Autism Is ‘Older’ Than Mercury

18 May

One of the key points that advocates of the ‘autism is mercury poisoning/mercury causes autism’ theory often cite in defence of their theory is that autism wasn’t diagnosed until Mercury started to be used in vaccines. Shortly after it was, they say, autism started to be diagnosed.

Pretty impressive eh? Well, no. Not really. Leaving aside the fact that citing this as evidence is akin to saying that breathing causes ear infections because I never got an ear infection until after I started breathing, there’s very compelling (and fascinating) evidence to indicate that autistics have been with us since the Victorian era (early 1800’s).

In an absorbing post on the Wisconsin Medical Society site, Dr Darold A. Treffert shows how people with ‘symptoms’ close to what we would consider autism today were studied by Dr J. Landon Down in 1887.

In an 1887 book entitled ‘On Some of the Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth’ J. Landon Down, M.D. published ‘The Lettsomian Lectures delivered before the Medical Society of London in 1887 together with other papers.’ It was there he found ‘a convenient place to describe an interesting class of cases for which the term ‘idiots savants’ has been given, and of which a considerable number have come under my observation. This name has been applied to children who, while feeble-minded, exhibit special faculties which are capable of being cultivated to a very great extent.’ He then describes a number of cases of children with the artistic, musical and numerical skills that have so regularly been described in by other observers, including myself, this past 117 years (Treffert, 2000). He also keenly pointed out that ‘extraordinary memory’ was linked with the special abilities in the savant, a finding reported consistently in all of the cases documented in the literature in the many years since that first description. One of his patients, for example, had memorized large portions of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and could repeat them back verbatim.

Leaving aside Dr Landon Down’s awful labelling of ‘idiot savants’ these people sounds autistic to Dr Treffert.

Intriguingly, Dr Landon Down (who is responsible for defining Downs Syndrome) even went so far as to apply a diagnosis of ‘developmental’ disorder in an astonishingly modern take on the issue.

In these children the early months of childhood were uneventful and “intelligence dawned in the accustomed way.” But later, around age six or so, ” a change took place in that the child’s look had lost its wonted brightness; it took less notice of those around it; many of its movements became rhythmical and automatic.” There was “cessation of increasing intelligence”, deferred speech and “lessened responsiveness to all the endearments of its friends.” Dr. Down writes “I have had many examples of children who had spoken well and with understanding, but who lost speech at the period of the second dentition, and had also suspension of mental growth.” Dr. Down provides several examples. One was a boy who “attracted no particular attention during the first six years of life” but then “during the period of second dentition” suddenly lost speech. “He heard everything that was said, but never replied to a question.” This child did gradually regain some speech but “afterwards always spoke of himself in the third person.” The other case example was that of two brothers who also “both lost speech at the period of second dentition.”

Dr Treffert theorises that these children were kids who today would be disgnosed with ‘late onset’ autism:

Autistic Disorder, while not named such until 1943, has existed for the same long time as other forms of developmental disorder and mental retardation. It is not a new disorder.

So where does this leave the ‘mercury causes autism because they happened at the same time’ arguement? I’d urge them to read the list of symptoms Dr Landon Down categorised in 1887:

world of their own,” talking in the “third person,” being in a “dreamland,””echolalia,””self-contained and self-absorbed,” “automatic and rhythmical movements,” a countenance and “repose of brightness and intelligence,” lack of “physical features” of retardation, “no response in words,”

None of this is proof in the scientific sense but to me its simply more evidence that autism has been around much longer than people think and that the ‘mercury/autism’ link is simply wrong. For your amusement, I post a link to a story about a parent-led group similar in nature to the ‘mercury/autism’ group who belive that plastic cups cause autism. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.

16 Responses to “Autism Is ‘Older’ Than Mercury”

  1. Helen May 18, 2005 at 23:41 #

    Annoying some of these parents are really willing to blame everything aren’t they. Even with no proof.

    Even those talking about a cure, when there is no cause found yet!

    GRRR, these parents bug me!

  2. Kathleen May 20, 2005 at 12:38 #

    Fascinating article! Thanks for sharing it. Another one along the same lines is “Autistic Disorder in Nineteenth-century London: Three Case Reports,” by Mitzi Waltz and Paul Shattock(Autism, Vol. 8, No. 1, 7-20 (2004)). A full-text .pdf of the article is available at no charge at

  3. Kev May 21, 2005 at 12:59 #

    Thanks for that link Kathleen, more very interesting stuff there.

  4. Mabus May 26, 2005 at 13:12 #

    Just to play devil’s advocate–is it possible that these children were exposed to mercury in some other way? (Sorry if my question is ignorant…I am investigating an ad in USA Today about the mercury-autism link. I have recently begun to suspect that I may have Asperger’s, though I have not been diagnosed.)

  5. Kev May 26, 2005 at 13:22 #

    Macbus: Its a fair question :o)

    I can’t think how it would happen to be honest. Mercury was used in dental amalgams in very small amounts in the 1800’s and dental hygene was very poor amongst the general population so I don’t think it could be that. It wasn’t used in vaccines until the 1900’s so it couldn’t be that.

    Its theoretically possible that some kind of environmental link existed between these Victorian autistics and mercury (maybe they lived over a Mercury mine) but its again, highly unlikely and purely speculative.

  6. Mabus May 26, 2005 at 21:26 #

    Makes sense to me. The mercury idea had a dubious sound to it, but I wasn’t sure what mercury sources might have been around in the Victorian era. It hasn’t been something I’ve studied extensively.

