Thomas Sowell

Autism is a devastating condition, both for those who have it and for their parents. At this point, its causes are unknown and if there is any cure for it, that is unknown as well.

There are many ways of coping with tragedies. One of the less promising, and often dangerous, ways is to launch a crusade.

Crusades may be emotionally satisfying, politically popular and welcomed by the media. But crusaders are not known for caution, for weighing evidence or for counting the costs, which may extend well beyond the cost in money.

There have already been many casualties in the crusade against autism, and there may be far more if recent recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics are carried out to have every child tested for autism twice by age two.

Think about it: How many people are qualified to diagnose autism? Enough to test every child in America? Not bloody likely.

Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University has tested and treated children with autism for more than 20 years.

"While it is relatively easy to identify a five year old as autistic," according to Professor Camarata, "it is much more difficult to reliably diagnose a preschooler or toddler."

The word "reliably" is crucial. Anybody can unreliably diagnose autism, just as anybody can unreliably predict the weather or the stock market.

The consequences of unreliable diagnoses of autism can be traumatic for parents and children alike.

As a result of organizing a group of parents of late-talking children back in 1993, I encountered many stories of emotional devastation that these parents went through because their children were diagnosed as autistic -- diagnoses which the passing years have shown to be false more often than not.

As a result of writing books about these parents and children -- the most recent being "The Einstein Syndrome" -- I have heard from more than a hundred other parents with very similar stories.

Professor Camarata at Vanderbilt has a far larger group of parents of late-talking children, since he specializes in studying and treating speech disorders, and he has likewise found numerous cases of false diagnoses of autism among children who are late in beginning to talk.

More is involved than the needless emotional stresses of the parents. Many of the treatments inflicted on children diagnosed as autistic would be called child abuse if they were not done as medical procedures, and they can set back or distort a child's development.

Once the "autistic" label has been put on a child, it can follow him and her into schools and beyond, causing that child to be treated differently by teachers, nurses and others.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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