Health News Digest

May 20, 2013

Don’t Call It Autism


By  Michael D. Shaw

Confusion surrounding the term “autism” is surely nothing new. The word was first used in 1911 by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who presumably invoked the Greek autos, meaning “self.” Bleuler was describing the behavior of many schizophrenics, whereby they withdraw into their own inner world. But, it would take the brilliant Dr. Leo Kanner, founder of child psychiatry, to identify the disease as it is understood today.

His breakthrough paper, entitled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” appeared in 1943. It was hailed by many, not the least of whom was Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger (Physics 1933), who noted that Kanner “…thought what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”

A follow-up paper (“Early Infantile Autism 1943-1955”) would appear in 1956, in which Kanner and his associate Leon Eisenberg elaborated on Kanner’s original concept of autism and the five features he considered to be diagnostic:

  • A profound lack of affective contact with other people
  • An anxiously obsessive desire for the preservation of sameness in the child’s routines and environment
  • A fascination for objects, which are handled with skill in fine motor movements
  • Mutism (consistent failure to speak in situations where talking is expected) or using a sort of language that does not seem intended for inter-personal communication
  • Good cognitive potential shown in feats of memory or skills on performance tests, especially the Séguin form board

Within the same paper, the authors distilled down the diagnostic criteria to these two features…

1.     A profound lack of affective contact

2.     Repetitive, ritualistic behavior, which must be of an elaborate kind

In fact, they were quite confident that if these two features were observed, the rest of the typical clinical picture would also present. It was also noted that this autism might be observed in one to two children per 10,000. The numbers on today’s autism, of course, are far higher–1 in 110, with some sources citing an incredible 1 in 50 children!

How can we explain this astounding increase in incidence? Perhaps autism is being overdiagnosed, but why? A growing group of experts, led by Michael J. Goldberg, MD, insist that Classic Kanner autism–a genetically-based psychological/developmental disorder–is not what the vast majority of the affected kids have today. Contrary to Kanner’s precepts, most of today’s “autistic” kids are affectionate, and have lost gross or fine motor skills. Yet, cursed with this so-called developmental disorder, some children are making miraculous recoveries.

More than that, today’s “epidemic” of autism–as it is called by nearly everyone–flies in the face of the rather obvious point that there has never in history been an epidemic of any developmental or genetic disorder. Indeed, how could there be?

On the other hand, there have been countless epidemics of organic medical diseases. Isn’t it time, Goldberg suggests, that we accept that today’s autism is not psychological or developmental, but a medical disease. A medical disease, he says, that mimics certain symptoms of classical Kanner autism. Goldberg insists that today’s autism is caused by a dysfunction in the neuro-immune system, and often by secondary neurotropic viruses that impact the neuro-immune system and brain.

He continues, “Illnesses such as autism, ADD/ADHD, and chronic fatigue syndrome all might have different names, but are actually variations on the same theme: Neuro-immune dysfunction syndrome (NIDS).” A host of technical papers from prestigious institutions now share this point of view. Sadly, though, change in the medical establishment comes slowly.

Goldberg laments that “Instead of looking for the correct answers, instead of focusing on at this point what can only be understood as a disease (not developmental) process, the system continues to fund researchers trying to figure out and understand autism as a developmental disorder. This is why so little progress has occurred despite the millions of dollars being spent.”

While the medical establishment is beginning to acknowledge his methods, some still fall back on the “objective study/clinical trials” mantra. But Goldberg counters, “Where are the studies, where is the data showing all these children [under conventional therapy], all these families have to resign themselves to some permanent dysfunction, incurable disorder? Based on what objective data, based on what objective studies are we committing so many children and families to this bleak prognosis, a very bleak future?”

No doubt, today’s autism needs a real-life Martin Arrowsmith. I nominate Dr. Goldberg.