Note: This post originally ran on my Facebook page the day after learning about Dan’s passing. It currently has over 41 shares and hundreds of collective comments, so I wanted to immortalize it here. As the days passed, however, I realized I missed some funny and important points about Dan I wanted to include, so this is a slightly edited version. Thanks.
It hasn't quite sunk in yet that Dan Olmsted has passed. I haven't seen him in person for some time, so I keep imagining this is a mistake and at the next big advocacy event, he will be there, sitting at a table talking quietly with other advocates, wearing his normal casual attire, his full beard, and his glasses.
For those of you outside of the autism world, it's hard to put into words what he meant to so many of us. In short, but in unimaginable depth, Dan legitimized our concerns. He legitimized our stories. He legitimized our lives.
I don't know how you thank someone for that, and I most certainly don't know how you express what that means. I guess this is my attempt.
Having a healthy child regress into autism is nothing short of traumatic in the truest sense of the word. In spite of the mainstream's effort to normalize it over the last two decades, there is nothing normal about it.
It's like watching someone kidnap your child right in front of your face, only there's nothing you can do about it to stop it. And it's not their body that gets taken. It's their personality. Their energy. Their laughter. Their voice. Their words. The light in their eyes. And eventually you realize, their life's potential. All the while their body is left in pain, suffering from seizures, rashes, allergies, autoimmunity, gastrointestinal distress, and more.
It is beyond what any child or parent should ever, ever, ever have to experience. Traumatic really doesn't even seem to be the right word to describe it. It's not intense enough.
My daughter has made a significant recovery, as have I, and even writing those words brings me back to a place of anxiety, fear, and despair that I will never fully be able to shake. But a large part of the reason why I have been able to move forward and make meaning out of what happened is because of Dan's work.
For those of you who didn't know Dan, and perhaps only saw the posts of his that I would share every weekend, let me explain who he was. Dan was an investigative journalist in the truest sense of the word. Frankly, he was more like a detective, willing to follow the evidence wherever it lead.
He was also a brilliant man and writer. He grew up near the city of my alma mater and went on to get a degree in journalism from Yale. He was a founding member of USA Today, and right before he began writing about autism in 2005 for UPI (his first story The Amish Anomaly ran on my birthday…an incredible present at an otherwise terrible time), he broke a story about an anti-malaria medication used by the military called Lariam.
He reported the dangerous psychotic effects it was having on some soldiers, and as a result, it largely pulled from use and slapped with a warning. He remained deeply interested in and concerned about the medications being given to soldiers thereon, especially as so many of them began to commit suicide and violent acts against their families and the public. Perhaps it wasn't the service in the Middle East that was making some of them snap, he speculated. Perhaps it was their meds. And perhaps we have a very serious problem on our hands.
In his own words to me, he explained how that reporting made him realize the profound influence of pharmaceutical medications on our lives and minds, as well as the government when they are intricately involved in why we're using them in the first place. Half kidding, half serious, he asked his editor for the next big medical controversy involving both that he could write about.
"Vaccines," his editor friend afterwards. "You should write about vaccines."
And so he did.
Dan had no stake in this issue personally. He did not have a child or relative affected by autism, and in spite of that, he dedicated the last 12 years of his life to challenging medical orthodoxy and the government about it. He even put the historical pieces together with Mark F. Blaxill about how it really happened.
Autism, it turned out, is a man-made, medically caused, medical disorder, they discovered. It's preventable, treatable, and reversible. They could prove it. I am absolutely confident their work will go down in history when this reality is no longer deniable simply because it's uncomfortable and expensive to admit it.
Dan was the first to find Donald Triplett, the first person ever diagnosed with autism in the world (who is still alive and well in Mississippi), not the other journalists who seemingly stole the story for The Atlantic and later, a different book. He and Mark Blaxill were the first to track down 8 of the original 11 children in Leo Kanner's case study, with the help of Teresa Conrick, and they were the first to put ethyl mercury fungicides at the scene of the crime.
More important, they were the first to theorize about a new model of disease in the modern world. It seems it is no longer appropriate to assume one microbe equals one disease. Today's plagues appear to be a lethal combination of one microbe and one toxin gaining access to the brain in a way that was not possible before the industrial revolution.
Their work on polio, for example, which was a commonly occurring benign virus for centuries prior to lead arsenate being used as a pesticide, certainly seemed to support that idea. The same was true with autism. Toxins appear to be allowing viruses and bacteria access to the brain for the first time, as well as altering the immune system. Today's epidemics are real, and it's because of this. Their work is nothing short of revolutionary.
But it was so much more than that. Dan was a calm, rational, thoughtful voice in a controversy plagued by anger, name-calling, and worse. He never lowered himself to that level even when he knew that giving an interview to Buzzfeed, for example, would inevitably get him labeled "an anti-vaccine crackpot".
He simply didn't care, knowing that label is always used to marginalize people and distract from the real issues we are dealing with: denial, corruption, over-medicating, government over-reach, biased and inaccurate science for sale, and more. I admired him deeply for that.
And really, when I think about it, it wasn’t even that he didn’t care what his critics said. He actually used their attacks as a measurement of success. I’ll never forget an email he sent me a few years ago after I wrote an article about what I would have asked Dr. Ann Schuchat about vaccine safety under oath if I were in Elizabeth’s Warren’s place.
“hey, just wanted to let you know your piece really has them riled up on the daily kos. congratulations!” (Dan rarely capitalized in emails. That’s actually how it was written.)
But Dan was funny like that. He always made me laugh, especially when we met up in Los Angeles for a private fundraiser for Age of Autism and Generation Rescue in 2013 being put on by none other than rock legend and drummer Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters.
Dan was very nonchalant that night, utterly calm and cool about an experience that I could hardly wrap my brain around in excitement. Taylor Hawkins is rock gold. To my generation, he is one step away from rock royalty Dave Grohl, originally of Nirvana. Nirvana, to many of us my age, is the like the Beatles to my parents’ generation.
We walked the red carpet that night before anyone arrived, pretending anyone cared we were there, snapping pictures of one another and laughing. To my relief, as the night went on, he eventually pulled me aside and said, “Ok, I admit it, Julie. This is pretty damn cool.”
And of course, Dan was the first person I wanted to read my book when I finished. He helped me tremendously during the process with specific details I included about his work. His approval meant the world to me, and the fact that he thought anything I had to say had merit and was worthwhile of sharing on his blog or elsewhere was humbling beyond measure.
I'm a different person and my life took a different path in large part due to Dan. I'll end by including how that happened in 2007 with an excerpt from my book.
"On one of the conference days, I found myself in the giant ballroom almost alone. I sat down to wait for the next speaker and look through my notes when, behind me, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill appeared. Dan was the journalist who had written the series Age of Autism for UPI. Mark was the father of an affected child, and was one of the original parents instrumental in bringing CDC corruption to light, a Harvard and Princeton educated man, and one of the smartest people I had ever met.
Together, they told me, they were starting a new blog...It would be the first daily web newspaper about the autism epidemic.
I was thrilled. In the year prior, I had come to know Dan and Mark and their work well. I admired them immensely, and I was excited for what they could do with this new platform. Rumor had it that all of the organizations that viewed autism medically...were organizing during the conference to discuss becoming one...
Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, the merger never took place. I often wonder what would have happened if it had. But on that day, in that ballroom, it was still a real possibility. And on that day, in that ballroom, Dan and Mark asked me to join their blog as a Contributing Editor. I gladly and humbly accepted."
Rest in peace, Dan. We are all eternally grateful, especially me.
Julie Obradovic is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.