The Autism "Epidemic" In Context

The following is a slightly edited response to Dan Olmstead's article, The Age of Autism: Educated Guesses, published by UPI on 25 February 2005.

28 February 2005

As the mother of a 19 year old son with Asperger's Syndrome, an autistic spectrum condition, I have been following with interest and frustration the recent media coverage of the so-called autism epidemic. Your approach to the issue — the origins of autism — is a little different, and I have enjoyed reading your pieces.

In your second installment, "Educated Guesses," you wonder about the conceivable risk factors for autism among the college-educated men and women of the 1920's and early 1930's — specifically, the highly educated group of parents of Kanner's first autism subjects. I'd like to speculate a little.

It makes sense that four out of the ten fathers were psychiatrists, given the developments in the field of psychology at that time. This was the period when Adler published his idea that people had an innate drive that he called "social interest," and that an impairment of that drive was a disorder. It was the period when Jung came up with the two personality types, introvert and extrovert, and when Piaget was publishing his work on developmental psychology. IQ tests were first used in the United States during this period. The field of psychology was coming more into public consciousness, with Sigmund Freud becoming a household name. It seems likely that people who may have been familiar with the psychological thinking of the day might seek out an evaluation for children who seemed asocial and whose development did not track that of a typically developing child.

At the same time, social and economic changes were making life harder for autistic people. There was less room for a reclusive scholar, a quiet farmer, an artisan of few words, or a secluded poet, for example. These Kanner parents were living during the rise of urban living, mass production on assembly lines, and the standardization of mandatory public education. All these forces combined to give heightened importance to the "social drive," fitting in, getting along, and teamwork. It is no surprise to me that somebody decided to pathologize autism in the early 20th century.

The early 20th century also gave birth to the theory of behaviorism, which was seized on in the 1960's as a treatment for autism. In the lurid language that the media likes to use when reporting on autism, a Life Magazine article describes Ivar Lovaas' early use of the science of behavior on autistic kids: "Screams, Slaps and Love — A surprising, shocking treatment helps far-gone mental cripples" (Life Magazine, May 7, 1965. You can see a copy of it at or

Now, in the early 21st century, it appears that autistic people are more easily identified, but they are not welcome. They are insultingly described in magazine and newspaper articles as bizarre, pariahs, a burden on society. They are ridiculed at school. They are barred from the fast-paced, collegial workplaces of today. They are rejected from colleges for lack of well-roundedness and extra-curricular activities. Parents are urged to look for early signs — a child who overfocuses on unusual interests, who speaks late, who does not perform for others, whose body language is atypical, and who might melt down into a screaming puddle if forced to go to Wal-Mart. Parents are told that their autistic kids may be institutionalized for life and are encouraged to see their children as empty shells who are not really there. A large and lucrative industry of autism treatment preys on parents' fears while holding out the hope that if the parents will pay exorbitant prices for the treatment being sold, the child might "recover" and become "indistinguishable from his peers." The prevailing view today is that autism should be wiped out.

There is no doubt that the cause of autism is genetic. The National Institute of Mental Health is funding a number of genetic studies of autism. One of the researchers, Aravinda Chakravarti, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins, says:

"Autism is quite likely to result from the combined effects of multiple, very subtle genetic changes that differ considerably from family to family, since no single reliable genetic cause has been found yet." (

Bryna Siegel, Ph.D., of University of California, San Francisco's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, writes in her book Helping Children With Autism Learn, that twin studies show that both parents probably make a genetic contribution that results in a diagnosible manifestation of autism.

Genetic studies are also being conducted at Vanderbilt University (, Stanford University ( and Children's Hospital Boston (

There is a large-scale project underway to map the human genome for autism (

The decade of the 1920's may have been the age of jazz, the age of sports, and the age of prohibition, but I don't think it was the age of autism. I think it is unlikely that some genetic mutation suddenly occurred then. I think that social and economic conditions are the cause of the autism "epidemic."

But I'm just speculating.

Anne Bevington
Article copyright © 2005, Anne Bevington
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