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The Amazing Spider-Man: The Animal Farm of the Autism Epidemic?

  SpidermanBy Gayle DeLong with Jonathan Rose

My almost-recovered 15-year-old daughter dragged me to the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, and I was indeed amazed.  Spider-Man, it seems, may be conveying our vaccine safety message without ever mentioning the V-word.   

Early in the story, a spider bites Peter, the son of deceased scientist Dr. Richard Parker.  The closest colleague of the elder Parker, Dr. Curt Connors, continued their work by transferring the DNA of one animal to another animal in hopes of combating physical weaknesses.  Connors develops a machine that spreads medical treatments in the form of a cloud over wide areas.  “We could prevent polio in an entire metropolitan area in 10 minutes,” Connors proclaims proudly.  “Of course,” he snidely remarks, “some people may not want to be protected from polio.”  Where have we heard that before, Dr. Offit?

Connors successfully treats a mouse to regenerate a limb by injecting DNA from a lizard.  His company, Oscorp, wants to start human trials immediately, but when Connors insists that he is not ready to apply his invention to humans, the company shuts down his lab.  And what did they do to Andy Wakefield when he warned that the MMR might not be ready for humans?

In the meantime, Peter realizes he has special Spider powers.  The spider that bit him was not an ordinary arachnid, but rather a test animal from Connors’ lab that was capable of transferring its DNA to humans.  Peter fights crime by spewing out webs and tangling up the bad guys. 

But whereas Superman and Batman are establishment figures, who enjoy cozy working relationships with the mainstream media (The Daily Planet) and law enforcement (Gotham City’s police commissioner), Spider-Man is an outsider.  Though he doesn’t want to be a rebel, he is ostracized by the power elite. The press brands him a traitor. (How has the New York Times treated us?)   Those who are supposed to provide public safety, led by the hapless police chief, resent Spider-Man’s vigilantism. (Sort of like doctors who resent moms who know more about autism than they do.)  And the casting of Denis Leary (“Your kid is not autistic, he's just stupid, or lazy, or both”) as the incompetent police chief may have been a wicked inside joke.

Now this is a film I’m beginning to relate to, in part because this Spider-Man is clearly a high-functioning autistic.  That’s never made explicit, but the point has not been lost on film critics.  As Andy Klein observes, “His inability to connect with his peers — it's a big deal when he manages to make eye contact with [his girlfriend] Gwen — is so severe that his he seems to have a degree of autism or Asperger's. “ This is not the Spider-man we know from Marvel Comics or the earlier movies, so why was the part written that way?

Perhaps because The Amazing Spider-Man is an allegory about vaccines and the autism crisis.  The film never mentions vaccines or autism -- but if it had, it would have been ignored or denounced by the media, as The Greater Good was.  Allegory is a kind of code, a means of disguising subversive messages to slip them past the censors.  Throughout history authors have used allegories to raise issues that can’t be discussed openly.  When Puritans were persecuted in Restoration England, John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.  During World War II, when it wasn’t politically correct to criticize the Soviet Union (after all, they were our allies), George Orwell wrote Animal Farm.  And those cheesy monster flicks of the 1950s, like The Amazing Colossal Man, were vehicles for expressing anxieties about atomic radiation, back when the government was assuring us that there was nothing to worry about. 

Meanwhile, back at the soon-to-be-closed lab, Connors decides to regenerate his own missing limb by injecting himself with DNA from a lizard.  Unfortunately, the treatment has unintended consequences and Connors is transformed into a giant, cold-blooded reptile.  

So, could mixing DNA from different individuals could have unintended consequences?  Is The Amazing Spider-Man endorsing the work of Dr. Theresa Deischer and Dr. Helen Ratajczak, who recognize that the DNA from vaccines grown on human tissue could disrupt the natural order of life?  Dr. Deischer suggests that residual DNA from the vaccines grown on human tissue could embed itself in the recipient’s genes.  Dr. Ratajczak points out that should this insertion occur, the body would seek to fight off the intruding DNA and inflammation would result, especially in the brain.

Fear not!  The movie has a happy ending.  Spider-Man captures Connors just as he is about to spread lizard DNA around the entire city using the cloud machine.  With Connors behind bars, the city can live in peace.  Even Denis Leary comes to realize that mixing DNAs is not a good idea. 

So far The Amazing Spider-Man has grossed $521 million, compared with just $135 million for Contagion. It may well be the Animal Farm of the autism epidemic.  It certainly shows that when we mess around with DNA, oh, what tangled web we weave!


Gayle DeLong is an associate professor in the Economics and Finance Department of Baruch College.  She is married to Jonathan Rose, who is William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University.  They have two children on the autism spectrum.



Cherry Sperlin Misra

To Good, You may be right about eye contact, but for me it came along with tremendous shyness. To what degree the two are related or not I do not know. Without eye contact, I always felt in a subordinate position to other people. It existed more with authority figures. Even if a teacher, for example accused me of something I had not done, I was not able to speak up and defend myself. I began improving in my mid twenties, and continued to do so. Im over 60 now and I think Im 95% ok now. I usually dont speak of this topic to other people because if they have not experienced it they would just be baffled. Are you able to be confident without having eye contact?


If spidey is autistic then good to him. As an Autistic (and I don't mean airy-fairy autistic) I do not live in any pain except that inflicted on me for acting differently.

One thing I don't get is why NTs consider eye contact so important. It isn't necessary to connect emotionally and from my point of view eye contact is a sign of agression, distrust, not of social bonding.

But here's the thing, if there is any conspiracy over autism then the Autistics are the key to exposing it.

Rupert Van Vanstersher

"Is Mr. Spock autistic, too?"

Yes. Microdeletion/duplication syndromes are even linked to straight eyebrows (like Gary McKinnon's):

"Shen et al identified deletions and duplications in 154 (18.2%) of 848 patients with an autism spectrum diagnosis

Xq11.1 duplication = unusual flare of eyebrows

12p11.23 duplication = Underdeveloped outereyebrows

13q21.1 deletion = External eyebrow flare"


Would spiderman then be a chimera? or would the genetic change be "de nova"? I believe both are possible. However, in a very real way I believe the introduction of foreign dna in some could bring about a host vs graft reaction with some not understood consequences, yet very likely the cause of the huge amount of autoimmune diseases that didn't exist in our grandparents era, as well as autism that didn't exist for them either.


Great analogy about society's repeated failure when attempting blanket solutions to handle individual problems.

Is Mr. Spock autistic, too?

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