ROLLING SNOWBALLS WITH FRIENDS
An early surprise at Autism One last week came courtesy of our Virginia friend, Mary. She has apparently decided this blog needs a good publicist, and Mary came to the conference armed with stickers and postcards bearing a new Injecting Sense logo (see above). There’s no reason to worry about such efforts going to my head. The one person who would not wear one of the stickers was my lovely wife.
It would take too long to give a lot of detail about what I heard from various speakers, and it would be impossible to relate everything that went on because there were five separate tracks being conducted simultaneously. I encourage anyone who has an interest in what was said to order individual presentations; some are available on DVD (the videos from the 2006 conference should be available soon) with all of the sessions being available on audio CD or MP3.
What I can do is give you some impressions I came away with. Keep in mind that the following is not intended to be a transcript. Again, the presentations are available. Also, there are a lot of fine presentations I saw that won’t get mentioned because the details would get lost in any retelling. What really interested me is the move toward common ground.
Mark Blaxil called science a “subversive process,” because the whole point is to take what went before and prove it wrong. Or, in the words of the ancient Greek, Thales, as quoted by Mr. Blaxil, “to bring surety is to bring ruin.” Rigor and scrutiny need to be applied to all science, but one must realize that our understanding of an issue can never be complete.
In her presentation devoted to explaining her proposed model for understanding autism, Dr. Martha Herbert echoed the resistance to change many scientists have. She asked the rhetorical question of should we believe what we see, or do we see what we believe? Those who cling to outmoded models will not see or believe the very real discoveries that are being made.
We are in the midst of a dynamic scientific process, in which we are learning more every day. And with each new discovery, we get closer to the truth.
Indeed, as Dr. Elizabeth Mumper stated, we’re now seeing an “integration of hypotheses.” More and more speakers were talking about the combined impact of various environmental insults, including mercury as a primary but not the only culrit, as causative factors for autism.
There seems to be no question ⎯ at least among the physicians and researchers who spoke at Autism One ⎯ that most autism results from a combination of genes and environment. Dr. Manuel Casanova, a neuropathologist, debunked the notion that the different brain structure we see in autistics (i.e., increased number of Purkinje cells and narrower minicolumns) appears to result from environmentally influenced genetics. As Dr. Anju Usman stated, genes cannot be altered, but the manner in which they are expressed is subject to change.
Dr. Usman spoke of having to take a complete look at the clinical picture of each child. Specifically, many children have not just mercury toxicity, but lead toxicity as well, and the synergy between mercury and lead gives rise to an exponential increase in the hazard. Even so, for children with impaired immune systems, heavy metals are just “the tip of the inceberg.”
Also looking beyond a simple indictment of thimerosal was Dan Olmsted, who gave a presentation together with David Kirby. Mr. Olmsted, the UPI editor who has given us the outstanding “Age of Autism” series, doesn’t attempt to answer any questions about causation. Instead, he does exactly what a good journalist always does; he asks intriguing questions. By looking at common environmental exposures in the earliest reported cases of autism, and recent diagnoses of autism among children involved in vaccine trials, Mr. Olmsted presents questions that may help lead us to the right answers.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the most controversial of all the key players in the autism world, gave a very interesting talk partially about studies that seem to replicate his controversial paper of several years ago linking the MMR vaccination and autism. He went beyond that issue, however, and speculated aloud about whether, though our vaccine programs, may have altered for the worse the means by which measles is transmitted. Again, this was not presented so much as a scientific study as it was what I would call preliminary speculation, but it is an idea worthy of exploration. For anyone who wants to criticize this notion without bothering to know what they’re criticizing, I would urge such a person to order the DVD or audio CD of this lecture. (Actually, Lisa Ackerman’s introduction of Dr. Wakefield, by itself, is probably worth the price of the DVD.)
On a policy note, Rick Rollens addressed the California numbers and, more importantly, the California response to those numbers. The California DSS numbers are undeniably controversial and subject to various interpretations. But a sensible look at them indicates that something is indeed going on, and Californians should be grateful that people like Mr. Rollens are there to see that society doesn’t simply bury its collective head in the sand.
It is an unfortunate fact of our life that the scientific and health-policy issues that concern us most are intertwined with politics. The keynote presentation, given by Robert Krakow, Jim Moody, and John Gilmore, entitled “A New Revolution ⎯ Empowering Parents,” focused on political action. And there is certainly much going on in that area. More and more parents are coming to the conclusion that good science and good heath policy will be buried unless we unite as a political force. Many states have either passed, or are considering legislation to ban thimerosal from vaccines or to expand health insurance benefits for autism. The Combating Autism Act is now working its way through Congress. To be sure, it is an imperfect piece of legislation. Nearly everyone can find problems with it, but the process by which it has come together is indeed encouraging. The various educational and advocacy groups have come together to compromise in order to move forward.
On both the scientific and political fronts, we are moving toward common ground. Listening to the presentations at Autism One, I thought about the image (undoubtedly the result of watching too many cartoons as a child) of a snowball rolling downhill. At first, there is just a tiny bit of snow rolling at a slow rate of speed, but more and more snow is added as the ball rolls downhill. As it picks up more speed and momentum, the ball continues to grow at a quicker pace with each roll.
One reason the snowballs are picking up speed and snow is that there are so many good people giving them a little push on the journey. I got to spend some great moments with many of them. Getting to know Scott and Angela Shoemaker better was a genuine treat. Speaking of treats, I will never forget seeing the glee in the Little Rankster’s face as the Nanstiels serenaded him with the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme. I had the pleasure of meeting countless people ⎯ too many to name here ⎯ I’ve gotten to know either through this blog or the EoH list. I had the chance to chat with Dan Olmsted and Craig Westover, two fine writers who have nothing to gain by taking a serious look at what we’re saying, and yet they’re interested in seeking the truth. A continuing resolve to seek the truth was expressed to me by Lujene Clark, who has no intention of backing away from the important work she began with her late husband, Alan.
I experienced a moment of great (almost sinful) pride upon hearing Bob Krakow echo my thoughts about the political struggle involved in finding the truth: that there’s a lot of us out here, we’re everywhere, and “we’re not going away any time soon!”
We’re not going away until we find the truth that shall free our children of the obstacles caused by autism. We’re not going away until we find out why our leaders decided it was a good idea to inject poison into our children. There is much that still divides us, but we’re not going away until we reach a consensus.