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Autism Speaks founder Bob Wright’s opinion is more important than science

24 Sep

Last year the Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks made a simple and clear statement

“Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.  We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.”

It was nice to finally see someone from Autism Speaks make a clear statement without a lot of equivocation and “leave the door open” language.

But what I think is nice and what Bob Wright, the founder of Autism Speaks, thinks is nice are two different things.  The Wright family is, at least, sympathetic to the idea that vaccines cause autism (and, in at least one case, very outspoken on the idea.)  So perhaps I should have been surprised when Autism Speaks put on their website Rob Ring’s statement together with a statement by Bob Wright.

Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.  We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.
Rob Ring
Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks
Over the last two decades extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccines and autism. Scientific research has not directly connected autism to vaccines. Vaccines are very important. Parents must make the decision whether to vaccinate their children. Efforts must be continually  made to educate parents about vaccine safety. If parents decide not to vaccinate they must be aware of the consequences in their community and their local schools.
Bob Wright
Co-founder, Autism Speaks
Because why should we let the Chief Science Officer have the actual word on what Autism Speaks thinks about an issue of science?  Why let a clear statement stand alone when one can leave the door open with “Scientific research has not directly connected autism to vaccines.”
And that was sad.  A sad move by Autism Speaks.  A sad move by Bob Wright.
But I’ve already written about that.  Why bring it up again now?  Well, because a reader here alerted me to the fact that Bob Wright and Autism Speaks have expunged the statement by their science officer. If one now goes to, one finds only Bob Wright’s statement:
AS backpedals on vaccines
I so want Autism Speaks to be an organization I could support.  And sometimes they seem to be moving in that direction.  But, in the end, they are still clinging to ideas like “vaccines cause autism”, ideas that cause a lot of harm within the autism communities.  And they also take a very stigmatizing approach to the discussion of autism, but that is another discussion.

Autism Speaks pretends to be a science driven organization, but they just aren’t.  The founder is the founder and his opinion means more than the results of scientific studies as expressed by their own Chief Science Officer.

By Matt Carey

Cochrane review: no clinical trial evidence was found to suggest that pharmaceutical chelation is an effective intervention for ASD

10 Sep

Chelation was never used by the majority of parents on their autistic kids. And that is a good thing. Chelation use is way down in the autism communities, but it hasn’t gone away. Many of those who use chelation are also vaccine antagonistic, and many of those rely upon the Chochrane reviews to support their vaccine-antagonistic arguments (generally by cherry picking and misrepresenting the Chochrane reviews). So, I was intrigued when I saw this abstract come up recently: Chelation for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A Chochrane team looked at the evidence for chelation and found that there is none.

A while back there was a plan for a chelation trial at the National Institutes of Health. It was cancelled when animal studies found a drop in cognitive scores when chelation was used without heavy metal intoxication. Which is to say, if you chelate someone needlessly, you could be shaving off IQ points. And since there is no evidence that autism is a form of heavy metal intoxication, chelation may actually have been harming already disabled kids.

I bring this up because the Chochrane review mentions a possible clinical trial in their last abstract sentence: “Before further trials are conducted, evidence that supports a causal link between heavy metals and autism and methods that ensure the safety of participants are needed.”

Yeah, I know that teams of people with MBA’s and other non-related degrees will tell you that there is evidence. As will doctors who sell chelation. Or recommend it (Hello, Dr. Bob Sears, I’m talking to you and your community of non-autism docs). They are wrong. And potentially harming autistic children.

Here is the abstract

It has been suggested that the severity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms is positively correlated with the level of circulating or stored toxic metals, and that excretion of these heavy metals, brought about by the use of pharmaceutical chelating agents, results in improved symptoms.
To assess the potential benefits and adverse effects of pharmaceutical chelating agents (referred to as chelation therapy throughout this review) for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms.
We searched the following databases on 6 November 2014: CENTRAL, Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid MEDLINE In-Process, Embase,PsycINFO, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) and 15 other databases, including three trials registers. In addition we checked references lists and contacted experts.
All randomised controlled trials of pharmaceutical chelating agents compared with placebo in individuals with ASD.
Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed them for risk of bias and extracted relevant data. We did not conduct a meta-analysis, as only one study was included.
We excluded nine studies because they were non-randomised trials or were withdrawn before enrolment.We included one study, which was conducted in two phases. During the first phase of the study, 77 children with ASD were randomly assigned to receive seven days of glutathione lotion or placebo lotion, followed by three days of oral dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA). Forty-nine children who were found to be high excreters of heavy metals during phase one continued on to phase two to receive three days of oral DMSA or placebo followed by 11 days off, with the cycle repeated up to six times. The second phase thus assessed the effectiveness of multiple doses of oral DMSA compared with placebo in children who were high excreters of heavy metals and who received a three-day course of oral DMSA. Overall, no evidence suggests that multiple rounds of oral DMSA had an effect on ASD symptoms.
This review included data from only one study, which had methodological limitations. As such, no clinical trial evidence was found to suggest that pharmaceutical chelation is an effective intervention for ASD. Given prior reports of serious adverse events, such as hypocalcaemia, renal impairment and reported death, the risks of using chelation for ASD currently outweigh proven benefits. Before further trials are conducted, evidence that supports a causal link between heavy metals and autism and methods that ensure the safety of participants are needed.

