by Randy Cima, Ph.D.
A few weeks ago on 60 minutes, Leslie Stahl, my favorite reporter from the show, introduced us to Julia, the newest character on Sesame Street. Julia has autism.
Ms. Stahl interviewed producers and cast members from Sesame Street. She also spoke to parents with autistic children, and others who love them. It was an emotional segment, in a good way. Sesame Street intends to de-stigmatize children with autism, and everyone is proud.
I started watching 60 minutes and Sesame Street in the 1960's. Like most Americans, I learned to love, and trust, both shows. Coincidentally, during the same decade, I first became interested in autism.
Lloyd Nolan, a character actor from the 40’s, 50’,s and 60’s, was on the Johnny Carson show. He spoke of his “strange” 4 year-old son who had something called “autism.” I was captivated as he described in some detail the very odd behaviors of his son, Jay – and I’ve been captivated since.
Fifty years later, autism, Sesame Street, and 60 minutes converged in mid-March, 2017, with one reviewer of the show saying: “Sesame Street’s new Muppet Julia brought 60 Minutes viewers to tears.”
Brought me to tears too. For different reasons.
It’s Not So Easy Being Mean
Dear parents and other caretakers who love and protect and cherish these very unique children, I love them too.
For me, it’s a matter of temperament (See Keirsey’s brief portrait of this temperament in Notes). There is no biology to this, or genetics. These kids aren’t flawed or damaged. They aren’t disabled or disturbed or diseased either. That means they don’t need doctors, or their medicine. They do need our protection, because they are unique, and because they are so terribly misunderstood, and because someone is always trying to fix them. Some of their famous counterparts include Mozart, Spielberg, Cher, and Harpo Marx. There is much more about this, for a different place and time.
For now, parents and caretakers, and others who love these children as I do, please consider the following:
In 1983, the autism rate was 4.3 in 10,000
I know this is accurate. I was 38, in the profession for nearly 10 years, and I was in the final year of my Masters program (I received my Ph.D. about 4 years later). In the next 12 months I researched everything known at the time about autism, beginning with Leo Kanner. My research included Hans Asperger. I also did a year internship as a family therapist for 6 families with autistic kids (all boys). My Master’s thesis was titled: Autism and Other Self Defiling Phenomena. I was as informed about this very small population as anyone was at the time. Again, the incident rate was 4.3 in 10,000.
Keeping it simple, this means if there were 10,000 children randomly gathered in a large auditorium, we could expect to find 4 or 5 children who fit the description of autism in 1983.
In 2017, the autism rate is 1 in 68
Doing the math, that means the same auditorium with 10,000 randomly gathered children would now have about 150 children who fit the evolving, all inclusive description of autism. That’s an increase of 3500% - in 34 years.
How did that happen?
Is autism contagious? If so, how so? If not, how does it “spread?” Is there a virus or bacteria? Did something drastic happen to our water system in the last 4 decades? In the last 34 years, did the mercury just suddenly appear in the fish these children or their parents ate, that wasn’t there before? Did someone change the formulae for vaccines? Was there some other environmental catastrophe that triggered this incredible spike in the number of diseased children in that auditorium? By the way, these are some – not all – of the speculated “causes” of autism.
I’ve asked medical professionals who should know how this “epidemic” occurred, many, many, many times. They usually duck the question, or provide some form of psychobabble. I’m skilled at recognizing psychobabble.
So, can anyone from medicine explain this “epidemic,” please? Short answer? No. No one can. Long answer? No.
No one can.
So what really happened?
I’ve been awestruck, and demoralized, as the rate of autism has skyrocketed, without much fanfare. It’s been dramatic.
Take a look:
AUTISM RATE SINCE 1975
1975 – 1 in 5000
1985 – 1 in 2500
1995 – 1 in 500
2001 – 1 in 250
2004 – 1 in 166
2007 – 1 in 150
2009 – 1 in 110
2016 – 1 in 68
(SOURCE: Autism Speaks)
Why the "epidemic?” Because there has been an epidemic of diagnosers, armed with an ever-widening, all-inclusive diagnosis - nothing else.
The Psychiatric Process: Change the Definition
Autism was added to the 1980 edition of DSM III (Diagnostic Statistical Manual). This made it official. Autism became medical. It was called Infantile Autism disorder back then. There were six characteristics listed and each of the six had to be present to be diagnosed. Doctors mostly ignored what was then a very, very rare phenomenon. (See what Leo Kanner had to say about the rarity of autism in Notes)
By 1985, the rate was 1 in 2500.
In 1994, the DSM definition of Autism changed again, significantly. This is when I first became concerned. I knew what was coming. After a forty-year career – the last 25 as director of several mental health facilities for children - I’ve seen psychiatry do this as a matter of course.
Now there were 16 different symptoms, and only six of the 16 were needed to receive the diagnosis. As a result, the universe of diagnosable children grew exponentially. The game was officially rigged. The "epidemic" started.
By 1995, the rate was 1 in 500.
Enter ASD: The Final Solution
In 2013, DSM V was released. The diagnostic criteria for autism included these instructions to all professionals: "Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder."
