Autism was the disorder heard 'round the world last Thursday at the Republican Convention, as John McCain singled out a young father from Pennsylvania for special recognition from 39 million viewers.
"I fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania," McCain said. "They have two sons. The youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism. Their lives should matter to the people they elect to office. And they matter to me."
It was a powerful moment, and it could help place autism squarely in the forefront of the national political discussion, where it belongs.
This weekend, Jake Wimmer's trip to St. Paul was retold by a local news outlet (HERE). I was intrigued enough to pick up the phone and call him for his opinions on the campaign, and on the state of autism in America today.
The first thing Jake told me was that he and Toni keep a copy of my book, "Evidence of Harm," in their home. And though they don't rule out thimerosal, vaccines or other environmental factors as potential autism triggers, they remain firmly in the agnostic-yet-open-minded camp when it comes to possible causes.
Indeed, Jake Wimmer said he was more concerned about what will happen to his son -- and all the other young Americans with autism – going into the future, rather than dwelling on what's happened in the past.
"We cannot go backwards," he told me. "And while it is good to understand the past, because you don't want to make the same mistake, you've got to move forward."
Wimmer, a lifelong Republican, was thrilled that his candidate spoke about autism during his big speech. "I am just glad he is putting it out there, because in 10 years or so, we are going to have a society where we will need to assimilate a good number of folks."
He said the country must begin planning now for the wave of young adults who will need job training, employment opportunities, counseling and educational support – all tailored to meet their specific abilities and challenges.
"As these kids get older, we are going to have a significant population of people in this country that may or may not be able to take care of themselves, financially or emotionally," he said. "And at some point as a society, we've got to figure this out. Somebody needs to address the long-term here."
Wimmer, who was affable and accessible, answered a range of questions about autism, politics, and the tentative intersection between the two. Some highlights:
TREATMENTS: The Wimmers take Luke to a Defeat Autism Now (DAN) doctor in Baltimore. Luke receives twice weekly methyl B-12 shots, and underwent a lengthy regimen of chelation therapy.
"He gets better every year," Jake Wimmer said. "Once we started the B-12, we saw a tremendous improvement." But injecting his son in the leg twice a week was a tough chore for Jake, (though Toni seemed to handle it better).
"So one summer I said, 'let's stop this and just see what happens," Jake said. "He lost his ABCs in a month. He lost whatever speech he had gained since we put him on B-12. He went backwards."
Luke is back on B-12, but off chelation, for now. Oral chelation was tough, he said, mostly because of the nasty taste. But hair and blood samples showed that Luke's young system was suffering from heavy metal accumulation. And urine tests after chelation showed elevated levels of tin, lead and mercury being extracted from their son.
Jake attributes Luke's progress to a combination of biomedical treatment, behavioral therapy, educational support and intensive interaction with family members, including Luke's older brother.
"I don't think there is a magic bullet," Wimmer said. "If there were, I would like to think that, in our great country, we would have figured it out by now."
Luke still has progress to make, to be sure. "He is 6 ½ years old. He should be a first grader, but he is not," Wimmer lamented. "He is communicating like a two or three year-old, and he is going to be seven in April. And he still has some of the typical things, like stimming. He slaps around a little bit, but not a whole lot. He really is doing better all the time."
CAUSATION: "I just don't know. I leave that stuff up to people who do the research," Wimmer said. "My job as a father is to do whatever I can to help Luke now, because I cannot go backwards. Feeling sorry for yourself, sticking your head in the sand, and placing blame is not going to make the situation any better."
On the other hand, Wimmer rules out nothing when it comes to causation. "It could be a combination of 50 different things, for all I know," he said. "I know that Deirdre Imus has spoken out about clean and green products in the home. So who knows?"
Luke displayed symptoms of autism as early as six months of age, Wimmer said. There was no typical development followed by clear regression. He was born in April, 2002, and the Wimmers have yet to determine which, if any, of his vaccines contained thimerosal. Toni receieved no injections while pregnant.
"We do need to find out the root cause, so we don't go backward," Wimmer said. "But again, at my level, I'm just focused on what to do to support our son financially and educationally, and for him to get better."
MITOCHONDRIAL DYSFUNCTION: Luke Wimmer has very poor muscle tone, Jake said. "His arms and legs go right down to the bones, whereas my other son is a stocky, strong little kid," Jake told me. "Our doctor once mentioned that maybe Luke has a protein processing issue. But after reading a little bit about Hannah Poling, who is the daughter of a doctor after all, we will bring it up with our own doctor this when we go see him this month,"
THIMEROSAL: "I am in no way speaking for the McCain campaign, but I am glad that he is talking about thimerosal. I am glad someone is talking about it," Wimmer said. "Now, I am a Republican-thinking kind of guy anyway, so this is not a defining issue for me. But I am glad he is willing to talk about this issue– that makes me feel good."
SARAH PALIN: "In my opinion, she is going to deal with these kind of things going into the future," he said. "I know that autism and Down Syndrome are different, but they both deal with mental capacity issues. I think she would certainly be sympathetic and open minded to listening to parents, and to challenging what we are doing today for the future of education, and for the standard of living for these kids."
GOVERNMENT FUNDING: What can John McCain do to keep his pledge to "fight" for families like the Wimmers? "To be honest, I haven't thought about that in a lot of detail," Wimmer said. "But I would like him to keep his word that we, as a country, will continue to explore how these kids are going to work and make a living."
As for research funding, he added: "If we can spend money studying some of the other things we study in this country, then think we can continue to spend money on our all our medical challenges, everything from cancer to autism. The glass is so gosh-darn full in the United States. Things could be so much worse."
David Kirby is a journalist, the author of Evidence of Harm and contributor to Age of Autism.