It is estimated that one out of every 110 kids in America will be diagnosed with autism; the fastest-growing developmental disability at this time. The neurological disease affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
How is this happening? Could it be from vaccines? Is autism hereditary or caused by environmental factors? This subject is hotly debated across the country … and now on The Doctors.
Dan and Lori have seven children, and four of them are autistic. Their oldest son, Mitchell, 10, easily becomes anxious and emotional. Alex, 9, wears Halloween costumes every day and exhibits destructive tendencies in the home. Their oldest daughter, Danielle, 8, is starting to talk more, but rarely interacts with other children. Adam, 6, is the most severely affected. He has no verbalization and oftentimes hits and kicks his parents and pushes his siblings. His tantrums have become so intense that he has even been hospitalized.
“It’s like I failed the kids somehow,” Dan says.
One of the most difficult things for Dan and Lori to manage with autistic children is discipline. “It’s hard for them to realize that what they did is wrong,” Lori says.
In studio, E.R. physician Dr. Travis Stork asks Dan and Lori, “How do you manage?”
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” Lori says. “We do see progress with the kids. That is great. We do see things work, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears explains that doctors still don’t know why children develop the disability. He asks the couple to describe some of the early symptoms they observed in their children.
Dan says some of the kids did not exhibit speech, were staring off and were not able to effectively communicate.
“They don’t run to you with a toy and ask you to interact with them,” Lori says. “Not only did they not develop speech, speech stopped.” She adds that their daughter used to be a happy, bubbly baby, but her disposition changed, and she would sit in the corner and ignore others. “There were definite personality changes.”
Behavior Symptoms of Autism
Dr. Jim explains the signs of autism, often seen in kids before the age of 3 and many times by 12 to 18 months old:
• Changes in social interaction
• Lack of eye contact
• Appearing to be in his/her own world
• Displaying no interest in other children playing
• Showing no attachment to parents
• Unaware of the environment and other people
• Changes in verbal skills: either doesn’t learn to talk or regresses and stops talking
• Repetitive behaviors: hand flapping, staring at ceiling fans, spinning or rocking, lining up toy cars or other objects.
“A lot of these behaviors are kind of typical in ‘typical kids,’ too,” Dr. Jim says. “That’s sometimes the confusing thing.” Autism affects each child differently.
Dan and Lori worry about their son, Eric, who is not autistic. They don’t know how to prevent him from modeling behaviors after his older siblings, when that’s all that he sees.
Dr. Jim explains that he will learn by watching his parents, other kids at school and friends.
The parents ask Dr. Sears when they should tell their younger children that their older siblings have autism.
“Tell them right now. They’re living it,” Dr. Jim says. He assures the couple that their younger children will understand.
Lori is pregnant again and worries for the fate of her unborn child.
“Over the years, we’ve learned that there definitely is a genetic factor here,” Dr. Jim says. “There is something in the genes of your kids that make them a little vulnerable to a trigger. We still don’t know what that trigger is.” He offers that triggers could be viruses, heavy metals like lead, or other chemicals. “There are a lot of theories.”
Pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon, who strongly believes that vaccines are a major contributing factor in autism, joins the discussion. “Vaccines, as they are now formulated can cause autism and other problems,” Dr. Gordon says. “Right now, they’re not as safe as they can be.” He advises that Dan and Lori do not vaccinate their unborn child. “You have a genetic, a familial predisposition to children developing autism,” he tells them. “All children who get vaccines don’t get autism. All children with autism are not autistic because of vaccines.”
Dr. Gordon suggests that before parents vaccinate their children, they should educate themselves, find a doctor they trust, and look at their family history for autism, childhood depression and autoimmune diseases. “The very serious Neuroimmunologists are now saying that autism is a neuro-immune disorder,” he says. “I really think that it doesn’t make any sense to give five or six shots to a little baby whose immune system and central nervous system are still a little bit questionable and extremely immature. Wait six months, wait a year. Get counsel. Read as much as you can. But the way that vaccines are manufactured can cause autism. The way that they’re administered can cause autism, and they should be much, much safer.”
On the other side of the debate is Dr. Harvey Karp, who agrees with the many studies that show zero association between vaccines and autism. “If you stop immunizing children, especially in the first year or two, you’re putting them at risk,” he says. “Vaccines are a miracle.” He adds that studies performed in other countries show that when the rate of immunizations go down, the rate of illnesses go up.
Dr. Gordon disagrees. “The studies were not done well. The studies were often funded by the manufacturers of the vaccine,” he refutes. “I don’t vaccinate against any illnesses that pose anywhere near as much a threat to your family as autism does. I admit that if we stop giving certain vaccines, some illnesses might return. I admit that there’s no proof that vaccines cause autism. There’s evidence.” He is adamant that more testing needs to be completed.
Dr. Karp tells Dr. Gordon that he must back his claims with scientific proof. “The only reason we have little disease right now is because so many people are getting their kids immunized,” he says. “If more and more people follow the advice that [Dr. Gordon’s] giving -- to defer these vaccines -- and we see more illness, the children who are going to suffer are not so much the ones who choose not to get the immunizations, but the next-door neighbor and the kids in the preschool, who then spread the illness back to little babies who are not even old enough to get the immunizations yet.”
Dr. Sears weighs in. “I do not want everybody to stop vaccinating, because then we’re going to see polio come back, and kids are going to start dying of measles again,” he says. “In my office, I try to look at each child individually. I want to get them eventually fully vaccinated, unless they have a lot of risk factors for autism.” He looks at Dan and Lori and tells them, “If your family was in my practice, there’s no way I would vaccinate your kids, but I would also talk to you about how to minimize your risks of catching those important illnesses.” He adds that the vaccine companies have taken mercury out of most of childhood vaccines -- a metal people think contribute to developing autism. “I encourage my patients not to blow off vaccines, but I want to do it as safely as I can,” Dr. Jim says, explaining that he starts children at 2 months with the important vaccinations like whooping cough and meningitis, but he only gives one or two at a time. “Some of the more controversial ones, we wait until later,” he says.
Dr. Travis concludes, “Most physicians support vaccination, and we don’t want to go back to a time where when someone comes into the hospital, we’re worried about all of these diseases that have pretty much been wiped out of our children.”