So what do parents really think causes autism?

12 May

According to the MIND institute, presenting at IMFAR:

The two most common causes of autism cited among all parents was an environmental cause (51%) and/or a genetic cause (51%). Vaccines (22%) were the third most commonly believed etiological factor, followed by 20% of parents who did not know or have a guess as to what may cause autism.

This is an interesting set of results to me. I’m frequently told that the overwhelming majority of parents believe vaccines cause autism. Turns out less than a quarter do.

Also of interest was the following statement:

Vaccines are commonly cited as a cause by parents in all ethnic groups despite a clear lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a relationship between autism and either the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, or thimerosal containing vaccines

Wasn’t that long ago that autism anti-vaxxer supermo Rick Rollens was basically in charge of MIND. How times have changed.

55 Responses to “So what do parents really think causes autism?”

  1. stanley seigler May 12, 2011 at 20:52 #

    God causes autism to punish a-hole parents like me…but He/She screwed up…our daughter is a great teacher and greatest blessing…

    as probably quoted on LBRB before…wife and mother say: “if not for our daughter we would be silly twits.”

    stanley seigler

    ps. believe God has a sense of humor or i would have been hit by a lighting bolt ages ago…

  2. esattezza May 18, 2011 at 23:29 #

    I spoke to the author on this poster and we agree these results may actually be skewed – In my experience, those parents who believe vaccines cause autism are far more likely to be wary of the scientific/medical establishment, and therefore, far less likely to participate in a research study.

  3. Sniffer May 18, 2011 at 23:36 #


    Such is the nature of the beast on this site you need url`s to go along with claims .You need .gov . pharma .or it ain`t got Kudos,won`t count .Just ask Chris .



  4. Sullivan May 19, 2011 at 01:10 #


    this seems odd. Those who believe in the vaccine hypothesis would be more likely to be favorable to Prof. H-P and MIND, in my naive view.

    Did they mention what their participation rate was? If they had a reasonably high participation, this wouldn’t be a factor.

    The abstract doesn’t mention response rate. To me, it sounds like there were none (which is unlikely):

    400 families with a child 2-5 years of age with a confirmed diagnosis of autism or ASD were identified from an ongoing population-based case-control Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study

    and, later:

    After excluding 13 subjects due to missing data or
    duplicate sibling answers, our analysis sample included 387
    parent responses. Ethnic comparisons were made on 334
    responses after excluding multiracial individuals (n=43) and
    African-Americans (n=10).

    Is the author worried that CHARGE itself is biased away from parents who believe in vaccine causation (admittedly a possibility)? This seems odd. CHARGE is based around Sacramento, FEAT central. And MIND has a good name with the vaccine-causation crowd.

  5. Esattezza May 19, 2011 at 02:30 #

    You make a good point about respect for MIND/charge in the community… At least relative to other groups. I’d like to see a similar study done through another group. Unfortunately, if the rates are different, it would be impossible to differentiate between self-selection of responding based on relationship with the group giving the questionnaire and demographic differences based on location…

    I don’t remember the exact response rate for the study in question, but I think it was pretty typical.

  6. Stacey Frith-Smith May 19, 2011 at 12:52 #

    I have several autistic adults in my life, whom I have watched grow up, ranging from my niece to my friend’s son… and I have heard debated the vaccine/mercury question, the casein or wheat sensitivity questions, and more… This leads me to wonder if the fact that many of our children basically are fed from a box or jar, swathed in chemical laden diapers, vaccinated with drugs and chemicals, plopped onto floors where carpets are made of nylon/polypropylene and wood floors coated with glue/varnish and sealers, toys made of plastics for “safety” and coated in cleaners sprayed for “germicidal” properties… sleeping on bedding that has chemicals and fragrance from laundry…is all this “civilization” just a bit much? I used to think that people who restricted their kids’ diet or omitted vaccines or fed home prepared foods were a little “granola”. Now I think it’s the rest of us who are completely insane in our acceptance of these “norms” cited above.

  7. Chris May 19, 2011 at 16:35 #

    Stacey Frith-Smith:

    Now I think it’s the rest of us who are completely insane in our acceptance of these “norms” cited above.

    I think you might want to read a bit more than trying to generalize everything and everyone with your theory. You might start by reading Angie Jackson’s story on page of 23 the latest copy of Vaccine Times.

    Then wander over to your local public library and get the following books:

    The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

    Unstrange Minds by R.R. Grinker (anthropologist and father of a child with autism)

    The Great Influenza by John Barry

    Polio, An American Story by David M. Oshinsky

    The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

    Then come back and tell us how healthy and natural it was in the “good ol’ days.”

  8. passionlessDrone May 19, 2011 at 19:20 #

    Chris –

    Do you think it is possible that Stacey Frith-Smith, who appears to be a first time poster here, might be capable of recognizing that the very real advances in medicine have brought us are tangible, while also acknowledging that in our zeal to protect ourselves by distributing triclosan into every possible material, our abilities may have eclipsed our wisdom?

    Just because the past was a dirty, dangerous place doesn’t necessarily mean that what we’ve done since might not present different challenges. It is such a canard that questioning the effects of a modern lifestyle necessarily equates to elevation of centuries past as a naturalistic garden of eden.

