You're Wrong About

The Anti-Vaccine Movement

February 01, 2021 Michael Hobbes & Sarah Marshall
You're Wrong About
The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Show Notes Transcript

Special guest Eric Michael Garcia tells Mike and Sarah about the deep roots of a pernicious modern myth. Digressions include Mary Tyler Moore, British place names and supermodel dating habits. Mike finally gets to talk about Swedish statistical methods.

Here's some of Eric's work on autism and here's his book!

Support us:
Subscribe on Patreon
Donate on Paypal
Buy cute merch

Where else to find us:
Sarah's other show, Why Are Dads
Mike's other show, Maintenance Phase

Support the show

Sarah Marshall  0:00  

You know, people complain about what the Internet has done to culture. But I do think the fact that people don't just sit around quoting Anchorman all day long is an improvement because that's what life was like in 2004.

Welcome to You're Wrong About, where every so often we prove that we know a third person.

Michael Hobbes  0:31  

I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for The Huffington Post.

Sarah Marshall  0:34  

I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the satanic panic.

Michael Hobbes  0:37  

And if you want to support the show, we're on patreon at'rewrongabout and many other places in the description. And we have a special guest today. 

Eric Michael Garcia  0:46  

Hi, how are you? 

Michael Hobbes 0:47

Hi! Eric Michael Garcia is one of our favorite journalists. He writes for everyone. He's one of the people that just in his bio it's like Eric has written for and then they list like 51 publications.

Sarah Marshall  0:57  

And you're like, National Geographics in there? What?

Michael Hobbes  1:00  

And importantly, for this episode, he also has a book coming out titled, "We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation," and he is here to talk about vaccines and autism.

Eric Michael Garcia  1:12  

Thank you very much for having me. I'm a big fan of the show. Michael and I DM about politics, Sarah and I DM about pop culture. And I'm a big fan. I'm a Patreon supporter. 

Michael Hobbes  1:24  


Eric Michael Garcia  1:24  

Yeah, I'm that serious.

Michael Hobbes  1:26  

Getting them bonus episodes. Yeah.

Sarah Marshall  1:27  

Well, and I think of you as someone who I get to see in the like, high school proxy, that is Twitter.

Michael Hobbes  1:34  

It's like prom. It's just constant prom in there.

Sarah Marshall  1:36  

I don't think it's prom. I think it's just like a regular day. And you're just like, I'm tired. And I got to do fucking lacrosse. And none of my actions seem to have consequences. But we're here and we're making jokes about it.

Eric Michael Garcia 1:48

I see a lot of times that like when I'm on Twitter, like there's always really, really serious stuff going on in the news, Michael's yelling about it. I'm yelling about it. And I'm like, Sarah is usually just like, Oh, I'm watching old episodes of NCIS and Perry Mason and they're making me happy.

Sarah Marshall 2:07

Oh, Eric, I'm so happy to have you on here. Because I feel as if like all of this moral panic stuff, all of this epidemiology of misinformation stuff is like I hate to say it but maybe more relevant right now than it has been in a while. In just a very horribly obvious way. And this, what what we're talking about with you today, I think is a really important kind of a keystone within within this whole Zeitgeist that we're unfortunately trying to punch our way out of, I guess.

Eric Michael Garcia 2:36

Yeah, that's I mean, I appreciate you saying that what I have to say is relevant. Autism and misinformation is kind of the canary in the coal mine for a lot of the misinformation that we're seeing now. There are many ways that what happened with our understanding of autism illustrates how misinformation, the age of misinformation, is really happening these days in a lot of other ways.

Michael Hobbes  3:01  

This sounds great. Set us off. Eric, should we start with sort of what is autism and just sort of laying the table for what we're actually talking about?

Sarah Marshall  3:08  

Yeah. So let's start with a really really rudimentary discussion about autism. Autism is a disability that affects everybody from myself, to people who can't speak to people who are kind of in the middle, one to 2%, roughly, is estimated to be autistic. And one as of right now, we know at least between one and 68, and one in 50, children are autistic. But the problem is that because the story of autism has gone through so many filters, a lot of what we know about autism has been misunderstood, wrong or distorted throughout history in the public life.

Sarah Marshall 3:46

That would be unprecedented in the story of psychology. 

Eric Michael Garcia  3:51  


Sarah Marshall  3:51  

Where do you place the beginning of the story because I think like where a story begins, is something that can be specific to the teller.

Eric Michael Garcia  3:59  

If you really want to be generous, you go back to 1908, and like 1911 when you Eugen Bleuler who was I believe a Swiss psychiatrist, he saw autism, he labeled it as a trait of schizophrenia. As a result for a long time, you'll see kind of autism and childhood schizophrenia being kind of used interchangeably. You can't understand how we understand autism today, without going to Baltimore, Maryland in the 1930s and 1940s. and Nazi occupied Vienna. 

Michael Hobbes  4:32  


Eric Michael Garcia  4:32  

Steve Silberman' s book, I'm gonna be referencing his book a lot in this in this in this podcast, it's called NeuroTribes. Leo Connor was serving children. I believe it was 11 children in Baltimore, Maryland. And he saw autism as something that was very rare that existed very narrowly. Conversely, Hans Asperger he thought that autism was something that was very--that existed on a continuum. But the problem was a, we don't know the extent to which Hans Asperger was affiliated with the Nazis. We do know that he referred some of the children who he treated to clinics where children died.

