Turning the Tables on Autism:

New book charts a course of recovery for afflicted children

 

October 1, 2007

It’s not everyday a Playboy pin-up girl gets tapped as spokesperson for a children’s nonprofit. 

Although 1994 Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy appeared alongside Pamela Anderson in Scary Movie 3, her unconventional work history has less to do with her new job position than one of her other qualifications.

McCarthy’s son Evan has autism. And a Southern California based advocacy group called TACA – Talk About Curing Autism - has hired McCarthy to help them turn around misconceptions about the disease, its cause and treatments. In September, McCarthy released the book Louder than Words: A Mothers Journey of Healing Autism, which opens up a new frontier in combatting the mysterious disorder. Back in the 1970s, only one in every thirty thousand Americans contracted autism. Today, its one in every 150, and most researchers say they're still not sure about what it's all about.

That's left a lot of frustrated parents and other caregivers scrambling for solutions. McCarthy herself was forced to wing it alone, addressing a condition that manifests itself with a myriad of biological, emotional and cognitive symptoms. Now the actress is making the rounds of the TV talk shows, sharing what she's learned and recounting a journey that began, she says, with the common MMR vaccination that kids receive when they’re toddlers. “This is the autism shot, isn’t it?” she had cynically asked her pediatrician a few years ago.  The physician scoffed at her, then ordered his nurse to administer the mandatory immunization.

For more than a decade, child vaccines like this one have fallen into disrepute as parents (and a growing number of health care providers) allege one or more ingredients may be toxic.  The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) disagrees, claiming there’s no such evidence of a link to mercury poisoning.  The vaccinations are necessary to prevent a resurgence of contagious, potentially life-threatening diseases like measles and mumps in the United States, the CDC maintains. To get a vaccination waiver, parents must provide authorities with a compellling religious objection or proof of a medical condition. 

While public health officials insist the explanation for the spike in autism cases is still undetermined, a growing number of advocacy groups like TACA point out that children today received 36 vaccinations, compared to less than 10 three decades ago.  Beginning in 1991, the shots also started earlier, in some cases within hours of birth. See Kennedy Alleges CDC cover-up of autism/Thimerosal connection for more on the controversy.

In the months following Evan’s MMR vaccination, McCarthy says her son developed symptoms that included fixation on simple mechanical motions (like a spinning wheel) and flapping his arms. McCarthy’s mother-in-law also commented that her grandson had turned distant and self-absorbed.

Oprah.com

McCarthy (left) shared her story with Winfrey in September.

Then one morning, McCarthy recounted to Oprah Winfrey, "I open the door and run to his crib and I find him in his crib, convulsing, struggling to breathe, his eyeballs rolled to the back of his head," she recalled on the Oprah show. "I picked him up and I started screaming at the top of my lungs … the paramedics came, and it took about 20 minutes for the seizure to stop."

A doctor at the hospital diagnosed McCarthy’s son with a febrile seizure. He explained that it was triggered by a fever. "I said to the doctor, 'Well, you know, he doesn't really have a fever, so how does that play in this scenario?'" Jenny asked skeptically.  The doctor responded, “’Well, he could have been getting one.'”

A few weeks later, when Evan had a second seizure, his heart stopped.  EMT’s revived him with CPR and an emergency room physician determined he was epileptic.  McCarthy rejected this conclusion, however, and sought out a neurologist for a second opinion.  As soon as the second doctor diagnosed autism, McCarthy remembered the MMR shot.

Some physicians now believe there's a strong gastronomical component to autism once the disorder sets in. Based on her Google searches and discussions with other parents, McCarthy modified Evan's diet, taking him off gluten and casein. (The ingredients are found in wheat and dairy products.)  "In two weeks to three weeks — and this isn't for everyone, to get a reaction like this — Evan doubled his language," she told Winfrey. Her son even began smiling and showing affection again.