    Your suffocating, self righteous lecturing is excruitaitingly tired. Do you honestly, for a single second, think that Stacey Frith-Smith, or anyone, ever, to whom you’ve grandstanded might have actually taken your condescending advice? I’d make a large bet, that instead, what you have done is convince someone that this is a place where new faces are attacked for their perceived ignorance and told to get smarter before they can participate in discussions. Nice.

    @Stacey Frith-Smith – I think some of your concerns may be valid.

    – pD

  9. Sniffer May 19, 2011 at 20:47 #

    Stacey Frith-Smith

    Your 100% correct .I know hundreds of like minded parents, carer’s, who started life naive .More for certain “we” weren’t born cynics our environments’ and experiences have made us this way.

    Reading the regulars on here they were conceived in the test tube as trolls produce of pharma, through, and through, sadly enough they are all proud Offit.



  10. Chris May 19, 2011 at 21:42 #

    pD, honestly ask yourself if you would rather live now or a century ago.

  11. Science Mom May 19, 2011 at 21:50 #

    Chris, in all fairness, pD did not state that a century ago was better, just that today’s overzealous, germaphobic, overly-processed foods society may not be as beneficial as we believe.

  12. Chris May 19, 2011 at 21:52 #

    Also, I am exceeding tired of people claiming every little advancement in technology is a bad, and have completely painted the past as a happy natural place where everyone was healthy.

    I do not see how pointing a person to the appropriate literature is condescending. I am not trying to insult their intelligence, but trying see that they do not quite understand that it is complicated. Would you rather I just say: “You’re being stupid. Come back when you have some actual evidence.”

    Plus, I am very tired that it always seems in the last ten years that there is a developmental issue with a child the first things to blame are vaccines, or the diet, or that there is such a thing as indoor plumbing. It is annoying. Especially when they try to tie my son’s neonatal seizures to something that did not occur (the most bizarre was some anti-milk guy who backpedaled after being told my son was a newborn and claimed that I actually drank milk before he was born!). Why does it have to be vaccines? What about the diseases? Or genetics? Why does there have to be something to blame?

    And in the end, it really doesn’t matter what the parents believe, it is what the data show.

  13. Chris May 19, 2011 at 21:54 #

    ScienceMom, the thing that irritates me is that why is it assumed that every child lives in a germophobic world and only eats processed food?

  14. Science Mom May 19, 2011 at 22:02 #

    ScienceMom, the thing that irritates me is that why is it assumed that every child lives in a germophobic world and only eats processed food?

    Yes, there is that too. I don’t like it assumed that because I vaccinate, I must live in a chemically-laden, overly-medicated environment. I guess it cuts both ways you know?

  15. McD May 19, 2011 at 22:36 #

    Whatever happened to the fuss over trans fats?

    When my boy was first diagnosed, they were all over the news, so naturally I started looking sideways at some of the foods he was eating. I even sent an email to a baby formula company asking for a breakdown of the fats in their formula. They never answered.

    But there are many sources of transfats in the diet. I still be sure to avoid transfats if possible, not because there is any evidence that they are implicated in autism, but because they are associated with a host of other health problems.

    It seems to me, that to qualify as a potential ’cause’ of autism, the suspect material needs to be capable of attracting the interest of lawyers (that is: can someone be sued). If lawyers smell the money, it doesn’t really matter too much about the science – they just need to ‘build a case’, and manipulating parents and public opinion is easier than conducting research.

    Ironically, some of those GF/CF foods in the supermarket are chocker with transfats.

  16. sharon May 19, 2011 at 22:42 #

    pD (not so passionless today) are you suggesting Autism is a modern phenomenon?

  17. Sniffer May 19, 2011 at 23:00 #

    Dear Mc D

    Your right trans fats kill.While your on the matter look up and take your pick from dehydrocholesterol reductase deficiency(not Wiki its saturated in biased Gov-Pharma data .

    Looking out for me ,looking out for you.



  18. Esattezza May 20, 2011 at 00:25 #

    It’s interesting to watch a number of people, many of whom I typically agree with and respect argue with each other. What i see happening here is:
    1) implied overstatement of the new problems we may have traded for modern life (some of which may be valid, though we don’t know enough to say on many)
    2) perceived condecension in statement citing arguments against this view (I also read this comment as having a bit of a bite to it… Though I interpreted it as exasperation/frustration at hearing the same old argument)
    3) resulting impassioned argument against this condesention, which was taken as being a complete rejection of all ideas in the initial premise, and fear that this may have pushed a newcomer away.
    4) agreement with the first statement, pushing it from the realm of wariness to certainty, complete with poor punctuation and grammar and the pharmacology shill gambit.

    I’m pretty sure most of you can come to an understanding on this topic. I can only hope that Stacey will come back for a fact-based conversation, rather than in-fighting and perceived slights.

  19. Esattezza May 20, 2011 at 00:33 #

    @ science mom. I’m not sure pD is necessarily speaking to whether or not autism is a modern phenomenon. I also would say that some of stacey’s concerns may be valid, not about autism specifically, but about over-processed foods and under-studied chemicals in our environment.

