While watching “The Simpsons” four years ago, a commercial appeared for a FOX News report on autism and a vaccine preservative. I stayed tuned for the program, and what I saw and heard shocked me. The reporters were interviewing angry parents of autistic children who said thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in childhood vaccines, had caused their children’s autism. According to the show, a bottle of thimerosal is too dangerous to even open. One child was injected as an infant with a dose of mercury that would be unsafe for a 250-lb adult. A mother lamented, “It’s a neurotoxin, it’s one of the most poisonous on earth.” A group of parents of autistic children, was asked, “How many of you feel thimerosal caused your child’s autism?” I vividly remember everyone’s hand going up.
A person from the other side of the argument was also interviewed for the show. That person was Dr. Paul Offit. He seemed very assertive - almost aggressive. When asked if there was a thimerosal-autism connection, he exclaimed, “The answer is a consistent, clear and reproducible NO!” The main reason I had for believing his denial of the connection was his position at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. Other than that, I did not know who he was or what he did, much less the $1.5 million grant his research chair received from Merck, his co-patent on the Rotavirus vaccine, or his vaccine earnings which he later said were, “like winning the lottery.”
The reporters then interviewed Dr. Mady Hornig of Columbia University, who had injected mice with thimerosal. Here was a poison given to humans causing autistic behavior, that when given to mice was discovered to do the same.
I found this difficult to comprehend. I was 16 at the time and knew I had Asperger Syndrome and received vaccines. I started worrying about my own problems, thinking, “If thimerosal can give someone severe autism, it could have given me Asperger’s.” But at that time I was unwilling to openly accept that I even had Asperger’s, and I locked the memory of the show deep down inside.
Throughout high school and into college I would keep my diagnosis to myself. “Asperger’s” was just a label with some symptoms attached. Without a reason for my condition, my diagnosis always seemed incomplete.
Part of my problem with my label was the kind of treatments I received for my condition. Since medications gave me terrible side effects, my mother gave me handfuls of vitamins for most of my life, and later B-12 injections which helped the most. I always wondered why I needed them. It didn’t make sense that Asperger’s was merely part of who I am, when I was given all these vitamins. I shouldn’t naturally have a vitamin deficiency. She also took me off dairy, took me off wheat for a long time, put me through Auditory Integration Therapy, and took me to a neurologist who glued electrodes to my head to test for seizures. I felt very different, not just because of my condition, but because of what my mother did to treat it. Everyone else I knew with Asperger’s was on medication.
Another reason I had against disclosing my condition was the prevailing ignorance about autism. I remember a classmate asking what autism was, and someone responding, “It’s a mentally retarded thing.” I also had a friend while growing up whose older brother was severely autistic (whom I later found out regressed after the MMR). In high school, being moved into mainstream classes with neurotypical students while knowing I was on the autistic spectrum made me feel so different from everyone else. But my fear of disclosure would eventually change.
When my mother mentioned chelation last summer, I finally told her about the news report. She said she believed thimerosal was responsible, having known about it since I was 12. When I asked why she hadn’t told me then, she said she didn’t want to upset me; I had frequent meltdowns at earlier ages. The news program I saw was disturbing. Nevertheless, I began to see it as good news: relief that I knew both what had been causing my problem and that it wasn’t “me.”
However, not everyone sees it as such. Neurodiversity advocate Kathleen Seidel was quoted as saying “Did it ever occur to you that someone might object to having their family members labeled as inherently toxic?” Perhaps we should let the family members decide for themselves. For me, the thimerosal-autism link was a logical explanation for my condition, and it was reassuring to know that my issue had nothing to do with who I am. This allowed me to accept my condition and disclose it to others.
By sophomore year of college, I went from telling nobody about having Asperger’s to telling everybody – friends, cousins, coworkers, even people I’d just met. I also explained the mercury issue, and most of the responses have been totally sympathetic and supportive. My disclosure of having Asperger’s didn’t draw negative attention as I feared. One aspect of my life definitely got easier, because now I feel that I can talk about my Asperger’s.
While it’s good to know the cause of my problems, as well as having the freedom to discuss them with others, what has been very disturbing was learning about the tremendous amount of suffering caused by the health authorities. They were given the huge responsibility of protecting people from defective drugs, but instead, completely betrayed the public trust. I am both overjoyed at the explanation I have for my condition and angered at the people who are responsible. I spend my spare time researching this subject, and become even more interested with each new fact I learn.
This new information also allowed me to take a more proactive approach to my health. Freshman year, I would often forget to take my vitamins. Now I make sure I always take them, along with finding other ways to reverse the damage. I never thought one news program would have this great an impact on my life.
Jake Crosby is a student at a Brandeis University who is majoring in history.