U.S. appoints autism advocates to new federal panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Advocates who believe vaccines may cause autism will join mental health professionals and neurologists on a new federal panel to coordinate autism research and education, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said on Tuesday.

Parents of children with autism and a writer who has an autism spectrum disorder will also be on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, HHS said.

“The committee’s first priority will be to develop a strategic plan for autism research that can guide public and private investments to make the greatest difference for families struggling with autism,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health and the chairman of the new committee.

The committee was authorized under the Combating Autism Act of 2006. The U.S. government has been under pressure to step up research on autism, which can severely disable a child by interfering with speech and behavior.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in every 150 children has autism or a related disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome -- which adds up to about 560,000 people up to age 21 in the United States.

“This important committee will play a key role in coordinating autism research, services, and education related to autism spectrum disorder,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a statement.

Some of the committee’s members have been at odds with government agencies in the past. Registered nurse Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds, has frequently accused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of covering up evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Another member, Lee Grossman, is president of the Autism Society of America, which also argues that vaccines can cause the disorder.

Many medical studies have failed to show evidence that vaccines or their ingredients cause autism. The Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government on health matters, issued an unusually strongly worded report urging that researchers look elsewhere for a cause for autism but the advocacy groups are unconvinced and are vocal about it.

Other members of the new committee include Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Dr. James Battey, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders at NIH; and Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Stephen Shore, executive director of Autism Spectrum Disorder Consulting, himself was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and wrote a book, “Understanding Autism for Dummies.”

The group will meet twice a year and make recommendations for new areas of research.

Reporting by Maggie Fox; editing by Mohammad Zargham