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Autism and the Media

May 21st, 2008 · 10 Comments · Critical thinking, Narrative

Two Chicago Tribune reporters, Rex Huppke and Julie Deardorff, are listed as panelists at the AutismOne conference this Saturday. Huppke wrote The Story of Jamie, a heartbreaking and moving profile of an autistic man who excels at powerlifting:

During his first lift at the Illinois State Games in June, Jamie had lost his composure when the judges’ lights turned out to be white instead of the familiar green. It ruined the rest of his performance. If he failed this first lift, a similar meltdown could follow.

Jamie approached the rack, fixed his shoulders under the bar and assumed the starting position. On command, he bent his knees and began to squat, head up, eyes focused forward. He flexed his legs at the next command, driving himself to an upright position, then dropped the bar back onto the rack with a clang.

The three judges illuminated two white lights and one red. Two out of three meant a good lift.

Jamie’s hands shot up in the air. This time he had been coached to understand that there would be no green lights, that white meant good.

He knew he had done it.

His second squat was flawless, so was the third.

Each time Jamie came to the stage, his confidence seemed higher. He steamrolled through three sets of bench press, pumping his fist harder after each good lift.

The crowd loved him. After each round he turned to them, put his hands flat together in front of his chest and bowed like a warrior.

The final competition was the dead lift. The bar rested on the ground—260 pounds awaited.

Standing upright, Jamie spread his feet wide. He squatted down, back at a 45-degree angle to the floor, butt thrust out, long fingers wrapped tight around the shiny silver bar.

His eyes moved past the crowd in front of him and on to a green Special Olympics logo on the wall at the front of the gym.

A judge said, “Lift!”

Jamie’s mouth opened in a near-perfect circle as he slowly pulled the bar up. He scowled like one of the pro wrestlers he idolized.

As his hips straightened and the bar moved past his knees, he released a guttural RAHHHHHHH!

You really need to read the whole piece. Jamie is an antidote to the fear and prejudice peddled by anti-vaccine activists. Huppke’s profile teaches us how accommodation and understanding have helped Jamie to find a place in the world. It’s a story of hope, and renewal, and recovery from the low expectations that have been foisted on the Jamies of the world by the autism cure industry.

So I called the Tribune reporters last week, and spoke briefly with Rex Huppke, to get an idea of what he might talk about. He said he hadn’t had time to prepare for panel, and asked me when it was being held. Here’s the abstract, time, and list of panelists from

Saturday, May 24, 9:00 am – 11:00 am

Autism and the Media
As the gravest health story of our time plays out parents are puzzled at the lack of investigative reporting. This expert panel has provided groundbreaking coverage of autism and will help bring into focus the process which has allowed them to excel in their coverage. The panel will also look at the changing landscape of media and its importance in breaking and reporting news stories.

Mark Blaxill – Age of Autism
Jen Christensen – News Anchor Mom
Julie Deardorff – Chicago Tribune
Rex Huppke – Chicago Tribune
Dan Olmsted – Age of Autism
Ashley Reynolds – KOMU / Missouri School of Journalism
Kim Stagliano – Age of Autism


Here’ s my message to the two Chicago Tribune reporters who are, apparently, obligated to explain themselves to the editor of Age of Autism.

I feel the need to give you a friendly heads up about AutismOne and some of your fellow panelists. The meeting abstract tells us that autism is “the gravest health story of our time”. If you ask why, Blaxill, Olmsted, and Stagliano will tell you that we are in the middle of an autism epidemic. Be very skeptical. True, diagnoses of autism have been climbing for 20 years, and public awareness has grown, but that is hardly evidence for an epidemic. The diagnostic manual that doctors use to identify autism has been revised three times in 20 years, and each time the criteria for autism have broadened. Asperger’s Syndrome is currently listed as an autism spectrum disorder, but was not included 15 years ago. Comedian Dan Ackroyd, who has Asperger’s, did not receive an autism spectrum diagnosis until he was well into adulthood. Similarly, children once diagnosed with mental retardation are called autistic these days. Diagnoses are also driven by greater public awareness, increased social services, and doctors who are just plain getting better at recognizing the signs and symptoms.

If the definition for “legally blind” was changed from 20/200 vision to 20/100, the number of blind Americans who skyrocket, but that would hardly constitute an epidemic.

