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Brita Belli’s Autism Puzzle in Publisher’s Weekly

Brita Belli’s Autism Puzzle in Publisher’s Weekly

March 26, 2012

The number of autism diagnoses in the U.S. have been rising precipitously over the handful of years that the CDC has been tracking it; the health organization is expected to release its latest numbers any day now, and early reports indicate that more than one in 100 children born in 2000 were diagnosed on the Autistic spectrum, compared with one in 110 for children born in 1998. Utah’s numbers, already released, show Autism rates of one in 77 for children born in 2000, a 73% increase over six years. In the UK, the Daily Mail reports that they’ve seen a 56% increase in diagnoses in five years.

Just about every aspect of the complicated developmental disorder is subject to vigorous, passionate debate—its causes, its treatments, and the meaning of its growth. The one constant in Autism seems to be the dramatic increase in diagnoses of it—and the subsequent increase in books on the diagnosis. According to (rigorous but highly unscientific) research, the Tip Sheet found a 533% increase in books on autism over the past dozen years, from 175 in 2000 to 932 in 2011—for a 2011 average of 18 per week. This week, there’s just 12 (12!), including a fresh look at the possible causes of autism from environmental reporter Brita Belli, called The Autism Puzzle (out from Seven Stories on Mar. 27).
In The Autism Puzzle, Belli sidesteps the heated, years-long mercury-in-vaccines debate (subject of a CurrentTV documentary that debuted on Mar. 24) to put the finger on the cumulative effect of household chemicals and medications, including mercury—but from fish, not vaccines: “a tuna sandwich contains more mercury than a typical vaccine dose,” she told the Tip Sheet. Other triggers include flame retardants, pesticides, certain drugs administered during pregnancy, and ingredients commonly found in hairspray and many kinds of plastic (including food containers and shrink-wrap).
Belli, who found her way to the autism beat through a cover story for her bimonthly publication E: The Environmental Magazine, told the Tip Sheet that “even today, we are at the early stages of discovering how many of the chemicals we are exposed to impact developing brains.” Her work took her deep into the lives of three families, and what she learned was “absolutely a revelation to me.” Despite differing backgrounds and beliefs, the families “all have in common parents who are unbelievable advocates for their children with autism, who are tireless in their efforts to find help and support for them, and who manage to have incredibly positive attitudes about their lives despite enormous day-to-day difficulties.”

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