A New Autism Study and the Question of "atomic stupidity"

A new study out of the University of California on the "Emergence of Early Behavioral Signs of Autism" is getting attention from science-based bloggers and the AoA crowd. This study found that "behavioral signs of autism are not present at birth, as once suggested by Kanner, but emerge over time through a process of diminishment of key social communication behaviors." I don't know what the need to throw Kanner in there was all about, nor why it's relevant what someone first describing the condition nearly seventy years ago has any relevance on what we know today about the condition. Our conceptions of autism have adapted and expanded over time. To hold to Kanner would be like holding to only what Darwin theorized. Science moves forward; we tip our hats back at the past, we note it, we appreciate it, but we don't hang our hat on it.

Novella wrote about this study at Science-Based Medicine and Handley immediately jumped in to rebut it.
Handley accuses Novella of  "atomic stupidity," and if there's one thing Handley knows well, it's all varieties of "stupidity," right? Unfortunately, knowing it, more in the biblical sense than in being able to recognize it, leads to Handley's latest bit of it at AoA. Why deal with the Wakefield and Krigsman fall-out when you can deflect it onto Novella and Orac? I think we can all rest assured that Orac is not beloved by the AoA personages. Novella, though, only rarely makes it on the radar with Handley, who likes to pretend he's never heard of him each time he mentions him.

Before moving back to the study and links to bloggers who capably discuss this study, I'd like to focus on Handley and the idea that Novella has engaged in "atomic stupidity."

I don't think Handley's using atomic right in any sense of the word, even if we can connote what he means from the context. Atomic is variously defined as:

"Indivisible; cannot be split up."  Define That

1.of, pertaining to, resulting from, or using atoms, atomic energy, or atomic bombs: an atomic explosion.

2.propelled or driven by atomic energy: an atomic submarine.

3.Chemistry. existing as free, uncombined atoms.

4.extremely minute." Dictionary.com

What does Handley think it means? I don't think he meant tiny, do you?  I assume he means collosal, tremendous, enormous stupidity. Stupidity that is mind boggling. Stupidity that is awe-inspiring in its power. What was this overwhelming, overpreening stupidity? Novella wrote: “Many children are diagnosed between the age of 2 and 3, during the height of the childhood vaccine schedule… The true onset of autism in most ASD children likely began a year or two prior to the vaccines that are blamed as the cause” (taken from AoA for simplicity). Oh my. Seriously, that's Handley's nitpick and the start of an article in which he claims it's the first time he's read Novella's blog. Even though he wrote a blog on April 22, 2009, about Novella?

For an  in depth look at the study itself, Novella, despite Handley's allegation of "atomic stupidity," recently wrote on it. After Handley attacked, Novella rebutted and refined his statement, noting that he could have been more precise. Today, Orac weighed in. Emily ably discusses the study, as well. All three of these individuals (discarding Handley) and so many of the commenters at Orac's and Novella's blogs took on this topic in an informative, often entertaining, and interesting way. So well in fact that I won't reinvent the wheel when the topic has been dealt with as well as it has. I will, though, share my comment left at Orac's:

It isn' that autism is a condition which develops over time; that's a semantic problem. Autism is a condition that becomes apparent over time. These two sentences are vastly different in meaning. Autism appears to be a neurological difference set by birth that as developmental milestones are not met or gradually become delayed compared to the child's cohort, the condition becomes manifest and diagnosable.

Memory is faulty at best and denial ain't just a river in Egypt. Having three on the spectrum, I can relate anecdotally that you can know the signs, know what to look for, admit your child has issues and still not be willing to call it autism until left with no choice.

So, there's my nitpick. The other is with the whole idea that autism is a disease. In a strict medical sense, yes, it does meet the criteria, but since the public does not use the same operationalized definition of disease, and because of the negative connotation it has, neurological difference is much more accurate and less pejorative.

A succinct working definition of autism, then, would be this: autism is a neurological difference that is set in place by birth which becomes apparent as early as six months to a year in many cases. And no one associated with the mainstream field of autism research or clinical practice would quibble or be surprised by this working definition.


davidbrown said...

In case you haven't seen it, "The Hairy Biped Attacks!" is a new post dealing with Handley's attack on Novella as well as myself.

AutismNewsBeat said...

It never ceases to amaze me how dense JB Handley can be. Such an easy concept - a disability can exist long before it becomes apparent. A newborn can't walk, so it would not be immediately apparent if his legs didn't work right. For some reason this sends Handley's head spinning. He is either very stupid, or very dishonest. Or more likely, both.