allowed to use the title | zhen // May 10, 2010 at 12:56 am

    […] Do you remember the mercury causing autism furore? Since 2002, the vast majority of childhood vaccines (if not all) do not contain mercury, so you'd expect the rates of autism to drop considerably wouldn't you? Yet despite the decrease in mercury-based vaccines, the rates of autism have continued to increase! Which you correctly point out Onlymatch4u. You also claim that there is no autism amongst the Amish population. Really?? There are well documented cases of AMISH children with Autism […]

  • 2 Toni // May 27, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    To the person who also had gastroenteritis a week after the child’s vaccination… Did it ever occur to you that you were no longer immune to MMR since you have not been getting your boosters (what adult does?) and that you in fact ALSO had a form of one of the diseases? You were changing numerous sh!tty diapers and could have easily contracted it.

    I have received MMR vaccine at least 5 times in my life. The rubella immunity never sticks and I was “forced” to be re-vax’d when I changed schools and worked in a hospital.

    I am the mom of at least one ASD child (second one un-dx’d but displaying ASD behaviors) and we have not had a case of regression here. I believe my oldest was born the way she is, however I have 8 amalgams and received flu shots while pregnant and b/f her. I haven’t had her tested for heavy metal toxicity, but I would not be surprised. My son had a seizure 10 days after his last DT shot at 32 months old… we skipped a lot of vax and spaced them out. I hadn’t connected the vax and his seizure until recently. He didn’t regress but it seems his development slowed down.

    The person who said “Autism is not a diagnosis, it is a set of behaviors” simply meant that the DSM diagnosis *IS* a list of behaviors. It is not a “disease” the way that man people want to believe. And since it is just a list of behaviors,autism can have many causes.

    To the Jenny McCarthy haters… god,don’t you have something better to do with your time?

    To the man who was mainstream until he/she realized his child regressed after being vaccinated… I have been there. I was very pro-vax as a young adult, and after I had a child, I became more careful, but my carefulness did not extend to ME. I was trying to protect my child(ren) by vaxing myself during pregnancy and the following two years during b/f, not realizing the amount of mercury in flu shots still, and that it crossed the BBB. :( So they received a lot of mercury but not a lot of toxins via vaccines.

    I have to wonder how severe their behaviors would have been had they been fully vaccinated with all that MSG and aluminum. :(

  • 3 Chris // May 29, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Don’t you have anything better to do than to post your indignation on an over two year old article?

    Especially one that did not mention McCarthy? The one other comment about McCarthy was from someone who was praising her.

  • 4 CJ // Feb 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Why are there not a ton of adults with autism? Uh, duh, there are! No one is looking for us or asking us questions. We are ignored or ridiculed. We are all around, many of us were misdiagnosed as something else first, like OCD, ODD, Social Anxiety, and more. There are thousands of us. Look on facebook, we’re all there talking telling our stories, our experiences, our lives. Seek us out and you will find your answers. The question is would you see Austism if you came across it? Many of us have learned to control our gestures or behaviors in public and only display them under durress or at home, while the ones that do display them are thought to be on drugs, mentally retarded, or strange.
    We in the autism community are convinced it is genetic. Many of our family members displayed signs but were thought eccentric or strange, and we are out there getting married, having children of our own, a possible reason that the rates have gone up. I have seven children, many of my autistic friends have five or more children. If you have an autistic child, look in your own family and you will find someone with traits of autism too. Stop blaming and start looking with your eyes open. Autism is not a curse or disease, it is what makes us who we are. We don’t mind being autistic, why do you all mind so much? So we need some extra help here and there and we don’t get the whole social scene, but we regognize one another and understand one another. Maybe it’s a good thing. Perhaps this is the worlds way of becoming more honest. Just a thought, but perhaps.

  • 5 CJ // Feb 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    And there are areas of unvaccinated people with autism in Africa. I watched a documentary one time (can’t remember the name of it right now) that showed how parents with autistic kids there are outcast if they do not KILL THEIR CHILDREN as their children with disabilities is considered an insult to the family. The documentary showed all over the world in rural areas about women who were outcast for not killing their children or leaving them to die somewhere when the families noticed the children were different. That is a good reason why you cannot find it in unvaccinated populations because they kill their children that show signs as they think that those children are possessed by demons or evil forces or bad luck and so forth.