Michael Hobbes  5:14  

Oh shit.

Sarah Marshall  5:14  

Oh no.

Eric Michael Garcia  5:14  

Hans Asperger, what happened is his clinic was bombed during the war. So a lot of his stuff was lost for years. So as a result, because Connor was, was speaking, it was the English speaking world, his paradigm about autism became the default and became conventional wisdom.

Sarah Marshall  5:25  

Wow. So knowledge about the autism spectrum is one of the hidden casualties of World War Two.

Eric Michael Garcia  5:37  

Oh, that's good! That's good.

Sarah Marshall  5:40  

This is why we don't have wars, people!

Eric Michael Garcia 5:42

Yeah, exactly. So this is where it gets really, really complicated. Leo Connor wrote in his book in his initial study, did write that while autistic children were born with an innate ability to form typical contact. He also wrote that there are very few really warm hearted mothers and fathers of autistic children. He later told Time magazine that the children he studied were, quote, kept neatly in a fridge which didn't defrost, and those did kind of plant the seeds for what would later be known as refrigerator parents, which was really popularized by Bruno Bettelheim, and he basically in his book The Empty Fortress said that basically the parents of autistic children wish the children didn't exist. Bruno Bettelheim called it "mother's black milk."

Sarah Marshall 6:28

Oh my god, Bruno, like if you could use less inflammatory language, you know.

Michael Hobbes  6:34  

I know!

Sarah Marshall  6:34  

It's not like you're selling like a novelty ice cream in Japan.

Eric Michael Garcia 6:39

Yeah, so you're saying that these treatments were more effective at thawing children out who had been frozen by their mother's Black Milk.

Sarah Marshall 6:44

Ugh. Okay. It's funny because I know Bruno Bettelheim as the author of The Uses of Enchantment, which is a book on fairy tales. And I'm like, Oh, yeah, there he is. Like maybe you should do your different fields on different days. This strikes me as unnecessarily cruel to the mothers like even if you think that this is brought on by the mothers attitude or behavior, like maybe calling them that isn't going to encourage them to do a better job. Maybe what you're just asking them to do essentially with that level of shaming is to stash their children away.

Eric Michael Garcia 7:20

That was what led to a lot of autistic kids becoming institutionalized because then they're being taken away from their unloving parents. In fact, in the 1960s, I believe, so Richard Roy Grinker cites this in his book on  Unstrange Minds, there's a movie called change of habit where Elvis plays a doctor with Mary Tyler Moore, who's a nun. One aunt takes a child to the clinic and assumes the child is deaf, but then Mary Tyler Moore says to Elvis, I think she's autistic. Elvis says "it's not gonna work, Michelle, she's hiding behind a wall of anger, it's not gonna work. I'll take over her, we'll l try rage reduction, "and then he tries to rid her of her autistic frustration.

Sarah Marshall 8:00

Oh, Elvis! 

Eric Michael Garcia  8:01  

Remember, this is at the time when there really was a very narrow definition of autism, these poor kids were sent away to institutions. What's interesting is that in the 1970s, there were all of these kinds of consumer safety pushes, you know, Unsafe at Any Speed. But autism, as a result, because if it's seen as bad parents that are causing it, then it's not a public policy concern. You know what I mean? 

Sarah Marshall  8:23  

That's fascinating. That's a really, yeah, that's such an interesting attitude of the time. And then I feel like I mean, this is this is a theme that we come upon a lot, which is that people didn't use to talk about this. And the fact that there isn't a cultural imprint, aside from like, weird like Elvis one liners occasionally, doesn't mean it wasn't there, like the 50s weren't idyllic, and people didn't like not have sex when they were married. Like we just created media that reflected that, you know, and we're just so easily fooled by that

Eric Michael Garcia  8:52  

This stuff was happening, it was just that they were being sent away. Autistic people existed, we just didn't want to talk about

Sarah Marshall  8:59  

This is so much like the history of like the discovery of childhood sexual abuse, and people in the 70s being like, where did it come from? It's this new societal threat. And it's like, no, it just was always there but just we, we silenced people, we didn't talk about it, we minimized it. We acted like it was something that only affected a tiny percentage of the population, which of course is wildly untrue. You know, very similar aspects in some ways.

Eric Michael Garcia  9:23  

Much in the same way if we're going to keep on talking about Elvis, just in the same way that Elvis, you know, upset parents, because he brought sex out into the open. They were probably equally as upset about him talking about autism in his movies.

Michael Hobbes  9:35  

Yeah, they started to have suspicious minds. 

Sarah Marshall  9:37  

Oh, that's nice, Mike.

Eric Michael Garcia 9:40

For a long time, parents blamed themselves. And now what happens is the paradigm slowly starts to change, largely with the help of a guy named Bernard Rimland, who is the father of an autistic child, and his book, Infantile Autism really kind of leads to debunk, to kind of a pushback to that idea and helps relegate it. The problem is, Rimland was one of the biggest promoters of the idea that vaccines cause autism. It's important to recognize that this was going on before Andrew Wakefield.

Sarah Marshall 10:06

When does this book come out? 