    On the other hand, if by some chance I discovered that these “anomalous” early autistics had indeed lived near a mercury mine…well, you see how that would change the picture somewhat.

    Thanks for the info.

  7. doug May 28, 2005 at 19:04 #

    There is overwhelming evidence that autism is coming from environmental toxins…remember, there is no such thing as a genetic epidemic…autism is a construct to explain the once unexplainable…chelation recovery has been reported by Dr. Rashid Buttar, who had his once autistic son testify in Congress, fully cured.

  8. Kev May 28, 2005 at 19:16 #

    None of this ‘overwhelming evidence’ mets basic scientific criteria Doug. As for this so-called genetic epidemic, autism is not an epidemic. If you believe otherwise show me where the international declarion is informing us all of this epidemic.

    The word ‘epidemic’ is bandied around by scare-mongers with no actual data to back this ridiculous statement up. The fact is that everything about this ‘epidemic’ is based opn hearsay and tittle-tattle.

    As for chelation – if you want to put your kids through a ‘therapy’ that has injured and killed people then that I suppose is your choice.

    If there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ that autism is coming from environmental toxins (and I don’t disagree that excess mercury is bad but I don’t see any evidence for it *causing* autism) then can you explain to me exactly how these autistics from Victorian Britain happen to be around?

  9. doug May 29, 2005 at 15:26 #

    Keep your head in the sand if you co choose…chelation is safe if done properly, it’s been around for decades…if you don’t think a change from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 166 is not an epidemic, than you are lying to yourself (as well as others).ps go fuck yourself.

  10. Kev May 29, 2005 at 19:05 #

    Tempted to delete your comment Doug but then I thought – what better way to demonstrate someone’s ignorance and immaturity than to let them do it all by themselves? I also can’t help but note that you offer nothing substantive to my points:

    1) Show me the formal declaration of epidemic in relation to autism in any country.

    2) Explain me to me how, if autism is mercury poisoning as you seem to be claiming, that there have been autistics around before mercury was used in any substantive way.

    Whilst you’re researching those points you might also look into:

    3) Why, if mercury poisoning is autism does it mainly seem to affect boys? Can you show me any evidence to show mercury affects boys worse than girls?

    4) If vaccines containing thimerosal are a causative of autism, then why, when thimerosal was removed, did the rates of autism continue as they were rather than fall?

    Finally, show me exactly where the evidence is that worldwide (autism is a worldwide issue after all) that the rate of prevalence is 1 in 166?

    When you can do that you can come back and talk with the grown ups again – there’s a good boy.

  11. dem July 3, 2005 at 07:31 #

    The deadliest drug use in America is related to mercury. My son is a 30 year old autistic who showed his first signs of autism after his first dpt shot. He stopped giggling and smiling, began to projectile vomit his food, and would not let us cuddle him. If I had known that they were putting mercury in the shots, along with what I now know about the history of deadly effects of mercury, I would have told the doctor to go to hell. Unfortunately, there are very few people alive today who remember the deadly use of mercury in infant teething powder in the 40’s and 50’s. 25% of the children who developed “pink disease” died. Read about the use of mercury in baby products in the mid 20th century that resulted in it’s removal from the products at that time at this link –

    – then continue to debunk the deadly effects of mercury, and support the jackasses at the drug companies who knew better, but didn’t give a damm.

  12. Kev July 3, 2005 at 07:52 #

    Are you suggesting Pinks Disease is the saem thing as autism Dem? If so please back up your assertion. If you’re not then why are you brining it up at all?

  13. HN July 25, 2005 at 04:41 #

    I was checking out the medical liturature on mercury and chelation, and came across this article on mercury poisoning with PICTURES… it shows exactly why it is called “Pink Disease”:

  14. Kev July 25, 2005 at 05:16 #

    Nice find HN. I think I’m going to do a little digging on this.

  15. Mitzi August 12, 2005 at 21:26 #

    Hi there–I’m actually the author of that article on autism in Victorian Britain. I’m willing to entertain mercury as a contributing factor in some cases of autism though–and in the Victorian era, it was used quite a lot more and in greater amounts than it is today. Mercury was the active ingredient in calomel, used as a teething powder for babies (which is one of the mercury-containing patent medicines that caused pink disease). Also in antiseptics, cosmetics, etc.–and it occurs naturally in any area that has volcanic action.
    I agree with you that autism has always been with us and is a normal part of the human condition, but I also suspect that there has been a rise in the number of people with autism (not just diagnosis)–ask any teacher or person working in family services. Why? That part I couldn’t tell you. Our research group is interested in organophosphate pesticides though…

  16. Kev August 12, 2005 at 23:06 #

    I think most people are willing to entertain it as a possibility Mitzi but let me give you some perspective to the whole debate.

    There’s a set of people who believe that autism is _only_ mercury poisoning (see They further believe that vaccines are the cause of this mercury poisoning through the thimerosal dosage in (for example) the DTP jab. The evidence they use includes the opinion that autism has only been in exsistence since mercury was used in vaccines. This is based on the specious reasoning that mercury was first used in the 1930’s and Kanner first defined autism in that same time period.

    There have been so many studies that refute a thimerosal/autism causative link and none to support it. My point is not that its not mercury but that its _not mercury in vaccines_ .

    There’s also no scientific evidence to support the idea of a rise in prevelance (as oppose to rise in numbers) which I’m sure you’ll agree is more likely to indicate that the so-called autism ‘epidemic’ is unfounded. I can point you to numerous peer reviewed papers to support that position if you’d like them?

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