By DAN OLMSTED
Charlie Gibson named an amazing young man, Stephen Wiltshire, as ABC's Person of the Week on Friday. It's worth watching the video to see his ability to draw cityscapes from memory. Click here. Wiltshire has autism, and anyone familiar with this disorder will quickly realize that Stephen is an autistic savant – one of that small minority who have extraordinary gifts.
Yet ABC doesn't make the connection. They portray a young man struggling with language delay and socialization who unaccountably shows remarkable talent.
I suspect something similar is about to happen once again with coverage of Jason McElwain, the New York state high school basketball team manager who was put in for the last few minutes of the last game of the season and sank an astounding six 3-pointers, including one at the buzzer. He was carried off the court by his teammates, met the president and wrote a book that is about to come out to great fanfare.
He deserves every accolade he gets.
I've watched that shooting spree on YouTube many times, and it has to rank as one of the great sports moments of all time. Here's the thing, though: None of the commentary seems to "get" that extraordinary abilities like Jason's (and Stephen's) are almost certainly part-and-parcel of their autism. I suppose it is remotely possible that a "typical" high school basketball team manager could come off the bench and sink six three-pointers. Or that the neurotypical kid next door could recreate entire cityscapes from his photographic memory, with perfect detail and perspective.
But I doubt it. What connects Stephen and Jason is more than autism and the unusual abilities that can (rarely) come with it. What connects them is the media's relentless inability to get autism right.
These stories are not really triumphs over disability, they are unusual aspects of the same syndrome that in its less cheerful and far more typical manifestation is wrecking more and more children's lives by the day.
And they beg the question: What's really going on here? Why do some kids with autism develop extraordinary abilities to boot? Is that a clue to the origins and possible treatment of the disorder? Just this past week I heard about a family who lives near me whose daughter regressed into autism after a vaccination. She was and is severely impaired but she has also gained extraordinary skills: She taught herself Japanese from, of all places, YouTube.
You make the call: A daughter destined for a full and independent life or one whose prospects are uncertain at best – but she sure can speak Japanese! Maybe the nightly news will feature her extraordinary abilities someday.
Once again we're in danger of turning these kids into curiosities and failing to learn the most important lessons they have to teach us.
Stephen's paintings now sell for more than $100,000. But according to a review on Amazon.com, "as all of Jason's friends graduated and moved on, Jason stayed at home and hasn't graduated high school and is working part time in a local market." I hope he and his family invest his earnings from the book and related activities wisely. He's going to need it.
The phrase "conflict of interest" gets tossed around a lot, and it's worth reminding ourselves what it really means. It doesn't mean that someone is necessarily lying or fudging data to hide harsh truths that conflict with their own personal or institutional interests (though that certainly happens). It means there is an INHERENT conflict between the roles they happen to be playing at the moment. The conflict may not even be conscious to the person who has it, but we all recognize that even unconscious allegiances can affect one's objectivity.
That's how the continual reassurance by the CDC, the FDA and the AAP that vaccines don't cause autism needs to be understood. These are agencies and groups with a standing conflict – they approve, recommend, administer and monitor vaccinations. Their views should be heard, but they are NOT the kind of objective parties that should be relied on to settle the question. They are inherently conflicted.
That basic idea seems lost on much of the media. Case in point is the Sunday ombudsman column in the New York Times by Clark Hoyt, who says the paper's coverage of ABC's Eli Stone vaccine-mercury episode was fair.
Hoyt said "the article made clear that there is a debate but did not give equal weight to the two sides. The Times has not since 2005, when two reporters investigated every scientific study and thousands of documents from parents convinced of a link between autism and vaccines, and came down pretty clearly on the side of the scientists."
These scientists, of course, were mostly in the employ or dependent on the good graces of agencies with a stake in the matter. They were inherently conflicted. And now the Times' earlier reporting has become the gold standard for all further Times coverage – and by extension for the rest of the follow-the-leader mainstream media?
"Indeed, the door on this controversy seems to be closing, but the Centers for Disease Control is conducting one more study, expected to be published next year," Hoyt writes. Oh, brother.
My own experience with conflicts and their consequences involved the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which pretty clearly has some awful side effects including suicide and homicidal violence. My UPI reporting colleague Mark Benjamin and I published a 3,000-word article in Newsday about that in May 2002. That summer, three Special Forces soldiers who had taken the drug returned from Afghanistan and killed their wives and then themselves at Fort Bragg, N.C.
There was no history of domestic violence, which there should have been if these were "ordinary" domestic homicide-suicides. We linked all three soldiers and their bizarre, uncharacteristic behavior to Lariam, and the military was forced into doing its own "investigation." Worth noting: The Army invented Lariam and licensed it to a private manufacturer; the CDC recommended it; the Pentagon handed it out like candy in Afghanistan without providing the warning sheet or even recording it in the soldiers' medical records, in most cases.
The Army's report came out a few months after the murder-suicides, in late 2002. Here's the start of the AP article: "An Army investigation of possible medical and behavioral causes behind a series of domestic killings and suicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., has ruled out the anti-malaria drug Lariam, officials said Wednesday. … A defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Lariam has been ruled out as a cause."
"Ruled out" by the same folks who invented, licensed and distributed it. Now that's a relief! Nowhere is there mention of the Army's dual role in all this – its conflict of interest, in other words. And this kind of thing has consequences; given a free pass by the media, the military went on handing out Lariam in Iraq in the same slipshod way; the suicide rate spiked, PTSD soared and stories about its side effects became legend.
The Army, it should be noted, had some help in reaching its literally fatally flawed conclusions about the murder-suicides, according to the AP: "Officials from the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also participated."
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism