Does The Cause Of Autism Really Matter?

Disclaimer-this post may come across as controversial to some. I know, for some parents whose children have just been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, finding out what may have caused their child’s condition is important to them as a key to understanding how autism works. It is not my intention to cause offence to anyone but this post contains my personal views which will, of course, differ from some peoples.

As someone with Aspergers Syndrome, I keep up to date with autism research. As such, I have read lots of articles querying the cause of autism. Over the years, the speculation about the factors that cause someone to be autistic have changed. Initially, in the 1960s and 1970s, the “refrigerator mother” theory was common. The speculation was that autism was caused by mothers not being affectionate enough so the children never learned how to display affection. This is, of course, an outrageously inaccurate and now discredited theory that caused emotional distress to lots of families who wrongly believed that they were to blame for their child’s autism. Not much was known about the condition at the time-if it was, professionals would have realised that children with autism can be and often are very affectionate in their own ways, which often differ from how neurotypical children display affection.

Then, in the 1990s, the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) injection became the scapegoat for the rise in autism diagnoses during this decade. The doctor who carried out the research study claiming to show a link between the MMR jab being given and the child developing autism in the days and weeks following this has now been struck off and the research has been discredited but the belief that the MMR jab causes autism is still common and is a very damaging one. Now that parents are so worried about their child developing autism that they are turning the MMR jab down and either opting for single immunisations or not vaccinating their children at all, cases of measles in particular have increased hugely over the past few years. Measles, of course, brings its own set of life changing effects if not treated promptly-blindness, deafness, neurological damage and, of course, death. Yet so many parents refuse the MMR jab because they are terrified that their child will end up autistic, even if the brain damage that their child risks through a measles infection will be more damaging to that child’s life than autism would (if autism was caused by the MMR, which I don’t believe). There is one main reason why I don’t believe that autism is caused by the MMR. Autism is something that an individual is born with. It may not be immediately apparent and, indeed, one of the reasons why the MMR is suspected in lots of autism cases is because it only becomes apparent in some children when they reach the age of 18 months to 2 years, which coincides with the timing of MMR jabs. The reason why it only becomes apparent in some cases at this age is because this is the period of development where social skills and play skills really start developing, the skills that people with autism struggle with. However, I have come across parents online who, looking back after an autism diagnosis, will recognise symptoms of autism in their child when that child was less than a year old, long before the MMR jab was given. There is a rare condition on the autism spectrum referred to as Childhood Disintegrative Disorder or Heller’s Syndrome where individuals go through a period of typical development in their early years and then suddenly lose the majority of skills they have learned and regress noticeably.
I think that the majority of children whose parents believe that the MMR caused their autism probably have this variant of autism and the loss of skills coincides with the MMR jab being given. This is not to deny that, in some children, reactions to vaccines can be severe and can cause life changing effects-I just don’t think autism is among those. It is very easy, when dealing with a condition as complex as autism in all its various forms, to put the blame on one particular thing. I know there are people reading this who will disagree with me on this and believe whole heartedly that the MMR vaccine was responsible for triggering their child’s autism but I don’t personally have faith in that theory. Vaccine damage can occur but who knows if that child or those children would have been autistic anyway?

Skip forward to the current day and there are a myriad of suspected factors in autism development. The following news articles are just a few with different ideas of what could be behind the rise in autism diagnosis.

One point I really want to make is this-does what causes an individual’s autism really matter? My belief, backed up with my own research, is that autism and all its variants are primarily genetic, hence why we are neurologically hardwired in a certain way. I believe the cause behind most of the traits of autism is our sensory processing differences. Most of the behaviours and problems with social skills can be traced back to the unique way in which we process information. I do think that, with certain individuals, there are also environmental factors that combine with the genetic factors to result in autism-a traumatic birth or repeated infections in infancy. However, I also think that there are a lot of individuals with brain damage who display traits that are so similar to autism that their condition gets diagnosed as autism. It is important to remember also that, in lots of cases, autism is a symptom of an underlying condition rather than someone’s main diagnosis. Really, does it matter what may have caused somebody’s autism? It cannot be changed so focus on the positives and learn from your child’s autism-they can teach you a lot. What matters is that everyone on the spectrum receives the support and understanding they need in order to fulfill their potential and be happy, regardless of what is behind their autism, which is likely so varied that it is different in each individual. I am not putting down the research as I know a lot of time and effort went into it but sometimes we need to forget the science and just focus on the fantastic individual who needs your understanding.


4 Responses to Does The Cause Of Autism Really Matter?

  1. Very good steph. I think it’s genetics and your born with it too but I think the quest to know what caused it is to do with removing it and also preventing it in the first place. It would be nice to know because I’m not sure whether I would want my future children to have it and go through what I went through as society doesn’t change much. I wouldn’t want to change myself.

  2. Steph this is an excellent post. I’m sorry to comment using my personal account here, but would it be possible for me to reprint this in our autism Mag ASDigest, and perhaps have you consider writing for us? We are written and produced solely by people on the spectrum for a readership on the spectrum. Please email me for a bit of a chat about it I’m at x

    The magazine is at

    • sjmarsh2013 says:

      Hello. Thank you so much for your comment and your interest. I have emailed you on that address to discuss writing further articles for you. I look forward to hearing from you 🙂

  3. maximusaurus says:

    As someone with autism, I’m happy with the way I am and wouldn’t want my life any other way.

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