There you have it. They "lumped" together all the symptoms of Asperger’s and PDD with "autism," and the population's diagnostic horizon multiplied - again. Now, any child who is a little too quiet, a little too distracted, a little too defiant, a little too introverted, can be on the “spectrum.” Also, because he can speak, doesn’t mean he isn’t on the “spectrum.”
By 2016, the rate is 1 in 68.
The Rest Is Easy for Psychiatry
Psychiatric scientists will argue for years, in the right journals, with academic vigor, about scientific studies that expose the real cause of autism. Is it genetic? There’s some “convincing” evidence. Is it the vaccine? Studies show a “link.”
What about a chemical “imbalance” in the brain? “There’s a correlation,” says the psychiatric scientist. By the way, psychiatry will neither offer, nor promise any cures. There’s a good reason for this. Psychiatry has a perfect record in this regard – 0 cures.
Will psychiatry ever find a “cause?” No, they won’t, for two reasons: (1) they never have, for any of the more than 400 disorders in DSM V and, (2) autism isn’t a disease, so a medical cause can never be found.
In the meantime, psychiatry will eagerly “treat the symptoms” with a variety of chemicals. Here’s what they’ve tried so far with these children:
• Anafranil (cloripramine)
• Dilantin (phenytoin)
• Haldol (haloperidol)
• Luvox (fluxovamine)
• Risperdol (risperidone)
• Zoloft (sertraline)
Finally, psychiatry will caution all of us routinely, in eye-popping, fear invoking headlines, that the “epidemic” is worsening, again.
This is what the psychiatric medical model has to offer humanity, and it's 2017.
One More Thing to Consider
In 1957, Hollywood released "The Three Faces of Eve.” Based on a true story, the movie is about a young woman with three personalities. Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Eve. For a few years afterwards, there was a short-lived “outbreak” of multiple personality disorder reported by psychiatrists in America. A small industry was born, and then faded away. The “outbreak” ended.
If this movie was made in 2007 instead of 1957, there would be multiple personality websites, multiple personality theories, multiple personality medications, a slew of multiple personality books, multiple personality experts, and endless studies among medical professionals searching for the cause that would include genes, brain damage - maybe even vaccines - and a huge epidemic would still be growing. And, as usual, psychiatry would be ready to supply the chemicals, to treat the symptoms, while they look for the ever-elusive cause of multiple personalities.
This is, as far as I'm concerned, the genesis of modern day psychiatric "epidemics."
Like I Said – It’s not so easy being mean
The people at 60 minutes, and the actors and crew at Sesame Street, and the parents and professionals who know these children have unquestioned love and honest and pure intentions. They are assertively protective of these children, and they make sure they are informed.
From my perspective, it is a gut wrenching experience watching this tragedy unfold. I’ve known for forty years – as do many, many others – these kids need good teachers, not doctors. There isn’t a deficiency or – forgive us all – a “handicap.” (See what Hans Asperger had to say about “cure” in Notes.)
I’ll Be Watching Too
How will they portray Julia on Sesame Street?
Will she be unresponsive? Will she avoid eye contact? Will she be off to herself, isolated? Will she be portrayed as socially inept? Will she have difficulty making friends? Will she be fixated on an unusual object? Will she engage in various rituals? Will she become expressionless? Will she use peculiar phrases? Will she lack an interest in making friends? These are just some of the “symptoms” of children on the “spectrum.”
Will adults – professional and otherwise – be defending her behavior by explaining to everyone that Julia has a brain disorder and needs our understanding about her “challenges?”
Not without hearing from me, for what it’s worth.
To Ms. Stahl, to Oscar, to Big Bird, and all the others at Sesame Street, and to the parents and caretakers of these very special kids – we are on the same side. I love these kids too. I want to protect them too.
Lastly, dear Julia, your debut is loved and protected, and that’s a good thing. I can already tell, you’re going to be great. Everyone is watching.
Just be yourself.
Kanner believed, and argued over his lifetime, that autism was rare. He must have noticed an initial “outbreak.” The John Hopkins psychiatrist “undiagnosed” – and sent home – 9 out of 10 children sent to his practice by other clinicians.
Asperger believed the "cure" for the most disabling aspects of autism is to be found in understanding teachers, accommodating employers, supportive communities, and parents who have faith in their children's potential.
Many people have read or are familiar with Kanner’s first 11 cases of autism. Less well known is the 30 year follow up for those 11 cases. Note the outcomes for the children left in hospitals. You can read it here.
“Autism” from another point of view
“Composers are just as plentiful as the other Artisans, say nine or ten per cent of the population, but in general they are very difficult to observe and thus greatly misunderstood. Very likely the difficulty comes from their tendency not to express themselves verbally, but through their works of art. Composers are usually not interested in developing ability in public speaking, or even in the art of conversation; they prefer to feel the pulse of life by touch, in the muscles, in the eyes, in the ears, on the tongue. Make no mistake, Composers are just as interested as other types in sharing their view of the world, and if they find a medium of non-verbal communication-some art form-then they will express their character quite eloquently. If not, they simply remain unknown, their quietness leaving their character all but invisible.” Keirsey - (Please Understand Me II)