On The Trail with Steven Higgs
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.
Craig Williams chuckled when he recalled his son’s first foray onto the basketball court. Instead of missing the backboard or kicking the ball out of bounds like his less-than-athletic pee-wee peers, he flung it into the Bloomington Sportsplex bleachers.
“I’m sitting there in the stands thinking, ‘That is different,’” dad said with a smile. “That is not like the other kids at all.”
Williams sprinkled a 61-minute conversation about his son with similar moments of reserved but good humor. But his countenance hardened when he reflected upon a recently unearthed photograph of father and son at 9 months old.
“That was before I knew he was autistic,” he said.
The trail had me looking back this past week to some lengthy conversations I had in the summer of 1999 with Lynton K. “Keith” Caldwell, one of the world’s great environmental thinkers.
The catalyst for this directional about-face was Ball State University’s “Hoosier Poll 2008” that found a majority of Indiana citizens said they would pay more taxes to protect the environment. That reminded me of the column I wrote in the long-defunct Bloomington Independent that caught Keith’s attention back in '99.
In the piece, I argued that corruption was the reason Indiana politicians defied the latest polls of the time that showed a majority of Americans, including Hoosiers, recognized the multiple environmental crises humankind faces and wanted their leaders to act.
In many ways, the journalistic journey I am taking into the world of autism reminds me of a mushroom experience I had deep in the Martin County woods in the late 1980s.
As some tree-hugger friends and I led a Washington Times columnist through a valley en route to a particularly egregious U.S. Forest Service clearcut, I noticed what, to someone who had never found a morel before, a specimen that seemed like a giant. Once I discovered the first one, they suddenly appeared everywhere, and I left the woods with a couple dozen in my backpack.
So it has been with autism. Since I started paying attention a month ago, I've realized it is everywhere.