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Sanjay Gupta MD

Unraveling the Mystery of Autism

Aired November 29, 2008 - 08:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning and welcome to a special edition of HOUSECALL, "Unraveling the Mystery of Autism."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think I've let myself think too far ahead into the future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He started kind of slipping away from us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The doctors keep on saying that boys develop slower than girls.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The early intensive behavioral intervention is the best way to deal with autism.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think you're dealing with something that's going to come and go. And then you get your child back. And then you don't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have to become an expert on education because you are the advocate for your child.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you know something is wrong, something is wrong.


GUPTA: Rates of autism are jumping, an alarming 10 to 17 percent every year. The numbers can be overwhelming, but today, our goal is to investigate, empower, and educate, giving real answers to the thousands of questions surrounding this medical mystery.



SANJAY GUPTA, HOST (voice-over): Watching old videos, Theresa Cedillo sees the child her daughter Michele could have been, happy, engaged, playful. Michele's childhood has turned out very different. She's autistic. Now 13, she can't walk without help. She gets her nourishment from a feeding tube. And she needs constant monitoring for seizures.

CEDILLO: You think you're dealing with something that is going to come and go. And then you get your child back. And then you don't. And you just have a very sick child.

GUPTA: Teresa and Mike Cedillo blame vaccines for causing their daughter's autism. And they've sued the federal government through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The Cedillo's case is more than 4900 claiming a vaccine autism link. They're being considered together in a so-called vaccine court, part of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Last year, Michele Cedillo's claim was chosen as the first of nine test cases to determine whether the vaccines could plausibly trigger autism. More testimony is scheduled this year.

CEDILLO: She was a normal and healthy developing child.

GUPTA: The Cedillos say their daughter was sickened by a combination of the measles, mumps, and rubella or MMR vaccine, and the mercury containing preservative thimerasol, which was in childhood vaccines at the time. As a precaution, thimerasol has since been removed from all childhood vaccines and only remains in some flu shots.

While the court considers the vaccine autism case, the medical establishment has already passed judgment. More than a dozen large studies finding no vaccine-autism link.

PAUL OFFIT, DR., CHILDREN'S HOSP. OF PHILADELPHIA: It's been asked and answered. Vaccines don't cause autism. I mean, about t 20% of children with autism will regress between often the first and second birthdays. So statistically, it has to happen where some children will get a vaccine. They will have been fine. They get the vaccine. Then they're not fine anymore.

GUPTA: Theresa and Mike Cedillo hope the vaccine court will decide vaccines can cause autism and award them enough money so Michele can be well taken care of when they're gone.


GUPTA: And one of those 4,900 cases was the case of nine-year-old Hannah Polling, which has been making a lot of news lately. Luckily, we have the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Gerberding here. We're talking a lot about autism, as you know. I should remind people that the - my understanding is the federal government conceded that vaccines caused her autism like symptoms. First of all, is there a difference? I mean, does she have autism or autism like symptoms? What's the difference?

JULIE GERBERDING, DR., CDC DIRECTOR: Well, you know, I don't have all the facts because I still haven't been able to review the case files myself. But my understanding is that the child has a - what we think is a rare mitochondrial disorder. And children that have this disease, anything that stresses them creates a situation where their cells just can't make enough energy to keep their brains functioning normally.

Now we all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids. So if a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines. And if you're predisposed with the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage. Some of the symptoms can be symptoms that have characteristics of autism.

GUPTA: Yes, I have a 2 1/2-year-old and a one-year-old as you know. And you know, you know, you think about this all the time. Are we ready to say right now as things stand that childhood vaccines do not cause autism?

GERBERDING: What we can say absolutely for sure is that we don't really understand the causes of autism. We've got a long way to go before we get to the bottom of this. But there have been at least 15 very good scientific studies on the Institute of Medicine who have searched this out. And they have concluded that there really is no association between vaccines and autism.

GUPTA: Are you comfortable everything that we know? So you talk about the...

GERBERDING: Well, I'll never be comfortable with everything we know. I mean, I think we have to have an open mind about this. We know that there's very little chance that it's something related to a vaccine that's going to cause a serious problem for a child. We also know how life saving vaccines really are.


GERBERDING: You know, something like 33,000 children a year are saved from death associated with the vaccines...

GUPTA: Right.

GERBERDING: ...because of our immunization program. That's a huge benefit.


GERBERDING: One of the things that concerns me is while the attention is focused on vaccines, in a sense, it means people are not looking for other causes. I mean, we've got to keep reminding ourselves that the vaccine story has been one that's been debated for many, many years now. We keep looking and looking and looking. And we really cannot turn up any information.