  • 6 Jonathan // Apr 29, 2011 at 10:12 am

    The issue of neurotoxicity from methyl mercury preservatives has another side. Our FDA began to remove or disallow thimerosol(methyl mercury) from OTC and pharmaceutical products decades ago and the USA has many sources of mercury now. Let us not eliminate vaccination and immunization but instead try to use the safest, and most effective methods to reduce disease burden. We have eliminated the majority of live pertussis in vax, as living microbes do mutate, even heat weakened viruses. We are looking to use nosodes to replace MMR as a potentially improved method of immunization. Mercury amalgam dental fillings when exposed to ‘chewing’ and heat will release mercury though the mercury becomes much more absorbable if pathogenic microbes in the gut make it organic mercury, thus probiotics in foods and supplements is somewhat protective from this ethyl mercury/methyl mercury neurotoxicity. Scrubbing the exhaust from coal fired power plants is another improvement. I am aware of the strong association between mercury amalgam fillings and another neurotoxicity ill, Alzheimers dementia. Let’s get away from such critcisms and do the best thing which is to bagin to more rapidly clean up the earths environment. That is to say as long as we care about what happens on earth for the generations that follow.

  • 7 Jonathan // Apr 29, 2011 at 10:25 am

    The genetics of ASD and ADHD is real and it is related to the genetic ability to eliminate toxins from our body before they can get to the brain. these conditions have several factors contributing to them and preservatives in vaccines is only one. We should improve the quality of vaccines and work on better forms of immunization as even pertussis vaccines are beginning to show increased failure rates.

  • 8 Chris // Apr 29, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Our FDA began to remove or disallow thimerosol(methyl mercury)

    There is one letter in this statement that is a very big error. Can you spot it? Because it is a very basic error and shows that you know very little about the subject.

  • 9 Autism Blog - Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care « Left Brain/Right Brain // Jun 28, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    […] a cursory effort to contact people at the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. The Clinic, aside from serving special needs children (including autistics) runs vaccine clinics and…. In a piece explaining Mr. Olmsted’s failures, Mark Blaxill (also of the Age of Autism) […]

  • 10 Julie // Nov 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I agree with CJ – there is Autism in our older family members. We just thought they were ‘annoying’ or ‘weird’ but then our kids were having problems and were diagnosed with Aspergers. When we got more info we started to see it on both sides of the family. And we see it in other families too. I am sad that those other countries kill their ‘non-perfect babies’ I saw that documentary too. But that is how they deal with it. So glad I didn’t have to do that – I love my kids even though they are stressful for me at times. Looking back I can now see that they were different right from birth… how they looked around and moved…

  • 11 Latter Day Old Fritz // Mar 15, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Some of the younger Amish are more involved with the “Sex, Drugs & Rock’n Roll” White Trash and for that reason the older generation of Amish is healthier!

  • 12 Når fagfolk blir overmannet av konspirasjonsteorier « 4brooker // Nov 10, 2012 at 6:44 am

    […] Denne myten er heldigvis avslørt som rent oppspinn, all den tid de fleste Amish-foreldre faktisk vaksinerer sine barn.[3] Det stemmer heller ikke at autisme er mindre utbredt hos Amish-folket enn i befolkningen ellers.[4] […]

  • 13 autblog // Nov 10, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Takke deg for din gjennomtenkt kommentar. Du er riktige.

  • 14 9 Reasons to Completely Ignore Joseph Mercola My Response // Jan 17, 2013 at 9:46 am

    […] far as the Amish are concerned, they do vaccinate, and they do have children with autism. I really love this and I’ll thank you in advance for making my point. Your argument is that the […]

  • 15 The Amish Don't get Autism? // Jun 30, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    […] […]

  • 16 Penn and Teller on vaccination - Page 3 - US Message Board - Political Discussion Forum // Aug 19, 2013 at 9:18 am

    […] It's seriously debunked here. Basically, Olmstead didn't look very hard for autistic Amish. Autism and the Amish Disease Control estimates the rate of ASD is 1 in 91 children (Kogan, 2009 presence of ASD in the […]

  • 17 A favorite tactic of the antivaccine movement: When science doesn’t support you, use the law « Science-Based Medicine // Mar 25, 2014 at 3:33 am

    […] get autism from back when he was actually a reporter (they do, and they do; it’s a myth that they don’t). She has also been known to grill CDC officials about vaccines, as shown in this YouTube […]

  • 18 Preventing autism? Not so fast, Dr. Mumper… « Science-Based Medicine // Mar 25, 2014 at 3:46 am

    […] Then, over the weekend, I saw a post on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism by Dan “Where are the Autistic Amish” Olmsted entitled Weekly Wrap: Another Medical Practice with a Sane Vaccine Schedule – and […]

  • 19 Chris // Feb 2, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Oh, dear brave Anonymous, it is quite telling that it took almost four years to construct that compelling insult.

    I assume you never did find out what letter was wrong in that quote. It is the same letter that makes a difference between wood alcohol and the type of alcohol that is in beer and wine.

    Perhaps in another four years you can tell us why insults are a valid form of evidence.

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