Recently, this debate was put into the forefront of autism news when Katie Wright, daughter of the founders of Autism Speaks, made an appearance on Oprah, and later interviewed David Kirby about his book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic.
Katie was a little brusque in some of her statements, as she asked the old guard to let the new generation explore new potential causes and therapies (such as vaccines and chelation, a treatment for mercury poisoning). Her parents took steps to keep their charity, Autism Speaks (which they began in honor of Katie and her autistic son), separate from Katie's statements. The New York Times reported:
So, in early June, Bob and Suzanne Wright repudiated their daughter on the charity’s Web site. “Katie Wright is not a spokesperson” for the organization, the Wrights said in a brusque statement. Her “personal views differ from ours.” The Wrights also apologized to “valued volunteers” who had been disparaged. Told by friends how cold the rebuke sounded, Mrs. Wright belatedly added a line saying, “Katie is our daughter, and we love her very much.” Ms. Wright called the statement a “character assassination.” She said she had not spoken to her father since.Now the whole community is abuzz amidst the current federal "vaccine court" hearings that are reviewing over 4,000 cases of supposed vaccine-induced autism.This is an important time in the community. The results of this hearing could effectively shut down the vaccine argument for good...at least in the eyes of the public. After so many past federally funded studies (that David Kirby claims were biased due to political interests) have found that vaccines do not cause autism, this hearing could end up being the final straw. With the community at odds over this cause, a finding against the plaintiffs will cause major waves among parents, politicians, and researchers. A positive finding could finally allow those who believe vaccines do play a role the ability to conduct proper research into possible treatments.
One of the most plausible theories regarding the vaccine theory currently is described in David Kirby's Evidence of Harm. The basic idea is that autism is a set of symptoms associates with many diseases (researchers have agreed on this for many years), and that one of those diseases seems to be a form of mercury poisoning. The vaccines do not affect all children, though. It seems that some children have a genetic predisposition toward the effects because they are not able to properly process the mercury and other environmental contaminants. In those children, vaccines do seem to cause the autism.
To me, this means that the research does need to be directed at both environmental and genetic factors--both because these vaccine cases only represent a portion of children with autism and because even these cases seem to have a genetic component. It's just that because research into vaccines has been pushed to the backburner, those who believe in it have to have a bigger voice.
The debate currently going on is ludicrous, but will undoubtedly have a major effect on research that continues after the ongoing hearings.