The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘settlement

Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

We’re all misfits

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I found more proof last week that the corporate world still has a long way to go in understanding autism. The lack of intuition cost Abercrombie and Fitch over $115,000. Abercrombie was fined this summer (the results weren’t published until last week) for not allowing the sister of an autistic teenage girl to help try out clothes for the autistic female at its Mall of America location.

Abercrombie’s store policy only allows one person in dressing rooms at a time as a means to prevent shoplifting, but Molly Maxson, who was 14 when the incident occurred in 2005. Molly’s autism appears to be more severe than most (and certainly mine) as the article reports her sister saying Molly always had a close eye on her because of her emotional vulnerabilities. Abercrombie continued to refuse entry even after Molly’s sister and mother both explained Molly’s autism. The company then denied that Molly had a disability until the first day of hearings in the case and the judge hearing the case found that Abercrombie interpreted disability rules only for people with visible handicaps. In its resistance, Abercrombie subjected Molly to an interview with a forensic psychologist, who Molly told she was a misfit at the store. A clerk at another store consented with Brittany (the older sister) immediately after she revealed Molly’s autism.

Abercrombie has a history of social problems, targeted over several racial discrimination lawsuits. Unfortunately for them, they turned a blind eye to mental disabilities as well. While the settlement will help Molly’s family cover legal costs and other undeserved penalties, the store could have saved their own hide had they simply admitted making a mistake. By continuing to resist, they only dug themselves a deeper hole. Given their reduction in sales for refusing to lower prices of their clothing, the short-term future doesn’t bode well as the economy undergoes a lethargic recovery stage.

What’s important to note is the year the incident originally took place. Not much mainstream focus was given to autism in 2005; that took place the following year after Jason McElwain’s athletic achievement. However, the fact another store consented to the Maxsons suggest people knew about autism and its effects back then. Unfortunately, this problem will likely persist as the autistic population grows. As the judge’s ruling indicated, there’s still an opinion among some that invisible handicaps aren’t the same as visible impairments. The statement is technically correct, but any disability that interferes with a human’s physical or mental capabilities is still a disability.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 15, 2009 at 4:56 pm