Jorden Gemuend – Week 12 – Offit Chapter 8 and Pitney

November 16, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Posted in Weekly Responses | 3 Comments

In line with the Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986, more than 5000 parents attempted to sue the federal government because they believed that vaccines had caused autism in their children. The courts ruled against these petitioners and declared that vaccines are not related to autism. This, along with the political policies of autism, have left parents feeling unsatisfied, afraid, and frustrated.

Paul Offit explains this court case, called the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, in chapter 8 of his book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. Between 1997 and 2007, more than 5000 cases were filed claiming that vaccines had caused autism. Due to the enormous number of filers, it was decided to have one hearing for them all, much like a class-action lawsuit. The proceeding centered on Michelle Cedillo, a girl who appeared to have developed autism after receiving a vaccination with Thimerosal in it. The petitioners’ lawyers presented their expert witnesses, trying to convince a panel of three judges that the Thimerosal in Michelle’s vaccine caused her autism. However, the defense discredited these expert witnesses, while presenting their own who argued that vaccines did not cause autism. In the end, the three judges ruled in favor of the defense. Looking deeper, this trial can be seen as the hope of thousands of parents seeking some sort of legal resolution for their children’s autism. These parents are looking for answers, and eager to latch onto any that present themselves, such as vaccines.

John Pitney takes a step back and encompasses autism policy entirely in his article “Autism Politics: A Research Agenda.” Autism policy and politics thus far can be laid out in the 6 stages of the policy process. These stages are Initiation, Estimation, Mobilization, Selection, Implementation, and Evaluation. In the initiation stage, autism was first described in 1943 and defined as a disability in a congressional act in 1975. The estimation stage includes the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, and reflects the uncertainty and disagreement over the definition, extent, causes, and costs of autism. Groups interested in autism, whether new or preexisting, form in order to influence policy. However, this mobilization stage suffers from conflicts within the groups. The selection stage involves the successful passing of the Combating Autism Act (CAA), which lead to increased federal support for autism screening, public education, and scientific research. In the implementation stage, more conflicts arose as anti-vaccine groups reemerged, the extraordinarily high funding for autism overshadowed funding for other diseases, and the actual money being distributed for special needs was not necessarily being used for that purpose. The evaluation stage reveals that autistic people are not benefiting greatly from the policy surrounding autism, and parents are afraid for their autistic children.

While autism policy overall has led to the passing of the Combating Autism Act, which provides very generous federal funding for autism, the internal conflicts, confusion, and disagreement amongst the public groups must leave parents feeling dissatisfied. The fact that policy has advanced far enough to where autism is receiving considerable funding should provide some hope for parents, but the ways in which that funding is being applied crushes that hope. In one sense, money has largely gone towards research and law cases surrounding a link between vaccines and autism. While this research is not bad, showing that thankfully autism is not linked with vaccines, the continued pursuit of this association has led to both monetary and scientific excess. The Omnibus Autism Proceeding was a prime example of this, and parents who have been investing their hopes at the outcome of that trial must return to square one. Meanwhile, funding being allocated for the purpose of autism is being reassigned to other needs as institutions see fit. Again, this must be the source of great frustration to parents of autistic children. Together, confusing and conflicting autism policy has left parents unfulfilled, still yearning for answers, and afraid.

My Question: If you were a parent, and your child had autism, what would you do after learning that vaccines are not related to autism?


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  1. I think I would feel comfort in the fact that something I had given my child had not been the cause for the disease. I would then focus more energy on ways to help my child progess and encourage researchers to look into behavioral therapy techniques. Overall, I would accept the statement and move on because there is nothing that could change my child’s autistic status and it’s best for a family and the child to accept and move on.

  2. I would focus on helping my child. Despite any condition a child may have, they deserve the best life possible. I would not seek other causes for autism, because I am not a scientist and I think it would be in everyones best interest to leave science to the experts. Focusing on behavioral therapies, that have been proven to have some affect, and avoiding false hope from miracle cures would be my goal as a parent. While I am sure it would be easy to be tempted by the next crusade against pharmaceuticals, etc, I would try to avoid unscientific hypothesis surrounding autism. Additionally, I would try to encourage others to avoid using perjorative terms to describe autistic children.

  3. I think that after learning that something that I truly believed was false, I would go through the five stages of grief. If I was truly convinced that vaccines were to blame for my child’s autism, I don’t think that hearing it isn’t true would immediately be able to move on; beliefs are difficult to change or give up on. Clearly, I would still focus on my child and look for a cure, but I would be reluctant to let go of the idea that I knew what caused my kid’s autism. I think one of the things that parents’ of autistic children find hard to deal with is that there is no answer as to why their children are autistic, and giving up on a theory that tells them what is to blame is a very scary concept

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