The Age of Autism: Feedback on the Amish 1

By DAN OLMSTED  |  June 14, 2005 at 3:29 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 14 (UPI) -- Readers of this column have reacted strongly to our series of reports on autism among the Amish. So far, we have found only a handful of cases of autism and have quoted some experts who think it is nearly non-existent in this group.

Below are comments from readers who dispute the idea there might be proportionately fewer Amish with autism. Others argue that even if there are, it proves nothing.

A number of readers said the series seemed to implicate vaccines unfairly as a cause of autism, because the Amish have a low vaccination rate. Some parents of autistic children, along with a minority of experts, suspect that a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal used in vaccines through the 1990s could have triggered an autism epidemic, though most mainstream researchers reject the premise.

It is worth noting we quoted people who raised the issue of childhood immunizations, as well as the possibility that environmental mercury exposure could be a factor, but we have drawn no conclusions about what might account for a lower autism rate among the Amish -- if in fact that is the case.

A selection of responses:

I have followed your series of articles with interest.

They all sound a similar note, that you have investigated and not found significant numbers of autistic children among the Amish, so you assume that it's because the population generally isn't exposed to childhood vaccinations with the preservative thimerosal.

I'm not a scientist, but this seems like an awfully unscientific approach. There is no way to determine whether you are reaching a representative sample of Amish. More troubling, if you'll forgive me, is that you can't control for any of the other variables. The Amish lifestyle, and for that matter the gene pool of this smaller and somewhat isolated population, is different than ours. There must be scores of differences in environmental exposures including the food they eat, the water they drink, other medications they take or don't take, exposure to industrial toxins, pesticides, physical activity patterns, and the like.

Discovering the cause of autism in our society is an important and pressing task. Unless the true cause is discovered, prevention and treatment cannot be effected. With all due respect, I'm not sure that speculation like this advances the cause.

I think your approach makes a wonderful case for there being almost no Amish autistics. It's unfortunate that many people don't have critical thinking skills and will look at this all as proof that the government doesn't care about them and that it's all a conspiracy ... and in the end will either not vaccinate their kids, thimerosal or not, or will delay vaccinating them significantly enough to endanger them.

I hope when you are finished you will follow outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. There's a serious rubella (German measles) outbreak in Ontario right now that started in a religious community which, like the Amish, has low rates of immunization. The thing about this is that it's not staying in the religious community, it's spreading and may cause the deaths of unborn babies and severe disabilities in them if they are exposed to rubella (in the womb).

Interestingly, rubella infections like this are a minor cause of autism. Maybe it will become a more common cause of autism.

I think the factor you're not capturing is that the Amish are a genetically homogeneous population, and virtually everyone acknowledges that autism has a genetic component. If there truly is little to no autism in that community, it would appear that the genes just aren't in their pool.

Also, there are any number of lifestyle and environmental differences that preclude a leap to the conclusion that their low vaccination rate has something to do with the incidence of autism.

You are misleading the entire autism community. ... To publish findings requires a lot more than asking a community to e-mail you and claiming no occurrences when you don't get a response. Shame on you!

Note that the Amish are a basically "closed" population. (When was the last time an "English" married into the Amish? I don't know the answer, but I'm guessing it's rare, if not nonexistent.) If they didn't have the autism "gene" (if there is such a thing) 100 years ago, they probably don't have it now.


Next: Readers who believe the Amish hold clues to the cause of autism.


This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism aims to be interactive with readers and will take note of comment, criticism and suggestions. E-mail:

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