In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I’d like to share with you information that I have learned about autism in my study of special education. Today, I’m sharing a paper written for a class on the subject of “Vaccines and Autism.” This may seem like an odd place to start when discussing autism, but how we think about causation influences how we think about a disorder. Vaccines are one of the hottest and most controversial health topics when it comes to children. Much misinformation and pseudo-science have been employed in the discussion, as well as legitimate observations. This briefly addresses common misconceptions about vaccines and autism and highlights some of the research which shows without a doubt that autism is not caused by vaccines. See my end note for my thoughts on vaccines and other adverse outcomes, as well as links to studies you can read yourself.
This topic hits close to home for me. One of my younger sisters has Autism, and our journey with her has been highly influential in my decision to pursue special education. She was born in 1998, so she grew up during what I believe was the peak of the vaccination-autism discussion. I remember overhearing my mom tell a friend, with tears in her eyes, that she had watched my sister change before her eyes and was afraid that she had done that to her child. This morning, as I spoke to my mom about my sister, I was able to tell her, “Mom, the evidence shows that vaccines don’t cause autism. You did not do this to your child.”
So with autism, one thing to keep in mind is that it is 95% caused by genetics, just like Down Syndrome or other developmental disabilities. We don’t know what the other 5% is yet. Most people that say vaccines caused their child’s autism don’t know or don’t believe that it is 95% caused by genetics. But even if we assume that we’re all aware that 95% of the causation is genetics, if we didn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism, it could make sense to theorize that it’s part of the 5% that we don’t know about. There are other things people have wondered about too, like induced labor with Pitocin, toxins in the environment, or ultrasounds. Vaccines and Pitocin both have very reliable studies behind them (several studies in the case of vaccines) that shows that the rate of autism among unvaccinated or un-induced children is the same as the vaccinated and induced population. The big study that most people point to as evidence of vaccines causing autism was very poorly done and later retracted and debunked.
I understand parents feeling like vaccines played a part in their child’s autism because it is during those key years (at the same time the child is being vaccinated) that we can see the greatest regression in autism. Sadly, it’s just the nature of the disorder. Some children exhibit symptoms of autism from infancy, but others do not begin to exhibit autistic symptoms until they are 2-3 years old. This is known as regressive autism, because it may appear that the child’s development regresses. Watching a child experience regressive autism is a bewildering and frightening experience for any parent. A child that seemed to develop normally suddenly struggles. Many parents, doctors, and advocates wonder why. Some advocacy groups point to the increase in vaccinations alongside the increase in autism prevalence and imply that there is a correlation. Others pointed to heavy metals in vaccinations from the preservative thimerosal as a likely cause. Yet others acknowledged the genetic makeup which makes children susceptible to autism, and believe that vaccines are the environmental factor that may push them over the edge so to speak. However, each of these beliefs has been debunked through scientific studies. No scientific study done under the proper conditions has ever shown a connection between vaccinations and occurrence of autism.
Parents are exposed to many of these beliefs, many of which are supported by outdated facts or misconceptions. For instance, it is true that children receive more vaccinations now than in the 90’s. Alongside the increase in autism prevalence, many may assume that there is a connection. However, the overall amount of antigens that a child is exposed to during the normal course of vaccinations has significantly decreased since the 90’s. A CDC study noted that “The maximum number of antigens to which a child could be exposed by age 2 years was 315 in 2012, compared with several thousand in the late 1990s” (as cited in Autism Speaks, 2013). Some raise concern about the presence of thimerosal in vaccines, although that has not been shown to correlate with autism either. Even so, thimerosal has not been used in routine childhood vaccines since 2001 (Brown, n.d., p. 6).
Media outlets and many books fail to do the research and see that there is no support for the claim that vaccines cause autism. Furthermore, it is often claimed that the people that overlook vaccine safety are in the pockets of the vaccine companies. Ironically, while this is not true, alternative medicine companies are often sponsors of advocacy groups which fight against vaccines (Brown, n.d., p. 6; See the list of sponsors at generationrescue.org). All of these reasons are why I would encourage parents to do the research for themselves, by examining unbiased peer reviewed studies and reassuring themselves with the data. Vaccines have helped us rid our society of many dangerous diseases. Families with histories of allergic reactions to vaccines or other medications or contraindicating conditions should decide with a doctor whether or not the risks outweigh the benefits in their case, just as they should with any other medical decision.
2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (New King James Version). Fear persuades us to listen to what sounds like a good solution, but a sound mind should lead us to examine the facts, make a decision based on evidence instead of fear, and trust God with our children’s lives.
End note: I don’t know a great deal about vaccines in relation to other problems, so I still think people should educate themselves about vaccines, as long as they make sure there is good hard science behind their choices. I used to be much warier of vaccines, mainly because I had heard of the autism-vaccine connection. Now that I know a lot of the pseudo-science behind that claim, it really makes me skeptical of a lot of other claims about the harmful nature of vaccines. It’s very important to make sure the information on which you base your beliefs and choices is from a reliable study, with a reliable control group, a large enough size, and not funded or done by people who already have a bias one way or the other. There are allergic reactions to vaccines, just like for other medications. But, I’m guessing the chance of an allergic reaction to a vaccine is much smaller than the chance of being seriously harmed by an illness such as the measles.
Studies concerning vaccines and autism:
Brown, A., MD. (n.d.). Clear Answers and Smart Advice About Your Baby’s Shots. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://www.immunize.org/catg.d/p2068.pdf
Study Addresses ‘Too Many Too Soon?’ Vaccine Concerns. (2013, March 29). Retrieved November 22, 2016, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/study-addresses-‘too-many-too-soon’-vaccine-concerns