Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Autism and Genetics

Did you see the article by Delthia Ricks, entitled “Scientists finding genes related to autism,” Newsday (12/5/10)?  It states that as a result of “combing the human genome,” “new gene discoveries . . . are helping to shape a narrative that autism spectrum disorders are largely genetic conditions.”  In fact, Dr. Eli Hatchwell, a geneticist and founder of a biotechnology firm claims that, "There may be a small number of individuals who are reacting badly to something in the environment, but I don't believe that to be the case for everyone. . .  Autism is 90 percent genetic in my opinion."  It should be noted that Hatchwell and his team are working on gene-based diagnostics for autism.

Sadly, I’m reminded of the old joke where a guy is intently scouring the ground under a street lamp one night.  Another guy sees him and asks, “What are you doing?”  The searcher replies, “Looking for my car keys.”  “Where exactly did you lose them?” inquires the second guy, to which the first points off into the dark distance, and says, “over there by my car.”  Incredulous, the second guy asks “Why on earth are you looking over here then?” “Because the light’s better,” says the first.

Millions and millions of dollars and research are being thrown at finding the “genetic” basis of autism, but really, are we looking in the right place?

Yes, the “light’s better” – if autism is truly an inherited, genetic condition, then autism is no one’s fault.  There is no one to blame; it’s just an unfortunate accident.  There is no need to change or go without what our society has come to accept as safe and normal.  Even from an economic standpoint, a genetic cause of autism would pretty much benefit everyone.  A proven biologically based medical condition would surely be covered under insurance (and don’t worry about the insurance companies – when and if the time comes for them to belly up to the bar, they’ll work the cost into our insurance premiums – they’re pretty good at making money no matter what), the medical practitioners will have a guaranteed stream of diagnostic/treatment-related income, the drug manufacturers will surely come up with a slew of drugs to treat the “medical” condition, testing companies will have a field day screening all of our kids, and no messy lawsuits from “those people” who believe it was some environmental insult that perpetrated the harm.

Consider the alternative, looking in the dark.  If something in the environment is causing autism, then is it really a medical condition?  And, surely, someone created the environmental condition, so maybe autism really is someone’s fault.  Can you imagine the consequences?  The lawsuits, the liability.  And, we’d have to change.  Maybe we can’t use so many pesticides.  Well, wouldn’t that hurt the farmers with increased costs of production?  Wouldn’t that hurt the vegetable and fruit eating consumers who would be forced to pay more for produce?  Maybe we can’t use scientifically created hormones and antibiotics on our farm animals.  That also hurts the farmers and consumers, and of course, the people who make the hormones and antibiotics.  What if it’s over exposure to EMR, cell phones, television/computer?  What if it’s vaccines?  What if it’s jet fuel?  Can we ever do without these ubiquitous items (yes, our parents did, and their parents did, and isn’t it interesting to note that even as late as the mid-1980’s, autism was thought to affect only about 1 in 2,500, not 1 in 100 like today?).

And, if autism is caused by something in the environment, and we simply eliminate that cause, who would turn a profit?

But, even though the light is better, is it really the place to look? 

First, and foremost, even if there is a difference in the genes of autistic individuals, the question that really needs to be answered, but apparently is not, is whether the difference is innate or the result of some external catalyst.

In other words, are different genetics the cause or the result?

Moreover, in order for autism to be a genetic disorder, unrelated to environment, one must assume either that (i) autism always existed to the extent it does today, that is in 1 of 100 individuals, and we just didn't notice it all these years, or (ii) the human race has undergone a spontaneous genetic mutation of staggering proportions over the last twenty to thirty years.

Otherwise, by definition, some external – i.e., environmental – factor must be to blame.

Now, I like science, I like math, I like facts, and I really do want to believe that autism is nothing more than a genetic accident, that no one is to blame for what happened to those affected.  I want to keep my cell phone, and watch too much TV, and not worry about the cell phone antennae and high voltage wires in my neighborhood.  I want to eat fish, and meat, and not worry about hormones or genetically modified foods.

But, I need proof.

So, if you want me to really believe that autism is 90% genetics, prove to me that ASD always existed to the extent it does today.

Show me that 1 in 100 of all 80 year olds, 70 year olds, 60, 50, 40 and 30 year olds have autism.

Explain the math that would prove that better diagnostics/different definitions could possibly account for the staggering increase in the incidence of autism.  Really, explain how you go from one in 2,500 in the mid-1980’s to one in 100 today.

Explain why there are classrooms dedicated to autistic children today that did not exist even ten years ago.  Explain why teachers are saying they see a fundamental change in our student population.

Or, terrify me, and explain how we can undergo such a dramatic, and damaging, genetic mutation -- without any external trigger -- in the span of a single generation.

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