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Causations of the Autism Epidemic

Heather St. Clair

English 101 Online

Charlotte Wroolie
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Causations of the Autism Epidemic

Autism is on the rise and genetics alone cannot be the cause behind such an increase in

prevalence. This paper will look at the history of autism, the rise of autism, and the factors that

have contributed to such an exponential rise in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders



Autism is a neurological disorder that usually manifests itself early in the toddler years. It

affects the child’s ability to learn to communicate, interact with others socially, and to participate

in imaginative play. Autism generally inhibits the child’s entire development. (Robledo, 2005) .

Autism is considered a spectrum disorder, which means that the diagnosis covers a wide range of

symptoms and behaviors, intensity, and limitations. Autism can be seen in many varying

degrees in different individuals. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) cover classic autism,

Asperger’s syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS),

and Fragile X Syndrome.(Robledo, 2005).

Behaviors that are commonly seen in individuals with ASD include delayed or unusual

speech patterns, lack of eye contact, obsessive or limited interests.

History of Autism

In 1943 Leo Kanner, a child psychologist, wrote a paper describing 11cases that had been

referred to his clinic. All 11 of the clients had unusual patterns of behavior distinguished by a

self-absorbed detachment from others and repetitive and bizarre behavior. He named this

condition “early infantile autism”.

Kanner described many behaviors but selected a few features as crucial for diagnosis.

The behaviors he chose were a profound lack of emotional contact with other people, intense
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insistence on sameness in their repetitive and often bizarre routines, mutism or marked

abnormality of speech, fascination with and dexterity in manipulating objects, high levels of

visual-spatial skills or rote memory but learning difficulties in other areas, and an attractive,

alert, intelligent appearance. Though he described all of his behaviors he did claim that only the

first two need be present to have the diagnosis of autism.

All of Kanner’s patients with this diagnosis came from well-educated and upper class

families. This led Kanner to believe that autism was caused by mothers who were educated and

busy with work, therefore too busy or withdrawn from their children to give them the proper

amount of attention and love to develop normally. He coined them as “refrigerator moms”,

because he believed they were cold and frigid.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that someone questioned the causation of autism. Dr. Bernard

Rimland, a psychologist and a father to a child with autism, wrote a book that argued for a

biological and neurological cause for autism. In the 1970s Kanner, too, admitted that autism

could not be caused by the mothers.(Strom, 2006) .

Autism Epidemic

In the 1980s autism started to be seen in all walks of life, not just the upper class, yet

autism was still very rare. The prevalence rate was 1 in 10,000. The latest study now shows

autism at a rate of 1 in 91 children. Not only did the 2009 study published in Pediatrics Journal

give that alarming number, it also states that autism is found in 1 out of every 58 boys.

Many claim that the rise in numbers is due to a change in diagnostics. This is true and it

can account for some of the rise. Many individuals who would’ve been classified as having

mental retardation are actually being diagnosed correctly with autism now. Yet a study

published in the Epidemiology Journal in 2009 shows that the change could only account for

25% of the rise.(King, 2009). Another interesting point is that the last time the diagnostics for
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autism was changed was in 1994. If the rise in the cases of autism are because of diagnostic

changes alone then shouldn’t the numbers stop rising?

Autism unfortunately is not the only developmental disorder on the rise. ADHD has

increased by at least 400 percent in the past twenty years. 3.5 million children suffer from it.

Asthma has increased by 300 percent over the same time period. Asthma deaths have increased

by 56 percent and 6 million American kids suffer from asthma. In the same time period we have

seen allergies increase by 400 percent. Approximately 20 percent of all kids have some type of


Add together the cases of autism, ADHD, asthma, and allergies and it comes to 20

million kids. That accounts for almost one-third of all American children.(Bock, 2007)

Genetics alone don’t cause epidemics. Genetics are essentially constant from one

generation to the next. Epidemics occur when genetic vulnerabilities are assaulted by

environmental changes. Genetics can certainly play a part in autism, but in a complex pattern

combined with environment. Many use the analogy of genetics loading the gun, and

environment pulling the trigger.

Environmental Toxins

Air Pollutants

In 2005 the Journal of Health and Practice published a study by Dr. Raymond F. Palmer

that studied the potential link between environmental toxins and the increasing rates of autism.