Eric Michael Garcia  10:08  

This comes out of the 1960s. But then what also happens is that after Rimland's book comes out, a lot of parents start to coalesce and start to meet up and he's one of the co-founding members of what later becomes the Autism Society of America along with Ruth Christ Sullivan, who's incidentally the mother of one of the people who Rain Man was based off of. Rimland, while he was correct in, you know, debunking that really, really toxic idea of toxic parenting, he also was one of the people who brought in ideas like casein free diets, giving children high levels of B-12 will hopefully make them not as autistic anymore. So you have this kind of weird doom loop where Leo Connor is the first person to talk about autism, but he also plants the seeds for Bruno Bettelheim's nonsense, Bernard Rimland debunks that, and but then he also is one of the biggest promoters of these kind of quackery cures and treatments for autism.

Michael Hobbes  11:01  

So it's like, it's not this crank explanation, it's this other crank explanation.

Eric Michael Garcia  11:07  

Yeah, I think it's also important to remember that autism doesn't exist as a separate diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980. 

Michael Hobbes  11:19  

Oh, really? So gay people were in there, but autistic people weren't. Great stuff.

Sarah Marshall  11:23  

Autism first appears in the DSM, DSM I, in 1952, under schizophrenic reaction and childhood type. It doesn't appear as separate for schizophrenia until 1980. Around that same time, Lorna Wing in the UK rediscovers Hans Asperger's work. She also had an autistic daughter, so she knew the parenting thing was rubbish, as she would say. And she said in her in her 1981 article, "Asperger's syndrome: a clinical account," that autism belongs in, quote, "in a wider group of conditions which have, in common, impairment of development of social interaction, communication and imagination". So really what happens is the 1980s is when we get our understanding of it. Even then, it isn't until 1994, that Asperger's syndrome is put into the DSM, and then it isn't until 2013 that all of it comes under the same umbrella of what we now know as autism spectrum disorders.  All the while that we are having these kind of changes that are happening in the DSM, we're also changing our understanding of disability and there's public policy that's being changed. So in 1990, the American Disabilities Act is passed. That is a historic piece of legislation. But I would argue there's also an equally important piece of legislation, which is Congress reauthorized what was done the Education for All Handicapped Children act under a new title, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, specifically IDEA included autism, it was quote, "meant to establish autism definitively as a developmental disability, and not as a form of mental illness." And IDEA mandates that students with disabilities receive what's called a free appropriate public education. And that now finally applies to students with autism. But what it also means is that schools that receive federal dollars have to report the number of autistic students they serve. So what that does that leads to a spike in kids getting diagnosed cuz they're getting diagnosed at school. This was a net positive to see this many autistic people, because we missed it. We missed it for a long time.

Eric Michael Garcia 11:52

Well, this is like the me too movement, right? Where there's this idea that like, the world, changed in 2017, or whatever, and it's like, No, it's just like all this had always been happening. There just you know, was this sort of bloodletting of all these stories that had always been there, it seems. You know, just reacting to social recognition of an experience as if the people with that experience are being created the moment you become aware of it seems like a consistent problem we have as like news consumers.

Michael Hobbes  14:02  

There's also a consistent thing that we see in moral panics is this idea of a growing problem. And then the minute you look into it, it's actually just a statistical artifact. Famously, Sweden is the rape capital of Europe, because it has a much higher rate of reported rapes. And that's because they have a different statistical method for counting rapes: they count the number of sex acts. So if you're in a marriage, and your husband is raping you repeatedly, they'll count that as like 400 instances of rape, whereas other countries will count it as one instance of rape because there's one perpetrator. But then there's all this like moral panic shit about like "Sweden's letting in immigrants, and they have all these rapes." And it's like, literally read, a footnote, dude.

Sarah Marshall  14:45  

At least this is stopping like angry reactionaries from going to Sweden. Like, I'm kind of happy about that.

Michael Hobbes  14:52  

Keep the alt right out of Sweden. It's actually a fine outcome.

Unknown Speaker  14:55  

In the same way, I mean, like, here's a sentence from a book review in the New York Times, about when you start to see this moral panic. This is a book review from I believe 2005. It says "beginning if the 1980s, the number of autism cases started to take off. The latest estimates are one child in 166 has some sort of disorder, with defects that range from mild to quote unquote crippling." There's a piece called The Secrets of Autism that came out around the same time. It talks about the cases of autism and closely related disorders, like Asperger's, are exploding in number, and no one has a good explanation for it. While many experts believe this increas is the byproduct of recent broadening of criteria, others are convinced that the search is at least in part real, and thereby a cause for grave concern. 

Michael Hobbes  15:41  

Championship, bothsides there. 

Sarah Marshall  15:44  

Yeah, this is like classic Time magazine writing of like, Could it be this reasonable thing? Or perhaps this unreasonable thing? We don't know. Bye!

Michael Hobbes  15:53  

It seems straightforward that, like, if there's literally a law that schools now have to report the number of autism cases that they're seeing, you're obviously going to get a massive spike in the reports of autism because there's now a law saying that it has to happen.

Sarah Marshall  16:09  

Well, and also like, as a school, if I'm running a school, right, if I'm like a crooked, whoever's in charge of this thing, can I possibly get additional funds by kind of fattening up my autistic kid numbers?

Eric Michael Garcia 16:21

Yeah. I should add that like, IDEA as good as it is, the federal government has never lived up to its commitment. They only fund like, I think 14% of IDEA. So it's not even that much. But even that, like, can you imagine how much better things would be if the federal government lived up to its commitment?

Michael Hobbes  16:41  

Well, also, as with so many things, there's probably so many kids that are sort of in a borderline area.

