My Pertussis Paranoia

November 4, 2010

Once upon a time I was a professional who went to work every day with a jacket and a little floppy tie. I did battle with second order differential equations, multiple computers with various quirks (like the VAX), varying data for parameter studies and working in a large bullpen room full of engineers like myself. That was back when I was intelligent, before I had kids. Little did I know what I was to expect. Read the rest of this entry »

Diagnosed With Autism – Now What?

September 21, 2010

Your child has been diagnosed with autism, and you’re scouring the internet looking for reliable evidence-based information. You come here and there’s nothing but endless talk about whether vaccines are the cause of autism, but there’s no practical advice. There’s a very good reason for that… this blog is not the resource you’re looking for. We are science advocates who are doing our best to correct misinformation using skepticism and critical thinking, but we’re not scientists and we have no business offering medical advice.

But, we can point you in the right direction. I recently asked my mother to help me redirect my readers toward resources that are reliable and evidence-based. My mother is an administrator for an Early Intervention program at a hospital on an army base. She’s more than qualified to offer advice on the subject, and since she reads this blog (thanks Mom), I will encourage her to answer any follow up questions.

One thing I know that my mother would want me to mention is that Early Childhood Intervention is a service provided by every state to all developmentally challenged children under the age of three. Check here for more information about Early Intervention in your state.

Anyway, if you’re looking for evidence-based information about autism, you should turn your browser toward these sites: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Autism Internet Modules. I hope those resources are helpful, but please let me know in the comments section if there are other resources that you recommend.

The journey of a parent with an autistic child is something that I can’t fathom, except that I know that it’s more than challenging, extremely frustrating, and that life for these parents can be chaotic and unpredictable. Jenny McCarthy might say that modern medicine offers nothing but hopelessness, but she’s wrong. There are experts such as my mother, who are working hard with evidence-based approaches to help autistic children thrive in spite of their setbacks. Seek out those who respect science, and reject those who don’t.

Autism and Ultrasound?

July 27, 2010

Dr. Manuel Casanova, a scientist from the University of Louisville, is concerned about a possible link between ultrasound and autism. He doesn’t have any evidence for this hypothesis, but he felt the need to communicate his fears to the press. Why?

The reason Dr. Casanova is concerned about autism stems from his own personal bias. He readily admits that his grandson has severe autism, but he gives no reason for suspecting ultrasounds as the cause other than seeing an ultrasound photo at the front of his grandson’s first photo album.


Dr. Casanova, who in all other respects seems to be a reputable neurologist,  has clearly never heard that there’s a difference between correlation and causation. It’s fine to have a hypothesis and to test it, but going straight to the public based on your biased hunch is irresponsible.  Ultrasounds are often medically necessary, coloring them in such a bad hypothetical light will make pregnant mothers unreasonably paranoid.

I’m more than willing to admit that I’m out of my leagues challenging Dr. Casanova, but my comments are based on what he presented to WHAS News in Louisville, Kentucky. I do plan on following up on this in the near future.

Autism Still Not Linked To Aborted Fetal Tissue

April 22, 2010

What do you get when you cross pro-life advocates with vaccine deniers? The implausible idea that vaccines originally derived from aborted fetal tissue are responsible for the rise in autism. A mother of a child with autism sent me an e-mail today asking if I had any information about the recent chirping in the pro-life community about a new study they say proves a correlation between autism and their ingredients derived from aborted fetal tissue. She writes…

Just when I thought all that nonsense was dying a slow death, someone comes on one of the autism support group sites and posts something about a new EPA study linking autism to abortion cell use in vaccines.

It seems like autism is a magnet for woo woo because it’s origins can’t be fully explained. The idea that a study was being interpreted by pro-life activists as showing a correlation between autism and aborted fetal tissue really raised my skeptical alarm bells, obviously. My first thought was that this was a simple case of correlation being confused with causation. My second thought was that I better check out the study and see what it says. My third thought was that the best person to answer this question would be the study’s author, Mike McDonald. I bet the pro-life anti-vaccine activists never thought to ask the person who did the research.