The study found there was a significant increase in the rates of special education students and

autism rates associated with increases in environmentally released mercury. On average, for

each 1000 lb of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43% increase in the rate of

special education services and a 61% increase in the rate of autism.(Palmer, 2005)
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In 2006 a study was done with 284 children with autism spectrum disorders and 657

controls by Dr. Gayle Windham. All the children were born in 1994 in the San Francisco Bay

area. The researchers used the California Department Developmental Services to identify autism

cases in the area and then linked them to their birth addresses with their birth certificates. They

then looked at the Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) that they had obtained from the EPA dataset.

After examination, Dr. Windham and colleagues found that children with an autism

diagnosis were 50% more likely to have a birth residence in an area with higher levels of some

HAPs. The metals that were found to be most associated with those birth residences were

mercury, cadmium, and nickel. The final study claimed that living in areas with higher ambient

levels of HAPs, particularly metals and chlorinated solvents, during pregnancy or early

childhood, may be associated with a moderately increased risk of autism.(Windham, 2006)

In 2008, Dr. Raymond Palmer followed up his 2005 study with a research paper looking

at the proximity of autism prevalence to point sources of environmental mercury release. The

study used Texas school district data and industrial mercury release data. The study found that

autism incidence decreased by 1 to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution

source. For every 1000 pounds of mercury released by Texas power plants in 1998, there was a

corresponding 3.7 percent increase in autism rates in Texas school districts in 2002. (Palmer,



In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funded a study looking at agricultural

pesticide application and the maternal residence of children with autism spectrum disorders. The

goal of the study was to evaluate the hypothesis that maternal residence near agricultural

pesticide applications during key periods of gestation could be associated with the development

of autism spectrum disorders in children. The findings said that approximately 7% of the autistic
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cases in the study may have been connected to pesticide exposure to their mothers during the 8th

week of fetal development.(Roberts, 2007).

Cleaning Agents

Parents, generally, want the best for their children. One of the ways we take care of them

is by cleaning our homes. We want them to be clean and germ-free to promote the health of our

children. Using the household products that are acceptable by our society is cleaning the germs

but what is it adding to our homes? Following is a list of common chemicals found in household

cleaning products and the dangers they carry.

• Petrochemicals: Petroleum based products that leave dangerous residues. These

chemicals have been linked to cancers, neurological illnesses, and environmental


• Tetrachloroethylene: Also called perchloroethylene and is used as a dry cleaning solvent

and degreaser. It is known to cause skin rashes, headaches, and dizziness.

• Amy acetate: A synthetic grease cutter, used in most furniture polishes. This neurotoxin

is implicated in central nervous system depression.

• Naphthalene: A member of the carcinogenic benzene family which causes allergic skin

reactions and cataracts, alters kidney function, and is extremely toxic to children.

Generally found in deodorizers, carpet cleaners, and toilet deodorizers.

• Methylene chloride: A volatile, colorless liquid with a chloroform-like odor and used in

various industrial processes including paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing,

paint remover manufacturing, and metal cleaning and degreasing. OSHA considers it to

be a potential occupational carcinogen.

• Ammonia: This chemical can irritate the lungs, eyes, and mucus membranes. It is

extremely dangerous when mixed with other chemicals. Ammonia is included as a toxic
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chemical on the EPA’s Community Right-to-Know list. The Food & Drug Agency

(FDA) also regulates the amount of ammonium compounds in food. Ammonia is found

in most window cleaners.

• Chlorine: A bleaching agent in most household bleach. This chemical is extremely

irritating to the lungs, skin, and mucus membranes. It was used as a powerful poison in

World War I. The residue left behind by chlorine has been linked to many cancers

including breast cancer. Studies have also shown a link between chlorine exposure from

pools and the development of asthma in young children.

• Aerosol Sprays: After chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were prohibited because of effects on

the ozone layer, they were replaced with a mixture of volatile hydrocarbons, typically

propane, n-butane, and isobutene, all flammable petrochemicals.(, 2009).

Decrease in Nutrition

Food and nutrition plays a vital role not only in humans’ physical health but also in their

mental health. Though it use to cause speculation, some of this knowledge has become common

place, such as red dye contributing to hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms, or the effect caffeine

has on depression. The following sections will cover a small sampling of how food and

additives can play a part in health- especially in children with autism.

Changes in our Diet

Our diet, as a society, has changed extremely since the 1950s. Protein, calcium,

phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C all showed major decline between 1950 and 1999.

