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Fraudulent researcher did more than scare parents away from vaccines

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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods lives in Minneapolis and is a writer, blogger and mother.
Courtesy Haddayr Copley-Woods

Last night, my son Arie knocked on my office door. "May I come in?" he asked politely.

After a pause, the door flew open to reveal a figure with a black cloak, a cardboard shield, a Spiderman mask, a jester's hat and black high-tops. Arie waved a foam broadsword menacingly.

His little brother Eiden abandoned his crayons and leapt to his feet. "Ah HA!" he bellowed, as he threw himself unarmed into the face of America's greatest threat: autism.

Actually, while I'm not going to pretend it's a piece of cake, Arie's condition isn't the terrible danger Andrew Wakefield and his followers would have us believe. 

Wakefield's fraudulent, discredited research purported to show a link between autism and vaccination. It sparked an anti-vaccine panic among parents. As a result, countless children have gone un-vaccinated, and hundreds have died from preventable diseases.

This is Wakefield's greatest evil. But a close second is the way he and his followers have demonized autism. They make it seem more frightening than polio.

Since Wakefield was fabricating his data, he could have blamed vaccines for any number of conditions. He could have chosen asthma -- which is actually life threatening.

But he chose autism. And I suspect he did so because most people don't really understand it. They don't get that autism is not the end of the world. 

They see it as terrifying and monstrous. And it's a short step from there to seeing people with autism as terrifying monsters.

Arie's parents, therapists and teachers have worked hard to help him manage his neurological differences. And he's worked hard, too.

My son, like so many autistic people, has a lot to offer. There are wonderful, useful qualities that can be part of autism -- such as an unshakable focus, undying loyalty or an obsessive eye for detail.

But what good will those traits do my son if potential employers, lovers and neighbors turn away in fear before giving him a chance?

Arie stands, foam sword aloft, ready to take on the world. I hope with a mother's passionate desperation that some day the world can leap into his arms as his little brother did last night: with fearless, joyful engagement.

It will take a lot of education and advocacy. But it'll be worth it -- and not just for Arie, but for all of us. Because if you turn away from him, you are missing out on one seriously terrific kid.

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Haddayr Copley-Woods, Minneapolis, is a copywriter, blogger and mother. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.