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The Autism Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism

7 Jan

The Huffington Post has a new section on science. One of the first articles discusses the “Autism Vaccine Controversy”. In The Autism Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism, Seth Mnookin starts out:

Earlier this week, The Panic Virus, my book on the controversy over vaccines and autism, was released in paperback. While there haven’t been many scientific advances in this particular issue since the hardcover edition was published — the evidence supporting vaccines’ paramount place in public health efforts and the total lack of corroboration supporting a causal connection between vaccines and autism remain as strong today as they were a year ago — there have been new developments in the story. Their coverage highlights an enduring passion of mine: The need for reliable, responsible science journalism.

Yes, Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, is writing for the Huffington Post, a site which has contributed greatly to misinformation about vaccines and autism. The Huffington Post has been home to David Kirby (who was a major promoter of the mercury/autism concept) as well as welcoming input from Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, to name but a few of the poor choices for writers the Post engaged.

On PLoS blogs, Mr. Mnookin announced this new gig with Has the Huffington Post embraced science & closed the door on anti-vaccine quackery? We can hope. I wouldn’t place any bets on it though.

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism: The Book

19 Dec

I was fortunate to attend IMFAR (the International Meeting For Autism Research) this year. One big part of what made that experience valuable to me was the opportunity to spend time with Shannon Des Roches Rosa. Shannon’s writing can be found many places including online at Squdalicious and Blogher, and in print in the book My Baby Rides the Short Bus (a great interview about the book can be found on the KQED website).

At one point at IMFAR I posed a problem I saw in much of the online discussion I often am involved in: that while we can and do effectively counter much of the misinformation that permeates the autism-parent discussion, we don’t have much to offer people. She paused for a second, just long enough for me to realize that “we” didn’t mean her, and told me that this was the reason for The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and that the book was in the works.

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism has been a very successful website with excellent discussion for some time now, and now the book is available. You can buy it on Amazon. From CreateSpace you can read the short blurb:

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism (TPGA) is the resource we wish we’d had when autism first became part of our lives: a one-stop source for carefully curated, evidence-based information from autistics, autism parents, and autism professionals

Having read the first two chapters I agree with the statement above. It is a resource I wish I had when my kid was diagnosed. Sure, I’d have loved to have read this book before and been better prepared.

The book doesn’t pull punches. From the experiences of the adult autistics who wrote many essays to those of the parents,

From the introduction:

The Goal of The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism is to help you fast-forward past society’s rampant autism fabrications and negativity by providing clear, thoughtfully presented, balanced, and referenced information

the essays form a guide. They are not telling people what to do, but providing good information to help one make decisions.

In the past Left Brain/Right Brain has reviewed some books in detail, chapter by chapter. I plan to do this with TTPGTA (The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism).

Loving Lampposts: now on Netflix

19 Aug

Been putting of watching Loving Lamposts, Todd Drezner’s film? Well, it’s now available for streaming on Netflix (possibly for DVD delivery too, I can’t tell for sure).

I discussed the film a number of times when it was released (Loving lampposts, Loving Lampposts: synopsis and director’s statement, Loving Lampposts video clips, and, after I was provided with a review DVD, Loving Lampposts, a review.)

Here are a couple of clips from the film:

Loving Lampposts Clip#1 from Cinema Libre Studio on Vimeo.

Loving Lampposts Clip #3 from Cinema Libre Studio on Vimeo.

In his recent Huffington Post article,Labeling Autism And Creating Community, Mr. Drezner takes on some of the questions posed by the proposed DSMV criteria for autism. Specifically, will some people lose their autism labels, and what does this mean.

Reconsidering the Nature of Autism

8 Apr

Todd Drezner has a new piece up on the Huffington Post: Reconsidering the Nature of Autism. He starts out by quoting the forward to one of Jenny McCarthy’s books. The forward is by alternative medical practitioner Jerry Kartzinel.

Here is what Mr. Drezner wrote in his introduction:

“Autism … steals the soul from a child; then, if allowed, relentlessly sucks life’s marrow out of the family members, one by one.” So wrote Dr. Jerry Kartzinel in the introduction to Jenny McCarthy’s bestselling “Louder Than Words.” No wonder, then, that the concept of neurodiversity– the idea that we should understand and accept autistic people as a group that thinks differently from the majority — has proven to be so controversial.

