It wasn’t until Rebecca Wiesenthal’s oldest son, John, turned 3 and started preschool that she began to worry about his language development. John did not talk much and when he did, he used made-up words — such as “mop” for milk — that his teachers could not understand. “My husband had to make a dictionary for them so they would understand what he was saying,” Wiesenthal says. But she herself had been a late talker and had then suddenly produced full sentences at age 3. She figured her son’s language might follow the same pattern.
The quirks in Ramsey Brewer’s conversation are subtle. The 17-year-old repeats himself from time to time and makes small mistakes in the words he uses. For instance, he says he and his best friend look scaringly, not scarily, similar. He also pauses at odd spots, and for a beat or two longer than most people do. When he’s talking, he makes eye contact briefly but then slides his eyes sideways — or closes them. And his comments swerve in unexpected directions: Asked where he goes to school, he says Boston Latin Academy, but then suddenly adds, “I’m not actually from this state,” even though he and his family have lived in Massachusetts for years.
From the start, it was a provocative theory that ran counter to prevailing beliefs about both the immune system and autism, and in the early days Van de Water was one of its few proponents. “We’ve been swimming upstream — still are,” she says. Her peers criticized Van de Water’s work on the grounds that her results didn’t support her claims. And they were deeply upset when, in 2013, Van de Water formed a licensing partnership with a San Diego-based company called Pediatric Bioscience. That deal was aimed at developing a maternal antibody screen that might allow for early diagnosis of autism or, if performed prenatally, indicate the risk of having a child with autism. “This is very, very premature,” Yale University autism researcher George Anderson told Science at the time.
Will Robeson bounces into the neuroscience lab at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, familiarly calling out to each staff member. He makes his way to a black leather recliner positioned next to a suitcase-sized piece of equipment, with controls and a power supply, that looks like it belongs in a dentist’s office. Above his head, a piece of plastic shaped like a figure eight contains a coil capable of generating a powerful magnetic field.