Fortunately, Mike McDonald replied to me about whether his study can be interpreted to show a link between autism and aborted fetal ingredients in vaccines. (Honestly, I think this is just a trick to get people like me to acknowledge that some cells in vaccines were derived from aborted fetal tissue). Here’s what he had to say…

The statements made onthe website incorrectly represent, and far over  reach, our study findings. Our study draws no causal linkages with anything and the recent increase in autistic disorder, and certainly not to the use of fetal tissues in vaccines.  Our research serves as a screening tool to direct future research to a potentially more productive time frame for additional study.  Without additional screening approaches there are potentially a huge number of possible exogenous factors and explanations that could be associated with autism.  The data we used suggest that the timing would be similar in Denmark and in California (the Japanese data may be earlier in occurrence,but we were not able to determine a change point from the study we used), suggesting that something similar may have been occurring in at least developed countries at this time. Autistic disorder increased in California and Denmark beyond the time frame of our study, but at different rates.  If we assume a dose response relationship, then exposure to whatever exogenous factor or
factors, that might be associated with AD, would have had to increase in parallel to the AD levels in different places.  But, the levels of exposure may have been different. However, in no case is a correlation with any of these things, including with the timing of the change point, with some other occurrence any indication of causation.

I hope this helps.

Mike McDonald

Yes, it helps. Thank you so much!

One In Four = One Depressed Skeptic

March 2, 2010

One in four surveyed parents wrongfully believe that vaccines cause autism. One in four have been convinced, despite any supporting scientific evidence, that their child could suddenly collapse into a heap of neurological disfunction when being treated with the best preventative medical treatments the world has ever known.

This startling statistic comes despite the fact that Andrew Wakefield, the bloke whose research sparked the debate about whether the MMR vaccine could cause autism, has been scolded by the General Medical Council for being dishonest and irresponsible.

This startling statistic comes despite the fact that even the best cases for a link between MMR and autism were rejected by the vaccine court in the autism omnibus proceedings.

This startling statistic lands limply on my desktop despite the fact that numerous studies have disproved a link, despite the fact that thimerosal has been removed from childhood vaccines without a subsequent decline in autism, despite the fact that “mother’s intuition”, conspiracy theories, and imagined toxins are the best that vaccine opponents can provide.

And yet, despite the 25% survey respondents who were suckered by the rhetoric of antivaccine activists, 9/10 still believe in vaccines enough to say that they are a good way to prevent diseases for their children.  So, at the least, I can go to bed knowing that, for now, a semblance of common sense prevails, despite the hysteria and anti-medical propaganda being promoted by my ideological opponents. It’s little comfort, but I’ll take what I can get.

Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs for Sale

January 21, 2010

Jenny McCarthy wrote a book on pregnancy called “Belly Laughs” when she was still a lovable B-list celebrity known for her comedic talents and sex appeal. At the time, I had no way of knowing that she would become the ‘poster mom’ in a campaign of disinformation against vaccines and pharmaceutical companies, so I’m not ashamed to say that I waited in line to have her autograph a copy for my pregnant wife.

The book is really funny, if you can get past the upsetting image of her shouting down experts on Larry King. The autograph is perfect for your pregnant friends named Amy because the autograph is inscribed “To Amy – Here’s to Shits and Giggles ~ Jenny McCarthy”. I kid you not.

Amy and I have decided that the best thing to do is to put her book up for sale on ebay and donate the money to “Every Child By Two“, a non-profit advocating vaccines. You might remember that they are the group represented by Amanda Peet. Let’s take a look at her PSA for educational purposes…

If you are interested in buying my autographed copy of “Belly Laughs”, you can check out my ebay listing. Thanks for your support.

Next month, I will be selling another autographed book by a purveyor of woo. Sadly, that one will be one that makes me much more ashamed than this one. For “shits and giggles”, take a guess in the comments section what book you think it may be, and I’ll tell you if you’re hot or cold.

Autism’s Alternative Treatments

January 4, 2010

It’s about time we wrote an update on all the autism myths swarming around and confusing parents. There seems to be a lull in the antivaccine war drums, but I wouldn’t doubt that another Hydra head will spring up to replace others that have been chopped down.  Indeed, we maybe seeing the next wave of tactics by vaccine haters with a new libel suit against Dr. Paul Offit, a man who has been vilified by his anti-science opponents for (deservedly) making $5 million as a co-inventor of the vaccine for rotavirus. Go to Science-Based Medicine to see the full scoop on Offit’s legal challenge.

So, most of us know what the antivaccine army opposes, but let’s take a look at what they recommend.