GUPTA: How do you - how does the -- should the government be doing more to try and address this controversy, especially in the minds of, you know, so many people out there who worry about this and live with this, as you say, every day?

GERBERDING: Well, one thing that I remember is that the government is actually composed of moms and dads. And there are a lot of moms and dads at CDC who look at this the same way. Many of the people in our immunizization program are parents of young children. So they understand the dilemma that a parent feels.

But it's kind of our job to do the science to help clarify and separate concern from scientific fact. Autism is a huge challenge. And it is much more common than I think anyone realized. And we aren't doing enough. And we need to do more.


GERBERDING: We need answers not only to the cause, but we need answers for treatment and for management. And certainly on autism awareness day, we need to understand how we can detect this disease early so that intervention can start soon enough to really help these children.

GUPTA: Our viewers have a lot of questions. I'm so delighted you were here to help answer some of them.

GERBERDING: Thank you.

GUPTA: We're going to stay on this. And we hope you'll join us again.

GERBERDING: Appreciate that. We're staying on it, too.

GUPTA: Thanks so much, Dr. Gerberding.

GERBERDING: Thank you.

GUPTA: Appreciate it.


GUPTA: Become a part of researching the cause and treatments of autism. Log on to the Interactive Autism Network at Families share what works for them. And researchers hope the information will help find effective treatment options CNN is covering autism on a global scale. Beyond the sound bites, you're going to find interviews, expert blogs, and stories of hope at


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was almost as if a switch, somebody came to our house and turned the switch off.


GUPTA: Parents know when something doesn't seem right. Just ahead, signs you can look for in your child. And later, we really want to help you navigate the frustrating red tape so you can get what your family needs. We'll bring in the experts to connect you with the latest information. Stay with us.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know how special the word 'mama' is? When I waited over four years to hear it for the first time from my child, it made me cry. I am a mother of twin boys who just happen to have autism. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GUPTA: We're back with this very special HOUSECALL, "Autism, Unraveling the Mystery." You know, what I found in my reporting on autism is that early diagnosis is critical. More and more of the latest research shows real progress is possible with early intervention. And the key to that is knowing when to seek help.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My husband and I both, we felt something was not right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We knew what the stereotypes of autism. Dustin Hoffman character in "Rain Man."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were so many milestones that other children hit that he just did not hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We thought that maybe he had a speech delay.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No matter how many times I changed the symptoms around or left one or two off, it kept coming back, autism.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the area of social communication, these are children who don't establish eye contact. They don't share common enjoyment. They don't offer comfort. They don't have the skills to approach a person, say hello, start a conversation, or interact in a game in an appropriate way.

JUDITH STEUBER, TWO SONS HAVE AUTISM: He was just finishing kindergarten when he started talking, which is not what other kids do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Children with autism don't necessarily develop expressive language skills. Many times, children who do have verbal expression make up their own words, don't use pronouns appropriately, and have difficulty really understanding some of the common conversational language that we use in our society.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He kept washing his hands, he was flipping the light switch on and off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are kids who become obsessed with the garbage truck, ceiling fans, stop signs, flag poles, sewer covers, very strange things. Other children, they have interests in lining things up, or playing with just very specific parts of toys, spinning wheels on a car, or opening and closing doors, or switching lights on and off, or running from one room to the next. So the activity that they engage is in is sort of a meaningless activity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would have horrible, horrible tantrums, an inability to calm down from those. Everything that we did, it affected.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any time a behavior results in a tantrum or in crying or in re-establishes the routine of the families, any time that child's behavior is really running the family, now that certainly is a great red flag that something's wrong.

Early intervention can really circumvent the development of those behaviors. And certainly, early intervention can assist in minimizing those behaviors if the behaviors emerge.

JEFF CHIUSANO, FATHER OF SON WITH AUTISM: It's remarkable how far he's come along. He now has complex speech. He interacts with other kids and wants to. He can recognize social cues. He's funny. He has a personality. It is 180 degrees from where we were.


GUPTA: And here's another idea. As a doctor, I believe clinical trials are a great way to get cutting edge treatment for your child and help with research. Go to like we did. Search for autism and you'll find studies recruiting for culation (ph) therapy, acupuncture, various medications and more.

Of course clinical trials are just one piece of the puzzle. Parents must become the best advocates for their autistic child. We have expert advice coming up on navigating the system and finding all the right tools and resources. Plus, an incredible mom and her pediatrician with their advice.


GUPTA: There is a way you can help cause change. Go to Impact your world by donating to groups researching the causes and treatments of autism.

Now we've talked about signs to look for, but what's next? What should you do when you know something's wrong? Experts we talked to agree your next steps are very critical. And in this week's empowered patient, Elizabeth Cohen has some practical steps for parents to ensure children get the help they need.