A recent study that has just been published by Dr. Irva Hertz-Piccioto is making headlines in the media and is getting a fair amount of coverage in the autism blogosphere. It is another attempt by the MIND institute to show that the increases in autism admissions to the state of California regional centers are not due to increased awareness, loosening of diagnostic criteria or people immigrating to the state of California to get their superior autism services. It is not so dissimilar to the study that her colleague Bob Byrd came out with several years ago. I must concede I have not read the study, which just came out in a journal called Epidemiology recently so perhaps I can't totally comment on the design of the study. However it appears that neurologist Stephen Novella has read this study and is commenting on it in his blog.
Though Dr. Hertz-Piccioto has stated to the media that it is time to start looking for something in the environment, she does not appear to use the word environment in the actual study itself. She apparently uses the word artifacts. What artifacts might these be? Since Dr. Hertz-Piccioto is a professional epidemiologist, if there has been an increase in something in the environment that took place starting in the late 1980s to the present, then I suggest she look for it, study it, show how it relates to autism and publish it in a peer reviewed journal. Some of the candidates that she mentions to the media are pesticides and heavy metals. Both of those seem farfetched to me, since most of the biggest increases in the California prevalence numbers have come from urban areas rather than rural areas. It seems more likely that exposure to pesticides would be a problem in rural areas, so if anything it would seem there is a negative correlation between autism increases and pesticides. Also in light of Margaret Bauman's published study on the differences in the type of symptoms and neurologic brain impairments between autism and mercury poisoning as well as other heavy metals this seems to be farfetched also. The CHARGE study and the MARBLES study have been going on in California for many years. As far as I know they have not isolated anything in the environment that is shown to be associated with autism increases.
One of the people who founded the MIND institute almost entirely on the state of California Taxpayer's dime is Rick Rollens. This is a man who insists that his son, an extremely low functioning autistic, was somehow poisoned by vaccines and has a known association and friendship with SAFEMINDS and possibly other vaccine groups. Also the head of the MIND institute Robert Hedron, when I heard him speak at the ASA national convention in Florida last summer quoted the 1 in 10,000 prevalence of autism as a 1994 figure. Actually it only comes from one study done by Darrold Treffert that was published in 1970. I wrote about this in another gadfly post it would seem that it is possible the MIND institute is quite biased and has serious conflicts of interest in that at least one of the persons who helped create it has some sort of relationship with people who are litigating against vaccine companies on the premise that their children's autism were caused by vaccines. They are basing part of their evidence on a supposed temporal relationship between vaccines and a great increase in autism numbers. I do not know if Rick Rollens is one of the actual litigants, but he is mentioned in David Kirby's book evidence of harm as having an association with these people. I have met Mr. Rollens who angrily insisted that his son's autism was caused by vaccines. As a California taxpayer with autism, the MIND institute's studies and ready access to the media are troublesome to me.
Perhaps there is another artifact that caused this great rise in autism numbers though, namely special education. Just as there were large increases in autism in the early 1990s when more vaccines were added to the mandatory schedule, the IDEA (formerly the education for all handicapped act) was passed and was amended including autism as a disability in 1991. Coincidence? Perhaps so, but one must keep in mind that there are several studies that now refute the autism vaccine connection. To the best of my knowledge there are no studies refuting changes in special education legislation, making it easier for those with an autism diagnosis to obtain services as being responsible for the rise in autism diagnoses. Also, the Shannon Carter decision by the supreme court in 1994 paved the way for taxpayer money being able to legally pay for uncredentialed personnel to work with autistic children. This decision was a precedence for the decision in the Malkowitz case which paved the way for uncredentialed people to administer Lovaas ABA.
Though, as far as I know, as I said before, no studies refute the special education hypothesis, there is one peer reviewed publication by James Gurney in Minnesota suggesting a temporal relationship between changes in special education law both Minnesota state law and federal law and increases in autism prevalence in this state.
Gurney's study, the lack of evidence for vaccines or any other environmental cause of autism prevalence increases, I feel, suggest that perhaps it is time that Hertz-Piccioto and other epidemiologists perhaps change their focus and look for this as at least a partially responsible culprit.