  20. passionlessDrone May 20, 2011 at 01:58 #

    Hello friends –

    @Chris –

    pD, honestly ask yourself if you would rather live now or a century ago

    Implicit in this question is a false dichotomy; that one must accept all of the trappings of modern life as ‘better’, or for that matter, non hazardous. Just because I recognize the great benifit of antibiotics, I do not necessarily have to also be pleased about the evolution of bugs like MRSA. While cesarean sections are sometimes medically indicated, a lot of the time they aren’t, and the association with asthma isn’t going away just because our ability to perform C-sections without reduced risk to the patient, and increased free weekends for the physician has increased over time. I am against children (or anyone) being burned in a fire, but this does not mean that therefore, I must be in favor of coating every infant mattress in flame retardants that we (now) know can interferre with endocrinological functions. There are a thousand similar examples; we can have one without the other, but as I tried to mention before, only if we have the wisdom to temper our actions. As a species, I am largely skeptical that we have that.

    @ScienceMom –

    Chris, in all fairness, pD did not state that a century ago was better, just that today’s overzealous, germaphobic, overly-processed foods society may not be as beneficial as we believe.

    More or less. I’m not even sure that beneficial would be as appropriate as different. The more I read, the more I become convinced that subtle differences add up; and we’ve been piling them on in the past couple of decades. To my mind, this thought process fits nicely with the only surviving plausible mechanism for large scale genetic participation in autism, many genes exherting subtle effects.

    @Sharon –

    pD (not so passionless today) are you suggesting Autism is a modern phenomenon?

    Hehe. I guess I got caught in a bad moment. I would suggest that some autism is a modern phenomena; I definitely believe that some part of our observations of an increase are real. I don’t necessarily believe in the one in ten thousand mark, or the one in thirty eight mark, for that matter; but again coming down to our relative lack of insight into biological functions and the complexity of the human brain, I find it very difficult to believe all of our reckless environmental and cultural engineering has failed to have an effect.

    I’d be happy to discuss in more detail if you’d like.

    @Esattezza –

    Very nicely said and point taken.

    – pD

  21. Chris May 20, 2011 at 05:06 #

    My reaction is also part of it being a very bad day. Are cats autistic? Because we have one that uses clothing, towels and rugs as a litter box. In addition to finding an aromatic shirt, I found evidence of the other one throwing up.

    But I do not think we should dismiss the historical aspects. For one thing, if you dig into the literature you will see references to people who were autistic, like some of the stories of the idiot savants and changelings. Some of these children were abandoned, I read some speculation that the Wild Boy of Aveyron was one of those children. So autism is not a new phenomena.

    Then there are the environmental aspects. Those actually included exposure to chicken pox while pregnant, or a year of starvation.

    Please be specific on what other environmental hazards have been piling on. I know there are the plastic bottles, but how do they compare to the PCBs that were banned in 1979? What about the lead that was removed from both paint and gasoline forty years ago. In the 1970s I could buy ant killer that was arsenic in sugar water, it is no longer available (and that was why I referenced The Poisoner’s Handbook), and about ten years ago several organophosphate pesticides were banned, and some more are being looked at (I learned this from a garden group lecture about pest control). I remember running behind the fogging truck that spewed stuff to kill mosquitoes when my father was stationed in South Carolina. Where in the USA does that still happen?


    I find it very difficult to believe all of our reckless environmental and cultural engineering has failed to have an effect.

    Could you be more specific? Especially by what you mean by “cultural engineering.”

    Well, sewage and water treatment did have a deleterious effect on children’s health. It delayed the exposure of children to polio until after their maternally derived immunity wore off (um, it was in Polio, an American Story).

    Fortunately there has a been a change in antibiotic use, and hopefully people are being educated. They should not do what my sister did and stop taking her prescribed antibiotics once she felt better. Plus she kept them in her purse and took a couple when she felt a bit under the weather. It is not the case of the antibiotics being bad, it was her not following the directions that is a perfect recipe for antibiotic resistance.

    I also hated the flame retardant jammies. It turns out only polyester fabric was treated, and it is because polyester burns fast and hot. But cotton does not. So I made my kids soft cotton jammies, and I also made thick terry coverings for their mattresses. I did have someone tell me that it was dangerous because of flames, I replied we live in a no smoking house and there are no open flames (and we did not have electric baseboards). A good kid science experiment for an older child is to do a fabric flame test.

    By the way, I also used cloth diapers, breastfed until age two, made their baby food and have an organic edible garden (I’m not crunchy in that I don’t buy organic food, the only reason I garden that way is because it is a challenge and safer to use). The most processed food in my house are canned tomato products, cheese, pasta, baking powder, tortilla chips, dried fruit (some done by me from my garden), sausage meat and various condiments. All of those use processes that have been used for hundreds of years. Pickles have been eaten for centuries, with alum as a common ingredient. This is one reason why the “overly processed food” statement irritates me (especially if someone is telling me that the tofu cheese is less processed than real cheese!). If one is going to claim processed food is evil, please be specific to which foods.

    I grew up with a lactose intolerant sister, and have a mildly lactose intolerant daughter. I know more than one person who has celiac (including two who also are lactose intolerant). None of these people are autistic. Yes, I know most of the world cannot drink milk, and there are those with actual food allergies. But I don’t see any real evidence that having a food intolerance or allergy is related to autism.

