Rising number of autism cases putting a strain on many schools

By Anita Manning / USA TODAY http://detnews.com/1999/classrooms/9908/19/08190201.htm

    A stunning increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism has schools straining to provide services and health officials urgently seeking answers.
    And the increases are fueling a grass-roots movement of parents determined to expose what they believe is a connection between autism and vaccines.
    Autism, a developmental disability that usually appears before a child's third birthday, profoundly affects communication and social skills, impairing the child's ability to play, speak and relate to the world.
    The U.S. Department of Education reports a 173 percent increase in autistic children served under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act between the 1992-93 school year, when 15,580 children were counted, and 1997-98, when the figure was 42,500.
    In California, state senators are calling for research to find out why there was a 273 percent jump in children with autism in the past decade. And Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who held a hearing on vaccine safety last week, is leading an effort in Congress to find answers.
    "It's truly an epidemic," says Bernard Rimland, founder of the private Autism Research Institute in San Diego.
    Some experts doubt that. Lou Danielson of the Education Department's office of special education programs says his office's statistics are suspect because until 1991, there was no category for reporting autism.
    "Children with autism were always there," he says, "but they just weren't being counted in this category."
    Yet the demand for more resources for autistic children is real: Martin Babayco, head of the special-education program in the Ojai (Calif.) Unified School District, says he has sent three teachers to the University of North Carolina for special training, and he has formed an autism task force.
    "Within the last two years, our numbers have gone steadily up," reaching 25 in the upcoming school year, he says. "Is this a large number? Yes, 25 in a small school district like ours, it is an extreme number. We don't know why. I've talked to other educators, and they have a similar upswing."
    Scientists are puzzled -- and worried. "I think the increase is real. I don't think there's any question," says Marie Bristol-Power, coordinator of the Network on Neurobiology and Genetics of Autism at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
    People have cited other possible explanations, such as pesticides and pollutants, she says. "Right now, we're trying desperately to find out the cause."
    Rimland, a research psychologist and the father of a 43-year-old man with autism, says he knows. Autism rates are rising, he says, "because of the overuse of vaccines."
    He and many other parents of children with autism are convinced that at least some cases are caused by the multiple vaccines given children -- up to 21 before they start school -- and the combination vaccines, such as the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shot.
    Jeana and Darrell Smith of Baton Rouge feel sure their son Jacob's autism isn't caused by genetics. Their proof? Jacob's identical twin brother, Jesse, shows no signs of it.
    The boys, age 4, have slightly different medical histories. Jacob got his first vaccine, for hepatitis B, at the age of 1 month. His brother didn't get any vaccines until 3 months of age. At 15 months, they both got MMR. "At that point (Jacob) did not progress with language and developed weird behaviors," Jeana says. "I feel the hepatitis B knocked out his system, so when the MMR came along ... "
    The Smiths have two younger children, a boy, 3, who has had the first few vaccines normally given to children, and a daughter, 7 months old, who Jeana says "is vaccine-free."
    Refusing to vaccinate a child is "not something taken lightly," she says, but given her experience, she's "not willing to take the chance vs. the risk of the disease. If one of them steps on a rusty nail, I'll take him down and just get the tetanus shot."
    Walter Orenstein, director of the National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there should be more research on autism in general and any connection with vaccines.
    But "keep in mind there is a serious cost to the lack of vaccination, and we know what that cost is."
    "I know what happened in my son's case, and I know from talking to countless other parents that there is a strong temporal relationship between the onset of autism and vaccination," says Rick Rollens of Granite Bay, Calif., whose 8-year-old son, Russell, began showing signs of autism at 7 months old after routine vaccinations.
    Linked through Internet chat rooms and web sites, parents of kids with autism are drawing the attention of state and national education officials and politicians to what they believe is a looming crisis. They're demanding research into origins and treatments for the neurological disorder. "We've been jumping up and down about wanting good science to look into this," Rollens says. "Show us the science that says this stuff can't cause the kind of brain disorders we're seeing."