It can be done– kids can recover from autism. That was the central message of "Recent Advances in the Biology of Autism," a conference at the Omni Hotel Saturday, April 30.
The variety of treatments for the disorder– including nutritional supplements, dietary protocols, use of probiotics, and heavy metal detoxification– can be controversial. So can speakers.
Consider Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, his article in the British journal Lancet was accused of triggering a public panic over a vaccine, and he allegedly failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Reasonable people could disagree over the allegations, and Wakefield's supporters contend that his research withstood scrutiny.
Mainstream medicine maintains that autism is an irreversible genetic brain disorder. While Saturday's speakers agreed that the causes of autism are complex and that the biology of autism is not completely understood, they also emphasized that a great deal is known. What's indisputable is that diagnoses are skyrocketing– from fewer than one in 2,000 children 20 years ago to one in every 166 today.
While clinical studies can take years or even decades to catch up with such an upsurge, speakers at the conference cited more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles– many written in the last two years– that indicate there is more to autism than some doctors may realize.
Guest speaker Dr. Elizabeth Mumper, associate professor of pediatrics and family medicine at the University of Virginia and CEO of Advocates for Children in Lynchburg, made a determined plea to conference attendees.
"If you know any doctors at UVA," she said, "please encourage them to pay attention to this science." Her request prompted strong applause from the audience of over 200.
Some studies implicate genetic predispositions in conjunction with environmental triggers– especially mercury toxicity– as a cause of autism. Many pediatricians have branded the alleged mercury link as "junk science," and, indeed, absolute proof that mercury causes autism has yet to materialize.
And yet tantalyzing bits of evidence are piling up– including a just-released Texas study showing a direct positive correlation between the presence of environmental mercury and autism. Politicians have already rushed to shield the makers of thimerosal, a mercury compound recently banned from most vaccines. The Homeland Security bill President Bush signed in November 2002 absolved thimerosal's creator, Eli Lilly, from future liability claims without explaining the need to indemnify the makers of a purportedly safe material.
Dr. Susan Anderson, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia and director of the autism program at the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center, explains why many doctors remain unconvinced by some of the recent studies.
"It's the manner that the research was done," says Anderson. "If you look at the study that Wakefield did, for example, all of his co-researchers stepped back. They were important scientists who said, 'Wait a minute, maybe what we did was not okay.'"
Wakefield, now with the Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin, Texas, was at the Charlottesville conference.
"None of the science was retracted," Wakefield responded. "All the scientific findings stand and have been borne out by further research. It's absolute nonsense to say it's been discredited."
In Charlottesville, Wakefield and Mumper were joined by Dr. Jill James of the University of Arkansas and Dr. Jeffrey Bradstreet, Director of the International Child Development Resource Center in Melbourne, Florida.
According to scientists at the conference, a growing number of studies have demonstrated that children are improving, some even to the point of losing their original diagnosis.
Kathy Young, mother of a child diagnosed with autism, is president of the Virginia chapter of the National Autism Association, which organized the event. "We're here today," Young told the crowd, "because our children are sick and they need help."
The April 7 edition of the Hook ignited controversy.
At the Omni: Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Dr. Elizabeth Mumper, Dr. Jeff Bradstreet, and Kathy Young, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Autism Association which hosted the conference.
PHOTO BY COY BAREFOOT