By Matt Carey

Another study on the gluten free/casein free diet and autism. This time focusing on kids with a sign of “leaky gut”

9 Sep

I recently wrote about a study of the gluten free/casein free (GF/CF) diet and autistic kids. The kids in that study were put on the diet and then given snacks with gluten and/or casein and their behavior was monitored. And nothing happened. Breaking the diet did not cause increases in autistic behaviors. But people complained that the study size was small (valid complaint, but not a killer) and that the kids in the study didn’t have GI disease (again, not a killer for the study. The GF/CF diet is marketed as a very general autism “therapy”).

But I wrote the previous article knowing that another study had just come out. A study focused on kids with “severe maladaptive behavior” and a sign of the so-called “leaky gut” syndrome. Gluten and casein supplementation does not increase symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorder.

The abstract is below. The researchers looked at 74 kids with “increased urinary I-FABP” I-FABP is intestinal fatty acid binding protein. And this is considered a “marker of gut wall integrity“. The study team found this marker elevated in a number of their subjects from a previous study.

While it isn’t clear in the abstract, the autistics in the study were on a GF/CF diet

To our knowledge, our study is the first randomised controlled trial to study the behavioural effects of adding gluten and casein to the diets of children with ASD who were already on a GFCF diet.

So, they had autistic kids who were on the GF/CF diet and they gave some of them gluten and casein snacks and the others GF/CF snacks. For a week. And they looked at the changes in behavior.

Both groups–those given gluten and casein and those who weren’t–saw improvements on measures of behavior. But there was no difference between the two groups on the measures of behavior.

There was no regression. No children made more autistic by gluten and casein.

In other words, no indication that the diet was doing these kids any good.

Here’s the abstract.

A gluten- and casein-free diet is often given to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We aimed to determine the effect of gluten and casein supplementation on maladaptive behaviour, gastrointestinal symptom severity and intestinal fatty acids binding protein (I-FABP) excretion in children with ASD.

A randomised, controlled, double-blind trial was performed on 74 children with ASD with severe maladaptive behaviour and increased urinary I-FABP. Subjects were randomised to receive gluten-casein or a placebo for seven days. We evaluated maladaptive behaviour before and after supplementation, using I-FABP excretion, the approach withdrawal problem composite subtest of the Pervasive Developmental Disorder Behavior Inventory and the Gastrointestinal Symptom Severity Index.

The mean approach withdrawal problem composite score was significantly higher before supplementation than after, both in the placebo and in the gluten-casein group. However, the mean difference was not significant and may have been caused by additional therapy. There was no significant difference in gastrointestinal symptoms and urinary I-FABP excretion.

Administrating gluten-casein to children with ASD for one week did not increase maladaptive behaviour, gastrointestinal symptom severity or urinary I-FABP excretion. The effect of prolonged administration or other mechanisms of enterocyte damage in ASD should be explored.

©2015 Foundation Acta Paediatrica. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Autism spectrum disorder; Casein-free diet; Gluten-free; Intestinal fatty acids binding protein; Maladaptive behaviour

There are a lot of limitations with this study, and the authors do discuss them. But, frankly, if the GF/CF diet were as good as people claim, this study would have shown at least some benefit.

By Matt Carey

Gluten Free/Casein Free diet and autism studied…and no sign of a benefit

9 Sep

Perhaps one of the more common alternative medical approach to treating autism is the gluten free/casein free diet. And alternative means–not demonstrated to be beneficial and, very often, not even well founded on sound reasoning. And by common, it appears that about 17% of parents have opted for some form of special diet, so GF/CF in particular is likely less than that.

The GF/CF diet (as it is often known) was first proposed based on the “opiod excess” theory and the “leaky gut” theory. Neither theory has shown itself to be valid.

A previous review found that “Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support instituting a gluten-free diet as a treatment for autism.” The clinical trial just published appears to be based on a study presented at IMFAR a few years ago.