What is Lupron? Lupron is a hormone therapy meant to reduce excess testosterone. It’s been used to chemically castrate sex offenders. Mark and David Geier are the scientists who have been promoting this treatment, despite the fact that they are not experts in endocrinology or autism. Lupron has been used to treat precocious puberty and to chemically neuter sex offenders. The amount of Lupron recommended by the Geiers is ten times greater than the dose recommended for precocious puberty, and essentially castrates autistic boys with “masturbation problems”.

There have not been trials of this procedure, so any parent using this method is willfully subjecting their children to a treatment with unknown risks. These $5000 Lupron treatments come in the form of intramuscular injections. It seems that the Geiers themselves are the folks who profit from the injections, and the only evidence behind their recommendation for Lupron is their own poorly done studies. Read more at The Chicago Tribune.

What is chelation? Chelation is the use of untested industrial agents added to creams or pills to draw heavy metals from the body. Some parents use chelation on their autistic children, even when there’s no evidence of higher metal toxicity. Children with autism are given chelating agents to release metals that have been bonded to tissue. Their urine is then tested for heavy metal toxicity, but the results are compared on a scale that was not meant to include results from chelated individuals. Which means that parents are gambling on a risky, potentially dangerous procedure without two important control groups: one to see whether children without autism also have high metal toxicity levels after chelation, and another to see whether non-chelated children report similar levels of progress.

This whole idea that autistic kids are contaminated with toxic levels of metal is based on the accusation that heavy-metals in vaccines stimulate autism, but there has never been any evidence for such an association (mercury is no longer in vaccines and aluminum is a minuscule ingredient). See more at The Los Angeles Times.

The Autism Diet?

I’ve said it before, but now it’s even more official. MSNBC reports that 25 experts have come to a consensus that there is no proof that children with autism are more prone to digestive problems or that gluten/casein-free diets are effective in “curing” (or even helping) symptoms of autism. In fact, the panel, which was funded by The Autism Society and other autism groups, warned pediatricians to watch for malnutrition in children with autism because of the limitations of wheat-free and dairy-free diets.

The idea that gut issues and autism had a connection to the MMR vaccine was, by all accounts, manufactured by Dr. Andrew Wakefield – his study on 12 autistic children has long since been debunked. Yet, Wakefield defiantly stampedes forward at Florida’s Thoughtful House, where he continues to treat autism with an income of a quarter million dollars per year, despite the lack of support from his scientific peers. How nice for the man who revived measles from the dead!


That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I don’t take particular glee in these news stories. There are people in my life who have placed their bets on these expensive treatments. I empathize that they want answers, they want cures, and that they’ll try anything that might have a chance of working. Having a child on the spectrum is an incredible frustration for some people, one that I will likely never understand. Many parents have said that my right to speak on this topic should be revoked because I can’t possibly relate to their struggles. Regardless of those objections, I will report on the evidence as indicated in the legitimate scientific publications and mainstream media.

I will never say that there’s no possibility that some children with autism have high testosterone, are intoxicated with heavy metals, or are unable to digest wheat and dairy. What I will say is that there’s no evidence that these symptoms occur more in children with autism than they do in children without autism. In addition, the treatments for each supposed cause of autism are similarly unproven, and each of these treatments are potentially dangerous to human homeostasis.

Let’s hope that we can come up with a true cure and a definitive cause for autism in the near future.

This Week In Parenting Science 8/1/09

August 1, 2009

It’s been a busy week for science news in the parenting world.  Some weeks we have spurts, and then other weeks the well runs dry.

Cancer and Pesticides – The August issue of Therapeutic Drug Monitoring has some pretty upsetting news. There’s a type of pediatric cancer that’s on the increase, and the cause could be an exposure to residential pesticides.  It was found in a recent study that children were twice as likely to get lymphoblastic leukemia if they had been exposed to the organophosphates in pesticide. Quite disconcerting considering that my next door neighbor uses that crap every spring.

Autism and Breastmilk – Will Jenny McCarthy go on Larry King and demand that we remove the toxins from human breast milk? She might just have to do that if she wishes to remain honest because there are some preliminary studies being done on rats that are showing a connection between autism and PCB molecules in breast milk. You might remember that PCBs are one of the most annoying toxins in the environment because they never go away (eliminated in the 70s). This study focuses on the neural effects of rats breastfed with milk contaminated with non-coplanar PCBs. The exposed rats developed problems interpreting auditory signals, which is a symptom of autism in humans. The difference between the exposed rats and the non-exposed rats were quite striking. Needless to say, this is problematic for the medical community because breast milk has been repeatedly shown to be a better option for a variety of other reasons. It might end up being a “catch-22″ with a similar ethical dilemma to that of the debunked link between autism and vaccines.

