Dr. Oz: Autism, fear, and “good TV”

I was looking forward to the Dr. Oz program entitled, “What Causes Autism?” As a pediatrician on the front lines, caring the future generation, I also want to find the answer. I was promised a show reflecting a collaboration of ideas and differing opinions. I wanted to hear about the latest research, the new theories, and the promising leads. I was hopeful that as a prominent health care voice, this show would be different. This time, a show about autism would move the discussion forward. I was optimistic when Allison Singer, founder/president of Autism Science Foundation and mother of an autistic child, began speaking for the panel of experts. She stated,

We know that there is a strong genetic component to autism. We know this because of twin studies. For example, identical twins share 100% of their DNA. If one twin is diagnosed with autism, the likelihood that the other twin will also be diagnosed with autism is 90%. But 90% is not 100%. So we know that there has to be some environmental component that is interacting with the genes to cause autism. We have ruled out some environmental factors already, like vaccines, but there are many more environmental factors that have to be studied. And that’s why it is so important that we do the research.

After that glimmer of productive conversation, the show took an unfortunate turn into the death-spiral of yelling and blame. Dr. Oz sucked the discussion back into the black hole that is the vaccination debate. I was left feeling disappointed, let down, frustrated.

I felt the majority of the show that followed was clearly guided by biased direction, and basic fear-mongering techniques. I found Dr. Oz’s introduction offensive towards the families of children with autism, implying their child was the face of every mother’s fear. Even his very “definition” of autism was sensationalized, stating autism “robs a child of their emotional foundation.” Most upsetting was Dr. Oz’s brief, but powerful, comments regarding a delayed vaccine schedule. These misguided comments are damaging in two ways: they put children at risk for infections disease while getting us no closer to the truth about what causes autism.

I thought we, as a community, had turned a corner. For the sake of the kids struggling with autism, I thought we could get beyond what we have already disproven and spend time with the living knowledge of new research and development. Please tell me more about research being done on the genetic predisposition, the environmental triggers, the dietary changes. Tell all of us something besides overdone arguments fueling fire under the dead horse of the Vaccine/Autism debate. It is tiring, and tiresome.

This show was another example of well-meaning people losing sight of the common ground that we have. We ALL want to find the cause for autism. As we have these discussions, we must remember that central truth. United in our common goal, we find power and focus. Divided, we have chaos and “good TV.”

Let us instead choose to turn our eyes toward those truly fighting to find a cause and cure for autism. Give time and credit to the next generation of researchers, epidemiologists, and scientists who are devoting their careers to finding what so many parents of autistic children are desperately searching for. It would be a crowning achievement if the true cause(s) will be discovered during our lives. And the fear can be left behind us.

Click here for Dr. Ari Brown's response to being on the show. Click here for a statement regarding why Autism Speaks chose not to appear on the show.