Article first published as Selling an Idea: Autoimmunity and Autism is the New Snake Oil on Technorati.
On Saturday, the New York Times ran an article in their Opinion column with the following title: An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism. The article made a very clear, glaring assumption: All children with autism are subject to a self-destructive immune system, which is caused by a lack of parasites in the body. By the end of the article, the author (not a doctor, by the way), claims that by introducing whipworm into the system in order to treat autism in children. Never mind the dangers of such a decision, the illness it could cause, it's all because we don't balance our immune system by being too clean.
With such a wild assumption, particularly with the recent finds in Iceland regarding genetic mutation likely in aging fathers, it needed to be checked. According to the author, research has been done to prove this theory. From what I could read from doing a quick Google Scholar search, all studies revolving around the connection between autism and immune systems were inconclusive, requiring a lot more research. Most of the research out there is sparse, and much hasn't been duplicatable in additional studies, casting doubt on the connection.
The problem is, the author, who is flogging his book, "An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases", which will be available September 4th, makes claims without any substance or citations. Biologist Emily Willingham took him to task in an article that is well worth the read. She did a lot of the legwork in searching for research, sifting through the author's claims, and pointing out the glaring problems in his article.
The problem is, people are going to believe him. The same people who are determined to believe that vaccines are the root cause of autism are taking this up as "proof" that their theory is correct. Others will start giving parasitic eggs to their children, infecting them on purpose, in an effort to "cure" their autism. Children are going to get sick, if not die, from malnutrition and anemia because parents are going to panic.
I've long maintained that autism is a condition ripe for misinformation, as no one knows what causes it. As such, much like the uneducated peasants of old, snake oil salesmen can come in with their crazy ideas, sell a book or treatment, make millions, endanger children in no position to defend themselves or tell their parents they hurt, and have a following vow that they are right and anyone who doubts is a "hater". It's scary, it's frustrating, and it's wrong. The only thing that can combat such charlatans is good education, of which there are plenty, and yet many people refuse to be educated, refuse to do the research, and therefore give up their responsibility as parents to someone else.
Now, I'm all for new theories, and new research. But to make an explicit claim that ALL instances of autism are caused by anything has to be backed up by a significant amount of research before I'll take it seriously. New research is just that, new, and assumptions are made based on the results of the study and the biases of the researchers. Additional studies need to be made with the same results being found, in order to reinforce the theory or find an actual connection. Until that has been done properly, Mr. Moises Velasquez-Manoff has cast himself as a snake-oil salesman looking to generate sales of his book, and not to help children and adults on the autism spectrum.
Sir, shame on you.