From what I have learned about the connection between autism and the environment these past many weeks, Dr. Christopher McDougle is the man in Indiana for questions like: How is environment defined when experts say they believe genetic predispositions for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are triggered by environmental factors?
When I asked professionals working for children’s environmental health in the Hoosier state to recommend sources, McDougle topped their list. His resume includes: 1986 graduate of the IU School of Medicine and a child psychiatry fellowship at the Yale Child Study Center, one of world’s leading research centers on autism.
Another global leader is the treatment center McDougle started at IU’s Department of Psychiatry, where he returned in 1997, after seven years on the faculty at Yale, to head the child and adolescent psychiatry section. He was promoted to department chair three years later.
“We now have the largest autism clinic in America,” he said of the Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center, which is located in the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
As clinical director at an IU School of Medicine autism treatment center, Naomi Swiezy is, by nature, a goal-oriented health-care practitioner. A researcher as well as a behavioral psychologist, her focus is on “research-based, empirically supported” approaches to treating the pervasive developmental disorder.
She uses the term “treat” advisedly. Like any expert in the field, she can only speculate on what causes the range of behavioral, social and intellectual impairments known as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Genetic predisposition triggered by unknown environmental factors is the prevailing wisdom. “Cure” isn’t a part of the vocabulary.
“It’s not about curing the autism,” Swiezy said during an interview at the Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. “We don’t believe that’s a possibility.”
Autism is, in fact, a relatively new and little-understood condition, she said.
For Nila Sunday, the term “refrigerator mother” is more than a historic and discredited theory on the cause of autism. It’s a real and painful memory for the mother of one of the first autistic children in Indiana to be diagnosed.
The phrase was coined by Dr. Leo Kanner, an Austrian psychiatrist who first identified autism in 1943, 21 years before the birth of then-Nila Inman’s twin sons Kevin and Keith. In 1949, Kanner cited a "genuine lack of maternal warmth" and "parental coldness” as common threads in the families of children with autism.
“That was the first thing that I started to hear,” Sunday said. “And that was exactly the opposite of the way I was with my kids.”
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.
With my background in writing about environmental health, it was pretty much a given that this investigative sojourn into the realms of autism and industrial chemicals would begin with sobering science. And, as expected, it turns out that respected research voices say toxins in the environment may be a factor in the development of autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.
At the very least, their works show, the connection between pollution and developmental disorders must be more thoroughly studied and understood.
For me, the same is true of the effect in this cause-effect investigation. So, in early January, I drove to the east side of Bloomington to interview Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA). She educates parents, families, policy makers, educators and anyone else, including journalists, who need to understand the challenges faced by those who confront what some say is an "autism pandemic."
I have to admit it. My eyes welled when I heard Chief Justice John Roberts call Barack Obama "Mr. President." And no, I couldn't count the number of times chills raced through my body, or smiles consumed my face, on that historic day. Wouldn't even venture a guess.
As a child, my political consciousness was weaned on the civil rights movement. My clearest and most tangible memory from those historic days is of the morning after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. I worked at a sporting goods store in Indianapolis that sold out of ammo first thing in the morning.
So, you could count me among those who would answer "No" to the question du jour on Inauguration Day, "Did you ever think you'd see the day?"
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.
A much-needed recovery period from knee surgery, coupled with the holiday season, left little time for working anywhere but on the computer these past two weeks. No interviews, few e-mails, mostly surfing government Web pages. And the effort produced an alarming deja vu.
While researching a story for NUVO readers in Indianapolis on the connection between autism and toxic chemicals, I returned to territory familiar from my stint as an environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) from 1996-2000. I spent hours analyzing Indiana's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), a gauge for how polluted Indiana or any other state is.
This Community-Right-to-Know tool is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database through which polluters quantify their annual releases of "nearly" 650 chemicals into the nation's air, water and land, according to the TRI Program Fact Sheet.
In reality, this introduction to a new Bloomington Alternative feature called "On the Trail" was written after-the-fact, as I've been on this path the past few weeks now. My last two pieces, for example, included first-person accounts of my recent forays in health-care and environmental reporting. And that's mostly what I will be doing here in the near future -- writing more about the journey than the destination.
This new focus reflects a shift in my priorities. Changes are at hand here that demand expanded horizons and time commitments. So what writing time I will have for the Alternative in the near future, anyway, will be used to share the experiences I have researching and writing stories for other publications. There aren't enough hours in the day.
My last two columns and this one, for example, chronicle the sources and information I have found researching a 2,000-word story for a national political newsletter on the role industrial pollution may play in the development of autism.
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.