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Autism: A Savage Year

Looking Back At How Autism Has Been Portrayed In The Media


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Part 22 of Our Award-Winning Series “Our Children’s Health”

By Evelyn Ain, Director of Autism United

It seems that in 2008, autism really hit the media spotlight. I don’t think that a month has gone by without a major autism story in the print press or on TV and radio. And for the most part, that’s a good thing, because it is all about awareness. The more that people know about the disorder and its epidemic-type growth, the better it is to help understand what these children need and how to help them.


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But, the reason for some of the press on autism has not always been positive.

In early February, Adam Jasinski a contestant from CBS’s Big Brother 9, made a very insensitive comment, calling children with autism “retards.” However, I found what CBS has done to be much more offensive: The network could have bleeped out the whole remark, but instead, for ratings, they played it up with a dramatic scene and never apologized for choosing to air the remark. Jasinski said that he can call the children whatever he wants because he works with them all day long at an organization called the United Autism Foundation in Forth Lauderdale, Fl. As it turned out, the United Autism Foundation was reviewed by the Florida attorney general immediately following the breaking of this story, and it was revealed that Jasinski never worked with any children with autism, he was a mere telemarketer soliciting donations from businesses for autism-related projects that were never established. While making the comment about children with autism being retards, Jasinski also said that if he wins he will donate parts of his winnings to the autism community. Adam did win Big Brother 9, and as far as the donation, I guess Adam didn’t really mean that he would actually make it. You might want to “friend” him on FaceBook and ask him about it.

While over the years, study after study has shown that there is no link between autism and vaccines, in March, for the first time, the federal Health and Human Services Department conceded in Vaccine Court (part of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which administers a no-fault system for vaccine injury claims) that too many vaccines given to Hannah Poling triggered her to have “autism-like symptoms” and regress from typical behavior. This must have been one of the most outspoken and heated debates in every news media outlet for days to follow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) immediately followed up with a statement by its director, Julie Gerberding, M.D., pointing out that the benefits of vaccines far exceed their risks. Gerberding said, “This does not represent anything other than a very special situation.”

The very interesting outcome from days of continuing media coverage is that no one at any point ever discussed the fact that autism is officially diagnosed by autism-like symptoms; one doesn’t just have autism-like symptoms without having autism. Later on in the month, while interviewed by CNN, Gerberding made another interesting statement: “Now, we all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids. So if a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines, and if you’re predisposed with the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage. Some of the symptoms can be symptoms that have characteristics of autism.” But not autism? Considering that this is the precise agency that has been conducting study after study not finding a link between vaccines and autism, is it fair to ask if there was ever a link found between vaccines and autism-like symptoms?

In June, autism activist Jenny McCarthy lead the Green Our Vaccines rally in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people showed up from all over the country to rally with the former actress and bestselling author who has a child with autism. Along with the controversial Thimerosal in vaccines, McCarthy is also campaigning to remove all toxins from vaccines, including aluminum, ether and antifreeze, and she points out that, yes, there is still mercury in these shots. While McCarthy openly admits that she isn’t against vaccines, many still question her motives and criticize her. Why question McCarthy and criticize her for using her celebrity to bring attention to the toxins in the vaccines that we’re using to vaccinate vulnerable infants and toddlers? Most of us are not against vaccines in general, we’re just concerned about the lack of safety guidelines and scheduling of these inoculations. One would think that people—all people—would be outraged when they found out that their perfect little baby was just injected with aluminum, ether or antifreeze. If parents don’t act as one and demand cleaner vaccines, we will never have them. Why aren’t millions of letters and phone calls being placed with outrage to the pharmaceutical industries adding these toxins? And more importantly, why aren’t the pediatricians concerned about injecting these toxins into our babies?

Evelyn Ain with her son, Matthew, 7, who has autism.

Evelyn Ain with her son, Matthew, 7, who has autism.

In August, many of us were shocked when Conservative syndicated radio talk-show host Michael Savage attacked parents of children with autism and attacked the children themselves. He called these children “brats” and blamed their conditions on the lack of good parenting and the absence of a father figure. That’s what this expert says is the cause of this terrible epidemic that is affecting at least 1 in 150 children. Shortly after that, “comedian”/actor Denis Leary also insulted children with autism by calling them “stupid” or “lazy” or both in his new book. While it’s sad to think that people in the public eye use slurs about autism to further their own fame and ratings, it’s all too common. We know autism is a very difficult and complex lifelong disorder, yet not only are these people mocking our children who suffer and struggle every second of every day, there are many out there who are uninformed enough to believe what blowhards like Savage and Leary say. Yes, we can say that these men and those who believe them are ignorant and stupid, but isn’t ignorance and stupidity what hurts our children most? Don’t our children have enough to deal with as it is?

Savage ultimately apologized for his statements but couldn’t do so without further angering parents by having experts on his show who agreed with him, repeating an archaic belief that cold, bad mothering known as “refrigerator mothers” is what causes autism. Savage, on behalf of the autism community: Apology not accepted! The good news is that the autism community and other outraged Americans swamped Savage’s radio show sponsors, and one by one, they dropped their support of Savage’s show. So, we do have clout. Watch out. Leary also apologized, saying his statements were misconstrued. There was nothing to misconstrue: Your stupid, hateful, hurtful words are there in black and white for all to read.

The subject of autism also made it to the 2008 presidential campaign. Senator John McCain was the first presidential hopeful to talk about the disorder, which lead to discussions between him and Barack Obama at the final debate at Hofstra University about the importance of the epidemic and funds needed for research. But it seems that as soon as the election was over, so were any discussions of autism.

It’s hard to ignore autism today. There are more and more children who are diagnosed, and we still have no idea as to the real cause of the epidemic. Whether or not vaccines cause autism or not remains one of the most controversial arguments within the autism community. I find it extremely difficult to understand why the Combating Autism Act Bill of 2007, which was supposed to provide $900 million for autism research, hasn’t been funded yet.  Parents struggle daily, there aren’t enough appropriate school placements, and there are much less once our children turn 21. Everything is much more difficult when dealing with raising a child with the special needs that accompany autism. While understanding that our economy is falling apart and major state and federal cuts must happen, I am appalled each time I hear of school and special education budget cuts. Our children’s futures should never end up on the chopping block. We, as parents of children with many special needs, have a responsibility toward our children, and obviously some people may just not understand how great of a responsibility it really is.

It is Autism Awareness Month, so let’s help spread the word on what is needed to help these children and their families, and not the uninformed, mean-spirited rantings of third-rate celebrities.

Evelyn Ain is the director of Autism United (www.autismunited.org), the publisher of
Spectrum Magazine and a frequent contributor to the Long Island Press.

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