Gimme Gimme Thimerosal Treatment

Barack Obama has earned a substantial degree of good will with me, as anyone who’s read this blog at least once knows, and it takes a lot for me to get truly, actively mad at him, even when we disagreed. Well, his (and, to be fair, Clinton and McCain’s) apparent sympathy for the nutjobs who think that MMR vaccines cause autism provoked that level of anger from me. It should go without saying at this point that the vaccine claims are pseudoscientific bullshit, and as d at LG&M says, vaccine alarmists actively promote death by deterring parents from giving their kids the vaccine. But the main reason this pisses me off so much is that, even if the alarmists were right, it wouldn’t matter.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a variant of autism) at about age 3, if I recall correctly, and I give it substantial credit for the success I’ve had so far in life. The much-touted social ineptitude that comes with autism spectrum conditions has been a problem occasionally, of course, but it has its benefits. It leads to an instinct for introversion that lends itself to long hours online or buried in books. It provokes long periods sitting alone, thinking. It turns useful activities – like writing essays, or research – into welcome respites from social activity. A more powerful, and far less noted, aspect of the syndrome is its tendency to provoke deep obsessions. For some people, that obsession is trainspotting, or birdwatching, or animé. I lucked out with more mainstream and useful ones, namely politics and popular music, but the mechanism behind them is the same. Aspie obsession is an end in itself; it gives research and the acquisition of facts and theories with the same importance as eating or sleeping. And it’s a truly awesome (in both the archaic and vernacular senses) power. This blog wouldn’t exist without it, my grades would be much lower without it, and admissions committees would have been far less charitable without it. On a more ideational level, I’d be a much more ignorant, dumber, and less interesting person. For me, Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mental illness; it’s more or less the opposite.
This isn’t to say that parental concerns about autism are unfounded. Asperger’s is more mild than traditional, Kanner’s autism, and I sympathize with parents whose children still cannot talk to them at seven or eight. That said, the testimonies of classical autists, along with more recent scientific enquiries, suggest that its negative effects are greatly exaggerated. Kanner’s autists are not more likely to be mentally retarded than non-autists. They can communicate articulately, albeit in non-traditional ways. The more autists are treated as humans and not as case studies, the more it becomes clear that autism qua autism is not a disease, but a natural, and often beneficial, way of thinking.
The idiocy of the three remaining presidential candidates on thimerosal is disappointing, but it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity for liberals to take a stance on autism broader than mere condemnation of scientific illiteracy. It’s an opportunity for liberals to acknowledge, openly and loudly, that autism is not a disease, that it’s a grave insult to autists’ dignity to even think of “curing” it, and to condemn groups like Autism Speaks and embrace those, like Aspies For Freedom, that have the interest of autists, instead of non-autists frustrated with the autists in their lives, at heart. Liberals have a long and noble record of standing up for tolerance and diversity. Neurodiversity should be no different.

3 thoughts on “Gimme Gimme Thimerosal Treatment

  1. I wrote a Daily Kos diary on this very issue today, and you’re not gonna believe the tons of crazy in the comments.
    Also, slight correction. Thimerosal was never in the MMR vaccine, because MMR is a live-virus vaccine and mercury would have killed the live virus. The MMR-autism connection was completely different hypothesis (more popular in the UK than here) that held that MMR poisoned one’s gut, which led to autism. This was completely separate from the US-centered thimerosal-autism hypothesis. Of course, they were constantly conflated into what I call the “OMG!VACCINES!OMG!BBQ!” hypothesis, which could be the cause of your confusion.
    Reading this again, maybe you’re just ascribing the MMR-mercury view to the nutbars. So sorry if this correction is not warranted.

  2. I do not mean to criticize or otherwise get involved with any specific person’s medical diagnosis. However, psychiatry is easily the most problematic medical specialty, one that is particularly beset with inconsistent and drifting definitions of diseases. There was a time when all of medicine was sunk by bad descriptions, i.e., when diseases were named on the basis of semblances and symptoms that could have many different etiologies. For instance, Mozart died of something called “miliary disease”, which is an obsolete term that does not refer to any one rigorously defined disease today. Psychology and psychiatry are partly still in this quagmire.
    In particular, the expanded meaning of autism and the association with what they call Asperger’s syndrome has brought on tons and tons of confusion, even though these reinterpretations might well have some scientific merit. Unreconstructed autism is a crippling disorder and not a case for “neurodiversity”. I have a friend with an autistic son. This is not a case of not talking at age seven. Try, can’t talk at age 20. In some ways, he is mentally more capable than some people with Down’s syndrome who can talk at age 7, but he can’t talk. It has taken a severe toll on his educational and social development. So has his tendency to bite himself (and sometimes others) in protest, his tendency to panic, and his inability to read even basic emotions. His parents are saints, but not by choice.
    I suppose that even before the Asperger/autism-spectrum trend, there was a tendency to romanticize autism. For instance, the movie Rain Man does that to some extent — autistic savants are actually very rare in the autistic population. But Rain Man also does address the devastating side of autism, as in the scenes where Raymond can’t live alone for even half a day and can’t answer straight questions.

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