Efforts to Support Autism Awareness Often Derailed by Vaccine Critics
The fact is that I’m not autistic and I do not have an autistic child. Therefore, I’m often reluctant to speak out on the subject of autism. This is not because I don’t support the autism community – I most certainly do! But because I don’t consider myself part of the inner circle of the autism community.
The way I see it, this inner circle is reserved for individuals with autism, as well as the family members, educators, therapists, researchers, and caregivers that support those living with autism. And I would never want to presume to know what they need. However, I listen intently to their calls for action, and hope to help them in overcoming their challenges by offering funds and support.
From my “outsider’s” point of view, autism awareness is about understanding, acceptance, inclusion, improved quality of life, and better support and resources for autistic individuals and those who assist them. I believe every individual deserves the opportunity to lead a full, healthy and meaningful life. But then again, who am I to define what constitutes a full, healthy and meaningful life? When it comes to autism, I believe that research is critical in helping to understand how best to assist autistic individuals and their families, and not hinder or restrict them in any way.
When I investigate the extensive research that is being conducted on the subject of autism, it is truly awe-inspiring. There is so much we have learned, and yet, still so much to understand and discover. Research is beginning to reveal various genetic factors that appear to contribute to autism. We continue to learn about early interventions and successful treatments. And we’ve spent an enormous amount of resources investigating a potential link between vaccines and autism.
To address concerns that maybe childhood vaccines were contributing to the rise in autism, multiple studies were conducted to look at children who received vaccines in comparison to those who didn’t, and in comparison to those who received them on a different or slower schedule. There were even studies that looked into specific vaccines, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination (MMR), as well as research into vaccine ingredients such as a preservative know as thimerosal.
The results of all these studies were clear and experts agree; there is no relation between vaccines and autism. But despite the scientific evidence, suggestions that vaccines are a cause of autism continue to appear within comments on this blog, comments on our Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page, and on countless sites all over the internet.
Today, as I perused various social media platforms on World Autism Awareness Day, I noted the ways people were “talking” about autism, and I was saddened to see that some people who are speaking on behalf of the autism community are also actively encouraging vaccine refusal.
Unfortunately, this dialogue is more hurtful than helpful. Unvaccinated children are suffering with preventable diseases and sometimes even spreading dangerous diseases to others. To add insult to injury, one of the most well-known autism advocacy organizations in the U.S. (Autism Speaks) continues to send mixed messages about their position on the subject of vaccines and autism.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that suggested that #AutismSpeaksTooLate on the subject of vaccines.
It’s no secret that Autism Speaks has continually made statements that seemingly perpetuate the idea of a vaccine/autism link. For instance, their Strategic Plan for Science, which outlines the group’s priorities for the years 2013 to 2017, also makes similar suggestions of a causal relationship 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.’
But then surprisingly, and without reason (other than the increased media attention on the recent U.S. measles outbreak that was linked to a growing refusal of the MMR vaccine), 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
While many applauded their new-found appreciation of science, I questioned what may have inspired their Chief Science Officer to revise their public statement on immunizations. Especially since there were no announcements of new research data that might have precipitated such a change of conviction. Nonetheless, there was hope.
Then, just last week, Autism Speak’s co-founder Bob Wright issued the following statement:
“Over the last two decades extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccines and autism. Scientific research has not directly connected autism to vaccines. Vaccines are very important. Parents must make the decision whether to vaccinate their children. Efforts must be continually made to educate parents about vaccine safety. If parents decide not to vaccinate they must be aware of the consequences in their community and their local schools.”
Co-founder, Autism Speaks
On first glance this statement may seem acceptable. Some may even believe that it reinforces what their Chief Scientific Officer had said weeks before. But, on closer examination, it appears that Bob Wright may have been trying to back-pedal.
Scientific research conducted by experts worldwide shows no evidence of a connection between vaccines and autism. In fact, more and more research points to a genetic link to autism that is known to develop well before children are exposed to vaccines. While Wright’s statement does not say vaccine cause autism, it doesn’t come out and say that vaccines DON’T cause autism either.
Wright also suggests that parents must be educated about vaccine safety and make their own decisions. But why doesn’t he simply suggest parents follow the advise of experts who agree that vaccines are not linked to autism. Why wouldn’t he want to encourage vaccination so that we could ultimately spare children from dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases. Instead, Wright is essentially saying that it is entirely acceptable for parents to decide not to vaccinate their children and in doing so place their own children in serious danger – not to mention subjecting others to diseases as well, including their child’s classmates, those too young to be vaccinated, and medically fragile people who live in their own communities.
Here’s a simple analogy to ponder: Drunk driving laws are designed to protect the innocent. Your right to drive drunk is trumped by my right to live. But why are vaccines any different? It is socially accepted that a person can be arrested for driving under the influence, even if they haven’t injured another person. Similarly, vaccination is deemed a societal responsibility, that protects the public, much like driving sober. If I were to drive drunk, my government issued drivers license can be revoked. However, if I don’t vaccinate my child should my right to send them to a government-funded public school also be revoked?
It’s unfortunate that Autism Speaks is failing to use it’s influence to really make a positive impact on the issue of vaccines and autism.
While I may not be able to speak as the parent of an autistic child, I have heard from countless parents of autistic children who are also vocal supporters of childhood immunizations. I believe that we all have a vested interest in autism awareness because we’re all touched by the prevalence of autism in our society in some way – whether it’s within our own families, or within our communities. But we also have a vested interest in immunizations. This is why I will continue to support autism organizations, such as the Autism Science Foundation, which adhere to rigorous scientific standards and values that will not only help improve the lives of those living with autism, but will also help protect our children from vaccine preventable diseases.