Friday, November 12, 2010

Dan Olmsted: No Autism Before 1931...Historical Illiteracy in Action at AoA

Dan Olmsted, at Age of Autism, is apparently upset that his book isn't selling too well or that rationally minded individuals who lean left on the political spectrum don't buy the "vaccines cause autism" myth. Why do I say this? Because he has a verbose spewage of blather over at AoA titled "Why Progressives Don't Get Autism" in which he complains about how it's only the conservatives (e.g., those found at Fox News) who buy the lie. Apparently, he hasn't read the Huffington Post and seen their anti-vaccine articles. Or maybe he doesn't think they're progressives.

Whatever. My interest isn't really in his political maunderings. Rather, it is in a brief statement he makes a bit over halfway through:

In our book, we describe how the first widespread use of mercury in vaccines came in 1931 with the diphtheria vaccination campaign in New York City and state (the first case of autism was born the same year).

This is an interesting claim. He asserts, apparently, that autism did not exist before 1931, and that the first person with autism was born in 1931. Mr. Olmsted does not appear to be a fan of history, or he may not have made this gaff, for he is almost certainly in error. Further, Mr. Olmsted seems to be of the opinion that before a name exists for something, it doesn't exist.

A little history, Olmsted-style: Leo Kanner used the term "autism" to describe a collection of symptoms that we now think of as "classical autism" back in 1943 (PDF). In his paper, "Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact," Kanner describes a series of 11 cases of children exhibiting withdrawal and other traits associated with autism. The earliest of these, Virginia S., was born September 13, 1931, which is regularly cited as the year that thimerosal was first used in vaccines. I tried to verify the very first year that thimerosal actually was used in vaccines, but, other than anti-vaccine sites, all I was able to find was "early 1930s".

One wonders what the anti-vaxers would claim if Kanner hadn't included Virginia in his initial paper, and instead had as his earliest case a child born either earlier or later. I would also be curious if Olmsted thinks that a newly discovered beetle species only sprung into existence when the entomologist first spied it and gave it a name.

At any rate, there are some more facts to consider. For example, thimerosal was, according to Adventures in Autism, first created by Eli Lilly in the 1920s. A citation corroborates the date with a patent filed in 1927. If thimerosal causes autism, then we would expect to find no reference to autism before about 1927, right?

Enter another fact. The term "autism" first entered the lexicon in about 1911 or 1912 (depending on your source), being coined by Swiss psychologist Paul Eugen Bleuler (emphasis added):

The [...] schizophrenics who have no more contact with the outside world live in a world of their own. They have encased themselves with their desires and wishes [...]; they have cut themselves off as much as possible from any contact with the external world. This detachment from reality with the relative and absolute predominance of the inner life, we term autism.

What we find, then, is that there were individuals who exhibited one of the classic traits of autism, namely, the extreme withdrawal from society and others. Could it be that before 1931, children were diagnosed with schizophrenia, even though they exhibited the signs and symptoms of what we now call autism?

Kanner thought so ("Autistic Distrubances..." p. 248):

The combination of extreme autism, obsessiveness, stereotypy, and echolalia brings the total picture into relationship with some of the basic schizophrenic phenomena. Some of the children have indeed been diagnosed as of this type at one time or another.

"Ah," the anti-vaxer may say, "but Kanner goes on to differentiate autism from schizophrenia."

That is correct, actually. He goes on to talk about DeSanctis' dementia praecocissima and Heller's dementia infantilis which are described as having an onset around 2 years of age after apparently normal development (sound like any other regressive disorder that manifests around 2-3 years of age we've heard of?), and that the cases he studied exhibited extreme aloneness (i.e., autism in the Bleuler sense) from "the very beginning of life" (i.e., from birth). He also describes the children as also showing varying degrees of "emergence from solitude". In other words, varying degrees of recovery from the withdrawal, and all this without our modern biomed "treatments" like chelation.

Finally, Kanner ponders the parents of the 11 case children. He states that all of the children's parents were highly intelligent and exhibited a great deal of obsessiveness, as well as a general lack of "warmhearted" fathers and mothers (I'm not giving credence to the "refrigerator mother effect", nor do I think that is what Kanner was talking about). He describes the parents as having somewhat cold relationships with others, even each other, and that they are generally interested in abstract issues of a "scientific, literary, or artistic nature," coupled with limited interest in people. He concludes that the autistic traits he observed are inborn, much like other children a born with "innate physical or intellectual handicaps". In short, Kanner seems to be hinting at a genetic origin for autism.

Mr. Olmsted also tries to link what he sees as the beginning of autism to the campaign to immunize against diphtheria in New York. The earliest reference I could find was a 1933 article by Dr. Lillian Kositza discussing the efforts to control diphtheria. Dr. Kositza describes the New York effort using the diphtheria toxin antitoxin as beginning in the 1920s, and that by 1928, "fully 500,000 school children in New York City were immunized" (i.e., children who were already several years old). Following this, the focus in New York went to immunizing pre-school children (again, no birth dose).

To recap: Kanner described 11 children who exhibited, among other traits, an extreme withdrawal from the world, the oldest having been born in 1931. All children exhibited these traits from birth. The diphtheria campaign in New York began in the 1920s among school-aged children and subsequently expanded to pre-school aged kids. However, at no time, from what I could find, was an immunization given (with or without thimerosal) at birth. Therefore, the children Kanner observed could not have developed autism as a result of vaccination or due to thimerosal. Also to note, what appears to be regressive autism was described as precocious schizophrenia by DeSanctis and Heller prior to Kanner's work.

In short, Olmsted, due to his lack of interest in history and his laziness when it comes to research, promotes a lie. Of course, he has a book to sell, so I doubt he will admit his mistake anytime soon. I further expect that he, and the poor parents he has duped, will continue to claim that autism did not exist before 1931 (it did) and that the first vaccines using thimerosal caused it (they didn't).

[Edited to Add (2/22/16): Smithsonian magazine published a very interesting article, "The Early History of Autism in America," which details the work of Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe undertook an effort to conduct a census of so-called "idiots" between 1846-1848, describing several cases whose features sound quite similar to autism.]


  1. Fascinated by the praise for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. Is this the same Rupert Murdoch whose group newspaper The Sunday Times employed me to investigate Andrew Wakefield?

    How does Olmsted explain that, or with his ties to the Moonies, does he not want to think about it?

  2. @Brian Deer

    Well, that's clearly because it's across the pond, where everything is backward. Up is down, black is white, unlicensed medical students are doctors. Y'know.


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