Forum addresses causes of autism

Monday, September 20, 2004

By Julia Metelski ~ Southeast Missourian

A mercury-based preservative in vaccines was a key topic at a forum on autism at Drury Lodge Sunday, the last day of the annual meeting of the Mentally Retarded Citizens of Missouri.

About 40 people, mainly parents of autistic children, attended the late morning forum. State Rep. Kevin Threlkeld of Washington, Mo., and parent Lugene Clark addressed the ways that autism is being battled and the use of the preservative thimerosal.

"The theory is, some people think, that you need a preservative to prevent contamination," Threlkeld said, enabling one bottle to be used for several doses. Groups have challenged that thimerosal is directly linked to the sharp increase in autism cases nationwide, while the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control refute the claims as having no credible evidence.

"But in Carthage, there are over 5,000 documents that I call evidence," Clark said as she plunked three cases of files and reports onto the table. Clark, president and co-founder of, is a nurse and mother of an autistic son. She and her husband have been actively lobbying at the state and federal level to remove thimerosal from vaccines.

The three-day annual meeting was the first in at least 12 years to be held in Cape Girardeau, said Jerry Ford, executive director of the Mentally Retarded Citizens of Missouri, a parent advocacy group on mental retardation.

The weekend was highlighted Saturday night with a banquet that awarded Al Spradling Jr. of Cape Girardeau the Friends of MRC 2004 award. Although Spradling was not able to attend the banquet, he was acclaimed as "the father of mental health and retardation legislation" while serving in the Missouri Legislature from 1954 to 1977.

Hilary Schmittzehe, director of Cape County Association for Retarded Citizens, gave a presentation that traced Spradling's life through legislaton and highlighted the "cutting-edge" theories that started in Missouri and spread worldwide, including sheltered workshops, group homes, state schools for the mentally handicapped and special education.

The latest step by the legislature was a bill that would prohibit mercury-based immunizations to children under 8 years old and would require insurers to cover mercury-free vaccines. Primarily pushed by Rep. Roy Holden, the bill pass the House 152-4, Threlkeld said.

"You hardly ever see a bill passed with that margin," Threlkeld said. However, the bill was tabled in the Senate in May.

"I think we stand a very good chance this next session for the bill to pass," he said.

Betty Hearnes, a former member of the Mental Health Commission and a former state representative, said at Sunday's forum that state programs have made progress since 1989 in equipping parents of autistic children.

"Many of you will say, 'It isn't enough,'" she said. While she agreed that not all needs are being met, at least some of them are.

St. Louis University professor of pediatrics Barbara Whitman discussed how the medical diagnosis of autism is not recognized by the educational system. The conflicts lie in how autism is not categorized as an "other health impairment" within special education regulations, how federal regulations do not as clearly define autism as they do mental retardation and how standard assessments of autism do not exist.

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