Over the past 10 years, the US Centers for Disease Control has kept tabs on the number of American children diagnosed with autism…and the news is quite concerning. The rate has increased from 1 in 150 in 2002, to 1 in 125 in 2006….to 1 in 88 in 2008!

The rise in autism is scary and all reasonable parties should be working around the clock to solve the mystery. But, as we work towards a solution we must resist the temptation to latch on to obvious conclusions that are simple, reasonable, logical…and wrong. History is filled with good guesses that have just fallen flat! For example, recent studies have identified genetic flaws that probably explain a handful of cases (siblings who are identical twins are more likely to both have autism than non-twin brothers and sisters). But, scientists agree that the rapid rise in autism is way too fast to be caused by new changes in our DNA.

What about vaccines? A steady chorus has accused vaccines of being the culprit: “Too many ingredients.” “Too many shots.” “Too many given at the one time.” But these folks usually base their assumption on the fact that baby shots have increased in number as autism has increased in frequency. But so has cell phone use and wireless internet use. But let’s look at the issue more…carefully. Five years ago, some said mercury in vaccines was the autism trigger. It was a fair hunch…but totally wrong.

In 2002, over 95% of vaccine mercury was removed. Yet, instead of plummeting autism rates marched even higher! Others speculated that the MMR shot (measles, mumps, rubella) caused autism. (This was based on a British study that ended up being recalled as a total fraud!). In fact, a huge Danish study (hundreds of thousands of children) found that kids who skipped the MMR had the exact same risk of autism as their immunized playmates. A Japanese study also showed zero difference between MMR getters and skippers (and no benefit was seen when the MMR was split into separate shots). To date, dozens of studies - examining over 1 million children - have failed to find any credible association between shots and autism…none!

To help solve this mystery, our states must start keeping record of the number of children diagnosed with autism (so called autism registries). This will be very helpful in determining how much of the rise in autism is an actual increase in the disease…versus a “labeling shift.” A “labeling shift” means that children who, in the past, would have been labeled as having mental retardation are now labeled as having autism. (A recent study by the California Department of Health indicates that notwithstanding this label shifting, the incidence of autism is truly rising.)

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