Vaccines and Autism: Something Old, Something New
Apr 08, 2014

Photo credit:  Emily Willingham

Photo credit: Emily Willingham

The following post is an adaptation of a previous article written by Shannon Des Roches Rosa for Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism entitled Keep Calm and Think Critically.  Shannon is a mother of three and an autism advocate extraordinaire.  She writes extensively about parenting and autism on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and Squidalicious blogs, and serves as a contributing editor on BlogHer.  Shannon critically evaluates new autism data and explains that even though a few misguided people will attempt to use this data to try to put a new spin on an old myth, it won’t change the fact that vaccines don’t cause autism.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held a recent media briefing to announce and discuss readjusted estimates for autism prevalence, with a new rate of 1 in 68 children. This announcement caused instant furor in anti-vaccine autism groups, which started claiming the 30% rate increase was proof of a vaccine-autism link, despite longstanding evidence (also from the CDC, along with many other resources) that no link between autism and vaccines has ever been established by legitimate research.

Shot@Life Champions with Walker Zorensky,  Legislative Research Assistant, Office of Senator Barbara Boxer

Shot@Life Champions with Walker Zorensky,
Legislative Research Assistant, Office of Senator Barbara Boxer

I found this information-twisting especially irksome, because it reinforced to me that the anti-vaccine autism community — as few in numbers as they are — would rather endanger children’s lives than admit they’re wrong. I feel horribly guilty about the harm such misplaced fears about autism have wreaked on immunization rates. And so I work very hard as an autism parent advocate, a writer, and now a UN Foundation Shot@Life Champion to educate people about vaccine-preventable disease, and the critical importance of immunizations.

I want people to remember that vaccines save lives. To acknowledge that while Americans get to bicker about whether or not to vaccinate their children, in other parts of the world children who don’t have access to vaccines are still dying from preventable disease — one child death every 20 seconds, in fact. I want them aware that even here in the United States, unvaccinated kids, and infants too young to be vaccinated are at risk from current measles outbreaks. And it makes the job of everyone who stands on the side of children’s health and legitimate science harder when vaccine denialists light their torches and do their damnedest to spread misinformation.

But what does that new 1 in 68 estimate actually mean? Well, that takes some critical analysis, digging, and sifting, which I’ll walk you through, starting with the CDC’s Dr. Colleen Boyle’s opening statement:

“CDC estimates that one in 68 children has been identified with autism. This estimate is based on information collected from health and special education records of children who are eight years old and living in 11 communities in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, north Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin in 2010. These data are from CDC-sponsored autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network. The new estimate exceeds previous overall estimates, roughly it’s 30 percent higher than our last estimate of one in 88 children. To better understand the why, there’s an urgent need to do more research. There’s also an urgent need to put these findings to work for children and families. More is understood about autism than ever before, but these numbers are an important reminder of the need for answers and to use CDC’s data to help children now.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the anti-vaccine contingent that missed the point. Many news outlets seemed to stop there as well, which is why you’ve probably seen sensationalistic headlines such as “Why Did Autism Surge 30%?” and “CDC Confirms Dramatic Increase in Autism Rates.” These proclamations completely ignore the CDC’s Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp’s comments, later in the briefing, that essentially autistic people have always been here — the CDC is just getting better at identifying them; plus the CDC’s understanding of just who qualifies as autistic has changed over time:

“I would just like to add that we recognize now that autism is a spectrum, so I think in the past we thought of children as being severely affected, meaning children with intellectual disability, children who were nonverbal, children with a host of co-occurring conditions, that was the picture of autism, I think, about ten years ago. Our understanding has evolved to the point that we understand now that there are children with higher IQs and children who perhaps are even not receiving special education services. So our understanding of autism has changed over time, and I think that our numbers may be reflective of some of that, as well.”

The 1 in 68 estimate is not surprising. The criteria for autism diagnoses have not just changed over time but changed to be more inclusive over time (Asperger’s, added to the DSM in 1994, was folded into Autism Spectrum Disorders in 2013). Anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker studied autism rates in Korea in 2011, and concluded that a more realistic autism prevalence was 1 in 38. This means that the CDC’s 2012 estimate of 1 in 88 was already a lowball. As are the new numbers, most likely. Which further undermines the position of those determined to blame vaccines.

But, again, what do the numbers mean? Ideally, better identification and better estimation of numbers means better identification and estimation of needs and supports. The CDC was also clear that they had identified disparities in exactly who gets identified, who gets overlooked, and why. From KQED’s California Report/State of Health writer Rachel Dornhelm:

“…the prevalence seems to vary in different communities and among children of different races. The CDC found white children are far more likely to be identified with autism, even though scientists don’t believe the rates are truly different between whites, Hispanics or blacks. That means that the discrepancy lies in the diagnosis and services available in different communities.”

TPGA science editor Emily Willingham elaborated on the racial and cultural factors affecting diagnoses, while reemphasizing the CDC’s awareness of under diagnosis, at Pediatrics:

“From the data, it looks like a lot of sociocultural factors enter into the values. Given the huge variability from site to site and the ethnic differences, recognition and service availability are probably factors. Dr. Boyle referred repeatedly to the evolution of our understanding of autism and used the large percentage of children included in these values who have average to above-average intelligence as an example of that. Unlike numbers from a decade ago, these values include children who previously might not have been recognized as autistic.”

The under diagnosis is not just limited to racial and geographic factors. Julia Bascom of The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) noted the problematics of the CDC’s not including autistic people over age 21:

“The lack of any data on adults represents a serious gap in CDC’s efforts. When the United Kingdom conducted an adult prevalence study, it found the same rate of autism in adults as children, helping to debunk public hysteria over a so-called ‘autism epidemic’.”

In the same statement, ASAN’s Ari Ne’eman confirmed that the increased prevalence rate should reinforce evidence-based expectations rather than cause alarm. ASAN also asserted that “considerable efforts are still needed to make diagnosis and services available to all.”

To summarize, primary takeaways from the CDC report are:

1. The CDC is getting better at identifying the autistic people who have always been here
2. Better estimates of autism prevalence will ideally lead to better supports and services
3. There is still much work to do, especially in under served communities and ethnic groups

The simplicity of these takeaways was, again, lost on too many, especially those anti-vaccine and “autism epidemic”-focused organizations, many of whom have been quoted in subsequent articles as legitimate autism resources. Which really needs to stop happening, because this sort of false balance has real consequences, in terms of sickness and deaths from vaccine-preventable disease.

But while it is distressing to read articles featuring opinions from groups bent on eradicating rather than supporting autistic people like my son, I realize that not all readers or reporters know how to evaluate autism resources for trustworthiness. So, with the CDC’s report in mind and April’s Autism Awareness stampede upon us, I recommend reading and sharing Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism’s guidelines on identifying autism pseudoscience, and the article from Ken Riebel of Autism News Beat to reporters on the eve of Autism Awareness Month. And heed Ken’s advice:

“Keep your stories simple and focused. Unless you are familiar with the autism news beat, the more you venture into the weeds, the more likely you are to leave your readers with the wrong impression.”

Any questions?

Shannon Des Roches Rosa



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