The quote takes me back. Back to when I was starting to look online for information about autism. I remember when Jenny McCarthy hit the scene. Kev responded here with his blogging. The blog might have been then, not LeftBrainRightBrain. I remember that Kev’s blog went down: the traffic was so high that he hit his bandwidth quota. I remember that he responded to the forward from Jerry Kartzinel. He responded with words and, a little later, with video:

I don’t bring this up just for some sort of nostalgia. But this reminds me of two major themes. First: words hurt. What Dr. Kartzinel wrote, and Jenny McCarthy published, hurt. It hurt a lot of people. It added to the stigma of autism and disability. Second: words can be powerful. Kev fought back, as did many others. How or if this was an influence on Todd Drezner, I can’t say. It influenced me as I still remember it.

We can’t sit back and let people stigmatize others, for whatever reason they may have. Kim Wombles shows that almost every day with her blog Countering. Bev did it with a humor and keen perspective on Asperger Square 8. Corina Becker is taking up the task with No Stereotypes Here. And this is just a few of the many voices, autistic and non, out there.

Having said this, I will bring up one message that I’ve felt needed to be countered for some time. Here is a screenshot of a page from the book “the Age of Autism” by Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill. Both write for the Age of Autism Blog (Dan Olmsted appears to be the proprietor). Mark Blaxill is a member of the organization SafeMinds. Both promote the idea of autism as vaccine injury and, more specifically, the failed mercury hypothesis. (click to enlarge)

To pull but one disturbing quote: “As one of the first parents to observe an autistic child, Muncie learned how well autism targets ‘those functions distinctly human’ “. Yes, I have spent quite a lot of time fighting bad science like the first part in that sentence: the idea that autism is new/the kids in Kanner’s study were the first autistics ever. But what about the second part: that autistics are missing or have impaired “distinctly human” functions? Yes, I’ve also responded to that sentiment in the past and I plan to continue to do so. And that is much more important than the fight against bad science.

Words hurt. Jerry Kartzinel’s words hurt. Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill’s words hurt. They hurt and they are wrong. Plain and simple.

Another phrase from the above paragraph: “autism brutally restricts the interests of the affected”. So say the team that has one interest: pushing mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism. A little ironic?

Reading their writing, I am reminded of one of Bev’s amazing videos:

Back to the paragraph from “The Age of Autism”. Dan, Mark: You don’t think autistics made tools, explored the globe, invented new technologies? The sad thing is, it seems like you don’t.

Yeah, a lot of kids, kids like mine, aren’t in the world explorer/inventor categories. And even kids like mine are still as human as you or I. They are not missing anything “distinctly human”.

Researchers track down autism rates across the globe

8 Apr

The Simons Foundation blog, SFARI, has always had a good quality of articles. Lately it appears to me that the frequency of articles has increased. One recent article hits a subject that has been a focus of mine for some time: prevalence estimates and how they vary by culture and geography. In Researchers track down autism rates across the globe Virginia Hughes talks to a number of researchers working on expanding autism prevalence studies to more countries. Outside of the US and the UK, autism prevalence studies are somewhat rare. Until fairly recently, prevalence estimates outside of the US and Europe were basically nonexistent.

Ms. Hughes starts with this introduction:

In urban areas of South Korea, some families of children with developmental delays will go to great lengths to avoid a diagnosis of chapae, or autism. They think of it as a genetic mark of shame on the entire family, and a major obstacle to all of their children’s chances of finding suitable spouses.

The stigma is so intense that many Korean clinicians intentionally misdiagnose these children with aechak changae, or reactive detachment disorder — social withdrawal that is caused by extreme parental abuse or neglect.

This won’t come as a surprise for those who have read Roy Richard Grinker’s Unstrange Minds, where Prof. Grinker explores how autism is viewed in various parts of the world, including South Korea.

Prof. Grinker is interviewed, as is his collaborator Dr. Young Shin Kim, and Dr. Eric Fombonne.

Autism prevelance work has been performed or is ongoing in Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, India, South Africa and Oman. Since autism isn’t diagnosed through a biological test, variations in culture can have a significant impact on the test methods.