Eric Michael Garcia  16:46  


Michael Hobbes  16:47  

Like could be Yes, could be No, these kinds of laws give the incentive to sort of err on the side of let's assign that kid some sort of autism status so that we get the extra funding, and then to the outside world, it's gonna look like this avalanche of new, like, all the kids are autistic now.

Sarah Marshall  17:03  

And it doesn't have to be sinister, either. Because like, you know, if you're unsure you're like, let's, you know, it's better to get funding for the kid, hopefully, than to deprive them of any additional help.

Eric Michael Garcia 17:12

Right. And I should add that like getting parents fighting for IEPs, and things like that, it's really, really difficult. And it is something that parents constantly have to fight with, fight with the schools for. I know my mom did.

Michael Hobbes  17:26  

I feel like it fits in with the sort of right wing myth that you can say, like, "I'm Black," and then you'll immediately get accepted to Harvard. This is their conception of how affirmative action works. And I think that they also have a conception that you can just stand up, be like, "I'm disabled," and it's like, okay, you don't have to pass any test ever again. And here's a giant envelope full of money.

Sarah Marshall  17:44  

It's like Michael Scott, going "I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!"

Michael Hobbes  17:51  

Even if you are getting some sort of recognition of a disability, it's not like just money is raining from the ceiling and things get easy at that point.

Eric Michael Garcia  17:58  

Yes. So the other thing that happened is after the IDEA, and after the spike in diagnoses, there was a real chance that now that we knew what autism was, now that we were getting more people diagnosed, there was a real chance that we could actually help these people Autism was for so long seen as a mental illness. So it wasn't part of the larger disability rights movement in the 1970s. Like the sit-ins or you know, the crawl up the Capitol, even though some people were autistic. So like, they were largely excluded from the disability rights movement. Because up until this point, disability was still really bipartisan. The IDEA was signed by George HW Bush, and it was done by voice vote in the Senate. So that means that it was so popular, they didn't even need to keep up keep track of who voted for it. And then the vaccine theory basically throws this all out the window.

Sarah Marshall  18:51  

I feel like this is like the pivot and the Scorsese movie, where it's like "Jimmy was cutting ties with everyone between him and Lufthansa." You're like, Oh, no, things seemed so great for one second. My understanding is that there was this like, rogue British doctor who did the study or read the study and was like, "By Jove, vaccines cause autism!" I put an accent because this is all so depressing. Just thought that we could have a little fun. And so spread this theory that I believe on further analysis or competent analysis had like very clearly no basis in fact, but it's the kind of thing where you get this like fossil of meaning. People were ready to believe it. And then I believe Jenny McCarthy was of some importance in like bringing this theory to a wider audience, or maybe that's just how I first heard of it.

Eric Michael Garcia 19:38

From Nazis to Jenny McCarthy, the story of autism.

Michael Hobbes  19:41  


Eric Michael Garcia  19:41  

So, in the 1980s, there, you know, there was talk about vaccines. There have been books like "DPT: A Shot in the Dark," there had been fear that vaccines might be dangerous. The doctor's name was a guy by the name of Andrew Wakefield. This is in 1998. So he holds a press conference--which again, this sounds very, very British, so forgive me--at the Royal Free hospital on Hampstead in North London. 

Sarah Marshall  19:55  

Oh, you weren't kidding. 

Eric Michael Garcia  20:09  

It also came with an accompanying video that said, "researchers at the Royal Free School of Medicine may have rediscovered a new syndrome causing inflammatory bowel disease and autism." And Wakefield was in a lot of ways very, very well put to this. He had studied Crohn's disease before, he was seen as a very, very credible person. He was also very, very media savvy. He looked really handsome. He kind of played this role of this kind of, I'm this crusading doctor, who is speaking for the children. And as you know, most of the times, saying you're doing something for the children is like the perfect way to promote your--

Sarah Marshall  20:47  

--wacky idea. 

Eric Michael Garcia  20:49  


Sarah Marshall  20:49  

You get carte blanche if you claim to be acting for the children. It is a fantastic scam.

Eric Michael Garcia  20:54  

And I should say that nowadays, Andrew Wakefield, he lives in the US, his current girlfriend is Elle Macpherson, which is hilarious. 

Michael Hobbes  21:01  

Oh God.

Sarah Marshall  21:02  

Oh, Elle, you could do better. You dated Joey Tribbiani!

Eric Michael Garcia  21:06  

Wakefield basically argued that there was this idea called leaky gut syndrome, wherein vaccine particles prevented the breakdown of certain foods like wheat and dairy, which then pass through the walls of the gut, make their way to the brain and cause autism.

Sarah Marshall  21:20  

Oh, so it's supposed to be dairy in the brain. Then you would have much higher rates in Wisconsin.

Eric Michael Garcia  21:26  

Incidentally enough, I got diagnosed, I first got diagnosed and stuff in Wisconsin, so--

Sarah Marshall  21:30  

Oh, well, there you go. I think that holds up the entire theory. We gotta get behind this Wakefield guy.

Eric Michael Garcia 21:36

The other thing that's important to note, and Steve Silberman points it out, out is that like, a lot of autistic people like to eat a lot of the same stuff all the time. So it would make sense that like, eventually, they might develop some gastrointestinal issues.

Sarah Marshall 21:52

So like, if you want to eat the same spicy meatball every night--

Eric Michael Garcia   21:57  

You're gonna have a problem. Yes.

Michael Hobbes  21:58  

So you've also got the sort of the quote unquote, evidence that a lot of autistic kids are also experiencing like stomach aches and stuff.

