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Olmsted Lied, People Laughed:
The “Amish Anomaly” hoax

October 29th, 2009 · 11 Comments · Urban legend

By David N. Brown

This is a PUBLIC DOMAIN document (dated 10/17/09).  It may be copied, forwarded, cited, circulated or posted elsewhere.  The author requests only that it not be altered from its current form.

Dan Olmsted’s “big break” for coverage of the vaccine-caused autism coverage was a series of stories about two claims: that the Amish do not vaccinate, and that they do not have autism. He wrote at least six articles on this subject between March and October 2005.  To this day, he continues to defend his work.  Yet,  his critics have long since demonstrated 3 facts: The Amish vaccinate; they do have children with autism, and Olmsted would have known these facts if he had actually conducted a serious investigation.

A major argument by Olmsted is an interview wth Dr. Frank C. Noonan, said (apparently in his own words) to have treated “thousands and thousands” of the Amish population of Lancaster county.  This provided a major recurring sound bite: “`You’ll find all the other stuff, but we don’t find the autism.

We’re right in the heart of Amish country and seeing none, and that’s just the way it is.’”  However,  by Olmsted’s admission, Noonan is openly a practitioner of “alternative medicine”, which makes him potentially biased.  Nor is he the only source with this problem. Dick Warner, a salesman Olmsted was mocked for quoting in the June 2 article “A Glimpse of the Amish”, sold  “natural health” products as well as water filters. Dr. Lawrence Leichtman, reportedly instrumental in guiding Olmsted to six Amish children with autism, was featured in the April 2005 issue of Alternative Medicine. Heng Wang, another prominently cited source, may also have “alternative health” ties:  The site of his DDC clinic lists nutrition and special diets as among its services, without going into details.  (The site reports that the clinic was founded on the initiative of mothers who, for unspecified reasons were unsatisfied with services at Holmes Morton’s Clinic for Special Children.)  This preponderance of “alternative health” sources raises questions not only about the objectivity of the article, but also the extent of Olmstead’s personal research.  This is a good point to note a comment by Kevin A. Strauss to Autism NewsBeat: “I don’t think he spent much time in Lancaster County.”

But, complaining about bias will not help address Olmsted’s claims.  With regards to Noonan’s quote, I am convinced that it is in one way or another, spurious. For one thing, the listed location of his practice is a single suite, an improbably small space for treating “thousands” Amish or otherwise.  For another, Noonan’s practice is not particularly accessible to the Amish.  Ephrata has a well-documented Mennonite community, but I can find no reference to a directly adjacent Amish population, unless one counts the Peaceful Valley Amish Furniture store. By all indications, the Amish population is concentrated south and east, closer to Strasburg and Lancaster itself (both filming locations for Witness).   Thus, it is very unlikely that Noonan ever had more than occasional contact with the Amish in a professional capacity, except possibly with a small subset of the Amish who are either relatively geographically isolated from the rest, or who prefer his practice over larger facilities closer at hand.

In any event, Olmsted’s claims quickly collapsed in the eyes of science and his peers.  Olmsted himself admitted that the Amish have some autistics and that at least some vaccinate.  Even his strikingly qualified claims were disproved virtually as soon as others investigated.  In March 2006, Drs. Kevin Strauss, Holmes Morton  and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which  could raise the autism rate of the Lancaster Amish community Olmsted supposedly investigated to almost  1/5,000 all by themselves.   In December 2006, a study found that 84% of Amish parents reported vaccinating their children. As criticism spread to Olmstead’s journalist peers, his honesty was directly challenged. In 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review concluded  “that Olmsted has made up his mind on the question and is reporting the facts that support his conclusions.”  In the unkindest cut of all, UPI has apparently deleted Olmsted’s articles from its website, as specific links for Olmsted’s articles only lead to the UPI front page.

Throughout this fiasco, Olmsted’s responses have amounted to revisions and rationalizations at best, and at worst complete denial.  When he first reported finding some autistic Amish (April 18), he tried to blame it on vaccinations among a minority of the Amish.  When he acknowledged autism in a number of unvaccinated children, he blamed “elevated levels of mercury”. And when on-line critics began systematic demolition, he responded with ad hominem attacks on critics, including a reference to Kathleen Seidel as “toxic”. At last report, he was if anything even more defensively strident. On April 4, 2009, he made an AoA post in which he continued to defend his core claims. He repeated his belief in “the virtual absence of autism among the Amish”, based on an undoubted underestimate of the autism rate as 1/10,000 , and said that only “half” of Amish are vaccinated. He blamed is failure to consult the Clinic for Special Children on the clinic staff, claiming they “refused to speak with me over a period of many months”  Then he said this: “(T)hat doctor said, oh yes, they do see Amish kids with autism — but then went on to say those were ONLY kids with other identifiable genetic disorders… He specifically said they DO NOT  see `idiopathic autism,’ a basically nonsense phrase that he used to mean autism without any other accompanying disorders. In other words, they don’t see the kind of autism now running at a rate of 1 in 100 or so in the rest of the country. “

With this remarkable bit of “newspeak”, Olmsted does exactly what Prometheus  speculated happened in the original articles: “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.” His specific argument is obviously worthless:  Defining “real” autism by the absence of “accompanying disorders” is absolutely indefensible, especially for the Amish, who are all at an elevated risk of genetic defects. Furthermore, if autism were redefined in this matter, many if not most of the diagnoses behind the 1/100 figure would have to be thrown out. In a culminating irony, Olmsted himself openly refers to “idiopathic autism” as a “nonsense phrase”.  So, why is he using this to define who is or is not autistic. By all appearances, it is because he would rather endorse “nonsense” than retract his long-since indefensible conclusion!