The study was fairly simple–they put children on a GF/CF diet. They then gave the children snacks. Some contained gluten and/or casein. Some did not. The parents didn’t know which snacks were which. The behavior of the children was recorded and correlated against the inclusion of gluten or casein. And no benefit was observed. Here’s the study:

The Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diet: A Double-Blind Challenge Trial in Children with Autism.

and abstract:

To obtain information on the safety and efficacy of the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet, we placed 14 children with autism, age 3-5 years, on the diet for 4-6 weeks and then conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled challenge study for 12 weeks while continuing the diet, with a 12-week follow-up. Dietary challenges were delivered via weekly snacks that contained gluten, casein, gluten and casein, or placebo. With nutritional counseling, the diet was safe and well-tolerated. However, dietary challenges did not have statistically significant effects on measures of physiologic functioning, behavior problems, or autism symptoms. Although these findings must be interpreted with caution because of the small sample size, the study does not provide evidence to support general use of the GFCF diet

The study group is small, so it is possible they missed some benefit. But if the parent survey often quoted were correct and 69% of children showed a benefit, this study should have picked that up.

There are, of course, people who are sensitive to various foods. People both autistic and not. So some fraction of the population will benefit from elimination diets. But the idea that many promote of elimination diets as the first thing to try, no matter what (and there are people who do), is flawed at best.

By Matt Carey

New study on inflammatory bowel disease and autism: Prevalence of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Among Patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

12 Aug

People with developmental disabilities often have additional medical issues at rates higher than the general population. For example, heart problems are more common in the Down Syndrome population and Timothy Syndrome. Hip dislocation is common among those in the Fragile X community. Mental health conditions and neurological disorders are very common in autistics (but somehow those are rarely mentioned in discussions of autism and comorbidities).

When it comes to autism parents online, perhaps the most talked about autism comorbidity is gastrointestinal disease. And, in specific, inflammatory bowel disease. This is a lasting legacy of Andrew Wakefield’s attempt to link the MMR vaccine and autism (an effort which set back work on autism and GI disease by a decade or more–see Blame Wakefield For Missed Autism-Gut Connection).

Mr. Wakefield’s assertion was that the MMR vaccine leads to a unique form of IBD (he dubbed it autistic enterocolitis, a condition which doesn’t appear to exist) and this somehow leads to autism. The model also asserts that autism rates have climbed with the introduction of the MMR in the UK (an argument that fails when when considers when the MMR was introduced in the U.S., but I digress). Given the Wakefield model, including the claim that the MMR has played a major role in the “autism epidemic”, we would expect a large fraction of autistics should have IBD.

With apologies to autistics with IBD for taking so long on this introduction–this all begs the question of what is the prevalence of IBD in the autistic population? Well, a recent study discusses this:

Prevalence of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Among Patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Before we get to the prevalence let’s consider the important points. First–IBD does exist in autistics. Given communication issues and sensory issues, any medical condition is serious in the autistic population. Second–IBD is more prevalent in the autistic population. What this may say about the biology of autistics and the developmental trajectory is not discussed in the abstract of this study.

Finally let’s ask how big is the prevalence of IBD in the autistic population? The study looked at two sample populations. In one population 7 out of 2728 (0.26%) autistics had IBD. For another, 16 of 7201 (0.22%). Just because the prevalence is small doesn’t mean this isn’t an important issue for the autism communities. But, let’s face it, the claims of high and rising IBD prevalence in the autism community–the claims by Mr. Wakefield to support his attack on the MMR vaccine–are just not true. And, yes, this also means that people who think that all or most autistic kids should be treated for IBD are also not doing a service. Yes, treat people with IBD. But no, don’t assume autism = person with IBD.

The fact that IBD is not that common in autistics is not really that new. I recall the press conference for the MMR/autism study by Hornig et al.. One thing that slowed the study was the fact that there weren’t that many autistic kids whose symptoms really indicated the need for a colonoscopy. Contrary to some practitioners who seem to believe that all autistics should be ‘scoped.

Here’s the abstract from the study:

The objective of this study was to measure the prevalence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) among patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which has not been well described previously.

The rates of IBD among patients with and without ASD were measured in 4 study populations with distinct modes of ascertainment: a health care benefits company, 2 pediatric tertiary care centers, and a national ASD repository. The rates of IBD (established through International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification [ICD-9-CM] codes) were compared with respective controls and combined using a Stouffer meta-analysis. Clinical charts were also reviewed for IBD among patients with ICD-9-CM codes for both IBD and ASD at one of the pediatric tertiary care centers. This expert-verified rate was compared with the rate in the repository study population (where IBD diagnoses were established by expert review) and in nationally reported rates for pediatric IBD.