The average piece of chicken has 266 percent more fat than it did in 1971, while it’s protein

content has dropped by a third. On average we consume 450 calories a day from beverages,

nearly twice as many as 30 years ago. That increase alone amounts to an extra 23 pounds a year.
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“We are all aware of the effect of diet upon our physical health,” Dr. Andrew McCulloch

said, “but we are only just beginning to understand how the brain as an organ is influenced by

the nutrients it derives from the foods we eat and how diets have an impact on our mental

health.”(, 2006).

Allergies and Intolerances

Allergies are one of the four epidemics that have risen in the past recent years. Many

parents of children with ASDs claim their children have allergies and intolerances and that they

see a remarkable difference in their child when removing the offenders.

Food reactions include IgE allergies which are the least common type but the most

severe, IgG sensitivities which are much more common and usually less severe, and intolerances

which are not caused by the immune system, but by chemical reactions. Intolerances are also

very common and can cause serious symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of food reactions include gastrointestinal problems, congestion of

the nose, throat, and sinuses, watery, glassy eyes, perspiration or night sweats, ear infections,

dizziness, headaches, skin rashes, coughing, swelling, muscle aches, cognitive problems,

emotional problems, lethargy, insomnia, excess salivation, negative behavioral symptoms, and

more. (Bock, 2007). Many of these symptoms are found in children with autism.

Gluten and Casein

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. It has a sticky, glue-like texture

that helps give wheat products the ability to bake properly. A large percentage of the American

population has a deficiency of DPP4, an enzyme that is needed to break down gluten. (Bock,


Casein is one of the primary proteins in milk and all milk products- and it’s the hardest of

the milk proteins to break down. DPP4 also aids in the breakdown of casein.
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If the DPP4 enzyme fails to do its job, gluten and casein are only partially broken down.

This creates partial proteins, or peptides, that can sometimes mimic the chemical composition of

opiates. These peptides are also very similar to the innate human opiates called endorphins.

These opioid peptides frequently cause feelings of spaciness, and even intoxication, in kids who

don’t have enough of the DPP4 enzyme, and who are therefore intolerant to gluten and casein.

(Bock, 2007).

Another effect of partially digested gluten and casein can cause damage to the process of

methylation. Methylation is absolutely critical for removing toxins from the body.

The most severe type of gluten intolerance is celiac disease. Celiac disease is known to

be present in at least one in every 250 people. A popular theory to why a gluten intolerance is so

common is that wheat was not introduced into the human food supply until relatively late in the

process of human evolution. People didn’t eat wheat until about ten thousand years ago. This

was preceded by at least one million years in which people subsisted on meats, fruits, and

vegetables. This may account for the fact that reactions to meats, fruits, and vegetables are far

less common than reactions to grains.


In addition to different types of foods, many additives found in foods can cause reactions.

Most often additives cause simple intolerances though they can provoke IgE and IgG responses.

These additives are most likely to be found in prepackaged foods. These types of foods were not

as readily accessible thirty years ago as they are now. For example, MSG (monosodium

glutamate) is a very common food additive. MSG is known to be an excitotoxin, which can

damage and kill brain cells in people who are sensitive to it, by overstimulating these cells. It’s

primary ingredient, glutamate, can interfere with dopamine metabolism and MSG is one of the
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most common triggers of migraine headaches. Other additives to avoid include aspartame,

nitrites, nitrates, sulfites, sorbic acid, dyes, and parabens.(Bock, 2007).


Millions of people, often unknowingly, suffer serious problems due to yeast (candida)

overgrowth, known as fungal dysbiosis. It can be caused by overuse of antibiotics or large

consumption amounts of yeast-stimulating products, such as breads, sugar, and fermented foods.

Toxins created by yeast metabolism can enter the bloodstream and invade the brain. Yeast can

also harm the walls of the intestines, and allows partially digested food molecules to enter the

system, and create cerebral allergies. Signs of a yeast overgrowth that are also common in

children with autism include recurrent infections, chronic diarrhea, constipation, decreased

cognitive function, gas or bloating, low energy, depression or anxiety, and fatigue.


Phenols are a chemical that are found in most foods. Phenols are not necessarily bad but if you

aren’t able to process them, much like the gluten and casein proteins, they can cause havoc in

your body.

As was discussed in the gluten and casein section, many children with ADHD and autism have

many inefficiencies in metabolic enzyme function and deficiencies in nutrients. When an

individual is deficient in PST, the enzyme that breaks down phenols, the phenols are no longer

well-tolerated and the metabolic pathways in the body become blocked.

Symptoms of a PST deficiency, that coincide with a diagnosis of autism, include dark circles

under the eyes, diarrhea, hyperactivity, aggression, headaches, head banging or other self-injury,

inappropriate laughing, difficult falling asleep, and night waking.(Compart, 2009).