Eric Michael Garcia  22:06  

Yeah, so Wakefield got a call from a mother of an autistic boy. Initially, he says he didn't know anything about autism. And the mother explained that the kid had really bad bowel problems like diarrhea and incontinence. And he said that he had been behaving really normally until he received the vaccine. And then, like I said, his controversial work on Crohn's, it already made him a figure among anti vaccine activists. So he already had the ground, the ground was already fertile for him.

Michael Hobbes  22:31  

Right. And also, I mean, is the central evidence that you have this massive explosion in the number of autism cases? At the same time as you have this massive explosion in the number of children receiving vaccines? 

Eric Michael Garcia  22:43  


Michael Hobbes  22:44  

It's this great graph line with the two lines going up at the rate.

Sarah Marshall  22:47  

Measles, mumps rubella vaccine specifically?

Michael Hobbes  22:50  

Yes. So like, peer reviewers of the early draft were really worried about the study's language, and the Lancet's editor said, quote, "published evidence is inadequate to show whether there is a change in incidence or a link with the MMR vaccine."

Sarah Marshall  23:06  

So is this article published with a disclaimer? Is that what that is? 

Eric Michael Garcia  23:10  


Sarah Marshall  23:10  


Eric Michael Garcia   23:10  

For the promotional video at the press conference, he basically suggested that this was, that his study was the latest evidence challenging the safety of the MMR vaccine. Wakefield really becomes this kind of crusading person on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only is it in the UK, but it's also in the US. He was invited to testify before Congress. He testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the chairman, it is a guy by the name of Dan Burton. So Burton holds this hearing in 2000. And he talks about how his granddaughter nearly died after she received the hepatitis B vaccine, and his grandson became autistic after he was vaccinated. And he said that there was some emerging evidence about a connection between vaccines and autism in some children. And we can't close our eyes to this. And what's interesting is you go back and you watch the actual video. A lot of members of Congress are like, We're glad that we're moving on from the idea that autism is caused by by unloving mothers, once again, it's like we're doing something about autism. Right? But I wanted--like, the whole time I watched the videos, when you know, researching this, I was like, You guys did something about autism 10 years ago with the IDEA. I was like Khrushchev banging my shoe on the desk.

Michael Hobbes  24:24  

There were a couple years there were this was sort of like seen as sort of worth asking the question. Didn't The Daily Show have an anti vaxxer on? 

Eric Michael Garcia  24:33  

Yes. This is seen as, like you said, this might be worth looking into. I will say that in 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain talked about it. So like Obama says, I'm just quoting, he was speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania. "Since we've seen the skyrocketing autism rate, some people are suspicious that it's connected to vaccines" Basically he says the science is inconclusive, but we have to research. Also to to to your point, Sarah about Jenny McCarthy. So this is a really important thing. She has a son who is autistic. And she says that she's done a lot of really crank things with her son, including like putting them in a hyperbaric chamber I think. She even co authored a book with Andrew Wakefield in 2011 called Callous Disregard.

Sarah Marshall  25:13  

Those must have been interesting conference calls. 

Eric Michael Garcia   25:16  

And she's talked about her, the vaccines gave her son Evan autism. She says in her interview with Oprah, "the first thing I did, Google, I put in autism, I started my research, Something came up that changed my life that led me to the real quote, road to recovery, which said autism is reversible and treatable." So the name of the episode was called "Mothers Battle Autism." And I think that this is really important to say, because not only is she promoting bullshit, the way both Oprah and Jenny McCarthy are framing the bullshit is also important, because it's not only that vaccines cause autism. It's that mothers have to fight autism. Not fight to make the world better for autistic people, but battle autism. I actually have a really personal story about this. The first time I heard about vaccines and autism was on Larry King, when he invited Jenny McCarthy. I remember asking my mom, I was like, did I become autistic because of the vaccines? And she was kind of puzzled because she was like, What are you talking about? Because I've been diagnosed before all this stuff happened. I think I got diagnosed in 1998. Before Wakefield did his whole shtick. So it's funny that like my first public encounter with autism, was through Jenny McCarthy promoting this garbage.

Michael Hobbes  26:30  

Well, how did you feel Eric? I mean, I feel like it's weird--it, it always just makes me uncomfortable when parents talk about sort of the tragedy of their kids being who they are. 

Sarah Marshall  26:39  

Yeah. So at the time, I should say--I was I was 16 when I saw that, when I watched that. Initially I thought, Oh, cool. Somebody actually cares about this thing that I have, because I was bullied a lot, you know, and I thought that, oh, maybe there's something worth looking into on this. And my feeling was okay, if it's on CNN, then it has to be factual. This is something that we should at least look into, and the veneer of credibility, it gave credibility to a lot of this stuff. And I mean, it seemed like this was an important thing to discuss. And I think that that was how it poisoned the well, and we're really still seeing the damage of it.

Michael Hobbes  27:14  

I do think that period is really interesting, because there were a couple years there before the Wakefield stuff got debunked--I just very much remember the sort of smug "we must ask this question" like for the purposes of free speech. I feel like it's it's all wrapped up in like South Park somehow.

Sarah Marshall  27:31  

I was just thinking about South Park, as you were saying that. 

Eric Michael Garcia   27:34  

I was thinking about South Park, too, because I used to watch South Park a lot when I was young. 

Sarah Marshall  27:37  

This is our like, murders on the Rue Morgue moment. We all thought of South Park!

