Positive developments on the freelance writing front nudged me back onto the trail of autism and the environment during the past few weeks. Specifically, an approaching deadline for a story in the IU Alumni Magazine refocused my writing and landed me in a group home for three young adults with autism near Mooresville. (I'm also in discussions with a national magazine for another story and two publishers about writing a book on the subject, but those are tales for another time.)

The IU Alumni story retells much of what I've already written in the Alternative about autism's prevalence, diagnosis, causation and treatment, but I needed a fresh subject to build the story around, to "featurize" it, as I tell my reporting students. And serendipity had already played a role in determining who that would be, not to mention reinforcing my belief that we are experiencing an epidemic of autism in America. That's how I ended up in Mooresville.

Writing the piece also put me in touch with some leading figures in a science-based movement that argues toxic industrial chemicals are an environmental hit, if not the environmental hit, responsible for the epidemic of autism and other developmental disabilities.

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On the Trail: Autism and the Environment
A journalistic journey into autism and industrial chemicals

I solicited and received feedback on the IU Alumni story from Dr. Philip Landrigan from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Philippe Grandjean from the Harvard School of Public Health, whose 2006 study on the neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals put the prevalence of individuals with disabilities at 1 in 6. For those who are shocked by that number, as I was when I first read it, more than 1 in 6 -- 17 percent -- of children in Indiana public schools in 2007-2008 were enrolled in special education, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

Photograph by Steven Higgs

Dr. Charles VanMeter is the father of a 22-year-old son with autism.

Also commenting on the article was Irva Hertz-Picciotto from the University of California at Davis, who is the principal investigator on the CHildhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment study (CHARGE), which she calls "the first comprehensive study of autism and environmental factors." Another Picciotto study this past January confirmed a dramatic increase in autism in California since the early 1990s and concluded changing diagnostics and counting procedures were not responsible.

As I explained while pitching a story to another magazine editor, I used to think that those who have knowingly and inentionally poisoned the planet these past 30 years were killing us, which, using the rise in childhood cancers that Landrigan and others have cited as but one indicator, they are. My sound bite was: "Toxic pollution is an exercise in Darwinian Fitness. Those who can live and reproduce with these chemicals in their bodies will, and those who can't, won't."

I'm now persuaded that the Reagan Revolution rollback of environmental regulations has spawned far more pernicious and widespread damage and may very well have irrevocably altered more than the climate. As Grandjean and Landrigan concluded in November 2006, more than 200 common toxic chemicals in the environment have damaged the brains of millions of children worldwide.

There's really no politically correct way to say it. If the evidence I've uncovered so far turns out to be correct, anyone who is considering starting or adding to a family today has a roughly 1-in-6 chance of producing a child with brain damage. Autism is but one of the risks.


This particular leg of the autism-and-the-environment journey began in the exam room of Dr. Charles VanMeter, from the Methodist Sports Medicine group in Indianapolis. He operated on my knee last December, and we had connected through our shared experience of having lived in Bloomington in the 1970s. When I told him during a March 6 visit that I was interviewing the director of the Riley Hospital autism clinic when I left, he told me he had twin sons, one of whom has autism. That happens to me a lot, these days.

"More than 1 in 6 -- 17 percent -- of children in Indiana public schools in 2007-2008 were enrolled in special education, according to Indiana Department of Education data."

When told about the IU Alumni article and my need for a real-life story to hang the piece on, preferably from an IU alumnus, Dr. VanMeter readily agreed. Glad to do it, he said, and when the time came, he suggested we meet at his 22-year-old son Andy's group home just off State Road 67, a couple miles north of Mooresville.

In the six months I've been researching and writing on this subject, Andy is the first individual with autism I've shaken hands with. Through my years covering social services at the Bloomington Herald-Times in the 1980s and '90s I wrote about disabilities and had been to a couple group homes. But he's the first I've looked in the eye and spoken to, the first face I've put with a name, so to speak.

Like the experience of any family with autism, VanMeter's is unique and compelling. I'll be telling it in the next issue, when I can give it the time and space it deserves.

In the meantime, it's back on the trail. I'm particularly intrigued at the moment with the special education data, so, after the VanMeters' story, that may be the next installment in this saga.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.