This guest post is provided courtesy of my husband Peter, a social studies/math teacher at a charter high school in Central California. He is in his 18th year of teaching in both public and private schools in Texas, Arizona, and California; he is also in his third official year of homeschooling. He is a lifelong Catholic, and a talented mineral collector and family historian/genealogist.

A few thoughts on this statement issued by the Vatican in commemoration of Autism Awareness Day:

Autism is still, despite all of the recent research, something about which our understanding is incredibly primitive. What is most frightening, though, is just how much it is taking on the scale of an epidemic. One of the most frequently-cited studies indicates that 1 in 88 babies (1 in 54 boys, since autism tends to be more frequent among them) is now born with autism, and that number is climbing rapidly. Some will say that autism has always been around, and that this number is simply the result of more frequent and attentive diagnosis, but I cannot buy that this factor predominantly explains these numbers. It is one thing to say that autism has always been around and to point to “eccentric” or “weird” people in the past as examples of undiagnosed autistics. But what we are seeing now is not an epidemic of the eccentric. It is an epidemic of kids who don’t speak – and sometimes grow into adults without uttering more than a couple of intelligible words. It is an epidemic of people who find the world around them to be downright frightening and cannot function in it. States such as California which provide public benefits to the autistic are finding their resources more strained by the growing number of clients – and benefits are now starting to be cut. As the number continues to grow, the resources that governments, schools, and families have for the therapy and care of autistics will go less and less far. Think about the numbers for a moment. If the number of babies born with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is 1 in 88, we’re talking millions of Americans who are autistic after one generation.

And we still have no idea what is causing this. We have all seen plenty of “culprits” identified, ranging from vaccinations and artificial food coloring to the use of pitocin during labor. While I believe that there is some evidence that, in some kids, food coloring can worsen the manifestations of autism, I don’t buy the vaccination or pitocin links. My guess is that there is something ubiquitous, something all around us, that is responsible, but it is something that is considered a normal, innocuous, essential part of a comfortable American lifestyle. Once that factor is identified, perhaps years from now, we’ll look back on our time in the same way that we now look back on the cavalier attitude that Americans had towards radiation in the 1950’s (when frequent X-rays were encouraged as being “fun”). We’ll ask how people today could have been so blind.

I’m not saying that this is the cause of autism (my guess is that it probably is not, but I could be wrong), but I do wonder about the myriad of ways in which we now bring ourselves into frequent, close contact with electromagnetic radiation. We’re told that it does not cause any harmful health effects, but how sure are we? The pace at which we have surrounded ourselves with electronic devices of all sorts has been so rapid, the change so dramatic, that we haven’t had enough time to study its effects – effects which may not manifest themselves for years. It reminds of those studies done in the 1950’s which claimed that frequent X-rays did not harm one’s health – but those studies obviously took place years before the resultant cancers would tend to manifest themselves. My favorite theory so far regarding autism attempts to explain it as an autoimmune disorder, the results of an unborn child’s body already having a hyperactive immune system as a result of an immune system not having enough legitimate targets to use its energy in attacking. The U.S. has become a much cleaner society, with all sorts of substances available for frequent use that kill off germs. Are we killing off too many of them? Is this the ubiquitous “harmless because it makes our lives better” factor at work? I can’t say for certain, but comparative studies of autism rates among nations and over time show some startling correlations.

In the meantime, I don’t think that our society really has enough sense of what is coming down the pike to brace itself. This is an epidemic, and the care burdens are going to be immense. Kristen and I have had to change how we do things and limit our activities dramatically because of [our son’s] autism, and the kid is still only five years old.