In all of case-control study populations, the rates of IBD-related ICD-9-CM codes for patients with ASD were significantly higher than that of their respective controls (Stouffer meta-analysis, P < 0.001). Expert-verified rates of IBD among patients with ASD were 7 of 2728 patients in one study population and 16 of 7201 in a second study population. The age-adjusted prevalence of IBD among patients with ASD was higher than their respective controls and nationally reported rates of pediatric IBD.

Across each population with different kinds of ascertainment, there was a consistent and statistically significant increased prevalance of IBD in patients with ASD than their respective controls and nationally reported rates for pediatric IBD.

By Matt Carey

Kaiser Permanente starts the Autism Family Biobank Study

10 Aug

Kaiser Permanente has a long history of autism research. They’ve performed a number of epidemiology studies, including many on environmental risk factors and also the recent study on The health status of adults on the autism spectrum. They have recently embarked on a large study, the Kaiser Permanente Autism Family Biobank Study.

Sign up online
Study Flyer

You can also find picture books (social stories) for the sample donation process on the Autism Family Biobank website.

From the FAQ for the study, What is the KP Autism Family Biobank?

The KP Autism Family Biobank is a study of Kaiser Permanente Northern California children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their biological parents. The
study seeks to enroll 5,000 affected children plus their parents (for a total of 15,000 participants) to create a collection of genetic material and information for future research. Dr. Lisa Croen is the principal investigator of the study.

Autism genetics has turned out to be a very complex question. There’s no single “autism gene” but autism clearly has a large genetic component.

What does that mean in practical terms? We need a lot of data to understand the question of autism genetics. And that’s a big piece of what this study will do: bring a lot of data to bear. And not just genetic data. This is a key part of this study and can’t be stressed enough. Kaiser provides healthcare. They have electronic records on their patients. And these patients are the pool from which they will draw their study subjects.

Or to put it simply–they will be able to not only say, “these genes are associated with autism” but “these genes are associated with autism and low verbal skills, while these other genes are associated with autism and regression.” (to give a hypothetical example).

To do this they need a lot of people to participate. They are going to get 5000 autistic kids involved. And they won’t stop there: they will also include parents. That makes 15,000 participants. Not all genes are inherited. With the parents involved, Kaiser can can see if genes associated with autism are inherited or not.

Now many parents will ask (and it’s a valid question), “OK, what will this do for my kid?” It takes time (not a lot, but some) to participate and lots of kids don’t like doctor visits. But consider this: genetics helps people understand biology. With a better understanding of biology, one can make progress towards treatments. There’s a reason why some of the treatments proposed for autism came from research in Fragile-X. People have spent a lot of time studying this genetic condition and that focus has led to proposed treatments.

Or to put the short version of the message out–this isn’t just another genetics study. It’s bigger (15,000 people!) and brings a lot of value with the clinical data that Kaiser has. There’s a chance to have a big impact to better the lives of autistics. If you are a Kaiser member in the study area, please consider participating.

Links and recent news:

Sign up online
First KP Members Join Autism Family Biobank
Kaiser to look for autism’s causes in large-scale study
Study Flyer

By Matt Carey

Disclosure: I serve on a community advisory board for Kaiser. It is a volunteer position (I.e. I get no pay) and will not benefit from this study any more than anyone else in the autism community. And the decision to conduct this study was made before I became involved with Kaiser.

Autistic kids are more likely to be hospitalized–and that includes for vaccine preventable diseases

15 Jul

There’s a lot of talk about comorbid conditions and autism. Sadly that conversation is often used to suggest that vaccines cause autism. As in, “look at how much GI disease there is in autism. Must be caused by vaccines!”

And because of that discussion, probably most of the people drawn to read this article will be because I highlighted vaccines in the title. So let’s get that out of the way first. A group of researchers looked at what leads to hospitalization of autistic kids. In specific, they looked at “Ambulatory care sensitive conditions” which are defined as: (ACSCs) are conditions for which appropriate outpatient care prevents or reduces the need for hospitalization. The study was presented at IMFAR and is titled Ambulatory Care Sensitive Hospitalizations Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

What did they find for vaccine preventable diseases? Autistic kids are 3 times more likely to be hospitalized for vaccine preventable diseases than are kids with no chronic conditions.


Three times more often.

For diseases that can be easily prevented with vaccines.

But sadly some of the most vocal opponents to vaccines are autism parents. All due to the misinformation that claims that autism is caused by vaccines. And the result is that autistic kids suffer from preventable diseases.

