Autism Speaks Too Late on Vaccines
Feb 21, 2015

Media attention surrounding the current measles outbreak in the U.S. suggests that we may be entering a new age in regard to vaccine advocacy.  As we’ve seen measles cases climb to over 141 so far this year, parents, who once assumed their children were learning alongside vaccinated classmates, have begun to inquire about the number of unvaccinated studentsvaxnoautism1 in their schools.  Reporters, who once touted headlines that publicized celebrities making irresponsible claims that vaccines cause autism, are now interviewing renowned epidemiologists to explain the latest resurgence of measles in the U.S.  And organizations, that had once walked a fine line between blaming vaccines for autism and supporting them, are adjusting their positions in the wake of the media’s focus on public health concerns.

The actions of one organization have really caught my eye – an organization that has enormous popularity and name recognition as an autism advocacy organization.

I’m referring to Autism Speaks.  

Just like the average American vaccinates their children according to the CDC’s recommended schedule, the average American probably considers Autism Speaks one of the largest and most influential autism organization in existence.  Their popularity has provided them with great influence, and with this influence comes great responsibility – both to the autism community and to the scientific community.

But the motives of the organization are often criticized to be buried beneath their flashy public relations efforts. While Autism Speaks continues to reap the financial benefits of many generous donors, questions have been raised about their spending habits, research priorities and even their leadership tactics that seem to disenfranchise autistic individuals.  In their failure to take a clear and firm stand on the research that exonerated vaccines as a cause of autism, they have also fallen out of favor with many science-minded individuals.

Despite the fact that extensive research has refuted any link between childhood vaccination and autism, Autism Speaks has continually made statements that seemingly perpetuate this dangerous myth and leave the door ajar.  Disability Scoop recently reported that Autism Speaks has undermined the safety of vaccines by stating:

“it remains possible that, in rare cases, immunization may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition”

The article goes on to say that Autism Speaks’ Strategic Plan for Science, which outlines the group’s priorities for the years 2013 to 2017, continues to make suggestions of a causal relationship between vaccines and autism by stating:

“Autism Speaks is funding studies on the underlying biology of autism, including studies to better understand medical and genetic conditions that are associated with autism that could potentially be linked to adverse responses to immunization.”

And recently The Washington Post reported,

“In the past, the organization, which funded research into possible connections between immunizations and autism, has said it is possible that, in rare cases, ‘immunization may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition’ — while pointing out that ‘studies have not found a link between vaccines and autism.’

While the organization’s ambiguous statements have failed to take a decisive stand on the issue of vaccines and autism, they have also chosen to affiliate themselves with celebrity figures who repeatedly advanced the concept through various media interviews.  For example, they have given a voice to celebrities such as Holly Robinson Peete who not only holds a position as a Board Member, but who has been extremely vocal in her claims that vaccines played a role in her child’s autism. They have promoted outspoken celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, whose vaccine claims appeared on their site with an unsupported statement that begins “despite research that says otherwise”.  They have even supported retired football player Doug Flutie, who has also made claims that vaccines played a role in his son’s autism.

However, as of this moment in time, there seems to be a bit of a discrepancy going on.  Surprisingly, and without reason (other than the previously mentioned media attention on the measles outbreak), Autism Speaks updated their website on February 4th to include a new statement on vaccines and autism.

Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.  We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.
Rob Ring
Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks

But what has inspired them to revise their public statement on immunizations? Perhaps it would have made sense if this new position statement came on the heals of new scientific evidence.  The release of a high-profile study perhaps?  Some new data that would precipitate such a change of heart?

But no. That has not been the case.

The only thing that seems to have precipitated this statement is an outbreak of measles and the media’s response to it.  The increased media attention has raised public concerns that the growing measles outbreak may be a result of parents refusing the MMR vaccine for fear that it may make their child autistic – a concern that has not been denied by Autism Speaks…until, maybe, now…kind of.

And while we might expect that such a complete turn around in position would be boldly highlighted on the main landing page of the Autism Speaks website, I was bewildered to discover that the updated statement is buried several clicks into their site and nearly impossible to locate without the use of the site map.  What is even more unsettling is that this statement comes specifically from Rob Ring, the group’s Chief Science Officer, but has yet to be reiterated by other leaders within the organization.

Many critics of Autism Speaks speculate that this apparent change of position on the subject of vaccines is all about public perception, politics and the desire to appease their large donor base.  Whether this is what ultimately led to the change in their vaccine/autism statement we will probably never know.  For me, their actions seem to suggest that Autism Speaks is more concerned about public perception than in adhering to the guiding principles of scientific evidence.

While I should be applauding their new-found appreciation for science, all I can bring myself to say is #AutismSpeaksTooSoftly, #AutismSpeaksTooLate and #WhyShouldWeLIstenToAutismSpeaksNow?

I share these observations with you and ask…Are you content to support an organization that is willing to change their position whenever the media climate dictates – especially on an issue as important as vaccines and autism?  Or would you prefer to support an organization that stands firm on the science behind autism?

The Autism Science Foundation is an autism organization that is committed to helping autistic individuals by funding important autism research, and they also stand firm in their support of science.  In contrast, their website prominently features an extensive compilation of resources that clearly debunk the claim that vaccines cause autism.

If you care at all about autism research, then I urge you to take action.  Contact Autism Speaks President, Liz Feld, and request that the organization fully retract their previous position that vaccines play a role in autism spectrum disorders.  Suggest that they take responsibility for perpetuating a myth that has helped fuel various outbreaks of deadly vaccine preventable diseases.  And ask Ms. Feld herself to prominently announce their position that vaccines do not cause autism.

You can send letters to:  

Liz Feld, President

Autism Speaks

1 East 33rd Street, 4th Floor

New York, NY 10016 

or email familyservices@autismspeaks.org  

And don’t forget to share your message on social media, by suggesting that #AutismSpeaksTooLate, #AutismSpeaksTooSoftly and suggesting that Autism Speaks should #ShoutOutVaccinesAreSafe!  


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