My father always blamed it on an unacknowledged accident at a nuclear plant
in Wales. He didn't make a big deal about it, just occasionally muttered his
suspicions into his pint.
He was referring to the upsurge in Down Syndrome births along the Irish
coastline in the early 1960's - my sister, Anne, among them.
All water under the bridge now, both father and daughter have passed on, but
I was reminded of his suspicion recently when learning that the incidence of
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the US population is now at a rate of 1 in
As some of you know only too well, when you grow up in a house with a
special needs child you become sensitive to anything of that nature; add
that to the fact that some years back a friend's daughter was diagnosed with
Anyway, it's a rare person nowadays who doesn't know, or know of, someone
with the condition.
My sister's Down Syndrome changed the whole dynamics of our family life - my
mother's ongoing fear was that Anne would outlive her, then what?
But at least we all understood exactly what had caused her condition: she
had been born with one chromosome too many.
While genetics and heritability appear to be the main causes for autism no
one really knows the reason for the recent upsurge. Better testing, of
course, has added to the numbers. And for a while there was speculation that
the rise might be due to childhood inoculation against measles, mumps and
rubella, but that seems to have been ruled out, although many still cite it
as a possible cause.
Each case is different, ranging all the way from full-blown intellectual
disablement to far milder forms often manifesting as behavioral rigidity or
difficulty in dealing with social situations.
That being said, the most alarming feature is autism's rising prevalence, up
from 0.6% in the population in the US in 2007 to 0.9% in 2010. Only last
week an exhaustive survey from a city in South Korea placed the figure at a
staggering 2.6% of all children from 7 to 12.
Many fear that the environment may be suspect for the upsurge, and this at a
time when various politicians would like to eviscerate the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA). Clean air, unfortunately, is not a given, and in
our profit driven world this is one agency in need of more financing rather
Some people worry that the food chain might be compromised and pesticides
may be to blame.
Could our over-medicated society be at fault? I don't know but take a look
in your bathroom closet - pills for this, tablets for that. Doctors will now
routinely write a prescription for Lipitor rather than tell you to wise up
and stop eating the greasy foods that are killing you.
Have we in some way, shape or form managed to bring the heartbreak of autism
While every case is indeed different, you see the same strain in each family
member's eyes. Many are overwhelmed by the problems of delivering adequate
care and education. At least last year's Health Care Reform Act will help
resolve some of the health insurance issues.
At the moment there is no cure, only treatment that is costly and time
consuming; as a society we are in no way prepared for the increasing
incidence that shows no sign of abating.
Nonetheless, there are many wonderful people working in the field both
trying to identify the causes and dealing with the consequences of the
condition. Hats off to them!
For the rest of us it's time we faced up to the fact that we may share
responsibility for this upsurge in autism. The answers may be a long time in
coming but for the sake of these children and their families it's important
that we begin to ask the questions.