Ms. Hughes notes:

Language and culture may also affect the way this research is carried out. For instance, the Korean language uses an extensive array of suffixes that denote the relationship between the speaker and the subject. South Korean children with autism have trouble using these social markers, but the Western-based standard tests of autism, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), don’t test for this.

Similarly, Grinker points out, healthy children from non-Western cultures may display a trait that ADOS counts as a symptom of autism. In South Korea, for example, making eye contact with an adult is not socially appropriate.

“This is why it’s pretty useful to have [anthropologists] who can translate diagnostic instruments that were designed in one culture and used in another,” Grinker says.

Rather than cut and paste the entire article I will point you back to SFARI for the full piece. It is well worth reading.

Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders

5 Apr

There are so many “autism” books out there for parents new to the diagnosis. Unfortunately many are just not good. We’ve spent a lot of time here discussing the problems with books that promote “mommy instinct” or therapies untested for safety or efficacy. Warning parents off a book isn’t the same thing as giving them some idea of where to turn for good information. Recently I was loaned a book by friend and fellow blogger Liz Ditz (of the I Speak of Dreams blog): Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders by James Coplan.

I read the first chapter and a couple of bits here and there and came away thinking: this could be a good resource. I plan to go through the book in pieces over time, but I am willing to start recommending it already.

There are a few things I would probably word differently, and I certainly haven’t seen it all yet. It isn’t a quick read, and a new parent may not want to go through it from start to finish linearly. But there are good sections to jump to, refer back to and the like.

Disclosure: I’ve asked for a review copy so I can return this one to Liz.

Loving Lampposts, a review

4 Apr

Loving Lampposts is a new film about autism by filmmaker and autism parent Todd Drezner. You get a good idea of the direction of the movie from the subtitle–Loving Lampposts, living autistic. I “watched” the film. As in, it’s hard to find an hour and a half solid to watch something through. Instead I watched a little on TV and listened and watched what I could on my computer as I worked. I really wish I had blocked out the full hour and a half to watch it in one sitting as it is quite well done. I agree with Shannon Rosa in her review: this is a film I’ve waited for to fill many roles. It is a film that I wish I had available when we got the diagnosis for our kid. It is a film I’d like to recommend to people who ask about autism.

Todd Drezner narrates the film. He does a good job of using narration lightly. He mostly narrates to make the transitions between the segments of the film. In general, he lets the people–the autistics, the parents, the professionals–in the film present the various ideas.

The first part of the film introduces the ideas of autism as a medical condition and neurodiversity. The vaccine discussion does come up later in the film. It is great to see the vaccine discussion not as parents vs. a mainstream medical establishment. It will come as no surprise to readers here that many parents do not subscribe to the vaccine-injury model, and Mr. Drezner presents them in their own voices. Some of those parents featured in the film include Kristina Chew and Roy Richard Grinker.

The discussion of cure and vaccines needs to be addressed. But what makes the film really work is the time spent on autistics. Autistic kids and a good amount of time with autistic adults. Stephen Shore talks about his life and his work in education. Also featured autistics include Barbara Moran, Kassiane Sibley and Sharisa Kochmeister.

There are great segments with Lyndon and his mother Lila Howard. Lyndon was born in the early 1950’s, during the “childhood schizophrenia” and “refrigerator mother” era. He’s now living in his own apartment, with his mother still as his primary caregiver.

Dora Raymaker is also featured, communicating with AAC through her computer.

Director Todd Drezner is not heavy handed, but he dispels myths. Here are two of them: Neurodiversity is not all about “high functioning” autistic adults. Neurodiveristy advocates do not deny that autism is a disability.

I’ve never wanted to attend an autism-parent/biomed convention. But Loving Lampposts really makes me want to put into action my desire to attend Autcom or Auttreat. Loving Lampposts was partially filmed at Autcom 2007.

As I wrote above, I wish I had this film years ago. I wish I could have seen it. I wish I could have offered it to the many people who have asked questions about autism. I’ll certainly be telling my family and friends about this and offering it to people asking about autism.

Disclosure: I asked for and was provided with a copy of the DVD to screen. I am very grateful that this was made available to me, but I am not compensated in any way for purchases of the film. With that said: You can purchase the film from, or from the Loving Lampposts website. It isn’t available yet on Netflix, but you can put it in your queue and give them the idea that they should make it available.


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