    All I ask is that we stop using generalities, and be specific on what particular “reckless environmental and cultural engineering” things you are talking about. Oh, and it helps if there is some kind of data involved.

  22. Chris May 20, 2011 at 05:21 #

    Okay, a very long comment just went into the ether.

    Yes, I was having a bad day. Anyone want a large fluffy friendly cat who is a very good mouser? He also likes to pee on clothes, towels and rugs.

    I have become tired of the random generalizations. One that particularly irritates me is “processed food.” Food has been made more edible by processing for centuries, and I am pretty sure that Tofuti cream cheese has had more processing than Philadelphia cream cheese (or the fresh mozzarella I had in my pasta this evening). Though the Tofuti products have been very nice for my sister (who grew up severely lactose intolerant in the 1960s/70s).

    All I ask is that you be specific on the “reckless environmental and cultural engineering” aspects you refer to, and remember that many things have improved. Like no more lead in paint or gasoline, rivers that catch on fire, etc (helps to have grown up in the 1970s when the environmental hazards were very visual).

  23. Chris May 20, 2011 at 05:37 #

    My bad day continues with comments going into ether. Very short third version:

    1) Real fun finding one of my shirts has been marked by a cat.

    2) Be specific on what is overly processed food. Does cheese count?

    3) What environmental hazards are now are worse than lead and PCBs that were legislated away in the 1970s?

    4) Define “cultural engineering.”

  24. sharon May 20, 2011 at 05:51 #

    @pD,that’s OK I think I get where you are coming from. I’m not completely convinced we are, in the past 50 years being exposed to more ‘toxins’ than in the preceding 50. Diet aside. WE dont use lead in paint, we dont have asbestos everywhere,we are more plastic and pesticide aware. We have access to organic baby sun screens, soaps and shampoos. House cleaning products are ‘green’. Information about ante natal health, such as not drinking and smoking are widespread. I wonder if these toxic overload theories are generated and pushed by businesses and professions who have a vested interest, such as the companies selling the organic and green products? Oh no, do I sound like a conspiracy theorist?

    @Esattezza, completely agree.

  25. Chris May 20, 2011 at 06:40 #

    To add to my comment so as not to go into the ether, my bad day included things that are “TMI”… plus, why does my oldest have to tell me the night before he was missing two paint colors for his art class? Then when I go to get them there is no parking, when there is usually lots of parking?

    Ah, Sharon — the not smoking bit. Before my father was diagnosed with mouth cancer by a dentist there was a perpetual haze of blue smoke in our house. Then my father quit smoking, but not my mother, but that reduced the blue haze. Within three years my father forbade any smoking in the house, and the blue haze disappeared, and this was the early 1970s.

    What environmental hazard now exists that is worse than a mother who smokes tobacco?

  26. Sniffer May 20, 2011 at 09:41 #

    Dear Chris,

    Golden rules are, there aint no Golden rules.

    What suits one does not suit another.Obviously your family has a genetic weakaness to tobbacco if it was the tobbacco that caused the cancer.

    I know pensioners hundreds who have smoked thousands of fags during life ,and are still very much kicking about today.


    Toxins werent about ,and you just roll over and hardly defend your stance .Again we see your weak beliefs ,in what you write.

    Avery simple example

    Pure Himalayan Crystal Salt: Is Over 250 Million Years Old. This is by
    far the purest salt available on earth and is absolutely uncontaminated with
    any toxins or pollutants.



  27. sharon May 20, 2011 at 10:02 #

    @ Chris, lets not stop at ciggies. How about cocktail hour? Or ‘mothers little helpers’? Pregnant women were drinking, smoking and popping pills with gay abandon back in the day. It’s a wonder we all dont have two heads by now.

  28. esattezza May 20, 2011 at 16:06 #

    @ Chris

    1) Cat’s are evil, evil creatures (until they curl up on your lap and start purring)

    2) Ha, does cheese count as overly processed food? Are we talking real cheese or those horrendous singles slices that are more oil than anything else and don’t even taste like cheese? No, I understand that some processed foods are still good, nutritious foods. My problem is that many of them are just empty calories: no vitamins, minerals, or fiber, just artificial flavors and loads of added sugar (in whatever form; I don’t think high fructose corn syrup is particularly worse than and other form of sugar, except that it’s unnecessarily everywhere), salt, and other preservatives.

    3) Not saying that there are things in the environment WORSE than what was there 40 years ago, just that we shouldn’t assume that everything there is harmless. Not every toxin is going to cause the same spectrum of problems. Hormones and antibiotics strike me as things that need to be more tightly regulated for the sake of our health and environmental stability.

    4) I’ll leave the cultural engineering thing to someone else.

  29. Chris May 20, 2011 at 16:32 #

    esattezza, I’m talking about real cheese. Like the nice small balls of fresh mozzarella I threw into my pasta, or the really nice soft brie. What comes out after an ancient process of mixing milk with an enzyme, salt, some other microbes and aging. I try not to recognize the existence of the other stuff. Right now I have a hankering for a thin slice of gouda cheese on a thin slice of pumpernickel bread.

