Anecdote Doesn’t Make it So: Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism

A parent recently responded to a piece of mine in which I stated the common scientific-based position that our current understanding is that autism is primarily genetic in nature, with in-utero trauma contributing (Coleman, 2005) saying that her husband and two of her children were on the autism spectrum, but she just knew that it was the vaccines. Out of the hundreds and thousands of comments I’ve read over the last year at places like Age of Autism and Huffington Post, it was fairly innocuous as comments go; there was no foaming at the mouth, just that curious lack of connecting the dots. Perhaps one reason why a small minority of parents believes the vaccine link is because they’ve been exposed to it. Gilbert et al. (1993) note that “people are prone to believe experimentally presented assertions for which there is no supporting evidence.”

In 2004, the IOM released its eighth and final report regarding vaccines and autism, a 215 page report available online for free. The members of the committee looked at all the research up to that date, including that evidence provided by those arguing that there is a link, and yet somehow managed to conclude that there was no evidence of a link. None. At all. Those who are adamant in their beliefs regarding vaccines have argued that the IOM report was a foregone conclusion and proof that the government and big pharma are in collusion. There is no way to reach individuals who have already decided they know. A common cry from that group is that thousands of parents can’t be wrong. Psychological research clearly shows that, yes, thousands of people can be wrong, that memories can be altered, that groupthink polarizes people into positions they did not originally hold when joining the group. The vast echo chambers of organizations and groups holding fast to the vaccine link take their readership further down the woo-trail each post, each comment, each day.

There is a clear body of scientific evidence showing no connection between autism and vaccines. The IOM states: “The committee concludes that the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. The committee also concludes that the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. The committee further finds that potential biological mechanisms for vaccine-induced autism that have been generated to date are theoretical only” (1).

For reasonable people, scientific consensus is usually enough. For reasonable people, conspiracies do not abound. Unfortunately, we are a nation which poorly equips our citizens to think and assess critically. Our best research, in most fields, does not disseminate down to the public, and often not even to the clinicians in the respective fields. The disparity between what scientists know and understand of the world and what the average person does grows exponentially. Even worse, though, is that knowledge is growing with such leaps and bounds that it becomes further compartmentalized even from those within the same field. It has become impossible to be a generalist, and almost as hard to be a specialist.

This reality makes it understandable that the average citizen does not have the tools to assess claims for validity, and it makes one especially vulnerable to glowing testimonials or heart-wrenching anecdotes. Who wants to dismiss a moving tale of a child suffering a terrible side effect that renders them autistic overnight? If we are moved by scientific evidence, if we are armed with our ability to manufacture memories of events that never happened, then we must be critical of such claims. Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. This is the case here, as well. Vaccines save lives; there is abundant evidence of this. There is no credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. To refuse protection against diseases that once crippled, maimed, and killed thousands of people each year out of a misguided fear of autism is the height of foolishness and must be countered.

As a parent to three children on the spectrum, I understand wanting a child to fulfill all of the things loving parents want for their children. I know firsthand the pain of watching your child's peers pass them by. I have felt the heartache as each milestone is missed, as the years slip by and the progress does not come. I know and fully understand the pain involved with being the parent of an adult child whose disabilities preclude him from achieving independence and all of the adult milestones we wish for our children. I know the fear parents feels regarding their child's future. Who will be there to care for my child when I can no longer do so? Fear makes us act foolishly. We must review the evidence dispassionately. We must make our decisions regarding our children’s medical needs from a position of reason. We must critically evaluate claims. If it’s too good to be true, it is. If thousands of parents say it is so because they saw it with their own eyes, don’t forget that thousands of people believe they’ve been abducted by aliens.

You have a choice as a parent to a child/children with a disability/issues (whatever terminology offends the least): you can deal with it adaptively and allow yourself and your children to make good, productive happy lives despite the limitations, or you can rage, rail, and be miserable and make your child miserable. Really. 

You can be a victim, make your child a victim, act like a martyr and be miserable, making those around you miserable. Or you can choose differently. You can choose to find the beauty that is there in every moment, even the literally shitty ones. You can make the best and teach your child(ren) that obstacles and hurdles are things to be overcome, that perseverance and grace are things that can be found even when you are unbearably weary of the road you are on. You can teach them that shit happens, but it doesn't have to ruin their lives. It doesn't have to stop them from reaching their potential or you your potential.

Stay in the woo or come into the light. Stay in the anger or leave it behind. I'm all for fighting the good fight, but make damn certain it's the right fight.


Coleman, M. (2005). The Neurobiology of Autism. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2005.

Gilbert, D. T., Tafarodi, R. W., & Malone, P. S. (1993). You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  65: 2, 221-233.

IOM. (2004). Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10997#description)


"Grendel" said...

Hear, hear.

What more is there that needs to be said!

Clay said...

@ KWombles - Not arguing any of your well-crafted points, but here's an example of one of the things the Navy "did to me" in Boot Camp.

I was told to buff a large, long hallway. They didn't say how to operate the buffer, except just to squeeze the handles there. The first effort usually results in the buffer going wild, slipping from the operator's hands, and crossing the floor while spinning wildly out of control. The thing is a powerful handful.

By trial and error, one learns to lift or push down the main handle of the buffer to control it's going left or right, while slowly walking backwards. One can quickly "get the hang" of it, and start to feel like an old hand at it, building self-esteem.

Something like that could be adapted to other things.