What Really Causes Autism? Everything.

I knew about as much as the next journo about autism, before AlterNet sent me in search of its roots and riots. And what usually never happens happened: I came out the other side more confused than before.

It’s not that I don’t understand the genetic, biological, pharmacological, economic or personal issues involved. It’s just that everyone I talked to seem to regard the situation as hopeless, even as they charged into the metaphorical war armed to the teeth.

What came out in the end was probably the most popular piece I’ve ever written for AlterNet. Hundreds of impassioned persons logged on and went off on each other. It was intense. Here it is.

What Really Causes Autism? Thousands of Parents Blame Vaccines, and Are Taking on the Medical Establishment
[Scott Thill, AlterNet]
“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks …to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons,” actor and comedian Denis Leary controversially argued with patented flippancy in a chapter called “Autism Shmautism” from his 2008 book Why We Suck: A Feel-Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. “I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you — yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

That explosive insult, intensified by Leary’s decision to pen his riotous book under the assumptive moniker “Dr. Denis Leary,” is just one of many bombs that has rocked either side of autism’s increasingly contentious divide. That currently includes, on one side, scientists and researchers hard at work on discovering the causes of the escalating neurological and developmental disorder, which according to a recent Cambridge University study could affect one in every 64 children. Complicating those efforts is the fact that autism’s far-ranging spectrum of psychological conditions has only widened with time, an increase in diagnosis, awareness and the overall environmental toxicity of our lives which we take for granted.

But Leary’s crack also roiled the other side of autism’s battlefield. It’s commandeered by distraught parents of autistic children, who have mobilized their frustration with a medical and pharmaceutical establishment increasingly short on definitive answers but seemingly long on unnecessary pharmaceuticals and inflammatory theories. Along the way, it has become a critical mass movement aimed at injecting major amounts of anecdotal evidence into what before was almost purely a psychiatric or scientific debate.

As a result, the conflict over autism has come to resemble autism itself: A connectivity disorder, fraught with crossed neurological wiring, threatening to spark into mass distraction.

Throwing fuel onto that already considerable fire is the newfound publicity parents have received thanks to the help of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who helped found Generation Rescue, a research, treatment and public relations program that has, among other things, launched a full-frontal assault on what it argues is too many toxic vaccines given to too many children in their first few vulnerable years of life. And they’re not alone: From Oprah Winfrey and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to doctors and researchers, Generation Rescue and other organizations, including the Coalition for SafeMinds, a private non-profit investigating the dangers of mercury and thimerosal in medical products and vaccines, are charging into the breach with facts and scores of studies.

“There’s no queston that, along with clean water, vaccines are the primary public healthy victory — miracle really — of the last 75 years,” explained pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp to AlterNet by phone.

Karp speaks with authority from either side of the autism divide: An assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, he is also probably the most widely read pediatrician in America, thanks to his successful books The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. And as a pediatrician to celebrities like Madonna and more, he’s not lacking in credibility when it comes to publicity either. But he’s not a fan of justifiably distressed parents of autistic children railing against the scientific record, such as it is.

“To look at vaccines as anything other than a victory is twisting the truth,” he added. “That is not to say that we don’t have to alter them regularly, but we’re not just giving shots to make more money. We’d make more money if we didn’t give them. What has happened is that, in the autism debate, anecdote has replaced science in parents’ minds. And that’s easy when a child gets a vaccine and then suddenly, they’re not normal anymore. But you need science to make intuition and anecdote work, and science has demonstrated that vaccines aren’t related to autism.” MORE @ ALTERNET