    I bet that the Tofuti products my lactose intolerant sister eats are more processed than the dairy products they replace.

    As far as hormones and antibiotics, I agree they should be used better for livestock.

    Sharon, my mother was severely addicted to smoking, and she had her happy pills. It is probably why my pushing-50 sister was born so prematurely (two months early and three pounds!), and her being premature is a best guess as to why she is lactose intolerant. She spent two months in the hospital, and it was quite a trial to find out that she could not drink the formula. But she was lucky in that it was a hospital that was not equipped for the normal treatment of premies: pure oxygen isolettes. It was common for premies to become blinded in those things.

  30. Chris May 20, 2011 at 16:36 #

    Second try, hopefully this won’t go into the ether: cheese is only the stuff made by taking milk, enzymes, salt and microbes, mixing according to ways found centuries ago. That other stuff is not cheese.

    Sharon, my sister was born two months early possibly due to my mother’s heavy smoking.

    • Sullivan May 20, 2011 at 18:00 #


      I don’t know why so many of your comments went into spam. Sorry that this may make the conversation rather disjointed.

  31. passionlessDrone May 20, 2011 at 17:29 #

    Hi Chris and Sharon –

    3) What environmental hazards are now are worse than lead and PCBs that were legislated away in the 1970s?


    I’m not completely convinced we are, in the past 50 years being exposed to more ‘toxins’ than in the preceding 50. Diet aside. WE dont use lead in paint, we dont have asbestos everywhere,we are more plastic and pesticide aware.

    Again, I think we run a big risk of bad conclusions if we start by over simplifying; in this instance, the idea that we can call any environmental agent a ‘toxin’ and therfore, assume, that the effects of lead, or asbestos, will be the same as the effects of phtylates, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, as two examples. Different agents have different effects on the body, and as I tried to mention above, we need to stop thinking about ‘better’ or ‘worse’, and start thinking about ‘different’.

    Clarifying why I think this is the case is going to turn this into a dense, dense post, but details matter, so here we go.

    While the load of PCBs or lead has decreased, the exact opposite has occurred in terms of a variety of materials used as flame retardants (PBDEs), which have different effects amongst themselves depending on subtle molecular differences; structually these chemicals are very closely related to the banned PCBs, but unlike PCBs, production hasn’t been banned. By way of example, we could look to:

    Para- and Ortho-Substitutions Are Key Determinants of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether Activity toward Ryanodine Receptors and Neurotoxicity

    Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are widely used flame retardants that bioaccumulate in human tissues. Their neurotoxicity involves dysregulation of calcium ion (Ca2+) signaling; however, specific mechanisms have yet to be defined.

    That’s important because properly regulating calcium concentrations is critical towards neuronal function and development; i.e., Calcium signaling and the development of specific neuronal connections, and we have bunches of studies implicating calcium regulation in the autism population.

    Altered calcium homeostasis in autism-spectrum disorders: evidence from biochemical and genetic studies of the mitochondrial aspartate/glutamate carrier AGC1
    Developmentally regulated Ca2+-dependent activator protein for secretion 2 (CAPS2) is involved in BDNF secretion and is associated with autism susceptibility
    The role of calcium-dependent gene expression in autism spectrum disorders: lessons from MeCP2, Ube3a and beyond
    Calcium channelopathies in inherited neurological disorders: relevance to drug screening for acquired channel disorders
    Structural and functional deficits in a neuronal calcium sensor-1 mutant identified in a case of autistic spectrum disorder

    (there are lots more).

    While poking around for this section, I ran into Prenatal exposure to PBDEs and neurodevelopment, a longitudinal study that measured pdbe levels in cord blood at birth, and then performed testing on the children between 12 – 48 months and 72 months.

    Median cord blood concentrations of PBDE congeners 47, 99, and 100 were 11.2, 3.2, and 1.4 ng/g lipid, respectively. After adjustment for potential confounders, children with higher concentrations of BDEs 47, 99, or 100 scored lower on tests of mental and physical development at 12-48 and 72 months. Associations were significant for 12-month Psychomotor Development Index (BDE-47), 24-month Mental Development Index (MDI) (BDE-47, 99, and 100), 36-month MDI (BDE-100), 48-month full-scale and verbal IQ (BDE-47, 99, and 100) and performance IQ (BDE-100), and 72-month performance IQ (BDE-100).

    No one is disputing that PDBE levels have been rising in the past few decades. No one. We have experimental evidence detailing mechanisms by which they can interferre with calcium homeostatis, modify neuronal formation, and are neurotoxic due to increased excitablity. We have a wealth of data implicating altered calcium homeostasis in autism and at least one longitudinal study that found that blood cord levels of PDBEs correlated to poorer cognitive outcomes in children up to six years later.

    The fact that PCBs and lead have been banned do absolutely nothing to change a single one of these findings. Not all ‘toxins’ are the same, and banning PCBs and lead was a good idea, but this is quite, quite different than the idea that our infants aren’t swimming in an ocean of chemicals completely unencountered by every single generation of infants in human history.