In short, Olmstead’s “coverage” of autism has been fraudulent from the start.  At best (and I think most likely), he uncritically interviewed a handful of prejudiced informants, and misrepresented it in the national media as his own, comprehensive investigation of Lancaster County.  At worst, he conducted research more than sufficient to show that autism occurred among the Amish at a high rate and independent of vaccination, but knowingly misrepresented, omitted or refused to pursue the relevant facts.

David N. Brown is a semipro author, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult.  Previous works include the novels The Worlds of Naughtenny Moore, Walking Dead and Aliens Vs Exotroopers, and the nonfiction ebook The Urban Legend of Vaccine-Caused Autism. This and other articles related to autism are available free of charge at evilpossum.weebly.com .

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Aspie Al // Oct 29, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Who pays Olmsted now?

  • 2 autblog // Oct 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Good question. ; -)

  • 3 Justthisguy // Oct 30, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I dunno who pays him, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that he votes the straight Democrat ticket. Being a “Journalist” and all, y’know.

  • 4 John Best // Oct 30, 2009 at 9:04 am

    There’s a difference between Dem’s and Rep’s?

  • 5 David N. Brown // Nov 3, 2009 at 1:55 am

    Didn’t know this article was up here. I’ve made one correction in a later draft. Apparently, Noonan claimed he saw most of his Amish patients during three years at an Amish/Mennonite “Wellness Center”, which I have so far been unable to identify.
    To the question of “who pays Olmsted”, I think the question sidetracks from more important issues. As I have commented often, I have never found financial gain to be satisfactory as an explanation of motive. In Olmsted’s case, I suspect it has much to do with his failure to make a mark in his profession on his own by legitimate means.

  • 6 Joseph // Nov 4, 2009 at 8:15 am

    If they ever carry out an exhaustive state-of-the-art prevalence study of autism among the Amish, I predict they will find autism is considerably more common there than normal.

  • 7 David N. Brown // Nov 5, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    That’s a very safe bet, since, as I have pointed out, many genetic anomalies are more common in the Amish. There may be a more general point to be made: There may be more unvaccinated among the autistic than in the general population.

  • 8 Joseph // Nov 6, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    There may be more unvaccinated among the autistic than in the general population.

    That’s easily the case even without considering the Amish, given that the siblings of autistic children are often unvaccinated.

  • 9 Ivar TJ // Dec 5, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    This fails to interest me enough for me to figure out which posts by Olmsted this fuss derives from, but I’ve noticed it said several places that Olmsted never actually claimed that the Amish don’t vaccinate—but that he chose study the group because they allegedly vaccinate to a lesser degree.

  • 10 Prometheus // Dec 8, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I think it is important to note that it is possible that the Amish (and Mennonites) have a lower prevalence of autism – for the very same reason that they have a higher-than-average incidence of genetic disorders.

    The Amish and Mennonites (especially the “Old Order” Amish and Mennonites) have a higher-then-average incidence of genetic disorders because of a high level of inbreeding.

    I don’t mean the Deliverance sort of marry-your-cousin inbreeding (although that may also occur), but the sort of inbreeding that occurs when a small population doesn’t marry outside of their group (and those that do move away from the group) and few (or no) “outsiders” join the group. This describes the Amish and Mennonites pretty well and has been going on for over a century and a half.

    In any small inbred population, the genetic diversity drops over time because of the tendency to “lose” alleles for each gene through genetic drift. Eventually, this can lead to deleterious alleles (”bad mutations”) becoming more prevalent. This greatly increases the chance that two parents will each have a copy of the defective allele, which in turn greatly increases the chance of their children having two copies (and thus manifesting the genetic disorder).

    But, there is a “flip” side to genetic drift in a small, inbreeding population. The prevalence of a deleterious gene can also decrease (or even go to zero), leading to lower-than-average incidence of a particular genetic disorder. Thus, it is possible that the Amish (and Mennonites) have lost some of the susceptibility alleles for autism.

    Unfortunately, we have no good data on the prevalence of autism among the Amish – Mr. Olmsted’s half-hearted attempts notwithstanding. But, even if we did find that the Amish have a lower prevalence of autism, it would not necessarily have anything to do with vaccination. In fact, the most likely cause would be genetic drift and the loss of “autism alleles”.

    This brings up the larger problem of studying groups that don’t vaccinate. In the case of the Amish, we’d also have to confront the fact that they are not genetically similar to the general population. By this, I don’t mean that they are “mutants” (ala “X-Men”) or that they aren’t human, just that they have a drastically different genetic diversity (and allelic distribution) than the rest of the country.

    Also, if you compare the Amish to the rest of the country in respect to autism, why would you settle on vaccines as the main difference – as Mr. Olmsted implies? Why not look at their television viewing habits (very different from the general population), their exposure to plastics or their mental stress levels? Why would vaccination – arguably the practice the Amish share most with the rest of the country – be your focus?

    Unless, of course, you had an agenda.

    Prometheus

  • 11 Sullivan // Dec 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    If they ever carry out an exhaustive state-of-the-art prevalence study of autism among the Amish, I predict they will find autism is considerably more common there than normal.

    Two sources I have contacted indicate the rate of non-idiopathic autism it is indeed lower. These are nonscientific surveys, one very nonscientific. They also note that the vaccination rate has increased dramatically in the last 15 years, with no concurrent increase in autism.

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