A hidden epidemic

NEW JERSEY - For some years, autism has been a full-blown public crisis in America. The sense of emergency increased at the end of March, when a respected study reported that the chance of a child being diagnosed with autism increased by 20 percent. According to the report, one child in 88 was diagnosed with autism in 2008. Two years before that, the rate was one in 110. In 2002, it was one in 155.

Lee Siegel,

20 de maio de 2012 | 03h00

No one knows whether the rapidly rising rate of diagnosis is because the disease has lost its social stigma, the so-called "spectrum" of the disorder has been broadened, or increasing numbers of people actually are autistic. (Some countries have more indirect ways of dealing with the disease. In South Korea, when doctors encounter the condition, they attribute it to parental neglect and abuse. That way, the children are spared a fearsome stigma.) The cause for the growing incidence of autism hardly matters. Parents are terrified.

In 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study in a distinguished medical journal claiming that certain childhood vaccinations caused autism. The result was a massive movement of parents who refused to vaccinate their children. Although Wakefield's research has been thoroughly discredited and his claims refuted-by, among others, the journal that first published them- anti-vaccinationism still thrives with the force of a cult. A friendly acquaintance of mine, a highly gifted poet, novelist and critic, still refuses to have his young children vaccinated. Instead, he and his wife take their kids on their travels around the world, to places where diseases now defunct in the West, currently thrive.

An autistic child can break loving parents' hearts, afflict his or her siblings, tear families apart. One risks appearing glib by trying to reflect on the cultural meaning of the disease. But the incredible vulnerability that parents are feeling now begs to be considered in a larger context.

The spectrum of autism is a wide one, with children unable to speak or function mentally on the low end, and those on the other end suffering from Asperger's, a highly functioning condition characterized by obsession with things like trains or vaccum cleaners, by social awkwardness, and by an inability to read other people's emotions. But the two traits shared by every child on the autistic spectrum are a radical distractedness and a lack of empathy. It so happens that these are qualities that now afflict the general population.

It's been something like 60 years since watching television became a way of life, but it takes time for consciousness to turn. Only now are the effects being felt of burying your head in a screen, of being reduced to a passive receptor of waves of inanity, of having your attention pulled this way and that by rapidly changing images. More and more I find myself talking with someone who begins whistling to himself while I am speaking. (Of course this could well be the quality of my conversation; that is the subject of another column.) More and more one hears about accelerating rates of divorce, mass shootings at schools and in the workplace, or simply mundane sociopathies of ingratitude and betrayal. The clinical properties of autism seem chillingly to be the vanguard of a hidden and more common epidemic.

The internet has, you might say, fulfilled television's anomic promise. Withdrawal from other people now has a self-sustaining structure: you can be alone yet with other people all at the same time. On the internet, absolute distraction seems like absolute engagement. And when you are online, lack of empathy is an all-encompassing condition. Increasing numbers of people seem tempted by screen and solitude to malign, terrify, and even destroy other people, who are present in the online world merely as phantoms, as projections of someone else's tormented imagination.

I am certainly not saying that there is any connection between TV and computers and autism. It is becoming increasingly clear that autism and related disorders have to do with a gene that goes awry, with a tragic flaw in the genetic structure that has nothing to do with environment or even with the parents genetic history. And autism's rising incidence surely has at least something to do with the application of the diagnosis to behavior that was once considered merely strange or eccentric. By the current medical definition, Don Quixote, Werther and Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov all had Asperger's. Probably 80 percent of Dickens' characters exist somewhere along the autistic Spectrum.

Yet what is clear is that autism is the pathological counterpart to a sociological phenomenon. Whether both realities comprise anything more than a coincidence, or are the  meaningful attributes of a changing civilization is, for now, a secret locked in the future.

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