    This is a tiny slice of the data for one type of sythentic chemical, and part of the reason that I suspect that Stacey Frith-Smith may have valid concerns. The next time you feel the urge to implicity or explicity tell someone to ‘Stop being stupid’ and suggest a trip the library, you might consider doing some reading yourself first.

    We haven’t discussed other classifications of ubiquitous chemicals and/or endocrine disrupters.

    4) Define cultural engineering.


    Well, for starters, we can look to the voluminous evidence of the effect of advanced paternal and maternal age on the risk of autism diagnosis.

    Advanced parental age and the risk of autism spectrum disorder
    Maternal and paternal age and risk of autism spectrum disorders.
    Advancing paternal age and autism [isreael]
    Advancing paternal age and bipolar disorder [Sweden]
    Advanced parental age at birth is associated with poorer social functioning in adolescent males: shedding light on a core symptom of schizophrenia and autism
    Brief report: parental age and the sex ratio in autism

    No one disagrees that on the whole, in the developed world, parents have been getting older and older. I’ve seen claims that increased parental age can account for up to 10% of our current observed increases in autism, for example, here, where Stephen Novella blogged on a series of studies by Bearman. Other studies found a less robust effect in terms of percentage of observed increase, but while we can dance around the specific values, the difficult to overcome evidence of participation, as well as the narrative friendly mechanism, accumulated mutations in gametes, has caused the most ‘skeptics’ to grudgingly admit that ‘some’ of the observed increase in autism is real, just that ‘the rest’, regardless of what value that happens to be at the time, is diagnostically driven.

    The recent events at IMFAR provide tantalizing evidence of an even more widespread problem. I was waiting for Sullivan to post something on it (Sullivan?!?), but here’s a link and some text on it:

    Fever During Pregnancy, Diabetes and Obesity May Raise Autism Risk

    It was reported that several conditions during preganancy were associated with increased risk of autism, including fever, hypetension, type II diabetes, and obesity. The common thread among these is activation of the maternal immune system, an state of inflammation.

    “These results add to a growing body of evidence that maternally mediated inflammation might be part of the mechanistic pathway leading to autism,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

    These findings are clever because they addressed the question by several avenues, biomarkers indicative of inflammation (tnf-alpha), and conditions known to be either associated with a systemic increase in inflammation (obesity / diabetes / hpyertension), or a sudden increase in inflammation (fever). Even more, these findings are completely in line with a long list of animal studies that tell us the same thing; an activated immune system in the mother during pregnancy confers behavioral and physiological changes in the offspring with relevance to autism. While we can quibble about possible failings in one particular study, unless all of these studies are wrong in the same way, as well as the animal studies that are their ancestors, this is bad news for the theory of a static, or near static rate of autism, because as a rule, we’ve been getting fatter, more of us have type II diabetes, and more of us suffer from hypertension now than in decades past. I don’t know if this is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than a century ago, but it is, without a doubt, ‘different’.

    To toot my own horn a bit, I’d take this opportunity to point out that I blogged about this possibility over a year ago in Intriguing Findings Maternal Obesity, Inflammation, and Consequent Priming of Microglia, Immune Alterations, and Spatial Processing in Offspring (!). [Great study that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning.]

    Other examples of cultural engineering that strike me as questionable I’d go into if I had the time, but would go into later if you’d like would include folate supplementation during pregnancy, the backflip of the omega-3/omega-6 ratio in our diets, and widespread decreases in vitamin D across the population.

    Longest post ever? Maybe!


    – pD

  32. esattezza May 20, 2011 at 18:18 #


    That was the best summary of the PBDE data I’ve seen in a while. I think there’s still more to be learned, but this is one area worth researching for sure. And I’m glad you also pointed out that we shouldn’t be painting with such a wide brush when talking about the effects of toxins.

    To the cultural engineering stuff: I’m with you on the advanced maternal and paternal age stuff. I’d also throw in assortative mating and possibly fertility treatments (if not directly, at least in that it lends to multiple births, which is a risk factor).

    About the maternal fever stuff: that talk at IMFAR was terrible. 1) the fever was self-reported years after the fact; the chance of getting the correct trimester there is in question, and there was significance only in the 3rd trimester. 2)The speaker had no way of knowing whether the risk was actually a result of fever, of medications taken for fever, or of the infection that presumably caused the fever.

  33. esattezza May 20, 2011 at 18:19 #

    @ Chris, regarding an old comment that came out of the ether: yes, I’m pretty sure cats are autistic. lol

  34. daedalus2u May 20, 2011 at 18:26 #

    There are reports that maternal smoking decreases autism.

    But that was quite a small study. However, smoking does reduce the incidence of neural tube defects, which valproate and thalidomide both increase.

    Valproate and thalidomide both increase the incidence of autism, so there might be a slight protective effect of smoking on autism. Smoking in pregnancy is not something I would suggest doing.

