February 19, 2006

Autism surrounded by misunderstanding-experts

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - People with autism are more
intelligent and able to function better than previously
believed, but mistrust of doctors, biased tests and the
Internet have bred myths about the condition, experts said on

At a meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, researchers presented reports showing
that even autistics who do not speak can have above-average
intelligence. They also offered additional studies disputing
claims that vaccines can cause autism.

"The current figures are that 75 percent of autistic people
are mentally retarded, with the mute the most ... impaired,"
said Dr. Laurent Mottron, an autism researcher at Montreal's
Hopital Riviere des Prairies.

But Mottron believes the wrong intelligence tests are used
to assess autistic children. Many are tested using the Wechsler
scale, a common IQ test that includes questions about words and
concepts learned in school.

The Raven's Progressive Matrices test measures abstract
reasoning and consistently gives autistic children higher
scores, Mottron said.

The average boost in score is 30 points, Mottron said,
enough to put someone previously considered mentally retarded
into the normal range and the average to gifted status.

Mottron was so impressed by the abilities of one autistic
student, Michelle Dawson, that he made her a co-author of some
of his papers.

Autism is a term used to describe a broad range of
symptoms, from an inability to use language normally, to
exhibiting deeply disturbed and repetitive behaviors. The U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it affects
anywhere between one in 500 and one in 166 children.

Morton Gernsbacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
questioned a common idea among autism researchers that autistic
people lack a "theory of mind," which, among other things,
gives an ability to empathize with others.

Again, she said, the wrong tests are used to assess this


Dr. Judith Grether, a California epidemiologist, said she
questions the idea that there is a new autism epidemic.

She said it is impossible to find out how many cases of
autism there were in the past, because many people with autism
were often diagnosed as retarded, or never diagnosed. Without
that information, it is impossible to say if the number of
cases has grown, she said.

"We have to do the studies to find the answers," she said.

Grether said researchers in California have begun taking
prenatal blood samples from pregnant women and will look for
clues when and if some of their children are diagnosed with
autism. They are examining hormones, heavy metals, immune
system proteins and other factors.

The studies found no link with vaccines, said Dr. Irving
Gottesman, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, but
said the CDC has initiated four new studies "to tie up the
loose ends."

New studies are focusing on genetic susceptibilities.

Gottesman said the studies may help ease the fears of
parents that a vaccine-autism link has been covered up.

But he said scientists are battling a plethora of Internet
Web sites devoted to the idea that mercury causes autism like

Gernsbacher, the mother of a child with autism, said some
parents may join these lobbying groups over the advice of
doctors because they get "pat answers" to initial concerns
about their children. Many may have been told that boys develop
later than girls, for instance.

"The mistrust (of government-funded studies and of their
pediatricians) may have arisen from those kind of experiences,"
she said.