News and Views from Inside the Autism Epidemic

October 31, 2007

Olmsted on Autism: I'm not vaclempt!

 By Dan Olmsted

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 -- If there is one word I'd like to see banished forever from the dictionary of autism cliches, it would be "emotional." You know what I mean -- "Lawsuits and emotion vs. science and childhood vaccines," trumpets a piece in the Wall Street Journal; "confronting the contentious and highly emotional issue of whether early childhood vaccinations might have caused autism in thousands of children," as The New York Times described the recent vaccine court hearing; "officials from federal health agencies and medical societies tried to calm the fears around this emotional issue," said NBC's Robert Bazell.


Get it? Concerns about vaccines causing autism are emotional; science that refutes it is logical. Parents who believe their kid's autism came from vaccines are fearful; experts who say otherwise are calming and rational. If these overrought parents would just lie down in a bathtub filled with ice and listen to reason, this debate would be over.

And who are those parents? Well, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, they're mostly mothers. Wild-eyed, tangled hair, mangled thinking it's all part of the same game. Network TV has even managed to cast Barbara Loe Fisher, a calm, rational, evidence-based critic of vaccination policy, as a zealot who would have us all in iron lungs if she had her wicked, wicked way.

Are you getting my drift that the word "emotional" as applied to autism is basically sexist? Mostly moms are on the front lines of autism; they are up against (mostly) men who represent the paternalistic structures of public health, pediatric medical practice and the pharmaceutical companies. (And of course, some women in power can be just as paternalistic as men.)

Around the turn of the last century, Freud and his followers were obsessed with the idea of a disorder called "hysteria." The psychoanalysts, almost all men, decided that "hysterics," almost all women, were suffering from all manner of suppressed, submerged, repressed issues. A female cousin of mine had a different definition: "Hysteria is a word men use to describe women they can't control."

And so is "emotional." It reminds me of the dust-up when someone called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "articulate." The use of that word was criticized, and properly so, because of the unsavory implication that a black woman who had reached the highest levels of the United States government might NOT be articulate. Criticize her job performance, in other words, but don't reveal your own surprise that there are plenty of confident, capable and articulate black women in this country.

Calling autism parents "emotional" is especially odious given the long habit of parent-blaming ("refrigerator moms," anyone?) that preceded the current debate. Parents can't catch a break first they were too cold and unemotional, now they're all hot under the collar and beyond the reach of reason.

Of course, strong feelings are part of the picture, and they should be -- that's true of just about every controversy from gun control to Christmas trees in the town square.  But there is nothing inherently more emotional about figuring out what causes autism and what we can do to treat it. So let's stop using the word.

One way that men could help out here is to make sure they are not so woefully underrepresented on the front lines of the autism debate. Of course, plenty of fathers are out there battling, but the autism conferences are by and large a gathering of moms. At the Long Island autism conference I attended last week, that was plain to see. The few men attending stood out; as one autism mom said after spending the evening with three of them: "Wow, it's been a long time since I drank beer with good-looking guys at a bar!"

Maybe autism fathers could think of a special way to make an impact. How about a thousand-man march on the CDC? An awards dinner for Autism Father of the Year. A conference of, by and for fathers. Fathers and children descending on Capitol Hill -- moms get the day off. Anyway, it's time to stop letting the powers-that-be make the rest of us feel like Mike Myers acting like Linda Richmond on Saturday Night Live. We are not vaclempt.


Dear Mr. Olmstead,

Thank you for putting it so well. This particular method of discrediting really is very familiar. Susan Faludi wrote about the pity-party approach in "Backlash". And a famous black activist- whose name I forget, unfortunately- wrote about the device of culling personal testimony from witnesses or survivors. The very intensity of the atrocities the survivors describe is then used as a fulcrum to "prove" that the survivors/witnesses must be "too clouded by misfortune" to be believed and too damaged by trauma to participate in decisions over what should be done about about the injustice.

During an NPR broadcast on autism, one clearly for-hire vaccine champion used the word "fervor" to describe Omnibus parents so many times that I could just visualize the team of pharma PR handlers coaching this shill on tone and language. Besides over-repeating his talking point, he overacted his moral outrage at the threat this "fervor" poses to our exalted vaccine industry, which might pack up its toys and go home at any moment, leaving the world to rot from the flu and polio.

Then there was Paul Offit's long-winded whine in the NEMJ about how autism parents are becoming dangerous, causing the CDC to pad security, etc.. The spin is getting kind of scary. It could all easily sound like a build-up to manufacture public consent to unleash excessive police action against these "emotional, fervored, dangerous" parents at some rally or other (taser those moms with their practical shoes and pink cellphones!), like lining castle bridge with heads on pikes to dissuade future protest. Though for the moment, things haven't reached that pitch.

Instead, I think the build-up is in the hopes that some parents of effected children will buy into it, either recanting their shameful "fervor" or never getting on the bandwagon to begin with. And that these parents will go home and obediently take some psychotropes to straight-jacket that wacky passion and "out there" sense of injustice, forming a third wave of pharmaceutical profit from the nuking of so many children's brains. They may even be taking the same meds that eighty percent of effected children are reportedly being prescribed to date.

So I think the reactionary trap here is to lose the passion and deflate the movement. They'll always come up with some smear or other and we'll still have to prevail. Reading wonderful exposes of the smear tactics really helps with the prevailing part.


I fail to see the comparison to being called hysterical for demanding medical care for your children and being blamed for causing the condition (the Refrigerator theory.) And for everyone who berates, bemoans and belittles the biomedical community, we can ALL (ND's and curebies alike) thank Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Society of America and the Autism Research Institute (home of DAN!) for eradicating the Refrigerator Mother theory and forcing docs to at least start to look at our kids as treatable.

From the ARI site: Dr. Rimland's 1964 book, "Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior," was responsible for challenging and changing the long-held belief that autism was an emotional disorder caused by poor mothering.

Rather ironic I think, that the folks who hate/fear DAN! have the founder of the organization to thank for changing the most basic thinking about autism.