  35. Chris May 20, 2011 at 20:25 #

    I’m not sure what cultural engineering is (since I am just an engineer), but as I noted in a released comment about my sister’s use of antibiotics: it is not the technology, but how you use it. There does not seem to be much other than social changes that are increasing parental ages, but that has not been purposely “engineered.” (googling for the term makes it even more murky)

    I am also not convinced that the flame retardant is as ubiquitous or as damaging as lead. In that lead due to gasoline was all over the environment, and the retardant is on specific items. Do you have a study that shows what the relative risks are? Because the comments on the study are very interesting. From PMID 21465738:

    Changes in IQ scores are not very meaningful unless they are put directly into context with the scoring ranges in the test design; Herbstman et al. did not provide much information as to the scores that were actually produced, though they implied that those from mothers with higher PBDE levels were somehow impaired when they may well have been normal.

    As far as maternal fever goes, well some can be prevented by making sure the mother is caught up on her influenza and Tdap vaccines. 😉 And, yeah, it would be difficult to come to a conclusion when there are so many confounding factors.

    By the way, I never called anyone stupid. I was asking if that is what you would rather I do. I will continue to dislike blanket generalities and I usually think referencing a book is much easier than explaining all of their content. Perhaps I will just ask someone to be specific what environmental toxin is increasing, what the relative risks are and to provide cites. Also, I want folks to be specific on what problems are with diet. Please no comments like “it is the sugar!”, when even fruit is full of evil fructose.

    On a side note on how things can be complicated, and sometimes that there can be a simple solution I listened to a fascinating podcast on hookworm and the aftermath of the Civil War. The professor is an engaging story teller:

  36. passionlessDrone May 20, 2011 at 21:52 #

    Hi Chris –

    I’m not sure what cultural engineering is (since I am just an engineer), but as I noted in a released comment about my sister’s use of antibiotics: it is not the technology, but how you use it.

    OK. I have no problems changing syntax, it doesn’t really dilute my argument. What about ‘cultural changes’?

    I am also not convinced that the flame retardant is as ubiquitous or as damaging as lead. In that lead due to gasoline was all over the environment, and the retardant is on specific items.

    Every person is accumulating it. It might start off on specific items, but what we should worry about is where is it ending up?. Even worse, infants and children have higher concentrations than adults:

    Higher accumulation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in infants than in adults

    Serum polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) levels are higher in children (2-5 years of age) than in infants and adults

    Please note that these studies are from 2008 and 2009, respectively, we’ve just started evaluating for these compounds.

    Here’s another study with the same findings from Taiwaiin:

    Infants ingesting high breast milk levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers may have negative impact on their neurodevelopment

    And, yeah, it would be difficult to come to a conclusion when there are so many confounding factors.

    Well, we obviously can’t do a prospective study involving inducing fever during pregnancy. But that doesn’t do anything to address the biomarker / tnf-alpha study, which suffers from no such confounds. And it also doesn’t do anything to the multitudes of animal studies where we can act prospectively. And it also doesn’t do anything about the findings for obesity, or type II diabetes, which I think we both can agree have increased aggressively in the past decades.

    Perhaps I will just ask someone to be specific what environmental toxin is increasing, what the relative risks are and to provide cites.

    Fair enough, but the same question would pose similar problems to our knowledge of genetics in the autism population; except for having a Y chromosome, or things like Fragile-X we can only explain a tiny fraction of autism through genetics.

    On a side note on how things can be complicated, and sometimes that there can be a simple solution I listened to a fascinating podcast on hookworm and the aftermath of the Civil War.

    Not more hookworms! Not again!

    @Esattezza: Agree re: selective mating. IVF data is mixed AFAICT, recent Danish study showed effects before adjustments, an Isreali study that hit the web doesn’t seem to be in pubmed. Nice additions to the list, though.

    – pD

  37. sharon May 21, 2011 at 00:13 #

    Wow pD thanks for so much food for thought. I now clearly understand your point regards not generalizing when it comes to environmental factors.

    So the obvious question then has to be, does for example a fever during pregnancy potentially cause ASD alone, or is it the trigger that switched on an underlying genetic suceptibility for Autism?

  38. Kristine May 22, 2011 at 03:42 #

    No one knows. The medical community has failed now we know it’s not the mother’s fault or immunizations. Can’t believe they got away for years blaming mom. The next three causes they come up with I won’t believe. They lost all my respect.

    I think it’s genetics. Too many siblings on the spectrum. As to why the sudden percentage increase, why not?

    The brain size theory is interesting and the one small study trying to predict which sibs will test on the spectrum in babyhood from scans alone is exciting stuff. Very accurate.

  39. Chris May 22, 2011 at 05:20 #


    The medical community has failed now we know it’s not the mother’s fault or immunizations.

    I don’t think Bettelheim was really part of the medical community, though unfortunately several real child development psychologists believed him (this was when the DSM considered homosexuality a psychotic disorder). While looking up Bettelheim, I noticed that there was a film that looks interesting: Refierator Mothers.

    Those blaming vaccines for autism were not the mainstream medical community. The medical community’s failure was not countering folks like Wakefield, Yazbak, Fisher, Buttram, the Geiers and others quickly and effectively.

  40. sharon May 22, 2011 at 07:58 #

    I too tend to come down on the side of genetics possibly in combination with other biological factors.

    I found the study presented by Dr Eric Courchesne at IMfAR on the overproduction then over-pruning of neurons in young children interesting.

