What's wrong with us?

This past winter, the CDC released a landmark report, saying 1 in 166 people in the USA has some kind of autistic spectrum condition. At the time, I didn’t make too much of the report, figuring that most of the increase over past surveys was not an increase at all – it just represented better identification and reporting.

I, of course, am a proud member of the Centers for Disease Control's 2007 "Class of 166."

Their report came out at the same time that I was showing Look Me in the Eye to my publisher for the first time. In our meetings, some of Crown’s editorial people asked me if I thought Aspergers and autism were on the rise, and at that time, my answer was, “I don’t know.”

Now that I’ve learned more, my answer is: Yes, there is a striking increase! And it’s only the tip of the iceberg . . .

In the past four months, I have met many parents with autistic kids. They have shown me things that would have been unheard of thirty years ago. And it makes me wonder: What is happening to our kids? Have we mutated, so that humans are defective? The stories I read about our declining fertility suggest that’s a possibility. Are we feeding our kids things to damage them? As much as we hate to admit it, many of us think we are. Did we ingest poisons ourselves, and damage our offspring as a result?

The range of possibilities is just staggering. Did the DDT sprayed in our yards and neighborhoods damage us, and lead to our damaged children, thirty years later? Is it the mercury in vaccines? Is agribusiness’s reliance on corn monoculture making us weak? Everywhere you turn, decisions that seemed so right in the fifties, sixties, and seventies seem so wrong today. And what about the decision’s we’re making now? Are they any better?

No one knows the answers. Or rather, some people feel they know the answer, and it’s A. Other people, with equal certainty, say it’s B. And there are more folks out there advocating C, D, E, and the whole rest of the alphabet.

Until meeting some of these families, I didn’t realize how lucky I am, having a fairly regular, trouble free kid. I’ve now met people with two, three, and even five deeply autistic kids in one family. How does that happen? Those of you who are 40-50-60 years old . . . think back to your high school days. How many autistic kids did you know? My school had two. Today, the same school has at least twenty. Ten times as many? Why? And several in one family . . . I grew up thinking autism was a one in 10,000 sort of condition. But it's not anymore. It's everywhere. Where did it come from?

And it’s not “just better reporting.” Many of the autistic kids I’m seeing are seriously impaired. These kids are autistic today, and they’d have been diagnosed as autistic in 1970. Better reporting does pick up a few high-functioning folks like me, but we do not make up the majority of these new cases.

The moms I meet are quick to point out that autism isn’t the only thing on the rise. What about the “peanut free” tables in school cafeterias? Does your kid’s school have one? Mine does. And it’s the same high school I attended, 30 years ago. The only difference is, there was no such thing as a “peanut free” table back then. In fact, peanut butter and jelly was a staple on the school lunch menu. Not any more. Now, kids eat the stuff and go into shock? Some even die. Why? What’s gone wrong?

When did peanuts become lethal? All my life, they were FOOD.

And how about asthma? When I went to Amherst high school, there were 700 other kids serving time in my school. I wasn’t friends with them all, but I at least recognized a good many kids. And how many had asthma? One that I knew, Dan Rausch.

Today, there are kids with asthma in every one of my kid’s classes at Amherst high. It seems like half Cubby's friends carry inhalers. Why? There’s no industry here. This is a college town. Where’s it all coming from? Surely it’s not made up. I see it myself. And it even affects me. At 21, I developed asthma, and I’ve had it ever since.

How about all the fat people? They’re everywhere. Even right here. I eat well, exercise, and I’m fat. Look at photos of your family today. Look at photos from the turn of the century. What’s the difference? They aren’t fat.

And diabetes? And who knows what else? Are we falling apart? I thought life was getting better and life expectancy was on the rise. I guess I was wrong.

I don’t have any answers, just questions. How about you? If you’re like me, you may not have even seen what’s happening right under our noses.

