Saturday, January 21, 2012
My colleague at Age of Autism Dan Olmsted is an investigative journalist. He was with USA Today when they launched and wrote the "Age of Autism" series for UPI. He and his writing partner Mark Benjamin broke the story of Lariam, a malaria drug given to US soldiers, causing neurological damage that lead to murder suicides. Here he takes on the poor girls of Leroy, New York, who have suffered tics and Tourette's like syndrome - and have been told by neurologists that they are "hysterical" - and have a Conversion Disorder. Which is doc talk for "it's all in your head."
Health experts say they’ve eliminated every possible environmental and infectious cause for the “tics” afflicting 12 girls at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School in New York state. They’ve scoured the building for mold and carbon monoxide (nothing, they say), considered illnesses that might cause the symptom (none), even checked on vaccinations (not all girls had the same shot).
However thorough that workup may have been, it seems to have stopped at the schoolhouse Exit sign. Except for checking a log of pesticide spraying, there is no evidence they considered toxins in the schoolyard or on playing fields. Yet the symptoms occurred during mild weather when students would have been outside, and the school grounds are surrounded by intensively farmed land from which chemicals could conceivably have seeped or drifted.
The school is required to keep annual pesticide logs that were reviewed by a consulting firm looking into environmental factors, and therefore pesticides were ruled out. As best I can determine, that’s as far as it went.
That may not be far enough, given that parents and some of the students involved don’t accept the psychogenic diagnosis they have been given, and that a number of Web commentators familiar with the school have raised concerns about the grounds and how the relatively new building is sited.
Public health officials remain adamant that the case is closed.
"The LeRoy school is safe,” Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, replied Friday after I raised the issue in a telephone call. “The environment or an infection is not the cause of the students’ tics. There are many causes of tics-like symptoms. Stress can often worsen tic-like symptoms.
“All of the affected students have been evaluated and some have shown signs of improvement. Vaccines (Gardasil) have been ruled out."
While the department has been careful for privacy reasons to avoid naming the illness, a doctor treating the girls has now gone public, with their permission, by calling it “conversion disorder.” Known less gingerly as mass hysteria, the diagnosis is rooted in 19th century Freudian psychology: Stress or trauma is subconsciously transformed into physical symptoms that can occur in several people at the same time.
In part because the LeRoy diagnosis took months to emerge, and in part because many people – including parents and affected children – find conversion disorder a suspect explanation, multiple theories continue to arise. Those include concerns about the school building and grounds, expressed in online comments:
-- An environmental study “would be the first logical step, knowing that the school was built in a swamp and that a number of classrooms were underwater the first year as well as the gym you would think it would be the first thing the school would address- even if only to disprove it.”
-- “Girls started feeling sick in September, sounds like pesticide spraying At the end of summer before the fall to protect late crops.” (The girls’ symptoms began as early as September 10, according to published accounts.)
-- “Have the doctors considered that the condition may be related to the school's having been built on swampy land? Water in the building continues to be a problem. A second story that should be pursued by the press and others is why this new school was built and why it was built on this particular piece of land.”
A quick look look at Google Earth (click the plus sign to see the school and grounds in detail) shows the setting. The high school’s Web site has an aerial photo that appears to show a large pool of standing water close to the school, with a rivulet coming even closer; it appears to be dry in the Google photo.
Farming, despite its idyllic image in American lore, is a highly chemical-intensive practice, and Western New York is no exception. For that and other reasons, it can be dangerous. In October, a few miles west of LeRoy in Genesee County, two people became ill when a pesticide being applied to a potato field wafted in their direction. The substance was a toxic fumigant being injected into the soil in preparation for planting this year’s crop. Officials said humidity might have helped spread it.
Obviously, that incident had nothing to do with the LeRoy illnesses, but it does give a sense of time and place missing in accounts of the area, as well as suggesting weather is an unpredictable vector.
But in such a scenario, why would only girls be affected? That's unclear, but there are a number of possibilities that environmental triggers could help explain. For instance, in some cases of mass illness in high schools, the victims were male football players and the problems were traced to toxins where they played. Being male was not a susceptibility factor, but it pointed to the exposure nonetheless. (In another case, marching band members suffered the same problem for the same reason.)
It is possible that more has been done to consider toxins outside the school building, but if so nothing has been done to communicate it to the national media.
In fact, opportunities continue to be missed. The two consultant reports and the school district’s official statement make no mention of looking for anything amiss outside the building itself ,except to note the water supply comes from neighboring Monroe County's public system. "No history of building water damage or site contamination was found," it states.