  41. Esattezza May 22, 2011 at 16:11 #

    @Sharon- Eric’s talk was fascinating, but I really want to know more about how similar the people whose brains he studied were. Autism can present so differently, it surprised me that he found neurological defects that were so similar.

  42. sharon May 23, 2011 at 04:47 #

    Yes, Esattezza that’s what I wonder. I also wonder if the ‘subjects’ represented both early ASD and regressive Autism. I’m am finding it really hard to locate any info about the differences, it any, between these two groups.

  43. McD May 24, 2011 at 20:44 #

    Sharon, you may be interested in the work of Judith Miles and her colleagues who are looking into subgroups of autism. Here is the abstract from one of their key documents:

    Essential Versus Complex Autism: Definition of Fundamental Prognostic Subtypes
    J.H. Miles, T.N. Takahashi, S. Bagby, P.K. Sahota, D.F. Vaslow, C.H. Wang, R.E. Hillman, and J.E. Farmer
    Heterogeneity within the autism diagnosis obscures the genetic basis of the disorder and impedes our ability to develop effective treatments. We found that by using two readily available tests, autism can be divided into two subgroups, ‘‘essential autism’’ and ‘‘complex autism,’’ with different outcomes and recurrence risks. Complex autism consists of individuals in whom there is evidence of some abnormality of early morphogenesis, manifested by either significant dysmorphology or microcephaly. The remainder have ‘‘essential autism.’’ From 1995 to 2001, 260 individuals who met DSM-IV criteria for autistic disorder were examined. Five percent (13/260) were microcephalic and 16% (41/260) had significant physical anomalies. Individually, each trait predicted a poorer outcome. Together they define the ‘‘complex autism’’ subgroup, comprising 20% (46/233) of the total autism population. Individuals with complex autism have lower IQs (P=0.006), more seizures (P=0.0008), more abnormal EEGs (46% vs. 30%), more brain abnormalities byMRI(28% vs. 13%). Everyone with an identifiable syndrome was in the complex group. Essential autism defines the
    more heritable group with higher sib recurrence (4% vs. 0%), more relatives with autism (20% vs. 9%),and higher male to female ratio (6.5:1 vs. 3.2:1). Their outcome was better with higher IQs (P=0.02) and fewer seizures (P=0.0008). They were more apt to develop autism with a regressive
    onset (43% vs. 23%, P=0.02). Analysis of the features predictive of poor outcome (IQ<55, functionally non-verbal) showed that microcephaly was 100% specific but only 14% sensitive; the presence of physical anomalies was 86% specific and 34% sensitive. The two tests combined yielded 87% specificity, 47% sensitivity, and an odds ratio of 4.8:1 for poor outcome. Separating essential from complex autism should be the first diagnostic step for children with autism spectrum disorders
    as it allows better prognostication and counseling. Definition of more homogeneous populations should increase power of research analyses.

    The entire PDF is here (free):

    Click to access EssentialvsComplex.pdf

    and other links to their research are here:

    It is fascinating, the main group, with essential autism are the apparently 'genetic' group, while there were 20% who appeared to have suffered some pre-natal insult (or have some some less heritable genetic problem – the complex group includes the ASD kids with the known genetic syndromes as well as environmental insults). There was regressive autism in both groups, but more so in the essential group. Some of their other research links complex autism to poorer outcomes.

    But – some kids in the complex group will have been more vulnerable to whatever pre-natal factor happened, because they were genetically vulnerable in the first place. So the finding of more relatives with autism in the complex group than in the general population (9%) is to be expected. I sort of suspect that my severely autistic son would have been an Aspie like the rest of us but for something happening pre-natally. So much went wrong while I was pregnant.

    The group did a presentation at IMFAR too I see:

  44. sharon May 25, 2011 at 05:32 #

    McD thanks so much for that. This is the sort of study I find particularly interesting.
    Surely someone, somewhere has looked at the two sub groups of born ASD vs regressive? I know it’s a simplistic division but it seems to me that this difference must account for an important, yet unkown, insight into ASD.

  45. Jessica Doerfler April 11, 2012 at 22:59 #

    I blame God for my autism because he gave me autism.

  46. Look At This July 23, 2013 at 04:40 #

    With thanks! It a outstanding internet site!

  47. Jessica Ann Doerfler October 3, 2014 at 02:23 #

    I think God causes autism.

    • Chris October 3, 2014 at 16:20 #

      Which one?

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) October 3, 2014 at 17:22 #

        Perhaps all autisms?

      • Chris October 3, 2014 at 18:40 #

        Especially the one caused congenital rubella.

  48. mckay September 25, 2015 at 20:04 #

    With the increase use of having one’s child’s cord blood bank and the increase in autism… It makes me wonder if early clamping is having an affect on children who end up on the spectrum. I have 4 children. There is no history of anyone on the spectrum on either side of the family. The only child who I had their cord blood stored of our 4 children is the one (a boy) who I had their cord blood banked. Anyone look into this or do a poll to see how many parents that stored their child’s cord blood also have that child on the spectrum??? People are looking to cord blood stem cells as the answer, but I am wondering if in the process it contributes to the cause?

    • Chris September 25, 2015 at 23:01 #

      Did this practice start in 1994 when autism diagnoses started rise sharply?


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