Michael Hobbes  27:42  

And it was very, I just feel like it was very sort of wrapped up in this idea that there's never any harm and asking the question, there's never any harm in saying something has to be looked into. There's never any harm in bringing up something over and over and over again, that as long as you're just asking the question, you're not necessarily making the argument. But of course, what we know now is that like asking a question does actually sede that idea with the public and can have real effects. Even if you're not necessarily saying, I know that vaccines cause autism.

Sarah Marshall  28:12  

We must continue to investigate this question even though there's overwhelming evidence basically proving at this point that it isn't true. We mustn't, we must continue to fight to battle autism. And it's like, I don't even think we should talk about battling cancer honestly, like, do you really want to sound--o you want to be saying that Jenny McCarthy?

Michael Hobbes  28:32  

Yes. When there's really thin evidence for something, and there's a potential for massive societal harm? Maybe just fucking wait until more studies come out, like all we had at this point was essentially one study and a really specious correlation. And it was like, just don't ask that. It's not worth asking the question right now. But then you get into this like free speech, like I'm allowed to ask the question stuff and like you're allowed to, but you're a dick.

Eric Michael Garcia  28:55  

So around this time of the talk about vaccines and autism and all of this, Bob Wright, who's the head of NBC Universal, his grandson Christian is diagnosed with autism. And as a result him and Suzanne Wright, his wife at the time start Autism Speaks.

Sarah Marshall 29:14

Well, and what is Autism Speaks' goals, while we're talking about who they are.

Eric Michael Garcia  29:18  

Autism Speaks was initially started to find, to basically look to find a cure for autism and then removed the cure from its language in 2016. Until 2015, the charity's position was "it remains possible that in rare cases, immunization may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition." So basically, they at least gave a veneer of credibility to--Well, this is one theory.

Sarah Marshall  29:44  

This seems like a lot of rich parents.

Eric Michael Garcia  29:46  

I honestly think it's a lot of rich people who think that they're doing the right thing. Where you don't actually have autistic people at the table, which for a long time, they didn't have autistic people at the table or at least the leadership on it, you're often not listening to the actual needs of autistic people. I think that's why a lot of autistic people really don't like Autism Speaks, almost every autistic person I know it doesn't like them. I think the thing is that they see autism as a charity and something to be dealt with and not a specific identity and a group of people who deserve to be treated fairly, and who deserve to be accepted in society. They've changed a little bit. So like, you know, they don't talk about cure anymore. They don't talk about removing anymore. For such a long time, because they framed it in, in a term of autism as a as a tragedy, that's made it really, really hard for autistic people as a whole. So in fact, they didn't they did an ad, I'm going to send it to you right now. This is from 2009.

Sarah Marshall  30:43  

Okay, we can do, we can count down and do 321 go, and all watch it together.

321 go.

Autism Speaks Voiceover  30:55  

I'm autism. I'm visible in your children. But if I can help it, I am invisible to you until it's too late. I know where you live. And guess what? I live there too. I hover around all of you. I know no color barrier, no religion, no morality, no currency. I speak your language fluently. And with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another language. I work very quickly. I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined. And if you are happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails, your money will fall into my hands and I will bankrupt you for my own self gain. I don't sleep. So I make sure you don't either. I will make it virtually impossible for your family to easily attend a temple, birthday party, a public park, without a struggle, without embarrassment, without pain. You have no cure for me.

Eric Michael Garcia  31:52  


Sarah Marshall  31:54  

Ugh. It's not fatal.

Michael Hobbes  31:56  

It's putting the parents' experiences first over the children.

Sarah Marshall  31:59  

Yeah, it's almost literally autism saying "Hello, I want to play a game." I've seen episodes of "Criminal Minds" that are a lot less menacing than this. 

Michael Hobbes  32:07  

It's so fucking unethical to use real kids in this.

Sarah Marshall  32:10  

It's just, it's framing autism like Freddy Krueger.

Eric Michael Garcia  32:15  

Yeah, this kind of frames how they view dealing with autism, right. And this is how they frame seeing autism as something to be battled or combated. And like even, they had some success in 2006, the final piece of legislation that was signed was the Combating Autism Act. And it wasn't until 2014 that it was changed to the Autism Cares Act. So it very much talks about how they how they framed it and how they saw autism. As a menace.

Sarah Marshall  32:42  

This makes me think of what if you made an ad that was like, "I am menstruation. I am painful. I have invaded the woman you love." You know, and then it's like these all these like, men swearing to beat menstruation.

Eric Michael Garcia  32:57  

Yeah. And I think that this is, this goes to the idea that it was parents try to do something for their kids. And it was more about how tragic autism was. And it's framed with the same idea that autism was this epidemic. And what do you do with epidemics? You try to curb an epidemic.

Sarah Marshall  33:11  

Right. You get everyone to stay home and like--well actually apparently if you have an epidemic, you will cram people into rallies and have them shout on each other. So.

Eric Michael Garcia  33:20  

It isn't until 2010 that Wakefield is stripped of his medical license. So you have, from 1998 to 2010.

Sarah Marshall  33:29  

Yeah. And does that happen for something unrelated? Just by happenstance?

Eric Michael Garcia   33:33  

What happened is there was tons of inquiries and investigations, all started uncovering problems. Turns out that two of the kids who were reported to have suffered from autistic enterocolitis, after the MMR had never been diagnosed with autism at all. And Wakefield also made sure that children in the study who had previously been described as normal before receiving the vaccine had actually been flagged for developmental issues, like hand flapping and language delay. So he was just really careless.

