Review of Paul Offit’s “Autism’s False Prophets”

Autism's False Prophets

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As I read “Autism’s False Prophets”, I found myself wishing that I’d read it years ago, so I could have been better informed and prepared to deal with all the misinformation about autism, and the dangerous therapies offered for autistic children. After receiving the diagnosis of my son’s autism, I was swamped with theories about causes, cures, and who’s to blame. I went through a lot of stress and guilt that reading this book would have significantly lessened. It’s arguable that these sorts of books – dealing with controversies – are best left until after you’ve come to terms with the diagnosis and have got therapies underway; but considering how seriously and quickly a parent can get side-tracked by the abundant misinformation out there, I really do think the sooner a parent reads this, the better and easier their journey with autism will be.

So what misinformation does the book deal with then? It focuses the most on the autism/vaccine controversy, which is hardly surprising considering the author’s expertise and experience in the field of vaccines. The autism/vaccine controversy is no small part of the autism story, it’s far more important than I had realised: A large number of the disproven and dangerous therapies offered to autistic children, stem from a belief that autism is caused by the “toxins” and consequences of receiving vaccines. When you better understand the flaws in the autism/vaccine link, you’re better equipped to identify and steer clear of the therapies that flow from that error. Offit deals with other disproven therapies too, such as facilitated communication, which I’d read a lot about previously but learnt even more about in this book.

“Autism’s False Prophets” is about more than just vaccines and therapies. It also discusses the nature of scientific enquiry and the search for truth in general. Offit explores issues of how media and society interacts with scientific findings and stories. I found what he had to say about “conflicts of interest”, quite interesting and enlightening. The part of the book I enjoyed the most though, was the legal discussion; particularly the stories of how the courts and law suits have played their part in the autism/vaccine saga. Perhaps it is because of my legal background that I found that so intriguing, but I suspect anyone would be interested to see what hidden and overt impacts legal cases have had on the recent history of autism research.

Despite the huge number of names, positions and organisations that Offit deals with throughout the book, I managed to keep track of who was who, which is testament to his writing. I wouldn’t say his writing style was particularly excellent (at times the book felt disjointed), but he goes out of his way to make difficult concepts and complicated stories, accessible to the average reader.

The edition I read was the paperback 2010 edition, which is relevant for two reasons: The first is that it contained a new preface, where (amongst other things) he acknowledges the huge number of well-informed parents who have not been sucked in by, or acted upon, all the misinformation about autism – a majority that he admits under-estimating when he first wrote the book. The second reason the paperback edition matters, is because Offit donates all royalties from the sale of it to the Autism Science Foundation. So if you haven’t bought this book already, now’s a great time to get around to it.

“Autism’s False Prophets” is well researched (with references), very thoughtful and thought-provoking. It will make you angry, make you sad, make you gasp and quite possibly even laugh at the insanity of some of what you read. Most importantly, it will leave you better informed and better able to deal with the great questions of autism.

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20 Responses to Review of Paul Offit’s “Autism’s False Prophets”

  1. KWombles says:

    Good review!

    (will you email me at kwombles@gmail.com with your address so I can send you the Tony Lyons book?)

  2. Jack (Wife of Jack) says:

    Does the book discuss herbal treatments or homeopathy? I was given a brochure for a local clinic recently from a well meaning parent. Herbal treatments are quite fashionable amongst some of the parents we know. It described the treatments they offer for Autistic children. Basically a cocktail of herbal doses to clear a “Neural Blockage”.

    I laughed when I showed the brochure to my husband, he said he would laugh if it wasn’t so dangerous. It went in the bin.

    Anything that has to offer three free consultations to get you in the door immediately raises my hackles. How much do these herbal consultations cost? Quite expensive I am guessing for a dose of plain old snake oil.

    I am so grateful that as a family we reached a clear understanding very early on about what and was not acceptable in the treatment of our son’s condition. We did not even have to discuss it we just knew that all the unproven therapies on offer were just not for us. It must be very difficult for some other families to arrive at a feeling of clarity. What bombards you is a baffling mind field of alternatives and opinions laced with ever present guilt. Am I doing enough for my child? The desire to try anything to make a difference is very strong.

    We were warned by the hospital with a simple “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” Possibly the best piece of advice they have given us so far.

    I am looking forward to reading this book sometime and your comment about the timing of parents having access to this book is very true.

    • Hi Jack’s Wife,

      The book does discuss supplements and diets that are meant to either cure or lessen the severity of autism, and shows how they are based on unproven theories, and are neither harmless nor cheap (though he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing them). I suspect that even though the book won’t teach you much you don’t already know about the false causes and cures of autism, you’d still find it interesting to read about the law cases and the impact they’ve had on research, and the amount of stubborn dishonesty (or wilful blindness) that it reveals in the vaccines-cause-autism camp.

