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.