Neither the district nor the consulting firm it hired would talk to me Friday when I told them I was seeking information on whether risks outside the school building had been investigated.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of “The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic,” published by Thomas Dunne Books.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Saturday, January 14, 2012
My gift to you - FREE download of my funny, fast paced romantic suspense House of Cards. Don't forget the Kindle app is available for every device except your toasters and Nooks! Scroll down my blog for a free chapter too!
Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum would think her life is easy compared to Kat Cavicchio's. When a car crash with a New England Patriot lands her sister in the hospital, Kat has to move in with her brother-in-law to take care of her young niece and nephew – with autism.
The windfall accident settlement should turn around her financial woes and help the kids too, until the football player kicks his last field goal in a gruesome murder that lands Kat's entire family in the cross hairs of a drug dealer who thinks she is hiding something from the football player that he wants. Can a sexy State Trooper throw a Hail Mary pass and save her life before the clock runs out on her life?
Q&A with author of House of Cards, Kim Stagliano
Question: Which books or movies influenced you in writing House of Cards?
KS: My life as a Mom of three girls with autism is pretty stressful (understatement of the year there) and so I read and watch movies for entertainment and laughter. I'm a big fan of the Farrelly Brothers comedies and love offbeat, irreverent humor. I created Kat Cavicchio in the hopes that readers will want to meet her again and again, like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, Rita Mae Brown's Harry Haristeen and Meg Cabot's Heather Wells.
Q: You wrote a Memoir called All I Can Handle I'm No Mother Teresa and you blog and write for magazines. Why did you decide to write fiction?
KS: So I can kill people! OK, maybe not. Fiction gave me the freedom to have a character say things that would sound dreadful coming from me, a real Mom. It's fun to create a world where you control the events - good and bad - and write the ending you want. If only life were so easy.
Q: Is House of Cards an "autism book?"
No more than Jodi Picoult's House Rules would be called an "Asperger's book." House of Cards is about the growth of Kat Cavicchio and the arc of her Italian American family's life. Sophie and Dom are characters whose autism shapes them - they help Kat learn who she is and how to grow up.
Q: Is House of Cards "your" story?
No. It's definitely fiction. Kat is flakier than I am (though my husband might disagree). She is terrified of responsibility and hasn't found herself even at 30-something. I'm much more uptight and buttoned down than Kat. And I prefer dark haired men like my husband to her blond State Trooper. I drew from my experiences with my girls, Mia (17), Gianna (15) and Bella (11), but Kat's story is hers alone.
Q: You were in advertising and marketing, then had the girls and stopped working to care for them after you learned they had autism. What made you decide to start writing?
KS: My husband Mark was out of work, writing gave me a chance to vent my frustrations on paper and was more socially acceptable than tippling sherry at 9am. I learned I have a "voice" that welcomes readers, makes them laugh, and entertains.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
KS: Friends, family, the news and favorite authors who've paved the road far ahead of me. As an author and Managing Editor of www.AgeofAutism.com, I've had the privilege of meeting parents all over the world, in person and through cyberspace. We share stories of the vagaries of raising kids on the spectrum; the joy, the love, the frustration, our hopes and dreams and even our fears. I incorporated those emotions into House of Cards.
Q: Anything you'd like readers to know about you?
KS: I drink far too much coffee, love kickboxing and am a prolific baker. I'm addicted to FaceBook and Twitter. I'm scared to death of what the future holds for my daughters - but keep moving forward. I'd love to have readers join me. And if you have a child on the spectrum, I'm always available to offer support at KimStagliano@gmail.com.
About the Author:
Kim Stagliano is author of All I Can Handle I'm No Mother Teresa. She blogs for Huffington Post, TodayMoms, writes for Autism File Magazine and other national publications. She lives in CT with her family.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
I've been working on my health since January of '11. I started kickboxing. First I went two times a week. Then three. Then, as I got to know the participants and Shihan who owns the dojo, four times week. So now I go up to six times a week - every class offered. I was eyeing the Karate classes.... But I was too chicken to sign up. In September Shihan placed a uniform in my hand "You try." (Italian accent.) I tried. I now take 3 Karate classes a week. So the exercise part of health is well covered.
Food: I'm a terrible eater. I don't love to eat to begin with - and after making so much food for the kids, I kind of don't care what I eat. At my yearly (millennial?) check up my blood work was excellent - except for low Vitamin D. I try remember to take my Trader Joe's D every day. I also started Coromega - to get fish oil. Damn if it doesn't taste good enough to remember every day. So far so good. I'm also taking a Dr. Mercola protein shake I make with berries and coconut water every day. Love it.
Looks like I'll be going back to Las Vegas in April with Mark. April in Paris! (The hotel.) Swimsuit weather will arrive early for me.
What are you doing for your health?