Science and technology are moving ahead at such a rapid pace that none of us – however smart and educated we may be – have even a hope of staying on top of all the ramifications of the new things our scientists and engineers create. How can we? The creators don’t know themselves, in many cases.

In most cases, new technology is unleashed upon the world for one reason: Because someone can make money from it. I’m sure most technology is safe, most of the time. But is “most” good enough, when jet planes and the Internet spread technology across the world in hours? Are we allowing ourselves to be sacrificed in the name of profit?

Should our government take a more active role in assessing the impact new technology will have upon us, and our planet? Do we even know how to do that?

I’m no Luddite. I don’t think we should smash the machines. Frankly, I don’t know what we should do. We make our best decisions based upon the available information, and twenty years later, we discover we went terribly wrong. And we’re left with things like asbestos-filled schools. How can we improve our ability to foresee the results of our actions?

I may not have answers today, but I’ll sure be looking for them, now that I see what’s going on.


Matty said…
I was with John today as we had lunch at Panera and discussed these very topics. We had the added good fortune of pulling into our discussion a rather good looking mother of triplets. She was studying microbiology and couldn't resist involving into our conversation. (rumour has it that I speak somewhat loudly)

My thoughts are 3 fold as I expressed them to John. 1) data recording: Manyt hings didn't have a name never mind being recorded and added to a data base over time. Look at Asperger's which just got recognized in the '90's. Many people may have had illneses that are are now diagnosable but it was never recorded. 2) Medical life extension: To use John's thought on Peanut allergy which I have spent many nights thinking about. (My son is anaphalaxis for peanuts) What would have happened to a child with a peanut allergy to peanuts in say the 1820's? They would have had a taste at some point and died. Allergens? Histamine response? They knew nothing of this then. Certainly no benedryl or epi pins available. Death. Now the gene expression for this maalady does not get passed on. In modern times thes illnesses are able to be passed on based on medicines better understanding of how the body works and availabale drugs. I am very happy aboutnthis where my son is concerned but it still shows that now, "weaker gene sets" are now growing into the gene pool. As the woman that conversed with us said, we can only hope that at some point medicine WILL be able to prgram viruses to resequence DNA and wipe out many diseases and conditions. It IS on the horizon. I can only hope. 3) Environment. By this I mean both the biosphere thast our planer population is poisoning as well as the horrid food supply that we consume. Day after day of consuming McDonalds, Hostess Twinkies, and processed foods WILL kill you in the end. Maybe not quickly as our bodies are amazingly adaptable organisms...but itwill weaken over time making you susceptable to conditions

I will post this on my blog as well as I would like feedback. http://mattyserrantthoughts.blogspot.com/

John , great thoughts! AND it also proves my point that people more in tune with their appearance and well being, search out good food. AKA...the great looking mother of triplets that was studying microbiology for being a nurse. Defense rests!! ;)
Chumplet said…
Good point, matty. It seems the more we fight Mother Nature, the more slaps we get on the wrist.

Look at how difficult it is to eradicate infection. Antibiotics fight the infections, but unwittingly leave the stronger bugs to fight back.
polly said…
"Antibiotics fight the infections, but unwittingly leave the stronger bugs to fight back."
Exactly. We keep inventing new medications to prevent or delay our deaths, and viruses and infections keep fighting back harder. Why? Because it's their job to do so. Biology and nature control populations. It's how nature keeps the planet healthy. We are all just a small part of a living, breathing planet. We act like we should be able to control everything, but we are really powerless against nature. The less we respect nature and live in nature, and the more we develop poison cleaning supplies, breath in nothing but stale air conditioning, eat food that was grown with pesticides and preservatives, and live in other unhealthy ways, the weaker our immume systems become. We do things like shave under our arms, then apply deoderants and antiperspirants with aluminum chlorhydrate directly to our tiny open shaver cuts. Then we wonder why breast cancer is at an all-time high, especially in upper class, well-groomed women. Now breast cancer is increasing in men too. Why? Because now men are shaving under their arms, and using deoderants. This was virtually unheard of 100 years ago. Expect all kinds of cancer in males to continue to grow now that men shave, dye their hair, and wear cosmetics, just like we gals do. And the cell phones we all have glued to our ears don't help much either. Mother nature has always controlled populations with plagues throughout history. That's all cancer, AIDs, and today's other plagues are. If we don't respect her or ourselves, she will have to do what she has to do to heal herself.
Kimstagliano said…
John - You have a way of getting to the heart of a debate like a laser beam. And you are dead-on correct. Yet, we are told there IS no epidemic and docs are now training to find mental illness in babies. It's disheartening. You, my friend, can make a difference with your questions because of who you are.
Anonymous said…
Great Observations John. I agree with them and I too have the same questions. This was my first time visiting your blog. I'll stop by again.
nhokkanen said…
At IMFAR 2 weeks ago one paper noted that children with regressive autism have high leptin levels, but those with early-onset autism have "normal" levels. This phenom is also seen in some African tribesmen; otherwise high leptin is associated with obese Americans.