Swine Flu & Pregnancy – Let’s not forget that we still have a swine-flu problem, and that it will likely get worse when the cold weather encroaches. Not only will it get worse, there’s a chance that it could get nasty. I’ve started preparing for the worst by stocking up on grains and water. Yeah yeah, it’s over-hasty and alarmist, but a little survival preparation never killed anyone.

Back to the news… pregnant women are more likely to die if they contract swine flu. They have so far accounted for a disproportionate 6% of the total deaths. This fall and winter, pregnant women should be extra careful to wash hands and avoid contact with flu victims, especially in their 3rd trimester.

Autism and GI Problems – Guess what? Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the fraudulent scientist who introduced the idea of a link between autism and MMR vaccine, was wrong when he theorized that the (non-existent) link stemmed from problems in the gut. A recent study has confirmed what everyone in the science community already knew; there is no link between gastro-intestinal disorders and autism. That means that, as I’ve stated before, gluten and casein free diets are an unnecessary inconvenience. What the study did show was a link between autism and constipation, but there can be many reasons for this, not the least of which would be that children with autism can be picky eaters who are put on strict diets.

Autism: Gluten and Casein Diets

July 7, 2009

My wife and daughters recently visited a cousin who may be on the autism spectrum. The cousin is being seen by early interventionists (incidentally, my mother’s profession), but has yet to be officially assessed.

I was distressed to hear that, despite the fact that this cousin has yet to be diagnosed, my sister-in-law has placed him on a gluten and casein free diet, an unnecessary restriction that is not based on proper scientific evidence. Gluten is a starch protein ingredient in wheat, rye, and barley and casein is a protein ingredient in dairy. Restricting both sources of food can be a challenging, expensive waste of time. More importantly, the diet eliminates important sources of nutrients that must be unnaturally replaced; autistic children on these diets were twice as likely as control group to have weakened bone structure.

I don’t blame any parent for doing whatever it takes to raise a healthy normal child, especially in the light of anecdotes of cures from Jenny McCarthy and her flock of followers. The truth is that there is, as of yet, no cure for autism. Parents who listen to Jenny are placing faith in her claims – she is not basing her advocacy on the facts. The evidence is poor for the efficacy of dietary restrictions for the treatment autism. It’s difficult to design a well-controlled double blind study for this diet, but the one study that met those qualifications, showed no difference between the diet restricted group and the control group.

Ms. McCarthy, whose child may actually have Landau Kleffner Syndrome (not autism), has thrown every possible treatment she can find at her son, including psychic healers. Jenny once claimed that her son Evan was a psychic indigo child (perhaps ready to be enrolled in Professor X’s academy for mutants?). Jenny has a disdain for modern medicine as proven by her crusade against vaccines and her tirades against the doctors who faltered in her son’s diagnosis.

The probable truth is that Jenny and her friends are wrong. Parents who report improvements in their children are probably undergoing confirmation bias, where they select what seems to be progress and ignore behavior that stays the same. Autism can be regressive depending on the age, but most often it’s not – parents will report improvements as their autistic child undergoes speech and behavior therapy. These advancements will happen whether the child is on a restrictive diet or not. Confirmation bias is described in this example of a believer-turned-skeptic, who suddenly reversed his autistic child’s gluten and casein restricted diet without noticing any change in his behavior.

I’m concerned for my nephew. I really hope he is not on the spectrum. Mostly, I hope that my extended family doesn’t fall too deep down the slippery slope of autism quackery because I would be extremely bothered if my nephew were to undergo chelation therapy with a DAN doctor.  You can bet that I’ll be finding a good way to send them the above links; hopefully, without insulting them.

Again, it’s not my place to judge a family’s decisions because I will probably never know their frustration, but in the end, the evidence indicates that restricting casein and gluten will not help an autistic child, and may actually harm him.  I’ll save the anecdotes for the author of “anecdotes-based parenting”. For me and the science-based community, the diet is extreme, possibly dangerous, and lacks efficacy: that’s more than enough reason to speak up and hope that I’m heard.

Update: 1/4/2010 – my nephew is no longer on the restricted diet. There was no change in progress when he returned to a typical diet.