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The Ombudsman Column

A Note About That Series on Autism

Robert MacNeil, the venerable former co-anchor of what was, for many years, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, returned to PBS earlier this month as host, narrator and chief questioner of a six-part series called "Autism Now" that aired on the PBS NewsHour. It was a powerful, informative, often dramatic, at times personal and frequently wrenching portrayal of this disorder that strikes so many children directly and, ultimately, their families as well.

As a viewer, I was drawn into it by the first segment, on the April 18 NewsHour, in which MacNeil reports on the case of his own 6-year-old grandson, Nick, who is autistic, and conducts an extraordinary interview with Nick's 10-year-old sister that was one of the most absorbing and moving exchanges I've ever see on television.

But what caught my attention even before that was an opening exchange between MacNeil and his daughter, Alison, Nick's mother. In that discussion, Alison rather strongly links her son's problem to the standard combination of vaccines administered to children.

"So we went from a 15-month [doctor's] appointment where this child was A-OK, supposedly, and given the MMR, the DTaP and the Hib vaccines," she tells her father. "People say to me," she continued, "Alison, it's a coincidence. Alison, how do you know this happened? Well, it's impossible for me to know. But what I will say is this: It was not a coincidence that my child was diagnosed with autism at the same time that his whole system shut down. Something happened to my child."

I have just a lay understanding of this issue but I do know that large numbers of mothers and families believe there is some kind of a connection between vaccines and autism and I also know that is contrary to scientific evidence. The PBS program "Sid the Science Kid" aired an episode two years ago about the flu vaccine that produced some angry letters to my office from parents who felt the program was promoting vaccinations.

I thought that Alison MacNeil's comments would raise the controversy again. But Robert MacNeil immediately countered that on the air: "I understand Alison's suspicion, but public health authorities say there is no scientifically valid evidence that vaccines cause autism." He made a similar point later in the series. I didn't get much mail from viewers about the series and what did arrive was complimentary and there was no discussion in that mail about the vaccine controversy. So I didn't pursue it.

But there were things that I did not realize that made this on-air, father-daughter exchange more interesting, and they were pursued by James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, who writes about the press. Rainey's column was posted yesterday and I thought it was worth reading, so that's the reason for this abnormally brief communication from the ombudsman.