Opinion: Parents' Attitudes Contribute More to Autism Than Vaccines

Filed under: Opinions

You hear the rooster crow. You see the sun come up.

All hail the chicken god!

That's the problem with observational evidence. It can be very misleading, especially when you're desperately groping for answers to life's most profound mysteries. This is how myths and legends are born.

I understand. Having a son with autism, I bought into much of the folklore swirling around the disorder. It helped that people with initials after their names told me it was caused by mercury in childhood vaccines, food allergies, metal poisoning and just about everything except evil spirits.

Turns out most of their "research" consisted of false cause-and-effect conclusions based on anecdotes from other parents.

The problem is that anecdotes are not evidence. True science bears up under testing and examination. Chicken god theories quickly evaporate under scrutiny.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in three separate cases on March 12 that there is no link between thimerosal (which contains mercury) in children's vaccines and autism. These decisions back up the official positions of the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics -- as well as scientific study after scientific study.

Just last month, researchers at Columbia University shot down the methodology of British researcher Andrew Wakefield, who popularized a link between autism and thimerosal in 1998. Lancet, the British medical journal that originally published Wakefield's claims, quickly retracted his findings.

The link between autism and food allergies has been similarly debunked. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic tracked 124 kids with autism for more than 18 years and compared them with "typical" children. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News' senior medical editor, was emphatic in reporting the researchers' conclusions last July.

"These findings are very conclusive," she said on the "Today" show following the release of the study in the journal Pediatrics. "There is no link between illnesses of the gut and the signs and symptoms we see in children with autism."

This is good news for parents, she told viewers. "Because it means if you're putting your child on a restricted diet, or if you're doing colonics (a type of enema), if you're using extra vitamins and nutrients, and you're spending a lot of money and putting your child through that, there is no reason to," she said.

Still, when your preschooler spends his days slamming doors and drawers and knocking over everything in sight while screaming like a banshee, you're willing to try anything. I certainly was. The poor kid was practically eating nothing but lima beans when I eliminated all the "food allergies" from his diet. I also bought vats of vitamin supplements and other pills designed to purge his body of various toxins.

None of these worked, of course.

What did work was early intervention -- and lots of it -- by trained and loving teachers. He has calmed down considerably from his door-slamming days. The real improvement, however, has not been in his mental condition. It's been in mine.

Once I calmed down and looked at all these myths and legends of autism objectively, I realized they were more emotional reactions than science.

I also came to realize my son is not a condition to be treated and managed, but is a person to be understood. I worried, of course, about his ability to function in the world, but then it occurred to me: Who is the gold standard of normalcy I am comparing him against? The boy has problems. All of us have problems. Our biggest ones are usually those imposed by other people's reactions and judgments.

We need understanding. Not lima beans.

Related stories: Study Links Autism to Educated, Affluent Parents

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.