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Don’t blow your WAAD story

March 25th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Critical thinking

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.



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Reichel // Mar 25, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Well put, Ken.

    I’ve sometimes read in the paper that Down Syndrome rates have decreased. Do we know why? And could that account for the over-all special ed numbers staying about the same? (Considering that the wider diagnosis being used for autism spectrum disorders would account for more special ed related to autism spectrum disorders)

  • 2 » Don’t blow your WAAD story // Mar 25, 2009 at 9:23 am

    […] View original here:  Don’t blow your WAAD story […]

  • 3 Joseph // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:48 am

    “I’ve sometimes read in the paper that Down Syndrome rates have decreased.”

    This is what the DSA says about it:

    Following the introduction of screening for Down’s syndrome in 1989, the number of babies born with the condition steadily fell from 717 to just 594 at the start of this decade.

    Since 2000 the birth rate has increased, reaching 749 births of children with Down’s syndrome by 2006, the latest year for which figures are available.

    “And could that account for the over-all special ed numbers staying about the same?”

    Down Syndrome children probably account for something like 2% to 3% of all special education students.

  • 4 Laurentius-rex // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:59 am

    World autism day ought to be on April the first because it is a joke isn’t it.

    There are only 365 days in the average year (I know some have more, and on the very rare occasion less) so it is inevitable that there will be a vast number of competing awareness days on any one date. Potato Crisp awareness day anyone?

    Autism is for life not just one day of the year. The sooner everybody treats these awareness days with the contempt they deserve the better.

  • 5 The Gonzo Girl // Mar 25, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    What Larry said!

  • 6 Harold L Doherty // Mar 26, 2009 at 3:54 am

    Maybe King Laurentius could decree that a new day be named to celebrate Neurodiversity Awareness for true believers of the ND faith who have posted here .

    King Larry could name it WAIAD – World Angry and Irrational Awareness day.

  • 7 autblog // Mar 26, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Good idea, Harold. We could spend the day clearing up the very misconceptions about neurodiversity that you continue to spread.

  • 8 Clay // Mar 28, 2009 at 1:27 am

    Poor Harold should know that the best acronyms are those that actually spell out words, preferably giving some idea of the intention of the group, such as MADD, for Mothers Against Drunken Drivers, or ACORN, for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

    But he doesn’t have the wit or imagination to come up with something with which to really zing Larry, though that was his intention. C’mon Harold, if you want to say something witty, you have to THINK of something witty to say first! It seems like your heart just hasn’t been in it lately.

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