An Open Letter to Andrew Wakefield, the Man Behind the Autism-Vaccine Controversy

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Dear Mr. Wakefield:

It is well established that you are a quack and a liar. I believe you are even worse than that.

It should not take much scientific thought for a layman to be doubtful (to say the least) of your claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. That claim operates under the implication that it is a lesser evil to risk having a child come down with a potentially fatal disease than to have a child on the autism spectrum. As someone with Asperger syndrome, I consider that predication diabolical to the point of inducing vomit. It perpetuates the highly insulting idea of autism as an incurable disease—an irrevocable catastrophe that we can only respond to with forfeiture once a child is diagnosed with it, and that we should aim to eradicate, in part by eradicating the MMR vaccine. It is thus that you are not just a quack and a liar. You are also a eugenicist and a bigot.

Autism alone is not a catastrophe. How we are treating autism is a catastrophe.

I’ve seen it all. I’ve had classmates and peers call me stupid, retard, weird, oblivious, sperg-burger, to my face. I’ve had people who I thought were friends deliberately disrespect me, in ways that well-meaning teachers interpreted as “nonverbal cues” that indicated it was I and not them who ought to adjust behavior. I’ve been to summer camps that were not much more elaborate than storage facilities, where kids were kept on insane drug regimens (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that not only didn’t work but seemed to make their behavioral and social problems even worse; where invasive and abusive methods of physical restraining were viewed as appropriate punishment; and where one counselor—a total jock—responded to my legitimate charges of undernourishment by diagnosing me with a “sugar addiction” and spending the rest of the summer making fun of me over it, to my face. I’ve seen the stereotypes propagated by the media—the magical savant, the helpless target of bullies, the nerd who doesn’t know how to act around women, the violent psychopath who vents his anger by gunning down first-graders in Connecticut. I’ve read literature depicting autism as a disorder that impedes one’s understanding of who people are and how they think and act—so even if I am being bullied and neglected, then why should my perspective have any validity? Why should even I trust my own perspective?

Autism is not a disability or a disease that we should aim to “cure”. That notion is offensive and disgusting. (You think I’m wrong? The scientific consensus once thought the same of homosexuality—look how that turned out.) Autism is a unique state of being that needs to be channeled towards yielding accomplishments that are productive to and influential in society. Several biographers propose that if W.A. Mozart, Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick, W.B. Yeats, Herman Melville, Patricia Highsmith, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Nikola Tesla (and more) were around today, they’d have a case to visit a neurologist. I have heard of valuable research into how therapies involving music, writing and other aesthetic pursuits can assist persons with autism in focusing their hyperkinetic minds, and in communicating articulately and freely with others. And yet, our educational system at large is suppressing and pathologizing the unique and positive qualities of autism, mainly as part and parcel of its large-scale and disastrous efforts to suppress creativity in favor of an industrial regime that enforces memorization and test-taking above all else, and that streamlines kids into unskilled labor and—in the case of minorities—into the U.S.’ disgraceful prison complex.

Some of the most common misconceptions about Aspergerians, it bears repeating, are that we can’t read tacit social cues and that we struggle to show empathy. Let me speak for myself: my emotional intelligence is very strong, and I empathize with as many people in difficult situations as I can. What makes me different is that I am not always sure how to respond to social occurrences and advances that I don’t anticipate. This is because I have a distinctly firm, intense, serious way of carrying myself, and it’s hard to shake me out of it and get me to react to things in a way that’s socially expected but also kind of dishonest and contrived. This, I am willing to attribute to my neurology, and I can understand why some may interpret such tendencies as a sign of emotional blindness and being slow on the uptake. All the more why the misconceptions demand correction. Once I figured this all out, I was glad to be able to stop treating my peers’ social interactions as a foreign language that I had to learn and translate. It seemed like that was the case; of course it’s not. If anything, social interactions have a more palpable and more complex aura to them when they occur among peer groups who are bonded by specific shared memories. This, I’m okay with, as long as those groups permit social mobility and don’t act exclusive and stuck-up about themselves. Aleida Assmann wrote of sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’ concept of collective memory: “[M]emories are intrinsically social and constitute a group’s communicative and emotional glue. […] [P]eople do not develop an individual memory at all but are always included in memory communities. […] [A] person who is completely alone cannot develop a memory at all.” Aspies are more reserved than average, and this is our right, yet this thought has given me impetus to become more involved in social groups, and has made me wonder what influence my ideas risk losing when I develop them in solitude.

Alas. Western society seems less appreciative of intellect and integrity than it is of social sophistication and charisma. One need look no further than our current political media landscape, where genuine ideas to develop economic opportunity and fix pervasive social issues mean nothing if you can’t describe and enact them quickly and smoothly, while bigoted trolls with nothing useful to offer the country routinely catapult themselves to high office with catchy soundbytes and manipulative spectacle. “Inertia over innovation” is how I’ve read one describe it. This is a system built and designed to break Aspergerians. In both its definition and its French-Latin etymology, the word retard—which ought to go the way of the N-word, a term of Black enslavement when used by whites—carries connotations of slowness and delay. In the consumerist age of the Internet, speed, impatience, narcissism, attention-seizing and superficial pleasure are what’s in vogue. The grand irony of this in my childhood was that while schools purported to prioritize education above all else, its efforts to socialize students like me involved an attempt to wheedle us into conforming to the overall social standards and expectations of our peers as a primary means of overcoming our autistic insularity. This is invariably a recipe for disaster. The tribalism infecting most U.S. public schools—with its emphasis on competitive sports and physical prowess, its preference for snark over candor, and its willingness to ostracize, not to mention the ubiquitous place of drugs within it—is a direct byproduct of the Western culture of inertia, and a damaging environment for the clumsy, methodical, academically passionate, down-to-earth, law-abiding Aspie student such as I was.