      And yes, it’s particularly sad that vulnerable parents who need support and help, get taken for a ride by the sorts of people at that local clinic. I don’t think those practitioners mean harm, but by not doing their research and ignoring the science, they’re causing harm none the less and have no reasonable excuse.

    • I’m assuming you shared that as a classic example of someone who really needs to read this book. Though that was a rather tedious way to make the point (the video was very long and largely just one big anecdote); including your reason for sharing the video would have been useful. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. MinorityView says:

    No, I left the video as an example of how this stuff works in real life.
    If Estepp read the book and followed the advice, do you really think her son would be better off?
    Would you really tell a parent whose child is better, for example, on the GFCF diet, that they should go back to feeding their child wheat and milk because of what Offit says? Seriously?
    Would you really tell Estepp that the mainstream gastroenterologist who treated her son for inflammation throughout his large and small intestine didn’t know what he/she was doing when they prescribed a mainstream drug to treat the inflammation and when her son finally stopped having digestive problems following this treatment?
    The abstractness of Offit’s approach appalls me.

  4. MinorityView says:

    The other reason I posted is because you have a link to insidevaccines. Apparently you’ve never noticed that insidevaccines is critical of vaccination. This makes me suspect that you are a bit superficial in your reading.
    Insidevaccines did publish this article: http://insidevaccines.com/wordpress/2008/03/13/common-anti-vaccination-myths-and-misconceptions/ which has been widely picked up and republished by pro-vaccine bloggers. As one of the people who developed insidevaccines, I find this distribution by people who would, if they actually read it, hate everything else we say, very funny.
    Once again, would you really tell Estepp that she has injured her son by her choices? On what basis?

    • I am very aware (and very impressed) with Inside Vaccines, and have read it extensively. Vaccines are not without flaws and without history – Offit is very open about this, as am I.

      I’m not clear how you jump to me saying Estepp has injured her son by her choices – I haven’t even implied it. Would you like to clarify when I said such a thing so I can respond?

      • I must admit that I made a serious error: I thought “Inside Vaccines” was a reputable source of vaccine information. It turns out this is not the case, and I shall no longer be recommending it as a source of unbiased (or even correct) information on vaccines:

        http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=107054

        A shame really, since I honestly thought it was a good site doing a good job of presenting truths from both sides.

  5. Sunshine says:

    I credit him for getting me thinking straight. Even tho I am well versed in false cause fallacies, my son regressed SO close to his 15 months shot, I was shaken to the core. Add the fact that my in law had been compensated from the vaccine injury fund in the US for my husband’s adverse reaction to DTP in the 80s, I did not know what to believe. I think the mainstream and public response to questions about vaccine safety are often dismissive to a parent who may be in a very emotionally charged state. I’m glad someone out there is just calmly laying out the facts.

    If anybody has read his latest book, I wonder if it’s pretty much more of the same??

    • Good question, I was wondering the same thing the other day – I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s read both. I’ll have a look into some reviews and see if I can find out too.

      • It looks like “Deadly Choices” is more broadly about the anti-vaccine movement (ie beyond just the autism focus in False Prophets). So in turn, it also won’t contain the rest of the information about false theories and therapies about autism, found in False Prophets (independently of the vaccine issues).

  6. Kitty Kay says:

    I did read this book as well. The truth is bad science will always be around and there will always be followers. I am one of the parents who has been yelled at because I won’t change my sons diet (not gut issues and really the kid needs the weight), chelation I feel is very dangerous and it has been shown my child does not have any heavy medal poising so why would I do that, I have even been told to avoid all doctors of any kind that they just want money. There are a lot of crazy ideas out there in every aspect of medicine.
    This is one of the newer studies that has come out:
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AutismNews/autism-epidemic-challenged-uk-study/story?id=13518453

    • Thanks for your comment Kitty Kay, and yes, I think you’re quite right – there will always be bad science and there will always be followers. People like Paul Offit are rather heroic (if that’s not over-stating it) for standing up to them – he’s taken more than his share of undeserved and unfounded personal attacks for doing so. A lot of people have a lot to lose when it’s revealed that the expensive treatments they’re offering are unhelpful, or even worse, harmful. When faced with new evidence they should rethink what they’re offering, but instead they often get more fanatic and defensive, it’s an interesting and somewhat disturbing mind-set. We should always be open to be proven wrong, and be willing to follow where both the science and the evidence leads.

      For some reason the link won’t work for me, but I assume it’s the same story reported on here: http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2011/05/uk-research-places-huge-question-mark-over-the-autism-epidemic/ ?

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