Challenging the Movement to Cure a Difference

I often hear about people who play the “Race Card.” For me, I suppose I hold an Autism Card, and I don’t want to play it because it seems underhanded. I give myself only the rare exception.

        On March 13, reality TV star Kristin Cavallari (Laguna Beach, The Hills) told Fox Business anchor Lisa Kennedy Montgomery that she would not vaccinate either her 18-month-old son or her second soon-to-be-born son. The reason? “I’ve read too many books about autism and there’s some scary statistics out there.”

Scary statistics? Cavallari elaborated, “Now, one in 88 boys is autistic and that’s a scary statistic.”

Here we go again.

While the specific origin of the “vaccinations cause autism” notion is unclear, the idea took on a life of its own in 1998, when The Lancet published a report by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which claimed that there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

Other researchers were unable to reach the same conclusion, but the idea still received attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2005, Kennedy family heir Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent environmental lawyer, went so far as to accuse the United States government of covering up the possibility of vaccine-induced autism to protect the pharmaceutical industry. He wouldn’t say, but I’m guessing Kennedy was motivated by a hatred of “Big Pharma,” a hatred I imagine helped fuel the idea in the public square.

Fortunately, that fuel burned off. In 2006, after multiple follow-up studies couldn’t reproduce Wakefield’s results, Britain’s Sunday Times dropped a bombshell: Attorneys preparing a lawsuit against MMR vaccine makers had paid Wakefield over £435,000 to publish his “findings.”

In 2010, in the face of mounting evidence that the autism-vaccine link was fictional, The Lancet renounced the 1998 Wakefield article. Wakefield himself is now barred from practicing medicine, after Britain’s General Medical Council concluded that his Lancet “report,” as well as the conflict of interest that motivated it, raised questions about his judgment and integrity. Medical societies and regulatory bodies in multiple countries maintain that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

So why does this idea still get play? To me, that part is a mystery. There are a few possible reasons.

For someone like Kristin Cavallari, it’s possibly fear. Remember, she said that the incidence of autism in boys is “scary.” For one, I’m not sure what’s “scary” about autism. If it’s the occurrence that scares people, there’s something that needs to be known: The diagnostic standards have changed. In their most recent studies on the epidemiology of autism, the Centers for Disease Control stated that autism now includes higher-functioning individuals, which has increased the number of people considered “autistic.”

In addition, there’s also better understanding of the autistic spectrum. As autism researcher Dr. Paul Shattuck told WebMD in 2008: “A kid labeled autistic today could have been labeled mentally retarded 10 years ago in the same school system.”

Cavallari is new to the anti-vaccine scene, so she’s easily overshadowed by the most prominent anti-vaccine activist: Model/actress Jenny McCarthy, who insists­­ (despite scientific review proving otherwise) that vaccines gave her son autism.

Forget for one second that McCarthy is peddling pseudoscience, and that her activism is potentially hurting children who need necessary vaccines. Reading between the lines, I can’t help but pick up the message: “Don’t get your kids vaccinated. If you do, they might develop autism, and you don’t want that for your children, do you?”

It is obvious to me that McCarthy sees autism as something to be done away with, given that she’s active in organizations that advocate “curing” autism. What kind of message are we sending if we say that people on the autistic spectrum need to be “cured?” As someone who holds that “Autism Card,” I say: not a very encouraging one. I’ve never seen myself as someone who needs to be cured.

What people on the autistic spectrum need is understanding and honesty, not a cure, and certainly not phony science that will hurt people.

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