Michael Hobbes  34:06  

Right, so vaccines cause autism, but some of the kids aren't autistic. And some of the other kids were showing signs of autism before they were vaccinated.

Sarah Marshall  34:14  

Mike, vaccines cause kids, all right?

Eric Michael Garcia  34:18  

What really brings this into stark contrast is that Wakefield had been paid. He had failed to disclose tot he editor of the Lancet that he had received a lot of compensation from lawyers who were planning to mount a class action lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. This kind of David versus Goliath fighting the evil Goliath of capitalism, Big Pharma, was actually big law capitalism.

Michael Hobbes  34:47  


Sarah Marshall  34:48  

Yeah. I mean, certainly in America today, we have no further experience with what seem to be grassroots movements but are actually strategically manipulated causes that serve needs of some sort of corporation or profit seeking group.

Eric Michael Garcia  35:03  

But basically the point is he was making a lot of money by doing this. Everything came tumbling down.

Sarah Marshall  35:09  

I am curious about where we incorrectly perhaps draw the line between like the child being a problem and the society that doesn't support parents. And that makes almost any form of parenthood incredibly punishing and potentially financially disastrous. Well, the first place I always want to take that is like, how do we support the family? Like, issociety supporting this family? And like, what support do they need? And of course, the answer is often like money, money! For kids!

Eric Michael Garcia  35:40  

Autistic people need you to support them.So this is what I this is what I keep on trying to say, I say this is an autistic person, I say this as somebody who loves autistic people. It is that we're human beings, we are fine as just as we are, what really needs to happen is changing the world to adapt so that autistic people can live in it. I was born in 1990, the year the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed. I think a lot of people think, Oh, I'm so inspirational, I think that autistic people are so inspirational ifthey can do this. But it's a lot less sexy to say that autistic people are having a difficult time because the world sucks. It puts more onus on them. Whereas if autistic people are just inspirational or angelic, then it doesn't cause us to change anything.

Sarah Marshall  36:29  

Oh, so you're like a murdered girl at this point. It's like, isn't she such a tragic Angel. And it's like she died because of very preventable and endemic violence against women and like this could have been predicted. It's like, we would rather like see people as tragic figures who like, you know, just so noble, so brave, and just completely unrelated to my choices. It's interesting.

Eric Michael Garcia  36:53  

Yeah. So you know my whole point--I mean, I'm a political reporter at heart--is that we are a product of policies, the only way I am able to even do this is because of policies like the FDA and the FDA. And they're not even fully funded. They're not even fully realized.

Sarah Marshall  37:08  

Well and also it takes away the concept that private donors can privately fund their own solution and that you can just disrupt government and make your own spaceship and stuff.

Michael Hobbes  37:20  

There's also an interesting generational handover story, right, in that in previous times, when we did have fewer diagnoses of autism, and it was really the much more severe cases, the kind of the quote, unquote, movement was led by parents. Whereas after these laws in 1990, you now have a generation of people who self identify as autistic and are finally able to sort of form the movement themselves and take the movement in the direction that they want. So it feels like we're in the midst of this, like handover. 

Eric Michael Garcia  37:49  

So you're partially right. Initially, it was parents being told that they need to send their kids away to these institutions. Then the second part, I would say, from like the 1970s, to the 1980s and 1990s, was parents trying to get their kids out of institutions. But because like you said, the most vocal parents were the ones who have kids with the most support needs, they became seen as the real spokespeople, and then now you're seeing that even an autistic people like myself, even autistic people with higher support needs, who can now speak for themselves because of things like assisted communication, they're now trying to reframe the narrative,

Michael Hobbes  38:22  

Right. Do we want to talk about sort of where the anti-vaxx movement went after Wakefield stuff was debunked? Because it is amazing how resilient it is considering that, like the entire basis of it has now been completely destroyed.

Sarah Marshall  38:35  

Yeah. Isn't it weird that people believe things for which there is no evidence and only proof of the opposite? Like it's such a--I've never heard of that happening elsewhere.

Eric Michael Garcia  38:44  

The classic point is that Donald Trump said that on the debate stage about autism being an epidemic five years after Wakefield lost his license. What I think has happened now is that Wakefield and a lot of these other people now see themselves as martyrs, heroes and brave truth tellers.

Sarah Marshall  39:00  

Can you tell us about just where the anti-vaxx movement I suppose, or like that culture, like, where it is, like, what is its health? What kind of organism is it right now?

Eric Michael Garcia  39:12  

I think for a long time anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists were very much, it was very kind of a horseshoe. Bcause you had kind of crunchy liberals who didn't like vaccinating their kids and putting toxins in their kids, to your point about toxins. And then you had conservatives who just don't like government mandates.

Sarah Marshall  39:31  

This is one of those Oregon Country Fair to Salem gun show issues.

Eric Michael Garcia   39:35  

Yes. Yes. Yes. I think nowadays, it's become a lot more right wing. You see anti-vaxxers running the Republican primaries in Texas. In many ways I feel like it fertilized the ground for QAnon.

Michael Hobbes  39:48  

I mean, it is like worth noting that this has a toll. Like, I did work on this for a story months ago, and the number of measles cases in the United States used to be like 60 in the entire country. And it's now like 1200. That's bad. Like there are communities, there's a place outside of Seattle, Vashon Island, which is this really rich kind of enclave that you have to take a ferry to get to. And as of 2015, one in five kids in the schools was not vaccinated. That's bad!