Evidence seems to suggest that people are being genetically altered by environmental toxins. I just wish that the CDC would stop injecting us with one of them -- ethylmercury. The newly approved avian flu vaccine from sanofi pasteur has 100 micrograms of ethylmercury from Thimerosal.

We can be poisoned at low levels and be aware of it. Some are aware that they are mentally different. Others are painfully aware that they are physically ill. The planet has room for people of varying neural makeup, but malfunctioning immune systems are a dilemma in dire need of a fast solution.

We increase ethanol use, but the Atrazine sprayed on corn is killing frogs. SOMETHING is damaging bees' immune systems. Wal-Mart wants to put 100 million mercury light bulbs into people's homes, where most they will inevitably end up in wastebaskets and incinerators.

A long, slow global Minamata is unfolding, and I'd wager that Rachel Carson is spinning in her grave.
Kanani said…
Hi John,
Sorry, I wasn't here yesterday.

I have very mixed feelings about the correlation of autism to shots and such.

From what I can tell with my own son, this runs in his father's family. There's a social disconnect, problems with boundaries, organization, not getting social cues, grooming, and not fitting in. The byproduct was a staggering depression in his family, of denial --the world was wrong, they were right. They seemed to exist in their own sphere --good and bad. But there was an awful lot of suffering, of the type that few can probably understand.

But this doesn't mean that each of the kids didn't find their niche and become high achievers. Yet, there is something very vulnerable within them.

Yet I can't write off where the issue of environmental factors, I'm not sure where it fits in. In my son's case, it's cross generational (at least in my son's case). My advice might be to say, 'look deeper into your families.' What quirks did they have? What were we willing to pass off as just odd or eccentric?

Which brings me to another issue as well. We've become a much more stringent society in dealing with differences. We demand that everyone fit into an imagined groove of perfection. It's NOT okay for a girl or a boy to dress oddly, to not give contact. Everyone is all too willing to pass people off as losers, and this includes the parents who often try to force this ideal onto their kids.

I guess the bottom line is that regardless, you have to accept your son or daughter --and even when they are going through what can be horrific teen years. A high functioning asperger's kid like my son doesn't care how he got it. They just want to know that you think they're okay with who they are.
Laura K. said…
John -

Kim S. sent a link to your blog. I agree wholeheartedly. My son is one of those severe children that Kim was talking about. He was born in 1997. He was sick for most of his first three years.

The current rate for his birth cohort in Minnesota is 1 in 80 with ASD or 1 in 50 boys. But what strikes me is he had 6 in his preschool born the same year, all severe and nonverbal, all with severe allergies, etc. in a population of two towns equaling 56,000.

Overall, the rate in Minnesota now is 1 in 96 (ages 6 to 17).

A urinary porphyrin test shows that my son has a body burden of mercury 10 what typical kids have. He cannot excrete heavy metals. Our family has almost 350 first degree relatives, my son is the only one with autism.

