Jason's View

I'm Not Trying to "Ruin Society": A Response to the Harvard Study on Toxins, Autism, ADHD, and Dyslexia

08 Jul 2015 by Jason Harris
Image: 123rf.com

So one day recently I was doing what all of us who have social media accounts do—scrolling through my newsfeed to see what was going on with the people and organizations I follow, when I saw an article from the Mass Report called, "Researchers at Harvard Reveal 10 Toxins that Are Causing ADHD, Autism."

The first thing that actually went through my mind was, “Oh this is interesting; what do they think causes this?” It isn’t shocking that the conclusion they came to is that toxins are bad; what is completely shocking is the language that they used around disabilities. While I am used to the language used with autism, it was a surprise to hear the same used for ADHD, dyslexia, and some other types of disabilities. Even though they have an effect on people, there are a lot of highly valued people with ADHD or dyslexia.

What is this troubling language, you ask? One of the statements that caught me most by surprise was this: “The researchers say that the neurotoxicants ‘contribute to a “silent pandemic” of neurobehavioral deficits that is eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, and damaging societies.’” The reason this was so shocking is it is basically saying people with neurological disabilities are ruining society! I immediately found this claim dubious, because there could be a number of reasons people with neurological disabilities do not fit into society, but there is also a significant portion of that population who do.

The quote above was actually taken directly from the medical journal The Lancet (here: Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity). The Lancet is a highly regarded medical journal based in the United Kingdom. (It is also more infamously known as the publisher of the article about autism and vaccines that got our recent vaccine debate started.) So I read this new article, and while they may have points about toxins, the things they say about disabilities themselves tend to be speculative and without much substantive research to back them up. We just don’t know how much of this is societal.

We do know people grow up based on the environment that is around them. My question is: How does this affect people with disabilities, especially those diagnosed at younger ages? Could it be that one of the reasons people with neurological disorders are “ruining society” is because the culture they grow up in says they are a burden, either implicitly or explicitly? Second, could a lack of supports be a reason people are not able to be fruitful members of society? If there are supports, who are they really working for? Us as a public, to keep people in check, like the institutions of the past; or, for the benefit people who experience these disabilities themselves?

The Lancet confuses correlation with causation (see this site for some humorous incidences: Spurious Correlations). In science, correlation is something that might be a reason something is the way it is, but there is not enough evidence to say if that is the main reason, or a partial reason, or any reason at all. Causation usually means there is evidence that something is the main determining factor. The most egregious offense of these writers is the use of the word pandemic—equating disability with disease. In addition to being fear-mongering and hyperbolic, it flat-out doesn’t meet the definition of a pandemic in a scientific way. The World Health Organization’s definition of a pandemic says it must be able to affect humans, and cause a disease in human and is able to spread from human to human easily (see also: Definition of a Pandemic). This definition does not match any neurological disorder, because I cannot pass on my autism to you. Nor can your child catch ADHD from the kid next to him in class, or dyslexia from a friend on the bus.

How we talk about these issues as a society has great impact. We should choose our words carefully. Misinformation is dangerous.

Another issue here is the talk about low IQ scores among those with disabilities and the diminished quality of life that brings. First, we have to look at the ideas behind the Intelligence Quotient. We have heard arguments that the IQ test is racially biased, and so have to wonder that maybe this bias is also possible against people with disabilities. We also know that IQ tests are meant to predict the success rate of people in school. Again, how much do environmental factors come into play with an IQ test? Are people getting the resources they need to learn or being taught in a way they can understand?

A paper by Dr. C. George Boeree at Shippensburg University (here: Intelligence and IQ) discusses intelligence having a genetic component. Boeree also talks about environmental aids and hindrances: “A stimulating environment, parental encouragement, good schooling, specific reasoning skills, continued practice, and so on, certainly help a person become more intelligent. Likewise, there are certain biological factors that are nevertheless environmental: prenatal care, nutrition (especially in early childhood), freedom from disease and physical trauma, and so on.” Some would read this and say, “A-ha! Harvard’s right, here’s the word diseases.” But we see again parental encouragement is a factor. This goes back to which matters more—biology or environment? Boeree also says that while many researchers believe intelligence is one thing, some are beginning to shift in their thinking, believing that there can be more than one type of intelligence.

Boeree continues:

"There was an experiment by Rosenthal in which school teachers were casually told at the beginning of the school year that certain students (mentioned by name) were “spurters,” that, according to some tests designed to measure “spurting,” they would blossom in the coming year. Actually no such test had been given. In fact, no such test exists. The information was actually given about 20% of the students, chosen at random.

These kids not only did well academically (which we might expect, with teachers having some control over that), but actually increased their IQ test scores!

The same, incidentally, happens with rats: Graduate students told that certain rats had been bred for intelligence found that they did indeed do better at learning mazes — even though the information was false!

This is a form of experimenter bias, of course, and part of the reason we have double-blinds in experiments. But in the broader, social arena, we call this the self-fulfilling prophecy, or the labelling effect. It is clear that we should take children as individuals and give them whatever education they can handle. Unfortunately, that is costly."

It may be toxins that cause neurological disorders. But The Lancet is a medical journal, not a sociological journal, and they do not have the evidence or expertise to speak to the effect they say neurological disorders have on society. I would advise that we do sociological research how upbringing affects disabilities. I would also advise those in the field of research to remember that no matter what, we are people, not disabilities, and how we talk about these issues as a society has great impact. We should choose our words carefully. Misinformation is dangerous.

Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View