Monday, June 12, 2006

Fear and panic .....

I notice in the news today that the doctor who caused the scare around MMR and autism is to be charged with serious professional misconduct. I find the whole issue interesting for a number of reasons. It has shown how much the public distrust the medical profession. There was a willingness to believe the scare story even though subsequent research has not backed up the claims of a link with autism made by Dr Wakefield.

There are reasons to exercise critical judgement of the medical profession, but the trend to believe any scare story is not the way forward. It often feels to me that as a society, and particularly the woolly element of the middle classes, we are willing to embrace lots of nonsense. I come across many people who are happier to believe the words of a ‘crystal therapist’ than a doctor. People who say ‘what do experts know’. Well yes, exercise some critical thought but there is a clue in the word expert.

The other issue I find interesting is that the fear of MMR and autism does not seem to have educated the public about what autism is. Looking today at the page on the BBC News site there was not a link to the Autism Society or of any of the groups set up by people with autism/aspergers. Most people’s views are still either of very disturbed children or of Rain man.

The reality is that autism is part of a spectrum, including aspergers. It is still a recent diagnosis and although it seems hereditary, no cause is known for it. The debate around MMR has been unhelpful. Some awareness of aspergers and autism could have come from it, but did not. It is not all negative. Many people on the spectrum are what are called high functioning. It is not all ‘bad’. There are positives as well as negatives aspects to autism and aspergers, as there are for people who are not on the spectrum. Trouble is, as with mental illness and learning disability, in this society there is still the fear of people who do not fit in and of the unknown. Many of the problems faced are due to the attitudes and ignorance of other people. It is often 'hidden' and so there is an expectation for someone to 'fit in'. When someone does not then the reaction to them is often critical.

Perhaps now the MMR debate can move from fear and panic to looking at autism and aspergers in a more rational light. Perhaps people can take the time to understand and appreciate the differences .