I was playing a card game with my grandmother and my girlfriend, many years ago. The game is called "Frustration," and it involves laying down a large number of cards on the table from time to time. My grandmother had a cat named "Misty," who I believe was named by someone fluent in German. Misty liked to be where the action was, and would often jump up on the table and wander from person to person, looking for attention.
After a particularly long round, I laid down my cards. Just then, Misty hopped up on the table and faced my girlfriend, with her tail gently swishing over my carefully organized cards. I gave her a gentle tug on her tail. And with an alleycat yowl she lashed out at my girlfriend, narrowly missing a cheek with her furniture-shredding talons. I had apparently tugged a bit too hard for Misty's liking, and Misty punished the wrong person. My girlfriend, surprised, lashed back - swatting the cat and sending her scurrying. The cat avoided my girlfriend ever after, fearing another unprovoked tug and smack.
Why did this happen?
The answer is obvious. I was behind the cat, unseen, and the cat's focus was on my girlfriend. The cat automatically associated the tail-tug with my girlfriend because that's the context she was in. Misty was justified in lashing out — someone was tugging her tail! — but her chosen victim was also innocent, and unrelated to the problem. My girlfriend rightfully defended herself, not knowing that I had actually caused the cat's reaction.
How could we explain all that to Misty?
I believe we see a similar reaction in parents who have children diagnosed with autism. Something has happened to their child. It's a doctor reporting it, the same doctor who recently gave the child a vaccine, and the same doctor who has no cure. A parent's instinct is to lash out when their child has been injured, but alas, who is tugging the tail that is autism? No one actually knows, but it's easy to point one's claws at the medical community, which from the parent's perspective has had all the control in the situation. And the medical community (which includes skeptics) lashes back at the parents, creating a toxic conflict that benefits no one.
Enough, I say.
Parents of children with autism need our support, not our criticism. If they're convinced that vaccines caused their autism or that diet can cure it, we should treat them with respect and offer our evidence to the contrary. Politely. Calmly.
As frustrated as we might get at their blatant refusal to look at simple data, anger isn't going to help the situation. Consider it from their point of view: They're encountering groups that promote anti-vaccination rhetoric, and those groups welcome them with open arms, camaraderie and support. The skeptics, on the other hand, often react negatively, telling distraught parents that they're wrong and harming other people's children. Guess what? That's factually correct, but that doesn't mean we need to be harshly confrontational. We need to be supportive.
It's not easy, and it goes against our emotions, but the burden is ours. When the cat lashes out, we can understand what's going on. In fact, we're the only ones who can. It's up to us to set the tone.
I don't say this to belittle parents or to let Jenny McCarthy off the hook. There is a huge difference between the soccermom who looks at the wrong website for her info and a person with a powerful media presence who actively promotes false information. Attack Jenny, but embrace the soccer mom.
And as for the tail tugger that is the root cause of autism, we'll just keep looking. Together, hopefully.
(Thanks to Andrew Gould for the cat photo!)