Editor's note: This story is the third in a series on autism and the Southwest Indiana environment.
MOUNT VERNON, IND. - When she discusses her autistic clients, Marcella Piper-Terry almost always speaks in reverential and laudatory tones. "They're just absolutely gorgeous children," she says of kids with Asperger's Disorder, such as her 15-year-old daughter Rachel. "Great big eyes, long eyelashes -- amazing, beautiful children. And very smart, very creative and extremely sensitive. Extremely sensitive."
Only when a two-hour interview in her Posey County, Ind., home turns to the notion that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) cannot be treated does Terry's demeanor assume an edge.
"That is not true," she says. "It's unacceptable to write these kids off because standard medical practice says there is no medical treatment for autism."
BLOOMINGTON, IND. - Data from local school and federal public health officials suggest that children in Monroe County, Ind., are diagnosed with autism at nearly double the epidemic rate that afflicts the nation.
On Dec. 18, 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new report that put the incidence of autism in the United States at 1 in 110 for children born in 1996, or 0.9 percent of the population. A survey, sponsored by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration and published in the journal Pediatrics in October, showed 1 in 91 children between the ages of 3 and 17 had autism.
According to figures submitted by the Monroe County Community School Corp. (MCCSC) to state and federal governments last year, one in every 60 students, or 1.7 percent, had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis in December 2008.
MOUNT VERNON, IND. - Listening to Marcella Piper-Terry detail her journey from artist to autism researcher is like any conversation with someone whose life has been touched by the pervasive developmental disorder. It sometimes takes the breath away.
Her family life has been impacted by loved ones diagnosed with multiple disorders and conditions: autism spectrum, bipolar, attention-deficit hyperactive, obsessive compulsive, pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric associated with Streptococcus and depression. And through it all, she has become more self-aware.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," she says in her spacious, hardwood-floor dining room a half mile or so north of the Mount Vernon Middle School. "I can definitely see a lot of Asperger's tendencies in myself." Her voice slows. "I don't do clubs. I don't do social events. I would rather be reading and researching than having a dinner party or being part of that kind of stuff."
The dogged pursuit of the unanswerable question, "What causes autism?" could be considered a health hazard. It requires poring over reams of studies, most of whose contents could reasonably be expected to induce paranoia. Mental fatigue from considering the studies' considerable contradictions is a distinct possibility. And the energy with which the proponents of these competing conclusions defend the arguments could lead to high blood pressure for all concerned.
The most emotional dimension of the autism debate, the proposition that mercury in childhood vaccines is linked to the increasing diagnosis rates of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), is a case in point. Jenny McCarthy and Amanda Peet have offered point-counterpoints all over the Web and on mainstream media, like National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
Editor's note: The Indiana stretch of the Ohio River Valley is one of the most toxic environments on Earth. On Nov. 24, I took a road trip to Evansville and Mount Vernon to interview John Blair, president of the environmental group Valley Watch, and Marcella Piper-Terry, an autism care provider who has collected extensive background data on her clients' environmental exposures. This story is the first in a series on autism and the Southwest Indiana environment. - sh
EVANSVILLE, IND. - John Blair readily agrees that Southwest Indiana is the perfect laboratory in which to explore the connection between industrial pollution and the increasing incidence of autism and other developmental disabilities. He has witnessed both sides of the equation in his three decades as president of the environmental group Valley Watch.
"We have distinct problems down here with neurological diseases," he says during an interview in his Evansville office on a cloudy, crisp November day. "... And we are under assault from almost every kind of toxic chemical there is."
Indiana citizens with autism are 20 percent more likely to be medicated than their counterparts are nationwide, according to an ongoing survey by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN).
One of every two Hoosiers with autism receives medication, whereas the national average is 41 percent. The disparities hold across the three main diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs):
- Autistic Disorder - 22 percent;
- Asperger's Disorder - 20 percent; and
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) - 22 percent.
The IAN data also show that Hoosiers spend less out of pocket caring for those on the ASD spectrum than the national average, $3,952 in Indiana versus $6,082 nationwide.
It's been a year since John McCain piqued my reporter's curiosity about the parallel epidemics of autism and environmental pollution that have swept our nation the past couple decades, a journalistically productive and, sadly, intellectually reaffirming 12-month period, to be sure.
Since the Arizona senator announced on the campaign trail last year that he would find the cause of autism if elected, I have pursued the question through interviews with parents, clinicians, advocates, physicians and researchers; stories, articles and books; and more than a few studies and videos. I've also published nearly a dozen-and-a-half stories on the subject in The Bloomington Alternative, CounterPunch online and print editions, NUVO and IU Alumni Magazine.
So far, nothing I've found contradicts my initial premise that toxic pollution is a contributing factor to the meteoric rise we've seen in the incidence of autism. To the contrary, that argument seems more plausible today than it did when I began this time last year. All signs point to "yes," so I am taking this project to the next level.
As the national focus on the H1N1 pandemic rages, additional evidence of a more insidious epidemic has emerged, with an all-too-expected shrug from the mainstream media. Results from two federal studies announced in October say parents have a 1-in-100-or-greater chance of having a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since boys are four times more likely to have an ASD, their odds are as high as 1 in 60.
On Oct. 2, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the press and about 50 members of the autism community that an unreleased Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study shows the incidence of 8-year-olds with ASDs born in 1996 is 1 in 100. The agency's last two studies of children born in 1992 and 1994 put the chance at 1 in 150.
On Oct. 5, the journal Pediatrics published the results of HHS's Maternal and Child Health Bureau's "2007 National Survey of Children's Health," which showed 1 in 91 children between the ages of 3 and 17 had autism.
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.
Editor’s note: The following article was originally published in NUVO, Indianapolis’ alternative newsweekly. Since its publication on March 4, 2009, a study from the University of Northern Iowa has found children living within 10 to 20 miles of toxic waste sites in Minnesota to have twice the rate of autism as children living farther away.
When it comes to autism and the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, Hoosiers play second fiddle to no one.
A 2008 article titled “Increasing Incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders Continues in Indiana” noted that Indiana’s autism rate is above the 1 in 150 children that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found in a 2007 study.
"Last year 1 in 128 students were served under the eligibility category of autism spectrum disorders," Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) Director Cathy Pratt wrote. "This year's identification rate is 1 in 113."