By John Morgan, Spotlight Health, with medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
On Smallville, John Schneider plays the father of teenager Clark Kent. In real life, Schneider is dad to his 11-year-old son, Chasen, who also has incredible abilities.
"My son has Asperger's Syndrome, which is part of the autism spectrum," says Schneider, who is best known for starring on the Dukes of Hazzard. "It's likely Albert Einstein had Asperger's, and so did Thomas Jefferson. Bill Gates I'm certain has it. With many highly motivated successful people that have done something in an obscure area, you're going to find an 'odd bird' now and then."
"Ask Chasen just about anything about baseball, and he can rattle off names, dates, statistics, you name it," Schneider explains. "He just consumes everything he can about baseball. It's his thing."
Asperger's Syndrome (AS) occupies the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects early brain development, often causing communication difficulties and problems with social interactions.
Despite its identification in 1944 by Austrian physician, Hans Asperger, the syndrome was not recognized as a unique disorder until 1994. As such, the exact number afflicted is unknown. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 400,000 people have autism, making it the third most common developmental disability.
But a report by the California Department of Developmental Services estimates that the number with autism may be as high as 1.5 million. The prevalence of the autism is likely as high as 10 to 12 people per 10,000, the study shows.
The challenges faced by people with autism and Asperger's come from the same place," says Stephen Shore, a doctoral candidate in special education, concentrating on the autism spectrum at Boston University. "They just express themselves differently. For example, we see significant delays in communication for autism. There is no significant delay in verbal ability for Asperger's."
Other characteristics of Asperger's include:
* Deficiencies in social skills
* Difficulties with transitions or changes, preference for sameness
* Obsessive routines
* Repetitive motions
* Restricted interests
* Difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language)
* Sensory issues
* Difficulty determining proper body space boundaries
By definition, people with AS have a normal to above average IQs. But while many Asperger's kids possess advanced vocabularies – often sounding like "little professors" — they can be extremely literal and have difficulty using language in a social context.
"Chasen was formally diagnosed a couple of years ago with what they termed a form of autism," Schneider says. "Then it was refined to Asperger's. When I was a kid, we called it the 'hyperactive kid in class' – you know, the one who was the brain and had little or no social skills whatsoever. Everyone seems to need a label. My son I guess could be considered an 'odd bird.'"
So was Shore, the doctoral student.
"I was hit with what I call the 'autism bomb' and lost language skills but then started getting it back at 4 years of age," Shore says. "In 1964 I was diagnosed with strong autistic tendencies. If I were to have been diagnosed at age 12, it would have been Asperger's."
"So what happened with me is what happens with most people on the autism spectrum — I moved from a more severe end to a lighter end," Shore adds. "The challenge is to move children as far to the lighter end as possible."
The cause of autism and Asperger's remains a mystery.
"We think there's a genetic basis that is exacerbated by something in the environment," Shore says. "The question is – is the catalyst a vaccination, a virus, or something else?"
'But what we do know there is definitely something in the environment that is causing it," Shore states. "Thimerisol is being strongly scrutinized, perhaps in part due to the overlap in symptomology between mercury poisoning and autism being about 80-90%. But we're not sure."
Autism expert Bernard Rimland says he is sure.
"I've been studying this for over 40 years," says Rimland, who founded the Autism Society of America and now serves as its director. "In my opinion there is very little doubt that the increased rate of vaccinations is responsible for the increase in autism. Not only the number of vaccines but also the amount of mercury has increased. Mercury is extraordinarily toxic in small amounts, but some people are amazingly susceptible to minute amounts of mercury."
"There is a huge epidemic of autism," says Rimland, who consulted on the movie Rain Man. "A recent report examined the hypotheses as to why there is such a large increase. Migration to California does not explain the increase. The report rejected the hypothesis that there was a change in diagnostic standards. Another theory was kids were reclassified from mentally retarded to autistic. But this was not the case either. It is the vaccinations."
To support his case, Rimland says that the symptoms of mercury poisoning are "amazingly like the symptoms of autism." Boys are four times more susceptible to mercury toxicity than girls. Autism is four times as common in boys as girls.
When interviewed by the ASA, Rick Rollens, who has helped with the California studies, acknowledged the possibility exists that vaccinations could be responsible. "…Since mercury containing vaccines are still in use today, including the most recent recommended addition to the childhood immunization schedule ... (of) two shots of flu vaccine for babies, it will take a few years to start seeing the effect of the phasing out of the mercury containing preservative thimerisol from childhood vaccines on the autism epidemic."
"The experts have been wrong before and the experts are wrong this time too," Rimland states. "When we were children we had three vaccinations before the age of 6. Now the kids get 22 before the age of 2. It's a little like saying if a kid can safely carry three books in his backpack, then 22 is also safe."
"The good thing from all this is they've taken the mercury out of the vaccines," adds Shore, who authored Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. "Because you shouldn't be injecting mercury into anyone."
But Rimland urges extra caution because many old vaccinations are still being used that still contain mercury.
"The FDA has not recalled the vaccinations so the advice we give parents is if you have an autistic child in your family insist on seeing the package insert – don't take their word for it," Rimland cautions. "Read it yourself. If it says thimerisol, don't let them use it."
Schneider has his own advice.
"If your child is going along just fine and developing skills when they should and then you notice all of the sudden that his forward progression stops and begins to reverse, you need to take your child in and find out what is going on," Schneider says.
Among the treatments that can help children with autism and Asperger's:
* Behavior modification
* Special education
* Medications – though not specifically for Asperger's, anti-anxiety drugs and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can be helpful for symptoms.
Schneider says his son has benefited greatly from social skills training as well as having used a "shadow" in school to encourage him to interact more with his peers.
"Fortunately, Asperger's is not like some of the terrible diseases we are fighting to cure through the Children's Miracle Network. It's not going to kill Chasen," says Schneider, who helped found CMN which has raised more than $ 2.5 billion for children's hospitals. "It doesn't mean it's easy for Chasen, but he's an amazing kid, and I am so proud of him."