I am going to preface this post by making this disclaimer. This post is NOT about taking sides in the vaccine debate that continues to occur in the United States. I am just trying to add some additional information to the debate. I am a strong advocate of making informed decisions and hope this will help in a similar pursuit.
With that being said, there are a number of different graphics floating around that either imply or outright state vaccines have caused Autism Spectrum Disorders. This has stemmed from a study published in 1997 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that alleged a link between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine and autism. Efforts to replicate this study led to the discovery of serious research violations that led to Wakefield losing his medical license and the paper being retracted.
So, there are a few things to understand about what IS going on. First, the particular ingredient in vaccines that people have pointed at is thimerosal, which is an organic loose relative of mercury. Thimerosal is still used in vaccines in many countries. In the United States, this ingredient has not been included in vaccines for multiple years now. Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses have not reflected this change if this indeed was causing the increase.
The next thing to think about is the history of how Autism Spectrum Disorders have evolved. Dr. Leo Kanner with Johns Hopkins pioneered much of the early research on Autism Spectrum Disorders in the United States. He used what we would now consider a strict and narrow set of diagnostic criteria to determine a diagnosis. At the same time in Europe Dr. Hans Asperger studied the set of symptoms in a milder form, which had a comparatively wider range of symptoms and criteria. Kanner also saw Autism Spectrum Disorders as an emotional and behavioral disorder while Asperger saw it as a genetic disorder, which led to significantly different treatment regimens and social perceptions. Following the subsequent history shows how the different revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the diagnostic “Bible” of the mental health world) have changed the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders to be much wider than when Kanner set the original bar for what it meant to be diagnosed with Autism.
The final piece to consider is from a child development perspective. Take a look at the timeline of when children get vaccinations. There is an increase in the number of vaccines recommended starting at about 12 months old. Then compare that timeline to the normal developmental timeline for child development. At about 12 months, children are just first starting to really interact with people, saying first words, and pointing at things. Prior to this, infants’ ability to do these things are limited or non-existent. Thus, to see the tangible signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders prior to this is almost impossible. What this whole phenomenon is called in science is a spurious correlation. In other words, it is a simple coincidence that they happen together.
Along with these changes, our awareness and acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorders as non-shaming and non-stigmatizing (to some extent) has also affected diagnosis rates. People are looking for Autism Spectrum Disorders now. Doctors are not as hesitant as they were many years ago to diagnose. There are more therapy and resource options to do something about Autism Spectrum Disorders now, which tends to encourage people to pursue diagnosis.
Finally, in poking around on the internet reminding myself of some of the details for all of this, I’ve also found that scientists have been able to find some evidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms in pre-verbal children, making an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis even earlier more likely now. In fact, there is some evidence mounting now that shows Autism Spectrum Disorders develop in utero, which makes sense when considering that according to the March of Dimes, boys are five times more likely to develop Autism Spectrum Disorders than are girls.
I know this is a lot. I did much of this research when completing my Master’s Degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Child and Adolescent Development. I learned more from my sister, who is a vaccinating pharmacist, and from my son’s pediatrician. I will never say that vaccines are perfectly safe. There are always going to be risks and bad things do sometimes happen. Do your research. Consider individual circumstances. Weigh out the risks of vaccines with the risks of things like whooping cough, measles, and polio, all of which have made resurgences in the United States due to falling vaccination rates. And consider how the information I presented here may have influence diagnosis rates, not necessarily or just the changing recommended vaccines schedule.