A new approach to cognitive therapy also proved helpful. McCarthy used a technique called video modeling in order to teach Evan how to play catch.  After watching a video, he caught onto the game instantly.

"A lot of kids on the [autism] spectrum, including Evan, would take [a toy] car and just line them up or turn them upside down and just [spin the wheels]," she explained. "So play therapy literally is teaching him that the car can go on an adventure."  Now, she said, "I consider him in recovery. There's still things we need to work on — seizures, stuff with abstract understanding - but for the most part he's a typical child in normal school.”

The results of a recent $5 million survey of 1047 children conducted by the CDC found no link between mercury administered in vaccines and the onset of learning disabilities in children.  Researchers said they only found a possible correlation with tics (small muscle spasms) in boys, something previous studies had already uncovered. Some investigators are now suggesting that autism is either triggered by or the direct result of genetics.

The findings were received with widespread skepticism. In early October, Wired magazine reported that four of the doctors who led the study serve as consultants for vaccine makers and that the CDC's lead author, epidemiologist William Thompson, formerly worked for Merck, one of the nation’s largest pharmaceuticals.

David Kirby, who wrote the book Evidence of Harm, told Wired that the researchers should have taken into account more variables in children, such as birth weight, "which doesn't make sense, given that an 8 pound baby injected with the hepatitis B vaccine at birth was exposed to 35 times the EPA daily safety level for mercury, (calculated by bodyweight) while a 4 pound infant was slammed with 70 times the EPA level."  

The National Autism Association said the data in the latest report "clearly states a statistically significant relationship between thimerosal and a host of co-morbid disorders frequently seen in autism." Other researchers have noted a striking similarity between the symptoms of autism and mercury poisoning.  In addition to its use in vaccines, mercury is a component of most dental fillings and is resident in many types of fish, the by-product of water pollution. (Pregnant and nursing mothers are routinely warned to limit their intake of tuna.) Lead paint from toys made in China may also be contributing to the high concetrations of metals found in young children. Some experts say that data they've gathered so far suggests a serious epidemic of metal absorption that both the CDC and FDA have willfully ignored. Despite the high number of autism cases, federal funding for autism research remains small compared to other diseases.

Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines by 2003, but McCarthy still takes issue with the “one-size-fits-all” approach to administering the shots to children.  She thinks CDC should rewrite the protocol, taking into account such things as body weight, levels of metals in the bloodstream and whether or not child’s immune system can withstand the side effects of the vaccine at the time it’s given.

According to the CDC, no immediate changes to its vaccine protocol are under consideration, although it says more studies have been commissioned.  In a statement read by Winfrey, CDC stated “It is important to remember, vaccines protect and save lives. Vaccines protect infants, children and adults from the unnecessary harm and premature death caused by vaccine-preventable diseases." The agency refused to send a spokesperson to be interviewed on camera.

Holly Robinson Peete, an African American actress whose son R.J. was diagnosed in 1999, appeared with McCarthy on the Oprah show. R.J.’s father is retired NFL quarterback Rodney Peete.

Rodney, R.J. and Holly Robinson Peete.

While McCarthy was battling to hold things together with her son and an increasingly unsupportive husband (whom she later divorced), she said she turned to Peete for help. Their first phone conversation “lasted about nine hours”, the NFL spouse quipped.

"[Holly] gave me that hope that no doctor did," McCarthy said.

Peete noted that boys are much more likely to contract autism than girls.  Since R.J. was born prematurely, the actress suggested that premies in general need a vaccination schedule that takes into account their special circumstances.

The author of Louder Than Words said that in addition to Peete, she also got a big boost from actor Jim Carrey, whom she’s currently dating. "Let me tell you, ladies,” she turned to the audience during the show, “Jim Carrey knows a lot about autism. He has been through it all with me.”

For more information on Autism, visit:

Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) www.talkaboutcuringautism.org
National Vaccine Information Center www.nvic.org/
Autism Speaks Inc. www.autismspeaks.org/

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