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Robert MacNeil’s daughter blames vaccines for autism

April 26th, 2011 · 12 Comments · Easy marks

Veteran journalist Robert MacNeil recently emerged from his 16-year retirement to tell the story of his grandson, Nick, and his daughter Alison. But instead of a grandfather’s musings on his autistic grandson, PBS framed the series as “the most comprehensive look at the disorder and its impact that’s aired on American television in at least five years.” So far so good.

But things went quickly awry, starting with MacNeil’s introduction to episode one: “In recent years, the diagnosis of autism has shown startling growth, now affecting one in 110 American children.”

Embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible – that pretty much sums up AutismNow, the six-part series packaged by PBS’s News Hour.

It’s usually a bad sign when a report starts off with a nod toward the myth of the autism epidemic. But soon it became apparent that MacNeil’s report was influenced more by his daughter’s anecdotes than scientific evidence. Alison MacNeil, unfortunately for PBS, is an outspoken anti-vaccine activist. A week before the series ran, she posted this on David Kirby’s EOH (Evidence of Harm) anti-vaccine listserve:

Hi, my name is Alison MacNeil and I have been a listmate here for a long while. This series was born out of 3 yrs of conversations with my dad after my son Nick regressed into Autism following his MMR, Dtap and Hib at a 15 month well-baby visit. It was a long journey getting this program off the ground and some really terrific experts in our community helped to convince my dad that this was really imperative. The program is no where (sic) near as hard driving and aggressive as I had intended but, in it’s own quieter way, some key points are made. In the first segment I discuss Nick’s regression post vaccination, we make the point very clearly that he is physically sick and that we have been terribly let down by the mainstream medical establishment, and that when we get to decent medical help Nick starts to get better.

The anti-vaccine group SAFE-MINDS, perhaps sensing a winner, doubled down on Alison’s claim with a press release:

Daughter of Journalist Robert MacNeil States that Son Regressed Into Autism After Vaccines

Alison MacNeil issued the following statements today regarding vaccines. MacNeil’s family Autism story is running on PBS this week:

“When I vaccinated my son Nick, I did not know vaccine manufacturers are not required to test the safety of vaccines given simultaneously – the outcome remains largely unknown. Many thousands of parents with Autistic children report that, like Nick, their children were progressing normally until they were vaccinated, after which they were never the same again. Following receipt of the DTaP, MMR and Hib at a 15 month doctor’s visit, and a loss of skills, Nick was diagnosed with Autism at 21 months. He has since been diagnosed with encephalitis, seizures, inflammation in his gastrointestinal tract, and a mitochondrial disorder.”

But Alison has trouble keeping her stories straight. She has also written:

My son’s autism also came in gradually, no huge drop in skills or immediate medical crisis after a specific shot. But he got the Hep B, at one month premature, underweight, and one day old…then he was fully vaccinated from there. The biggest decline happened after the (15 months) MMR -we were in the hospital within 2 weeks with croup/?whooping cough, double ear infections, bronchitus (sic) next….spiral, spiral down….21 months diagnosis autism. Alison M

Another time she blamed thimerosal for her son’s autism, even though Nick was born years after the preservative was phased out of the pediatric schedule. On her blog, My Vaccine Injured Child, Alison wrote:

“I think my son’s immune system was hit too hard, too quickly and with ingredients such as aluminum and mercury which synergistically exacerbated his decline.”

Alison has some other theories about autism. On yet another anti-vaccine listserve, she wrote:

“I have a dear friend who vaccinated her first son, he regressed into her autism.She didn’t vaccinate her second son, born when her first son was around 2.5, he regressed into autism.Is it possible that her 1st con’s vaccines shed horizontal virus to her second child? Second question…my daughter was 4 and was and remains nt and received her boosters just as my son was born. He fell apart accumulatively as we completed all his vaccines by 15 months with the final blow then the mmr. Could he have been affected by her shots?Alison M”

But it isn’t always about the vaccines. She has also written:

“I spent a fair amount of time going to Grateful Dead shows in college, and took some stuff here and there and I have always told my husband that my son looks like he’s tripping.Of course, I’ve also wondered how much damage I did with all of that, fair amount of guilt there.But, we were having a good tiiiiiiiiiime. Alison M”

So where does this leave Robert MacNeil and the venerated NewsHour? Embarrassed, one would think.

