Autism Rates on the Rise -- Can We Treat It?

By: Liam Martin Email
By: Liam Martin Email

EAST LANSING -- Four-year-old Jonathan Stokes can't talk.

He flaps his hands to communicate with his mother Anne. Jonathan's autistic, diagnosed at age 2.

"So devastating," Anne Stokes says. "Because it kind of kills a lot of your dreams."

Jonathan's not alone. New research shows one in 150 American children is diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that generally ranges from milder social deficits to moderate mental retardation. The newest ratio for the syndrome in boys? One in 68.

Dr. Brooke Ingersoll runs the Autism Lab at Michigan State University. She says the upside of that boost in numbers is an all-out push in recent years for research and treatment of autism.

"We are definitely getting better at treating autism than we were, say, 15 to 20 years ago," Ingersoll says.

Dr. John Wycoff has certainly witnessed an influx of autistic patients at his Wellness Center in East Lansing. He believes he can treat the syndrome -- and open doors previously closed to many autistic children.

"You can give the child something as simple as a B-12 shot, and the child will start to talk," Wycoff says.

B-12 injections, of course, are just one part of Dr. Wycoff's approach -- the so-called biomedical intervention, which treats autism (as well as other heath issues) throughout diet, vitamin supplementation, even hyperbaric oxygen chambers. The parents here at the Wycoff Wellness Center -- including Anne Stokes -- say biomedical simply works.

"He's been on an antibiotic for three weeks now and has made huge progress -- in signs and words," Stokes says. "He's doing thing he wasn't doing two weeks ago."

Stephanie Harlan's son Justin was diagnosed with a pretty serious case of autism at age 2. He had startedt to lose motor skills he previously had, stopped eating, stopped talking, avoided eye contact with his mother. Stephanie put him on biomedical treatment.

By age 5, Justin was completely recovered.

"I wouldn't say quite cured," the precocious 10-year-old says. "But recovered."

But Dr. Ingersoll isn't quite sold on the biomedical approach.

"Many of the biomedical interventions that are prescribed are based on theories that do not have a lot of good evidence," she says.

Ingersoll stresses that doesn't necessarily mean biomedical isn't legit. It's simply not very well-researched at this point. Wycoff argues his clinic is all the evidence he needs.

"If they saw a child who doesn't talk get a shot of B-12 and speak a day later, I think they'd have a different opinion," he says.

Wycoff and Ingersoll also differ on the cause of the recent uptick in autism rates. Wycoff claims it's malnutrition and American's fast-food culture. Ingersoll isn't so sure.

"There's definitely a higher number of children who have a diagnoses now than did 10 years ago, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're having an increase in autism," she says.

Ingersoll argues we're simply getting better at diagnosing the syndrome, especially in younger children, and have recently broadened our criteria for an autism diagnosis. Her approach to treatment? Much more grounded in traditional behavioral therapy.

At her MSU lab, Ingersoll is experimenting with a somewhat new behavioral treatment. Autism children are asked to imitate their parents' play, something they struggle to do in daily social situations.

"Children that don't imitate well have a hard time learning from their environment," Ingersoll says. "They have a hard time engaging in social interactions with other individuals. So imitation has been identified as a crucial or pivotal behavior to target in early intervention."

Either way, Ingersoll and Wycoff certainly agree. Autism treatment has come a long way in recent years.

"We've gotten much better at identifying autism in younger children, so we're able to enroll them in intervention earlier, so the long-term prognoses for children with autism is hopefully much better now than they were in the past," Ingersoll says.

A point just about every parent of an autistic child is excited to hear.

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