My thoughts on the autism and vaccination debate

Firstly, apologies for not having posted in a while. I am getting married next Saturday and my mind has been pretty occupied with that. I’ve also been very busy at work recently. As a consequence, my blog has been a little neglected but I decided it was definitely due an update.

This is a topic I have debated very seriously over whether to cover in this blog. I tend to shy away from confrontation and this topic is one which tends to lend itself to confrontation. However, I do believe it is a topic that needs discussion and I am going to do my best to write as articulate a post as I can surrounding this issue.

I have been a member of several Aspergers groups on Facebook ever since I first joined back in 2007. Every couple of weeks, someone will post an article claiming that autism and vaccines, in particular the MMR vaccine, are linked and that autism is essentially vaccine damage. Since the release of the documentary film Vaxxed, which features the now discredited research by Doctor Wakefield on the links between the MMR vaccine and autism, these links to articles have become a lot more frequent.

Now let me start off by clarifying that I do believe that there are some children and indeed some adults who are sensitive to vaccinations. Everybody’s immune system is individual and what might cause simply a sore arm in one person can lead to fevers and indeed lasting physical or neurological issues, such as what has been happening in some cases with the cervical cancer vaccine. However, I do not believe that vaccines and autism are linked for two primary reasons.

Firstly, it is now pretty much universally accepted that autism has a significant genetic component. Environmental triggers are almost certainly implicated too but these almost certainly happen in utero. Autism is a neurological condition. It affects the brain’s wiring. Our brains have always been autistic-an autistic person is born autistic and dies autistic. It’s a cradle to grave condition. It may appear obvious at different stages of a person’s life-someone with classic autism may start displaying stereotypical autistic behaviours at the age of 18 months whereas people on the Aspergers end of the spectrum can go undetected without a diagnosis well into adulthood. However, pretty much every parent of someone on the spectrum I have come across, whether through my work or my interactions in the autistic community online, realised very early on that their baby was different. I had my vision checked when I was still in hospital as my mother was concerned that I may be blind because I wasn’t focusing on her face. Proof that my aversion to eye contact was present from birth. I have lost count of the number of posts online I have read from relieved parents who have finally received a long awaited and fought for diagnosis where they mention that they were aware from when their child was just weeks old that there was something different about them. The crucial thing is that these subtle signs of autism are present before the age at which the MMR is given. There are also autistic people who have never been vaccinated.

Secondly autism has always been around. Diagnosis rates are higher now but that’s mainly because the medical profession are becoming so much more aware of the spectrum. Until relatively recently, most people with severe learning disabilities who were also autistic did not have their autism recognised because it was assumed that their learning disabilities were the cause of any other symptoms they were displaying. On the other end of the spectrum, people with Aspergers were often just viewed as pedantic geeks or nerds whose problems with social interactions were simply a result of being so academically minded. In the past 20 or so years, it has been recognised that autism encompasses a far wider spectrum than previously thought and people on both ends of the spectrum who may not have received a diagnosis 20 years ago are now receiving them. That doesn’t mean that the increase is down to the MMR vaccine particularly as a lot of adults receiving late diagnoses did not have the MMR as children because it hadn’t been invented back then.

There is a rare condition called Childhood Disintegrative Disorder which is considered by many to be on the autistic spectrum. This differs from the other autistic conditions because, in this condition, there is a period of regression and loss of skills at the age of around 18 months to 2 years. I believe that most cases where the MMR vaccine is blamed for autism are probably cases of CDD. Because the MMR is given at the same age, it is easy to assume that the 2 are linked but the regression would have taken place anyway even without the vaccine. Another important thing to take into account is that the social skills impacted by autism are only seen to be impaired when it comes to the age where other children use them, in play with toys and play with other children. Again, this usually coincides with the age where the MMR vaccine is given.

I can understand the need by parents to have a firm answer as to what has caused their child’s autism. From their point of view, they have just been given a diagnosis which is massive and has lifelong consequences. To then be told that the professionals can’t pinpoint why your child is autistic must be devastating. Humans love answers and there isn’t any with autism. However, this doesn’t mean that the vaccine is to blame. The danger of course is that a significant number of people are so scared that vaccines might cause autism that they refuse to vaccinate their children. Consider how this makes people on the spectrum feel. To say that you would rather your child catch an illness that can be fatal rather than risk autism is basically saying that autism is a fate worse than death, which is not true and deeply hurtful to everyone living with autism on a daily basis. Refusing vaccination also has a significant impact on immunosuppressed individuals for whom a relatively minor illness can cause serious complications that could be fatal.

Of course, whether or not to vaccinate your child is entirely the decision of the parent. I would just hate to think that fear of autism was behind refusal of vaccinations which can have serious consequences. Autism is a hard condition to live with but it’s not something that people should fear to such an extent that they are willing to put their kid’s lives at risk. What we should really be asking is why is autism seen as a fate worse than death and what should we, as a society, be doing to change that? I’ll leave you all with that thought.