I know some people do not buy into the mercury connection, but I do. I love my son and I am not looking for perfection, just a way that he can communicate his thoughts and feelings to me. So he can tell me when his stomach hurts or he is tired. I know he is trying, because he gives a 3 syllable grunt every night that has the same intonation as my words to him "I love you."
Anonymous said…
Laura K. said...

A urinary porphyrin test shows that my son has a body burden of mercury 10 what typical kids have. He cannot excrete heavy metals. Our family has almost 350 first degree relatives, my son is the only one with autism.

I know some people do not buy into the mercury connection, but I do.


Hi John; I had to post here on your blog, Thanks a lot man!

My son was born 2/94. He received about 34 innoculations & booster shots over the next 2 & 1/2 years. Of course my wife & I had no knowledge of thimerisol(a mercury compound) being used as a "preservative" for vaccines. Well, Christaan DID receive at least 100 micrograms of mercury injected into an infant sized body that pumped 1/4 of his blood to his developing infant brain during a critical time of it's development. How anybody could state that mercury couldn't be a "trigger" for autism CANNOT deny that we diagnosed our introverted son with autism OURSELVES 4 & 1/2 years after our "normal, happy, laughing & singing" boy STOPPED interacting with the world around him.
cyndi said…
Yes, yes, yes...thanks for this John.

I agree completely. Why is there not outrage over these facts? Why are we as a culture tolerating the wholesale poisoning of our children?

We are the frogs in the pot...the water keeps getting hotter...
cyndi said…
Yes, yes, yes, yes! I wonder why the general public isn't asking these same questions- and why they aren't saying "What in the HELL is going on?"

We now drug approximately 20% of ALL children for behavior issues. HOW can this in any way be OK? And that's just behavior issues...and with these, parents are willing to give anti-psychotics, which can cause cardiac failure and suicidal ideation, as a trade for their child to behave....

Oh my god, what has happened? This is a crisis that no one is paying attention to.

God help us if we don't change course.
Michelle O'Neil said…
I love the logical open minded way you look at all this.

Thank you.
I think the so-called "increase" in autistic kids has a lot to do with crummy parenting, media oversaturation, and overzealous psychiatrists who slap labels on kids so young that the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think if a lot of the so-called autistic kids were just left alone to develop in their own way, you wouldn't have all the serious impairment you see today. Kids today have no self-reliance.

Einstein didn't speak until he was four. Neither did Thomas Edison. "Autism" is actually more of an indicator of extreme intelligence than of impairment. Super-intelligent people just usually have a different way of interacting with the world. Many, many super-geniuses of yesterday would be labeled "hopeless" autistics and institutionalized today.

Our society has come to value "standards" and "normalcy" too much, and it's ruining our most exceptional kids. (That's what I believe most autistic kids are---the super-geniuses among us, that we should all try to learn something from.
Jerri said…
This is a question I have pondered at length, but your exploration of it is much more ordered and logical than mine has been.

Thank you.
Joni said…
I don't have any deep insights on this. Just a thought, though. It seems that the pharmaceutical industry tends to rush, rush, rush to get the "latest" thing on the market without testing it long-term. Too many things slip by, or heads are turned the other way, it appears.

As for vaccinations being the cause, I'm not sure on that one.

I think people in past times at healthier, overall, because more of them ate what they could grow themselves.

I don't know what the answer is. But you brought up some really good points.
appletini said…
It is really scary to think about what is happening to our world today . I was having the same conversation with a colleague of mine. The rate of autism and aspergers is unbelievable!

WE have seen a large increase in autistic like symptoms in preschoolers these last two years. Who knows what is the cause but I'm sure that all of the pollution from cars, processed foods, and other things that make "our lives easier" is probably causing us great harm.
I hope that we find an answer...... before it's too late.
Joel said…
I am an attorney whose client ordered a turkey sandwich at Panera. He had a n allergic reaction because the sandwich contained nuts. If you had a similar problem with Panera, please contact me.

Joel D. Joseph

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