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CDC’s mandatory vaccination schedule has grown from 10 shots in 1983 to 36 shots in

the present. In that same time period the rate of autism has risen from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 91


Vaccinations are generally regarded as one of the top medical breakthroughs in our

history. They have saved many lives and made many potentially lethal diseases almost

disappear. Yet the question exists if they are completely safe and if one vaccination can be used

to treat all people.

Vaccine-injury is not a new concept. Vaccines are known to cause many side effects

including seizures, meningitis, encephalopathy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, sudden infant death

syndrome, asthma, partial facial paralysis, multiple sclerosis, renal failure, and the list goes on

and on.

Many ingredients in vaccinations are considered toxic on their own, yet we do not

question injecting them into our children. The ingredients include aluminum, thimerosal (a

vaccine preservative that is approximately 50% mercury by weight), formaldehyde, and sodium

phosphate.(Kartzinel, 2009).

Mercury, or thimerosal, gets the most media attention. Mercury has had a long tainted

history with humans. In the 1800s it was used primarily by hatters to produce felt. Many of the

hatters were poisoned by inhaling mercury- which is more toxic than any substance on earth,

except for uranium. The poisoning caused the hatters to experience acute memory loss, poor

cognitive function, speech problems, and more. These symptoms led to the phrase, “mad as a

hatter”. In the 1930s mercury was introduced as a preservative in vaccinations. In one of the

first studies on thimerosal, twenty-two already ill patients were injected with it, and all twenty-

two died within weeks. In 1935 they tried again on a group of dogs, and approximately half of

the dogs died. During World War II thimerosal was used in the vaccines for the military but the
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government required the vaccination company to label all stocks of it as “Poison”. In 1967 a

study showed that thimerosal caused mice to die when it was added to their vaccines and in

1977, ten babies in Toronto died when it was used as an antiseptic on their umbilical cords.

(Bock, 2007).

In 1991 the CDC started increasing their vaccination schedule for children. By the age of

six months children were receiving 75 micrograms of thimerosal from three DTP injections, 75

micrograms from three injections of the HIB vaccine, and 37.5 micrograms from three injections

of hepatitis-B vaccine. This added up to 187.5 micrograms of thimerosal. This means that a six

month old infant who received their vaccinations on schedule would get a mercury dosage that

was 87 times higher than the guidelines recommended to adults for the maximum daily

consumption of mercury in fish. The amount given on the day of birth alone was 36 times higher

than the safety threshold recommended by the EPA.(Bock, 2007).

By the end of the 1990s there was an explosion in the incidence of autism, many parents

blaming it on the vaccinations, as their children’s health had seemed to deteriorate shortly after

they had been vaccinated. The type of autism that increased most dramatically during this time

period is known as regressive autism.

Many would argue that a can of tuna fish contains an average of 17 micrograms of

mercury compared to the 12.5 in a single dose of the hepatitis-B vaccine. Stephanie Cave, M.D.,

has fought this argument by pointing out the following facts:

• Infants and toddlers are so much smaller than adults and therefore their bodies are more

sensitive to toxins.

• When mercury is consumed in foods it is partially detoxified by the liver and does less

damage than mercury that is injected into the bloodstream.

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• When an infant receives an injection of mercury, his or her brain has not yet fully

developed the protective membrane known as the blood-brain barrier, and is therefore

more vulnerable to toxins. Even older children’s brains and organs are still developing

so they are more likely to be harmed as toxins than adults.(Bock, 2007).

Dr. Cave was one of the first clinicians in America to make the connection between autism

and mercury. She classified that mercury poisoning and autism had many shared symptoms:

clumsiness, difficulty swallowing, arm flapping, rocking, walking on the toes, sound sensitivity,

touch avoidance, speech problems, poor cognitive processing, poor muscle strength, dermatitis,

bowel disorders, allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders.(Bock, 2007).

Many studies have been done on vaccinations and whether they contribute to the rise of

autism. We, the public, have heard over and over again that these studies have shown no link.

Yet, if you read the studies yourself you will find that most of them have holes in them, do not

fully answer the question asked, and/or are funded by biased sources. They show no link, in

much of the same way, that studies use to show no link between cigarette smoking and lung


The most widely quoted study on the subject was published in Pediatrics Journal in 2003

and was conducted by Thomas Verstraeten, M.D. The title of the study was “Safety of

Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines: A Two-Phased Study of Computerized Health Maintenance

Organization Database”. It is the only study done with only American data on American

children. It reached a neutral conclusion, asked the wrong question, and the author left to join a

vaccine company before the study was even published.(Verstraeten, 2003). Just recently Julie

Gerberding, the former CDC director called the study, “unhelpful and potentially misleading”.

