It was once a rare diagnosis, but now, Autism is more common than Multiple Sclerosis or childhood Cancer. With one in 150 children being diagnosed with Autism, there's a very heated debate about what's causing the increase. The reality is no one really knows for sure. It's a very controversial issue and there are dozens of different theories.
"I used to think my son's spirit was taken from him, but I actually think it's still there, it's just hidden away, it's just locked in a door that we are trying really hard to break down,"
says Shelly Cowgill, of her son Jonah. The door closed on 6-year-old Jonah Cowgill's life just a few months shy of his second birthday. Shelly says, "He was my first, earliest crawler, first to sit up, he did every milestone on time, he walked on time. He had about a 40-word vocabulary and then it just, kind of went away."
In a matter of a week, Jonah's world fell apart. "He stopped talking, he starting walking around in circles, I couldn't get him to make eye contact with me. He would make strange movements with his eyes and we knew something was wrong."
Luckily, Jonah's pediatrician acknowledged and diagnosed the Autism quickly, but the answers and explanations the Cowgill's would get from doctors in the coming years, weren't good enough for them. Shelly says, "You get to that point, okay, I've done everything mainstream medicine has asked me to do; and so as a mom, as a parent, you start looking into other things."
The Cowgill's are now in a fight to get back the son they once knew. It's turned into almost a full-time job for Jonah's mom. "Some of the things we're doing with our son, now in treating his Autism, I think we really feel is probably the medicine of the future for treating kids, at least with the type of Autism that Jonah has," says Shelly.
The causes of the dramatic rise in Autism cases is at the center of much debate, but many believe genetics play some role. Dr. Pam Hanson from Franciscan Skemp says, "We know there's a genetic propensity to Autism and that, if one child has it, there's a higher chance another child in the family will have it. We also know that there's probably some abnormalities within the structure of the brain."
But, with Jonah's type of Autism, the Cowgill's are convinced, it's something more than just genetics. A so-called perfect storm for a catastrophe. Shelly says, "I think genetics kind of loads the gun, but I think environment kind of pulls the trigger. For someone, like Jonah, who was fine for the first 18-20 months of his life, and for it to just disappear like that, you kind of have to wonder, okay, what happened here, something happened here, something went wrong."
One of the most controversial arguments is whether the mercury-based preservative and known toxin, Thimerosal, which used to be used in childhood vaccines, is responsible for the increase in Autism cases. Dr. Hanson says, "I think Thimerosal, which has been taken out of vaccines for young kids, has been looked at so thoroughly, that everyone's pretty much debunked that as a cause."
Shelly says, "I'm not anti-vaccination by any sense of the word, but I'm kind of thinking, we need to be watching what preservatives we're putting in vaccinations and I think we need to take a close look at the vaccination schedule."
Dr. Hanson says, "Are other vaccines involved? It's still an ongoing study to look at those."
Tests on Jonah have found detectable levels of several metals in his body, including mercury and lead. Both of the Cowgill's are dentists, who work with industrial chemicals, often, so is there a connection there? They've now turned to bio-medical therapies, such as Chelation, to treat Jonah's Autism. It's a process that pulls the metals out of his body. Jonah's dad, Terry, says, "I'm the skeptic, she'll tell me a theory and I'm a skeptic, but after you see some from separate doctors, separate labs, and the same results, there's something there."
Another of the potential factors being studied is diet. Some people believe removing gluten and casein proteins from their child's food intake has helped them improve, although, it didn't do much for Jonah. Regardless, the Cowgill's are not giving up their fight. Shelly says, "Some people might think that's crazy. I can live with that, the one thing I can't live with is not doing everything I can to help my son."
Dr. Hanson says, "I think when you have a disorder that's not curable that conventional therapies don't work miracles for, then I think looking at alternative therapies, that work, sometimes just as well as our medical therapies, is understandable."
Shelly says, "No matter how he turns out, we will absolutely love him and be fine with, however, whatever happens in the end, but it's still, I feel, as his mother, it's my job, our job to make sure that we help him reach his potential."
It is true Autism is recognized and diagnosed more, but most experts also agree, that alone doesn't account for the huge increase in the number of cases.