Calling for more investigative reporting into an epidemic that doesn’t exist is probably not the wisest message for the anti-vaccine panelists. It is precisely because of a lack of investigation, and public exposure, that the vaccine-autism urban myth has enjoyed such a long life. Of course, what the panelists mean by “investigative reporting” is credulous parroting of anti-vaccine talking points. You will he hearing plenty of these Saturday. Here are just a few:

  • The explosion in autism exactly mirrors the explosion in the number of required childhood vaccines
  • Most of the diseases that vaccines supposedly protect us from are harmless, or extinct (measles, chicken pox, polio, mumps)
  • The FDA, CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, drug makers, and major media outlets have conspired for years to hide from the public the real truth about the cause of autism.
  • The dozens of peer-reviewed studies that fail to show a link between vaccines and autism can’t be trusted because the scientists have been bought off by vaccine makers who use their money and influence to suppress the truth.
  • The Amish don’t vaccinate, and autism is rare in that community, yet the federal government refuses to study the reasons, or to compare the autism rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.

And finally an introduction to some of your fellow panelists:

Mark Blaxill is a board member of Safe Minds, a fringe anti-vaccine group that still insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the mercury-based preservative once used in scheduled childhood vaccines causes autism. You can read his thoughts at Last week, he criticized a health clinic in Lancaster County, PA, for increasing the vaccination rates among Amish and Mennonite children. Blaxill is not a doctor, but is quoted as saying that he is smarter than any medical doctor when it comes to vaccines and autism.

Dan Olmsted is a former UPI reporter who wrote, in the fall of 2005, that autism is rare among the Amish of Lancaster County, PA, and that they vaccinate at rates far below the general population. But Olmsted failed to visit the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg. The clinic treats dozens of Amish and Mennonite children who present signs of autism, and it holds a weekly vaccine clinic.

Ashley Reynolds is an undergraduate journalism student at the University of Missouri Columbia School of Journalism. Last December she produced a 14-part television news series, Combating Autism from Within, that was so biased and misinformed that it prompted a protest from medical doctors at the medical college. One of Reynold’s on-air “experts” was a radiologist who has claimed that the World Health Organization relies on vaccines to sterilize women in Third World Countries, as part of a conspiracy with Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation to depopulate the world. Reynold’s failed to disclose her “expert’s” unusual viewpoint in her story, even though she was informed of it a month before.

All three of these “experts” have one thing in common: they start with what they think they already know, then work backwards from there, cherry picking evidence, quote mining, and ignoring data that don’t fit. It’s the opposite of how an investigative journalist works, and it’s the exact opposite of how scientists think.

Good luck on Saturday.



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph // May 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    There’s really no hope for the 2 Chicago Tribune reporters. They are probably completely unaware of the points and counterpoints of the autism debates. The others might be biased and mistaken, but they’ll sound like they know what they are talking about.

  • 2 kristina // May 21, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Deardorff also writes fairly frequently about autism “recovery” and alternative cures, and talks about our friend Ms Mccarthy.

  • 3 Ms. Clark // May 21, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I think it would be sad to have one’s career as a journalist damaged by association with people who spread nonsense like the autism epidemic as fact.

  • 4 isles // May 21, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I wonder whether Mr. Huppke will have an Insel moment on stage – where he makes the mistake of saying something realistic and gets hissed at by venomous mercury moms.

    I just hope he doesn’t come away with the impression that just because a lot of people believe in the falsehoods touted as fact at Autism One, there must be something to them. Lobotomies and leisure suits both had large followings, but that doesn’t mean they were ever right.

  • 5 Club 166 // May 22, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I don’t know anything about Huppke. But as Kristina pointed out, Deardorff is firmly planted in the “autism is a terrible epidemic disease that can be cured by chelation, witchcraft, etc.” camp.

    So I highly doubt anything constructive will come out of this.


  • 6 Orac // May 25, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Julie Deardorff, I’m betting, knows exactly what she’s getting into. She’s very sympathetic to the mercury militia, if not a card-carrying member.

  • 7 CJNfront // May 25, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Sounds like sour grapes for people who have “real” journalism jobs.

  • 8 HCN // May 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    CJNfront, are you referring to Kirby and Olmsted who are both ‘former’ journalists? Though Kirby was actually a travel writer:

  • 9 HCN // May 25, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    CJNfront, are you referring to Olmsted and Kirby? Olmsted is no longer a journalist for UPI, and Kirby wrote travel articles for the New York Times. What they do now cannot be construed to be “real” journalism jobs.

  • 10 autblog // May 25, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    I wonder why Mr. Huppke didn’t attend the conference?

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