Not only do these parents contribute to the misinformation campaign against vaccines, they also ignore the fact that other conditions are even more common among autistics than, say, GI disease. Not to downplay GI disease. Not at all. From this study, hospitalization from constipation occurred in 1.2% of autistic kids. That’s over 4 times higher than for kids without chronic conditions and that’s a big deal. But what fraction of autistic kids hospitalized for mental health conditions? 23.5%. That’s over 8 times more often than kids without chronic conditions. And nearly 10 times more common than hospitalization from constipation and gastroenteritis combined.

14.5% of autistic kids were hospitalized for epilepsy. Nearly 10 times the value for the general population.

But as a community, autism parents are not talking about mental health conditions and epilepsy much. The most vocal among us have let themselves focus on the (now dead) vaccine debate. And it is hurting us as a community. It is hurting the people we are supposedly working to serve: autistics.

To bring this back from a critique of the harm that vocal minority of the parents cause–

Yes, autistics are more likely to be hospitalized than are the general population. And big issues for us include mental health and epilepsy.

Hospitalization–any hospitalization–is a big deal. Especially in the autistic population. Not too long ago we saw that autistics were more likely to be restrained in the ER. I remember being left overnight in the hospital when I was a kid. No way I could do that with my autistic kid, and I don’t see being left alone as a viable option for many of the autistics (both kids and adults) I know. How do we support autistics (and other disabled people) when hospitalized? From my experiences, I can say “not well”.

And that’s something I hope we can change. I hope enough people read past the vaccine part of this article and take the time to really think about where we are applying our advocacy in the autism communities.

Here’s the table from a paper

Ambulatory Care Sensitive Hospitalizations Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

P. S. Carbone1, P. Young1, G. Stoddard1, J. Wilkes1 and L. Trasande2, (1)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, (2)NYU School of Medicine, New York, NY

Background: “Ambulatory care sensitive conditions” (ACSCs) are conditions for which appropriate outpatient care prevents or reduces the need for hospitalization. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be at risk for hospitalization for ACSCs because of difficulty accessing high quality primary care.
Objectives: The purpose of this study is to describe the prevalence and health care utilization of children with ASD who are hospitalized for ACSCs and compare them with the prevalence and health care utilization for the same conditions in hospitalized children without ASD.

Methods: Using the 2009 Kids Inpatient Database, hospitalizations for an ACSC were examined within three cohorts of children aged 3-20 years: children with ASD, children with chronic conditions without ASD (CC), and children with no chronic conditions (no-CC). In order to compare the prevalence of each ACSC for the three cohorts we separately analyzed discharges with a primary diagnosis ICD-9-CM code that corresponded to each of ACSCs listed in the table. In order to compare inpatient health care utilization for the three cohorts we analyzed total charges (TC) and length of stay (LOS), for each ACSC.

Results: Within the 24,174 in the ASD cohort, we found that the proportion of hospitalizations for an ACSC was 55.9%, compared with 28.2% in the CC cohort and 22.9% in the no-CC cohort (p<0.001). The most prevalent ACSCs among children with ASD were mental health conditions (e.g. anxiety, depression, mood disorder) (23.5%) and epilepsy (14.7%). Children with ASD were more likely to be hospitalized for a mental health condition, epilepsy, constipation, dehydration, underweight and a dental condition compared with the other cohorts (Table). After adjusting for covariates (age, gender, race, median household income, primary payor, hospital variables [size, location region, teaching status, type] and point of origin of admission), we found that children with ASD were nearly ten times more likely to be hospitalized for a mental health condition (OR: 9.72; 95% CI: 8.39-11.26; p <0.001), nearly seven times more likely to be hospitalized for epilepsy (OR: 6.58; 95% CI: 5.95-7.29; p <0.001) and more likely to be hospitalized for constipation, pneumonia, dehydration, vaccine preventable diseases, underweight and nutritional deficiencies, compared with the no-CC cohort. Adjusting for the same covariates we found that children with ASD were twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental health conditions (OR: 2.19; 95% CI: 1.99-2.41; p <0.001), five times more likely to be hospitalized for epilepsy (OR: 4.99; 95% CI: 4.60-5.41; p <0.001), and were significantly more likely to be hospitalized for constipation, dehydration, and underweight compared with the CC cohort. The ASD cohort had higher TC and longer LOS for mental health conditions compared with the other two cohorts.

Conclusions: Outpatient efforts to prevent hospitalizations in children with ASD should focus on mental health care needs and seizure management. Other strategies should include actively managing constipation and dehydration, monitoring nutritional status, and immunizing against vaccine preventable conditions. Understanding the reasons for the higher healthcare utilization among children with ASD hospitalized for mental health conditions should be the subject of further research.

By Matt Carey


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