The annual AutismOne conference is part trade fair, part revival meeting. This year’s event featured comedienne and Autism mom Jenny McCarthy, and dozens of autism “researchers” whose words are apparently digested salt free by the 2,000 parents who gathered at the Westin O’Hare Hotel in Chicago. Dozens of vendors filled one large meeting room and lined the carpeted hallways. Dietary supplements, gluten free snacks, hyperbaric chambers, homeopathic clinics, testing labs. One vendor’s display read “No More Guilty Parenting”, which could have doubled as the convention’s theme. Guilt is like oxygen to the alt-med autism cure culture; it hangs in the air like an invisible draft from Bruno Bettelheim’s refrigerator. You could feel the chill in every corner of the Westin O’Hare’s spacious convention facility. Guilt, and hope that the most widely accepted science on autism is wrong, that autism can be reversed, that recovery from autism happens all the time, and it can happen for you.
A panel discussion on Autism and the Media drew one of two invited Chicago Tribune reporters, Julie Deardorff; along with Peoria news anchor Jen Christensen; and Ashley Reynolds, a journalism student from KOMU-TV in Columbia, MO. Three editors from AgeOfAutism.com, a fringe anti-vaccine website hosted the discussion. Here’s a portion:
I also attended a Q&A with Jon Poling, MD, PhD, and his wife, Terry. The Polings have been on a media blitzkrieg since March when they were identified as test case petitioners in the Vaccine Omnibus hearings. The details of the case are shrouded in speculation, since the Polings have not publicly released their daughter’s relevant medical records. I asked the Polings if they plan to release those records soon. Terry Poling said she and her husband would not discuss their daughter’s case as long as there was ongoing litigation.
Soon after I asked my question, a hotel security official asked me to turn off my video camera. At the conclusion of the Q&A, 15 minutes later, I was surrounded by hotel security and escorted out of the building. I had registered six weeks earlier as media, and received a confirming email. I was handed a press pass and told to fill it out myself at the registration desk Friday morning, after being told the computer system was down and my name could not be pulled up. But the conference organizers were having none of it, although by now Westin security no doubt realizes I was totally truthful and cooperative, even turning over my driver’s license for photocopying.
But I had committed an unpardonable sin in AutismCureLand. I asked a question that could be answered. The case against vaccines is made in the shadows, in restricted venues such as AutismOne and on fringe websites and internet chatrooms. Anti-vaccine activists speak in generalities, relying on the conditional and subjunctive tense to avoid confronting what modern man has known for centuries: that we’re better off listening to best available evidence rather than dogma and fear. I was asking for evidence. Shame on me.
On my way out, an AutismOne organizer told me “This is supposed to be a positive thing, and you’re making it negative.” It was his parting shot as I was led out the door, into the parking lot, where the air was warm.