Sarah Marshall  40:19  

It's so weird how like, rich kooky people and prisons are like these two populations, that some epidemics are going to be able to rip right through. Like, that's a weird thing to have in common by choice.

Eric Michael Garcia  40:32  

It's almost like rich people almost feel like they're too rich to participate in the social contract. 

Sarah Marshall  40:37  

Yeah, I think that explains a lot. And also too rich for their bodies to fall victim to like poor people disease, like I think it's something--like there was something in like, the very early days of AIDS that scientists and people trying to wrap their heads around the disease like, originally rejected the concept that it could be transmitted to babies through cord blood. And part of the pushback was like, It's a gay man's disease, homosexuals get it, how could a baby get it? And it's like, it's--people get it.

Michael Hobbes  41:07  

I also think that there's a media story here too, though, in that the anti-vaxx movement is primarily a right wing movement. But because that's kind of like a dog bites man story at this point, like "right wing people have crazy conspiracy theory," that isn't as interesting to report on. So I do think that communities like Vashon Island that are like these super left wing enclaves with like a bunch of granola hippies, those things just get much more media attention.

Eric Michael Garcia  41:32  

Yes, yeah, cuz it used to be like you said, it used to be like, people on the fringes of both sides. But now, I think, oddly enough, I think that the Trump presidency has made it even more of a right wing adventure.

Michael Hobbes  41:43  

There's something so appealing about these like very tight and easy stories, especially when there's sort of societal correlations involved. Where it's like, the vaccines rose at the same time as autism rose. And it's like, well, a autism isn't, quote, unquote, rising in this kind of one to one way. And secondly, there's literally a million other things that changed in society during that 20 year period. Like, yeah, if you look at sort of the the rising crime rates in America in the 1980s, [they] match perfectly with the fall of vinyl records.

Sarah Marshall  42:16  

And as disco fell, too.

Michael Hobbes  42:18  

Yeah, but it's like, there's literally an infinite number of things happening in America at that same time. And you could draw the same parallel trend line along the rise of autism rates with a million other things.

Sarah Marshall  42:30  

The number of hours Bea Arthur is on primetime in a given year. 

Michael Hobbes  42:34  

Sure, we see this with a lot of social issues, too, that, you know, as, like trans rights become more accepted, there's a growing number of trans people, because people are comfortable coming out. And that, of course, is seen by reactionaries as somehow a threat to society, like, Oh, my God, the number of trans kids is growing. And it's like, that's actually good news. And you can say that all of these extra diagnoses of autism since the 1980s, that's good. That means kids are getting the help that they need. 

Eric Michael Garcia   43:02  

Or like maybe if we actually see the rise in autism rates, then maybe we can put more money into schools and special education, disability education and things like that. So like, maybe, maybe it's not a reason for a moral panic. But it's a reason we can probably make schools better for disabled kids.

Sarah Marshall  43:18  

This is actually, this is how I feel about my kitchen. Because if I'm like, Sarah, you're going to do dishes, and then I like go, and I'm like, Oh, my God, like, why did I save all of these cottage cheese containers? And now I have to clean them. And why am I saving them, but I can't throw them out? I would be, you know, and then I'm like, fuck it. I'm watching Mad About You. If every time you try and engage, like you just focus on like, the overwhelmingness of it, and are like, what does this say about me? And it's like, nothing. It says nothing. Everyone has dishes. Every country has kids who need more help than you've been giving them to this point, and just, like, deal with it. I have not done my dishes.

Eric Michael Garcia  43:55  

Yeah. It says that you like cottage cheese, Sarah. That's all it says about you.

Sarah Marshall  43:59  

it does say that, which is pretty damning, according to some people, but you know, I stand by it.

Eric Michael Garcia   44:03  

I think what I want to say essentially, is that, I mean, the thign that I always want to say is that the only way that we can get people to accept autistic people is through funding schools, you know, having a robust social safety net, so that they can succeed. All of these things that require a lot of work, and also require us listening to autistic people. They are who they are. They've always been there. We just haven't wanted to listen to them.

Michael Hobbes  44:27  

That's a good note to end on. Eric, thanks so much for coming on.

Eric Michael Garcia  44:30  

Thank you so much. I loved doing this. 

Sarah Marshall  44:32  

Thank you. And I, you know, I know that we're just I guess going to be having at least six moral panics at any given time, forever. I accept that. And I'm happy that we got to have you on to talk about one of them because you are smart, and being a watch--one of the many watchdogs of this world requires, and it's just great to have people come on and talk about, you know, what they are watching.

Eric Michael Garcia  44:58  

Thank you. Thank you for this. I put in a lot of hard work on this and I put a lot of work in on this book.

Sarah Marshall  45:03  

Wait, and do you want to say again what is your book called? When is it out?

Eric Michael Garcia   45:07  

My book "We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation" comes out August 3rd.

Sarah Marshall  45:12  

It's a Leo, your book's a Leo.

Eric Michael Garcia   45:14  

Preorder it on IndieBound or your local bookshop if you want to. Okay, fine, Amazon.

Michael Hobbes  45:21  

We hope you make enough money on the book that you can move to one of those enclaves where people don't vaccinate their kids. It's the dream.

Sarah Marshall  45:27  

I hope that you can achieve the millennial dream, which is having as many streaming services as your heart desires.