Dr. Oz and the “Autism Show”

Dr. Oz

Dr. Mehmet Oz recently recorded a full-hour show which featured the topic “What Causes Autism” in a town hall format. Among the people in the audience were parents of children with autism, parents of children under the age of two who are concerned about autism and a small group of pediatricians and scientists. As Dr. Oz quickly discovered, an hour just isn’t enough to discuss this topic.

However, the show did a fairly decent job of representing the problem. The vast majority of the scientists and pediatricians repeated the party line that “science has already proven that vaccinations do not cause autism” while a group of frustrated parents eloquently but emotionally expressed the fact that the studies have not been exhaustive and have not taken individual children into consideration.

One brave pediatrician, Dr. Bob Sears, commented that of the 23 studies used to demonstrate that autism is not caused by vaccinations, 18 of them were funded by large pharmaceutical companies who are not impartial on the subject. Kudos to Dr. Sears, who did not come out of the show unscathed as another pediatrician took shots at his personal practice.

The town hall aspect of the show was predictable; the parents of children with autism disagreed with the pediatricians while the parents of the young children who are concerned about autism sat in their chairs with wide eyes and looks of total confusion.  In a nutshell, it accurately summarized the current climate on vaccinations in the United States.

At one point, Dr. Oz got a little hot under the collar while he was reading a statement from Autism Speaks about why he would not appear on the show. Autism Speaks declined to be on the show, adding they would be happy to appear on a show which focused on treatment for autism, insurance reform, and other ways to help the children and families who are currently dealing with autism. Dr. Oz expressed his anger and cited that insurance reform wasn’t going to help us to determine how we had reached the point where 1 in 110 kids in the United States are diagnosed with autism. He’s right, but it’s a ridiculous argument.

We don’t know what causes cancer, but we would never tell insurance companies to stop funding the treatment of cancer until we figure out what causes it. We also wouldn’t waste time being angry with a cancer treatment center who spent its time and energy treating cancer and researching effective treatments simply because they declined to spend their time doing a television show about the possible causes of cancer. We wouldn’t assume they weren’t interested in finding the causes of cancer, only that their energies were focused on treatment. Come on Dr. Oz!  Can’t we cut Autism Speaks the same kind of slack?

I know Dr. Oz meant well, but this show for me was symptomatic of a larger problem. As long as we are drawn into arguments about vaccines CAUSING autism we miss the real argument. Instead, I wish that we would all focus on the myriads of things that CONTRIBUTE to autism, including vaccines, environmental issues, and genetics. And while we are researching those contributors we need to focus an equal amount of energy on helping the children and families who are affected by autism.

I thought there were two essential takeaways from this show. One was Dr. Oz’s comment in reference to vaccines which was, “I don’t know for sure, either.”  This is exactly the truth that needs to be communicated to the parents who are concerned about their young children. No one knows for sure and they won’t be sure until more impartial studies are carried out. The second clear takeaway came from Alison Singer who is both a parent of a child with autism and a researcher. She said, “The one thing that everyone agrees on is early intervention.”

There was a smattering of applause and a chorus of head nodding. The hour came and went and only one point could be agreed upon. Meanwhile, the folks at Autism Speaks were spending that hour helping families to get that early intervention. I’m just saying…

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