The study failed to contrast vaccinated children and unvaccinated children, like all of the studies

done concerning this topic.

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Perhaps, the most disturbing fact of this study, the study that is most widely quoted and

turned to disprove the link between autism and vaccinations, is that it was the topic of a secret-

closed meeting between members of the CDC and other government organizations, as well as

members of the vaccine manufacturers held June 7-8, 2000. The transcript of this meeting has

been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The transcript reveals that the study

initially found statistically significant dose-response effects between increasing doses of mercury

from thimerosal-containing childhood vaccines and various types of neurodevelopmental

disorders. The transcript documents that the data was real and statistically significant for many

types of neurodevelopmental disorders. The data was manipulated to remove the strong

correlation between mercury and autism. The CDC used many techniques to dumb-down the

numbers including removing comparisons to children who had received no thimerosal and

lowering the age of children available for the analysis. All of this information can be found from

the transcript of the secret meeting.(Generation Rescue, 2009).

Even with all of the manipulation of the study, the final conclusion only had a neutral

outcome, though it does actually state in the study a correlation between thimerosal and tics and

language delays.

There are many studies used to defend vaccinations in this debate and they all can be

picked apart like I have done above with Verstraeten’s study.

The only study known to compare vaccinated to unvaccinated children was done by

Generation Rescue, a nonprofit autism organization. According to their study vaccinated boys

were 155 percent more likely to have a neurological disorder, 244 percent more likely to have

ADHD, and 61 percent more likely to have autism.(Kartzinel, 2009).

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Autism is still a mysterious and very complex disorder that needs more attention from the

government and medical field. Though the medical field has claimed for years that autism is

untreatable, individuals all over the world are proving them wrong by treating their child’s

underlying conditions caused by environmental triggers and finally seeing their child emerge

from a world of isolation. As Bernadine Healey, former National Institute of Health director,


…the government or certain public officials in the government have been too quick to

dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick. I think

public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without

sufficient studies of causation.(Generation Rescue, 2009).

Mrs. Healey is completely correct in her quotations and I hope that in my generation I see

public health officials follow her lead.

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Bock, K., & Stauth, C. (2007). Healing the new childhood epidemics: Autism, ADHD, asthma,

and allergies. New York: Ballantine Books.

Cleaning Products Exposed. (2009, March 12). Retrieved November 2009, from Cost of Autism:

Compart, P., & Laake, D. (2009). Kid Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook. Fair Winds Press.

Generation Rescue. (2009). Study Analysis. Retrieved from Fourteen Studies:

Kartzinel, J., & McCarthy, J. (2009). Healing and Preventing Autism. New York: Penguin


King, M., & Bearman, P. (2009). Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism.

International Journal of Epidemiology, 38 (5), 1224-1234 .

Mental Health Link to Diet Change. (2006, January 16). Retrieved November 2009, from BBC


Palmer, R. F., Blanchard, S., & Wood, R. (2008). Proximity to point sources of environmental

mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalance. Journal of Health and Place, 15(1),

18-24 .
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Palmer, R. F., Blanchard, S., Stein, Z., Mandell, D., & Miller, C. (2005). Environmental mercury

release, special education rates, and autism disorder: An ecological study of Texas.

Journal of Health and Place, 12(2), 203-209 .

Roberts, E. M., English, P. B., Grether, J. K., Windham, G. C., Somberg, L., & Wolff, C. (2007).

Maternal residence near agricultural pesticide applications and autism spectrum disorders

among children in the California central valley. Environmental Health Perspectives,

115(10), 1482-1489.

Robledo, S. J., & Ham-Kucharaski, D. (2005). The Autism Book. New York: Penguin Group.

Strom, C. (2006). The History of Autism. Retrieved November 2009, from Autism Facts:

Verstraeten, T. (2003). Safety of thimerosal-containing vaccines: A two-phased study of

computerized health maintenance organization database. Pediatrics, 112, 1039-1048 .

Windham, G. C., Gunier, R., Croen, L. A., & Grether, J. K. (2006). Autism spectrum disorders in

relation to distribution of hazardous air pollutants in the San Francisco bay area and Los

Angeles . Environmental Perspectives, 114(9), 1438-1444 .

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