“Hold on!” you might say. “Do you mean to conflate Asperger’s with classical autism? Because classical autism is the catastrophe! And that’s what the vaccine is causing!” That is not an excuse. A few years ago, the APA made the somewhat controversial decision to scrap the label of “Asperger’s” from the DSM-V and subsume it into the umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder”. At the time, the decision pissed me off because I feared that as a result, Aspies would receive the same “treatment” as those with more severe autism. (That, and to be frank, I kind of got a kick off having a condition with a German name.) I now understand that overall, the APA did the right thing, and that what they may have actually, effectively been implying was the converse: that therapies used to treat Asperger’s needed to be extended further down the autism spectrum, in the hopes that classical autists can be unlocked, develop faster, and show what intellect they may contribute to society. I have a confident hunch that this is possible, thus it is essential. If Aspies can break out of their shell, then so can low-functioning autists, whom I consider my neurological brethren, and with whom I am united in solidarity against you. Classical autism does present a greater challenge than Asperger’s, but it is not a sign of doom, and it is unacceptable to perceive it as such, call for its eradication, and give up on those born with classical autism as hopeless cases. The easy thing to do and the right thing to do are hardly ever the same thing; often, they are opposites. Dismissing a challenge because one finds it insurmountable is the mark of a truly pathetic man.

And that is what you are, Mr. Wakefield—pathetic. Enough has been written about your fabrications and financial motives, your disregard for the most obvious fundaments of scientific procedure, and your mockery of the Hippocratic Oath; I don’t need to remind you of that. I do find it telling, though, that in your experiments, you have violently restrained and performed unwarranted colonoscopies on autistic children. That right there is really all anyone needs to know about your character. Autism to you is the perfect bait, a convenient means to an end, an easy tool to exploit for profit, a disease that you can thoughtlessly lump in with colitis or whatnot to promote the medieval anti-vaccine hysteria that you wouldn’t live a day without. I’m not writing to disprove or discredit you blow-by-blow; that’s already been done. I’m writing to tell you about how you stand to profit less from science than from culture—a culture, namely, of the phobia of autism—and fear is as elemental to bigotry as hate. And while I’ve tried to skirt around the notion of you perpetuating an attitude that a sick or dead child is better than an autistic child, some of your supporters have spoken to that effect. Jenny McCarthy has said as much. How can these people be so wanton and so cavalier with their kids’ health? Do they take for granted that their child might die? Or would they rather their child be vapid and socially popular than gifted and socially awkward? Autism can be meaningful to society. I think I have much to offer society because of autism. And yet, some people would dare to convince me otherwise because they won’t listen to anything that threatens, as opposed to confirms, their ossified belief that autism is purely a horror story.

I will never watch your documentary Vaxxed. I refuse. I’m not even remotely interested in it. I am boycotting it in perpetuity, as should every other filmgoer, and I am considering boycotting all theaters showing it, including the usually reliable Angelika Film Center in New York City. (What the hell are they thinking?! What the hell was Robert De Niro thinking bringing this to Tribeca?!) You will not get a penny for it from me. My guess is that it’s as odious a piece of eugenicist propaganda as Triumph of the Will, and humanity would do better without it. Justly and rightly revoked of your medical license, you are now hijacking the power of cinema to continue your demonization of autism and to thus make a profit, which is all you give a damn about. How dare you. The subtitle of your film is From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Curious. You say that the catastrophe is the increase of autism rates worldwide, yet you have nothing to say about the real catastrophe, which is that over nine thousand children are dead because of the outbreak of measles, mumps and rubella caused by your fear-mongering bullshit, and you are intellectually incapable of offering any alternative to the MMR vaccine to remedy the insane tumult that you have caused. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about those deaths. I dare you to address them and take full responsibility for them. You probably won’t because you’re a psychopath and I take it you’ve fallen for your own lies as a defense mechanism, but I dare you nonetheless.

I don’t allow myself to be defined entirely by Asperger’s, and I’ve hardly ever used it as an excuse for anything. At the same time, it is an important part of my identity, and I am proud of it. I believe that autism should be respected and celebrated, and that neurodiversity is an essential good. It’ll take some work to push for it—given the autistic proclivity for solitude and the need to form large groups to create an effective movement for sociopolitical change—but it’s doable, and it’ll be done. It has to be done, with the stakes this high. I believe that autism is mostly genetic. It may have some environmental causes, but the basis of it is hereditary. Audre Lorde has an excellent essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, in which she, to quote Sarah Schulman, “takes us through the process of realizing, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, that—had she been silent about her truths: about her homosexuality, her racial position, her experiences as a poet and as a mother—she still would have had cancer. That her silence would not have protected her. This is the strongest argument I have ever seen for telling the truth about experience, understanding and social perception.” Likewise, not getting your children vaccinated will not “protect” them from autism—and I feel sorry for the parents who are so afraid of autism, they feel like they have to risk their child’s death—which no parent wants—to “protect” him or her from something that protection-from is unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive because autism is good. Without Asperger’s, I wouldn’t be the Haverford graduate and the intellectual, driven bookworm and film buff that I am today. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

If I have children, and if they have autism—whether classical or Asperger’s—I will love and accept them, and I will know how to raise them. And I will get them vaccinated. And you, Mr. Wakefield, can go fuck yourself.

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An Open Letter to Andrew Wakefield, the Man Behind the Autism-Vaccine Controversy

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