Eli Stone and the Marvelous Children

Apparently, there has been a controversy stirring regarding the new ABC show Eli Stone. In the pilot, the title character, who is a lawyer, wins a case based on the accusation by his client that vaccinations caused her child's autism. The American Association of Pediatrics is upset, CNN provides background here. Some sample blog sentiment here and here.

While I believe that using mercury as a preservative for infant vaccines sounds idiotic on its face, I do not believe that it has caused autism (the preservative thimerosal is no longer used in common childhood vaccines (see here), but it is possible that your doctor may have old stocks of vaccines and you may want to request a thimerosal-free vaccine). While Rolling Stone argues that the mercury-vaccine link is unassailable (article here, via TV with Meevee), the science has been building to dispute it. More damning is the biological logic of this science.

One of my favorite sources on autism is the UC Davis MIND Institute which posts video podcasts of lectures by leading scientists in the autism field (also available from iTunes). This is unfiltered science from the source. In some cases, I believe, the lectures include results from ongoing studies, so the science is literally cutting-edge (though not necessarily peer-reviewed).

One of the best lectures is given by Dr. Nancy Minshew of the University of Pitt (program description here). She describes the multi-system nature of autism, which, though not well known by the general public, impacts the brain, the immune system, and the gastrointestinal system. As she states, this kind of presentation is typical of a genetic disorder. If you have a mutation in your genetic code, it will not limit itself strictly to the brain, it will impact your entire body. And it does.

She also discusses the likelihood that the prevalence of autism in the past was much higher than anybody could have known because of the institutionalization of mentally ill people and how these people were treated. Today, it is recognized far more commonly. The diagnostic tools are much improved. While a diagnostic cause for the "autism epidemic" is downplayed in the Rolling Stone article cited above, Slate has a nice article about the book Unstrange Minds. The book explores how the increase in autism is a function of evolving diagnostics.

In the Slate article, it is mentioned that autistic children are called "Marvelous Children" in Senegal. It is true.

That is probably the biggest trouble I have with a show like Eli Stone stoking the fear-mongering against vaccines. Behind the campaign against vaccinations is the idea that autism is a horrific outcome for a family, a "sueable" outcome. In severe cases, it is true that it is an extremely difficult burden. In many cases, the children are high-functioning and have subtle differences from typical children. These differences are sometimes frustrating, sometimes heart-breaking, but also sometimes amazing, sometimes marvelous.

I think the fear that Eli Stone and the media in general have generated makes it much more difficult for parents to consciously recognize that their child may have autistic symptoms and seek help for the child in a timely fashion. That's the ultimate outrage.

So, while Gregg Easterbrook believes that TV causes autism, my only warning is that TV may lead to a warped perspective.

(P.S. I believe that the problem with mercury vaccines is not that they cause autism but that are autistic children are less able to healthily process vaccines with mercury due to their gastrointestinal problems. This article discusses a study which shows that children process mercury much faster than previously believed, but this quote sums up a major hole in the study:

But Isaac Pessah of the UC Davis MIND Institute pointed out that the researchers
had only studied healthy children. They didn't address "the key issue of whether
a subset of kids with metabolic disorders would handle it

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