The Age of Autism: Snoozeweeklies

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor  |  Feb. 14, 2006 at 2:16 PM
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The nation's top two newsweeklies have just weighed in on the problems of boys and the decline in science literacy. Both abjectly failed to address a crucial part of the picture: the impact of environmental toxicity on children's development -- and America's future.

Newsweek devoted its cover story to "The Boy Crisis" and reported some alarming figures: "By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes."

And over the past 30 years men have slipped from 58 percent of college undergrads to 44 percent, Newsweek noted.

The suspects in Newsweek's sights: the way boys' brains work, the failure of schools to teach and test in a way that reflects that difference, the absence of adult men in their lives ...

Everything, in fact, but the notion that something environmental could be holding boys back. Is there an existing model for such an idea? Why yes, there is. It's called autism, and it affects boys at several times the rate of girls -- 1 in 80 boys are somewhere on the "autism spectrum," astonishingly. A growing number of experts believe an interaction of genetic susceptibility and toxic triggers is involved in the soaring rate of diagnoses over, oddly enough, the past 30 years.

"I think there's a real concern that there's been a change in our environment," Dr. Carol Berkowitz, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told NBC News last year. Ironically, the network did its autism series in conjunction with Newsweek.

"An exposure to some toxins, chemicals, environmental factors -- either when a mother is pregnant or after the delivery of the child -- that has led to autism," she summarized the concerns.

Time's cover was a painting of a boy whose chemistry experiment had blown up in his face. ("Is America Flunking Science?") Again, here's a boy who can't learn, with consequences not just for him but for our country's future.

But why?

Time's explanation for this shortfall: the government cutting back on basic research; corporations, their eye on short-term profits, doing the same; " ... the quality of education in math and science in elementary and high schools has plummeted."

"The years from 'Baby Einstein' to AP physics are an increasing source of worry for ... colleges and universities, which see a shrinking pipeline of talented U.S. students pursuing the sciences," Time said.

Well, if they can't pay attention, they probably can't do Advanced Placement physics, either. And why can't they pay attention?

An environmental watchdog outfit claims that one in six infants is born with a blood mercury level above that considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. They go so far as to assert today's kids have been exposed to enough mercury to potentially cause learning disabilities.

This "outfit" is the EPA itself.

There's really nothing controversial about the idea that toxic exposures can affect developing brains, whether in utero or in infancy, whether we're talking about autism or ADD. That's why last year the pediatricians joined other public health groups to challenge the EPA's own power plant mercury rule.

"Many young children exposed to mercury before birth will suffer subtle but irreversible brain damage. Preventing this tragedy, which affects not only families but entire communities, should be a national priority," said Barbara A. Blakeney, president of the American Nurses Association.

What am I not getting here? Autism is increasing; it mostly affects boys; the nation's top pediatrician expresses concern about brain damage from a toxic trigger. Learning disabilities are increasing; they mostly affect boys; the EPA expresses concern about brain damage from a toxic trigger. Shouldn't that loom large in any examination of why Johnny can't learn and we're in danger of losing our supremacy in the sciences?

Actually, five years ago U.S. News & World Report -- the third newsweekly and, in this case, the most acute -- did make this point. The cover story was headlined: "Kids at Risk: Chemicals in the environment come under scrutiny as the number of childhood learning problems soars."

"Experts have advanced a variety of theories for the increase in disorders, including better diagnostic methods," the magazine reported. "But a growing body of evidence suggests that compounds called neurotoxicants may be contributing significantly to the problem."

So for Time and Newsweek to highlight the problems of today's kids, yet ignore any link to toxic exposures, shows how far we are from solving the problem.

What problem?

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E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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