“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”–attributed to Winston Churchill and Mark Twain.
There is one issue related to autism that I have avoided: the anti-vaccine movement’s erroneous claim that vaccines cause autism. I avoided the issue because I feel it’s a dead horse issue. I felt no need to address it because I saw no way to add to the discussion. Yet the lie persists. How did the lie even start? That was something I always wondered about.
Paul Offit starts his book like any true scientist should–by establishing his credibility. He explains what made him want to study infectious diseases in the first place. He presents a visit to the hospital for clubbed feet that resulted in him being placed a ward with polio patients. Vaccines ended the suffering of many with polio. In countries such as mine, polio is a dreaded memory at best, as vaccines have all but eliminated its threat.
Andrew Wakefield is the main target of the book. Offit begins by explaining just how Wakefield came to his conclusions. It also shows the political clout he gained from his “research–allies like Henry Waxman, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who’s still spreading the lie even today.), and former presidential candidate John Kerry. It also exposes the flaws in Wakefield’s research, including having no control group of autistic children who didn’t have vaccines. Autism existed long before the MMR vaccine that inspired his research was first administered.
So why is the lie such a stumbling block in the quest for autism acceptance? The lie diverts attention by making vaccines the culprit rather than genetics. Autism is present at birth. Instead of accepting children for who they are, parents want to “fix” their children, making them vulnerable to snake oil-level claims. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating–autism is a disability, not a disease! A disease brings harm and discomfort to the person affected. Yes, autistics do experience harm and discomfort, but most of the harm is caused by those who misunderstand autism, not autism itself. Those who would rather fix what can’t be fixed than accept the person as he or she is. Those who see acceptance as weakness. Acceptance is a strong action, an act of love. Love is not weakness.
Treating autism as a disease is not the solution. Preventing is not the answer. There is no cure for autism, nor should there be. And even if we were to make efforts to determine a genetic marker for autism, that should not be our goal. We should instead help those who have autism already. Help them coexist with society. We don’t need bleach enemas, or fad diets to cure us, because we are not sick. Nor do we need any other junk science. We need actual science. We need acceptance for who we are. Autism is not the tragedy. Ignorance and hatred are the tragedy.
This book was a great read. I recommend it to anyone open-minded enough to accept the possibility that he or she may be wrong. I do not expect the lie to die. After all, there are still people who believe the moon landing didn’t happen. But I do expect its power to diminish the more people accept the truth. Vaccines do not cause autism. Let’s stop looking for erroneous causes and help those who already have autism to coexist.