This is the title of one of two follow-up posts that Dr. Rahul Parikh wrote after reviewing Dr. Paul Offit’s Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure and getting the usual treatment by the usual “anti-vaccine/pro-vaccine-safety/mercury militia” suspects: A smackdown by the likes of David Kirby himself, Kirby being the author of the book Evidence of Harm, whose very subtitle proclaims that mercury in vaccines has something to do with a supposed “autism epidemic,” and that this is a “medical controversy.” Since its publication in 2005, Kirby has become a frequent spokesperson, in the blogosphere, on Capitol Hill, and many other places, for the claim that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism.
I’m the mother of an autistic son, 11-year-old Charlie and while Kirby’s adherence to the issue of vaccines, mercury, and other possible “environmental causes” of autism is notable, I very much believe that the continued preoccupation devoted to this issue in the mass media hurts autistic individuals. Not only does the vaccine-autism theory suggest that autistic children are somehow “damaged” and “injured” and full of toxic substances—mercury, various “heavy metals”—but all the writing and rhetoric about vaccines and autism takes energy and attention away from what is our first task in helping autistic individuals, providing them with high quality education and services throughout their lifespan.
“He’s not just because of a shot.” My husband, Jim, a historian at Fordham University, often says this about Charlie. As each day passes and we learn more about Charlie, learn about how he communicates (he is minimally verbal) and what his strengths and talents are (not reading, not anything academic—Charlie is far behind his peers in school), we see more of ourselves in Charlie. Hyper at night and happiest when in motion: That’s Jim. Able (quite obsessively) to focus on one thing and liking things to be in their places: Ca, c’est moi.
Here I should say a bit more about myself.
First, to make it clear and simple, I’m an autism mother who knows a vaccine did not cause her child to become autistic. (And I’m not the only one, contrary to what many a “mercury mom” and the media might have you think.)
I’m also an autism mother who is very grateful to Dr. Offit for writing Autism’s False Prophets. Lucidly and compassionately, Dr. Offit narrates the history of the past decade in autism science and treatments from the fateful February day in 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield held a press conference to announce that he’d found the cause of autism, the MMR vaccine. Charlie was born in May of 1997 and his entire life, and the time that I’ve known about autism are covered in Autism’s False Prophets. We heard about the vaccine theory almost immediately when learning about autism; we both shook our heads because, when we looked back, we noted how Charlie had lacked joint attention, how he’d been quite content to sit all day with a bucket of baby toys.
Second, not only am I not a scientist: I’m now a Classics professor at a small Jesuit college in Jersey City, New Jersey. My methodological training (such as it is) was in literary theory and analysis, in explication de textes, using the literary-critical tools of deconstruction as developed by, yes, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Belgian-born Paul de Man, a literary scholar with a more than troubled past. I studied “Theory” in graduate school at Yale and got my doctorate in Comparative Literature thinking I’d apply what I learned to rereading classical texts. And then, in the first year of my first tenure-track job, Charlie was diagnosed with autism and before you can say “diffÃ©rance,” I had resigned from my job and spent evenings reading books about teaching autistic children how to imitate sounds–Charlie first learned to talk via sign language—and cutting up magazines for flashcards.
I write frequently about Charlie’s educational odyssey at my blog Autism Vox. To provide him with the schooling he needed, we’ve moved around the country, given up jobs, taken whatever jobs we could find, been lucky, been through much. I let my lit-crit books get dusty and go forgotten in old boxes. I was sorry I hadn’t gone to grad school in something much more practical.
And then I started blogging, first just about Charlie, and then about autism research and treatments and then Evidence of Harm and then every press release, every website, every report in the media about vaccines and thimerosal and mercury and autism; every polemic put out by the likes of Generation Rescue and Safe Minds, by David Kirby and Dan Olmsted. And what did I find but……rhetoric. And what did I do but……. deconstruct it.
I mean, what would Derrida have done with the rhetorical posturings, the self-righteous posings, of the “mercury militia” and the text upon text they produce trumpeting that “there’s an epidemic of autism!” and the “CDC is in cahoots with Big Pharma to poison our kids!” The play of the signifiers! How the antivaxxers have turned words like “autism” and “mercury” into floating signifiers that are affixed to novel meanings: Autism is said to be “mercury poisoning” and/or some kind of “disease brought on environmental pollutants,” while mercury itself has become, more or less, “Public Enemy #1″–though maybe that’s a term some reserve for Dr. Offit.
No surprise—for Dr. Offit in his new book lays the groundwork for a much-needed deconstruction, a critical analysis, of the mercury hypothesis and the ways, rhetorical and otherwise, that its supporters keep it alive, despite what the science says.
So thanks to the whole “mercury militia” for providing me with ample opportunities to revive my long dormant deconstruction skills, and thanks to Dr. Offit and Dr. Parikh for getting the deconstructing started, and thanks to Science Blogs for putting together this panel about an important book, Autism’s False Prophets—it’s way past overdue.
Let the deconstructing begin.