David Kirby Interviews Katie Wright
Bill Long 5/25/07--In Chicago
A Window into the Autism World's Biggest Controversy
When I was in theological seminary 30 years ago, I found myself entering into the depths of debates that I knew nothing about before entering those sacred halls. The spirits of long-dead Calvinists and Arminians, who had declared each other heretical in the 17th century over the role of the human will in the process of salvation, were seemingly alive and well in my little theological bubble. Again, with respect to Biblical authority, the "innerantists" were in a death struggle against thoes who merely believed that the Bible was "infallible." I watched with amusement, and bemusement, as people ritually skewered each other over these issues. Indeed, professors lost their jobs because they were "soft" on inerrancy.
All this flooded back to me as I had the extraordinary experience tonight of seeing a 30-minute excerpt of a two-hour interview of Katie Wright by David Kirby at the Autism One annual conference in Chicago, followed by a question and answer period about Katie's recent "coming out" (on the Oprah Show on April 5, 2007) favoring a mercury-based origin of her son's autism rather than the genetic-based origin of autism seemingly favored by the BIG autism organization, Autism Speaks, founded by her father. What became clear to me as I was witnessing the interview and the Q & A period is that the "environmentalists" (just think Arminians, Bill) were trying to capitalize on this event as a way to gain some leverage in the debate against the "geneticists" (think Calvinists) regarding primary causal factors for autism. For, it seemed to me, if the "environmental-factor" autism community could claim that they had "gained" Katie to their side, this might be a direct way to "influence" her dad, whose word carries a lot of weight in the boardroom and funding priorities of the wealthy organization Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks might therefore become more "open" to the "environmentalist" agenda.
The Actual Interview--What's Credible and What's Not
Let me stress that I have no dog in the fight regarding autism's cause. In seminary I thought that hyper-Calvinists and hyper-Arminians both had indefensible positions, even though I really was intrigued by the cases that they both made. I just felt that my interests in theology were elsewhere. So it is with autism. I am fascinated by the debate and level of vitriol it has engendered, but am not qualified to make a judgment about ultimate causal factors. I viscerally feel that both sides don't have the complete picture. But that didn't detract from the interview tonight being an "event."
As David questioned Katie on the film, it seemed to me that there were some very genuinely believable and powerfully human things that she said, and at least one thing that didn't sound credible at all. Let's begin with the credible things. I felt she was very credible in describing not simply her family's agony in dealing with her son Christian's autism but in pointing out various behavioral or dietary therapies that helped Christan regain some of his 'pre-regressive' activity (my word). I felt she was, and may still be, wracked with guilt for being the one who "held down" her little boy so that mercury-laden vaccines could be administered to her son. I think she is absolutely right that autism ought to be receiving more media attention in the "big markets" because of its increasing prevalence in our society (the CDC how has it as 1/150 young people). I have written in other contexts how the media is able to skew stories because of people's fears or their own predilections--pointing out, for example, that we sort of have our priorites misaligned when we as humans worry about fatal shark attacks when sharks kill about a handful of people annually while we kill millions of sharks annually.
I felt she was believable in pointing to the vaccines her son received as responsible for a change in his life, whether or not one could say that the vaccines caused the autism. But there are just too many parental stories "out there" of a close temporal connection between vaccinations and children's developing autistic symptoms to believe that all these people are just parroting the "common" narrative given them by some manipulative "environmental" theorists. To take another term from religion, the Puritans may have had their established "conversion narrative" in which they articulated their miserable state of sin, their hopelessness to save themselves, and the miraculous grace of God dawning at the crucial time, but even in a tightly controlled Puritan community this narrative rapidly changed.
But there was one point of her story that troubled me, a fact that also makes me wonder about some of her other "factual" statements. She stated that her son developed autism at about age 2 1/2. Then she said that she saw him lose his vocabulary from about 1000 words to 100 words. She repeated this ratio, as I recall, once more. I don't find that credible. Pediatrician Harry Bernstein, M. D., says that "most kids at 2 years of age have close to a 50 word vocabulary and are already putting 2 words together. Some are more advanced; others are less." Well, Christian was 2 1/2 years old. One thousand words? I taught in colleges for more than 15 years, and I sometimes wondered whether all my students had 1000 word vocabularies. The number of 1000 isn't credible to me. So, it makes me ask myself the question of whether she exaggerated other numbers (did she exaggerate the number of vaccines that kids get in the United States?).
Whether the "Calvinists" or "Arminians" are ever shown to be correct, I still was delighted with the theater created by the interview and questions/answers. The battle is still alive and well in the autism world. I love to watch it from the sidelines.