World Autism Awareness Day, April 2, is ideally a time for news and entertainment media to educate and enlighten the public on autism spectrum disorders. That’s a tall order, given the tsunami of bad information, urban myth, fear mongering, and dishonesty bearing down on newsrooms. Judging from last year’s crop of WAAD stories, too many reporters fall prey to baseless assumptions, such as the myth of the autism epidemic. Additionally, reflexive he-said-she-said reporting gives far too much credence to the discredited vaccine-autism connection.
Sometimes a reporter’s good intentions can lead to the spread of misleading and even dangerous information. A staple of autism reporting is the Struggling Parents interview, which invariably focuses on unproven alternative treatments for autism, and a parent’s desperation to make her child “normal”. These stories usually note that a child has improved since starting the treatment. That’s no surprise. Given enough time, and lack of a control group, tap water will look like a miracle cure. That’s because autism is best understood as developmental delay, not stasis. All else being equal, these kids continue to grow and learn and adapt, albeit at their own pace.
So what’s an overworked general assignment reporter to do? First, beware of unwarranted and unproven assumptions, as you would with any story. A few that come to mind include:
The Myth of the Autism Epidemic. Virtually every wrong-headed idea about autism flows from the claims, far from confirmed, that we are experiencing an “epidemic” of autism.
What we call “autism” is really a spectrum of disorders ranging from mild to severe. Fringe anti-vaccine interest groups deliberately mislead when they tells us that the prevalence of autism has increased from 6 cases per 10,000 children in 1983 to 150 cases per 10,000 in 2008. Don’t be fooled. More than two-thirds of the children that are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders today would have received a difference diagnosis, or no label at all, 25 years ago. There are a number of reasons for this. Diagnostic criteria for autism have broadened since the 1980s, and today children with milder forms of the disorder are included. A large part of the increase can also be explained by diagnostic substitution, especially for children who have the more severe forms of the disorder who were once labeled mentally retarded. In fact, data show that as autism diagnoses rose during the 199os, cases of mental retardation decreased – strong evidence for diagnostic substitution. Furthermore, the percentage of children receiving special education services has remained flat during a time when autism was supposedly skyrocketing. Check out this graph from D’oC at Autism Street:
I know the temptation to use skyrocket as a verb is great, but the fact is that claims for an autism epidemic are unfounded. What has skyrocketed is public awareness of the disorders. Be skeptical of anyone who tells you otherwise.
A must read article that explains how autism is diagnosed, and the reasons to be skeptical of claims for an epidemic, can be found here.
The controversial vaccine-autism connection. Among bona-fide researchers there is no controversy. More than 25 studies over ten years and across three continents show no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. At least ten more similarly show no link between thimerosal containing vaccines (TCVs) and autism.
Sharon Begley at Newsweek very nicely lays out the case against the TCV connection here.
The government has admitted that vaccines caused Hannah Poling’s autism. The US Federal Court of Claims, which hears vaccine injury cases, never ruled on the case because HHS conceded before it came to court. The standard of proof for vax cases is “more likely than not” – what lawyers call “50% and a feather”. The court was in fact set up during the Reagan administration to expedite vaccine injury claims, and claimants are paid by a fund drawn from a tax of 75 cents on every vaccine shot given. If Poling’s case was heard in civil court the family probably would have lost, since it is essentially unknowable what caused the girl’s symptoms of autism. Science blogger Steve Novella, MD, explains it here.
Even the Poling family’s physician, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, says “there is no scientific basis for a connection between measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine or mercury (Hg) intoxication and autism.” Zimmerman’s comment can be found in the report he submitted to the US Federal Court of Claims, as part of the recently concluded Omnibus Autism Proceeding. Scintillating analysis here.
No writer should go wanting for autism-related stories. An estimated 500,000 children in the US have an autism spectrum disorder, and the ways in which families, educators, and caregivers accommodate these kids is worth telling. Then there’s the shady and opportunistic autism cure industry, and the vacuous celebrities who mislead and exploit parents. It’s a target rich environment for any enterprising reporter willing to spend some extra time learning the facts. Don’t waste your time, or your readers’, chasing shadows.