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An Open Letter to Robert De Niro

[brief pic description]Mr. De Niro,

This is hard for me to write.

You see, I’m autistic and, as is often the case, it’s manifested over the years as intense interest in certain specific topics. A lot of them have ebbed and flowed in my case, but one of the longest-lasting for me has been film and its history. Naturally, that brought me into contact with your work fairly often in my formative years. The summer I finished high school I decided to work through a master list of the great films and you just kept popping up, from The Godfather Part II, to Taxi Driver, to Goodfellas, to The Deer Hunter. It was a confusing, turbulent time in my life, like it is for most people, and working my way through that list helped me feel like my tendency to get way too into something was pointed in an acceptable direction. Movies are a “normal” thing to like a lot, compared to, say, Irish music or the history of organized crime.

That’s why I was extremely disappointed this week to learn that your Tribeca Film Festival would be screening Andrew Wakefield’s documentary Vaxxed. Wakefield is the disgraced ex-physician who used shady, conflict-of-interest-laden and since-retracted “research” to invent the claim that vaccination causes autism in children. In addition to actively fabricating results for his single, never-replicated study, Wakefield also took blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party to use in his sample. Vaxxed is an attempt at defending Wakefield’s work and his “theory” re: autism and vaccines. On Friday, you defended screening the film, pointing to your own autistic child and arguing that rather than endorse the anti-vaccination conspiracy theory, “I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

This explanation, like Wakefield’s theories, is dangerous, dishonest nonsense. A conversation around Andrew Wakefield’s contentions on vaccines has already occurred; it determined that Wakefield is a notorious, demonstrated fraud. This is below even the level of such barrel-scrapers as creationist attempts to “teach the controversy” in public schools; this is the presentation of thoroughly discredited misinformation as a coequal side. The notion that all “sides,” regardless of accuracy or honesty, are entitled to be presented as equal and valid, is what gave us the prospect of President Donald Trump.

That’s why it was a huge relief to see the news that you’d reversed course and pulled the film from the lineup over the weekend. I’m a little leery of the fact that, as the parent of an autistic child, it took this level of pushback for you to do your research on Wakefield, but all’s well that ends well, I suppose. I’m truly not out to be ungracious about you admitting your error, because as we get older, particularly in the public eye, that kind of admission isn’t a particularly easy thing to do. But here’s why your invocation of your child really chafed, Mr. De Niro: anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are fundamentally rooted in hatred of autistic people. The operating principle behind them is that a child suffering or dying from a preventable disease (indeed, countless children, considering the outbreaks anti-vaccine parents are responsible for) is preferable to an autistic child. This is a mindset that gets autistic children killed and, not to put too fine a point on it, but if your motivation is love for an autistic child, you shouldn’t touch a grifter like Andrew Wakefield with a 10-foot pole.

I’m glad your personal connection to autism makes you want to take action, and your wealth, fame and influence put you in a unique position to do some real good on autism issues; you could amplify autistic voices in filmmaking, support advocacy groups that actually involve autistic people in their work on autism issues, or hell, just throw your weight behind movies, such as the upcoming Jane Wants a Boyfriend, that paint a picture of autism that isn’t exclusively white, male, nonverbal children.

Most importantly of all, you could listen to actual autistic voices, if you want to support us, as, admirably, you have done in rebuking Wakefield. Because whether you know it or not, there are autistic people watching and listening to how they’re treated in the press, and how that translates to their treatment in real life. And unlike Travis Bickle, the people who view us as a burden or a menace are not the only guy here.

(image via DFree/Shutterstock.com)

Zack Budryk is a Washington, DC-area journalist who has covered disability, feminist and healthcare issues for The Mary Sue, Quail Bell, Ravishly and Style Weekly. His first novel, Judith, is available now for preorder. He lives in Alexandria with his wife Raychel.

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Zack Budryk is a Washington, D.C-based journalist who writes about healthcare, feminism, autism and pop culture. His work has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, Ravishly, Jezebel, Inside Higher Ed and Style Weekly and he recently completed a novel, but don’t hold that against him. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife, Raychel, who pretends out of sheer modesty that she was not the model for Ygritte, and two cats. He blogs at autisticbobsaginowski.tumblr.com and tweets as ZackBudryk, appropriately enough.