Emotions Run High Over Autism Causes

A family devoted to helping a relative is now caught up in a fierce debate.

January 8, 2009, 12:23 AM

June 18, 2007 — -- Former NBC chairman Bob Wright was so determined to help his grandson Christian when he was diagnosed with autism that he launched an ambitious crusade to find all possible causes and cures of this neurological disorder.

His charity, Autism Speaks, quickly became a leader in the field, raising $15 million in just two years for research — more than any other group. Now, the Wrights find themselves party to the same debate that has divided activists lobbying for research, funding and public awareness.

Wright's daughter Katie complained that not enough is being done to investigate childhood vaccines, which she believes caused her son Christian's autism. He is now 6.

"We give 37 vaccines to babies under the age of 18 months. Nobody has shown that that's safe … multiple vaccines at once," Katie said on an April "Oprah Winfrey Show" appearance. "You look at food allergies, asthma, and autism — it's all connected."

Her support for a controversial theory led Katie's parents to issue a public repudiation stating, "Katie Wright is not a spokesperson for Autism Speaks. She is our daughter and we love her very much. Many of Katie's personal views differ from ours and do not represent or reflect the ongoing mission of Autism Speaks."

"What we're hearing now … about the Wrights really reflects a discussion that's been going on in the autism community for some time now," explains Ilene Lainer, executive director of the New York Center for Autism, and the mother of an autistic child. "Some families believe that they know what the cause of autism is and it's vaccinations that contain mercury. Other people believe that we don't know what the cause of autism is.

"It's not uncommon where mothers and fathers and grandparents are desperate to find out what the cause is of autism," Lainer explains, because "finding a way to help this child that they love is the sole purpose, and so they need to believe in something that they can respond to."

But when it comes to vaccines, scientists say they have the answers.

Three government reviews, looking at all available information, have found no credible evidence of any link between vaccines and autism. So, why do so many families continue to believe?

For some, there are concerns about the timing of the disorder as many children manifest symptoms of autism in their second year of life, just after receiving many of their vaccinations.

Others point to the flip flops of science and studies in which many drugs and vaccines thought to be safe one day are found harmful years later.

Government experts say it's nothing more than a coincidence and that further studies on vaccines and autism are not justified. "I think, frankly, it would be a waste of money that could be used much better elsewhere," said Dr. Marie McCormick of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Especially on genetic clues of this crippling illness, say McCormick and her colleagues.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.

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