Robert MacNeil interviews his daughter, Alison







12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bruce Bookman // Apr 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I too wrote about the piss poor reporting in this series. Very very sad

  • 2 Harold L Doherty // Apr 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    The series didn’t follow the neuro-diversity script closely enough to suit you?

  • 3 KWombles // Apr 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Embarrassed indeed, although he probably will not be. We’ve got enough experience with shifting stories to know that the people telling them remaining staunchly behind their stories while dismissing the contradictions.

  • 4 autblog // Apr 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I’m not that well-versed on the ND script, Harold. What can you tell me about it?

  • 5 Sunshine // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Eh. I think it’s a little cheap to paint a woman as embarrassing just for trying to make sense of a messed up situation for expressing contradicting opinions. I mean, yes, she should be judged on her actual conclusions, but inquiry on internet forums? Plenty of sane people have had fuzzy memories of traumatic experiences. Maybe we will live in a world one day where NT people are better emotionally equipped or at least socially trained to handle an ASD dx, but right now, in this culture, people tend to have a lot of freak outs and try to look back and find out “what happened” to the life they imagined on the horizon for themselves. I really don’t think her contradictory memories are that deviant from what your average, rational, good human being would have.

  • 6 sharon // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Disappointment is the overwhelming feeling after watching the whole series. A missed opportunity. A personal perspective pushed at the expense of balance. Meh!

  • 7 Liz Ditz // Apr 27, 2011 at 7:45 am

    James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times, in an interview with Robert MacNeil

    I [Rainey] asked her father whether he should have told the television audience more about his daughter, given her strong positions, which have been expressed on blogs for several years. MacNeil said it “never occurred” to him to make such a disclosure since he said the community of families involved in autism is familiar with her activism.

    I suggested that there were likely many others watching PBS who didn’t frequent autism chat rooms, who had no idea that Alison MacNeil, a psychiatric social worker living in Cambridge, Mass., was such an activist.

    To me, Mr. MacNeil’s assumption that “community of families involved in autism is familiar with her activism” sums up (1) the insular world-view of the autism=vaccine injury crowd and (2) the flaws in the PBS series.

    #There are many, many families with autistic members who are autism activists, and pay no attention whatsoever to the foolishness of the autism=vaccine injury, your child can be cured crowd.
    #There are many adults with autism other than the “high-functioning” ones dismissed by MacNeil in his interview yesterday with Hari Sreenivasan

    I didn’t have high hopes for the series, based on the previews and press release, but the reality was a disappointment anyway. So much more could have been done if MacNeil hadn’t wasted time on the discounted vaccine angle.

  • 8 Leila // Apr 27, 2011 at 8:23 am

    It would be hard for him to remove the vaccine angle since he was focusing on his own daughter, who is on the anti-vaccine camp. The only way to make the show balanced was to remove the personal side of the story. I think PBS decided to keep it because it was compelling – good television. Like when Robert McNeil said something like “I never involved my family in my journalism work, but I decided to do this report based on my grandson because he moves me deeply”. But in terms of information/news/public service, the first episode was bad. Some of the other installments of the program were better.

  • 9 David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. // Apr 28, 2011 at 7:14 am

    “Robert MacNeil’s daughter blames vaccines for autism”

    Doesn’t matter … she’s still bloody wrong.

  • 10 Jonathan // Apr 29, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Though I didn’t see the PBS program I am curious as to whether they included any info from the Simpson Woods meeting in GA in 2001 in which the AAP and other professional orgs agreed to eliminate thimerosol from vaccines. For evidence based journalists these transcripts can be obtained through FOIA. What a SHAME to keep pointing BLAME on vaccines. Even the influenza vaccine for infants has been mercury free for 4+ years. Next step is to remove thimerosol from vaccines in pregnancy.

  • 11 Chris // Apr 29, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    in 2001 in which the AAP and other professional orgs agreed to eliminate thimerosol from vaccines.

    There are various errors in this statement, it includes both the year and the organization. With basic errors like this, why should we believe you?

  • 12 Child Neglect // May 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Alison MacNeil should be reported for child endangerment concerning her neglected young daughter.

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