Autism vaccination theories have their origins in longstanding fears of what vaccinations are, how they work, and ideological concerns about mandatory medical interventions. Coupled with the changing understanding of what causes autism, anti-vaccination theories have been pounced on by disgraced researchers and politicians.
These theories have been strongly and repeatedly debunked.
The Roots of Vaccine Skepticism
Pacific Standard magazine writes that vaccine opposition and skepticism existed long before the conspiracy theory that connected vaccines to autism. Even as scientific and statistical evidence emerged that vaccination was an effective method of preventing diseases — so much that the science of vaccinating is held as one of the greatest contributions to global health, all but eliminating mortality from smallpox, measles, and polio — “opposition has never been fully eradicated.” As recently as 2019, the BBC noted that public distrust in vaccines was dangerously low.
Why do people distrust vaccines? Over the years, some have expressed disbelief that the controlled exposure to a disease could provide protection from it. Others used religious reasons to reject vaccinations. Many more have felt that mandatory vaccinations were an infringement on their personal liberties, especially when it came to local governments requiring that children get vaccinated over the objections of their parents.
‘Alternative’ Theories on Autism’s Origins
Autism’s discovery is fairly recent. It was only first discovered in the 1940s, and the understanding and definition of autism, and its spectrum of disorders has been updated many times.
Initially, researchers thought autism developed because of unemotional and neglectful parenting by mothers. This reaction from mothers might have been because raising a child with autism causes maternal stress and not the other way around.
In the middle of the 20th century, the thinking had changed. A biologist who had an autistic child introduced the idea that it was biology, not psychology or parenting, that caused autism.
Since then, the understanding of autism has changed again, with scientists agreeing that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetics, environment, and other unknown factors.
Even with this understanding, autism is hard to pin down and manage. This has led to the rise of “alternative” theories of autism, with parents, researchers and other well-meaning people (and some bad faith actors) looking outside the mainstream to find reasons, explanations, and even cures for autism. Sometimes, this movement was driven by genuine frustration with the slow development in autism research, treatment, and therapy. In other cases, people were working from pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
Believing in an Epidemic
Parents began to form advocacy groups to push for reform in autism treatment and therapy services. It was from this group, says a medical professional at Duke University School of Medicine talking to Pacific Standard, “and not the medical or educational professions,” that misconceptions about autism and skepticism toward established schools of thought on the matter grew. Frustration boiled over into accusations that there was an “epidemic” of autism, caused by children being exposed (perhaps deliberately) to a catalyst.
The understandable fears that many parents had about autism connected perfectly with the fringe anti-vaccination movement.
The Cutter Incident
A seminal event in the development of autism vaccination theories was the Cutter incident. In 1955, Cutter Laboratories in California produced a vaccine for polio that contained a live, active form of the polio virus. As many as 200,000 children across the West Coast were given the vaccine, which was later discovered to be defective. By then, 40,000 of the children actually developed polio, 200 developed permanent paralysis, and 10 children died.
In 1982, an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., aired a documentary entitled Vaccine Roulette, which showed grieving parents explaining how a mandatory vaccine had left their children in “near-comatose states.” The documentary also had quotes from researchers who accused the “medical establishment” of “aggressively promoting” a vaccine that intentionally overlooked “consequences.”
The Rise of the Anti-Vaccination Movement
The documentary won numerous awards, but it was criticized by scientific and medical experts for using inaccurate statistics, unreliable experts, and questionable editing and narrative methods. However, by the mid-1980s, the anti-vaccination movement was enjoying its first significant victory.
By the end of that decade and the start of the 1990s, parents and anti-vaccination advocates had turned more attention to autism, partly driven by a rise in the prevalence rate of the disorder. The rise was likely due to a better clinical understanding of the definition, allowing doctors to recognize more symptoms of the disorder. For anti-vaccination activists and parents who were positive that something was amiss, the rising rates were a sign of a conspiracy.
Andrew Wakefield & the Autism Vaccination Theory
In 1998, The Lancet journal published an article by Andrew Wakefield, a British researcher. In the article, Wakefield and 12 colleagues presented the results of a study they conducted that showed a connection between a normal MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism.
The study was small — the sample size was just 12 — and the researchers drew unverifiable conclusions. Wakefield, however, went on the attack, doing press conferences and appearing on media programming to challenge the practice of vaccinating children, which he framed as a “moral issue.”
In 2000, a former Republican Congressman from Indiana named Dan Burton, who had claimed that vaccines led to his grandson developing autism, convened a congressional hearing to ask the Department of Health and Human Services to examine Wakefield’s study. This was picked up by The New York Times. The quest for “balanced coverage,” writes the Columbia Journalism Review, added fuel to the fire of the anti-vaccination movement and increased skepticism of the mainstream medical community.
Later that year, Wakefield appeared on American television and said that vaccines were responsible for “an epidemic of autism,” echoing the talking points that had been put forward by anti-vaccination advocates.
Public health officials all over the world reported an alarming drop in the rates of MMR vaccinations, as frightened parents refused to let their children be vaccinated. Horror stories of children “becoming” autistic after being vaccinated were also spread by celebrities and politicians, whose words were echoed by the anti-vaccination advocates.
A Conspiracy Unraveled
The intense scrutiny led the editors of The Lancet to re-examine Wakefield’s study. In doing so, they found out that Wakefield’s research was funded by attorneys for parents who had filed lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Additionally, the article had misreported many elements in the original study, including the symptoms experienced by some of the children (on which the conclusions of the article were based).
Wakefield was investigated by the UK General Medical Council, the public body responsible for maintaining the official register of medical practitioners in that country. It charged him with dishonest and professional misconduct.
In 2010, the council declared him guilty of professional misconduct, bringing the medical profession into disrepute, and for acting with “callous disregard” for the safety of the children in his study. He was struck from the UK’s medical register, effectively stripping him of his medical license and revoking his right to practice medicine. Wakefield denied the charges and insisted that he was, and still is, a victim of persecution by the medical authorities in the United Kingdom.
No Harmful Association Between Vaccines & Autism
In February 2010, The Lancet officially retracted Wakefield’s article. The following year, the British Medical Journal conducted its own investigation, discovering that some children in the study didn’t even have autism. Others who were listed in the study as having no issues before receiving the vaccine did, in fact, have pre-existing developmental issues.
The controversy led to dozens of other studies to determine whether vaccines truly did cause autism. Over many years, in medical journals across the world, the conclusions were consistent and positive. There is no known, established, scientific, or reliable link between autism and vaccines. The theory of vaccinations causing autism is completely false.
One of those studies was published as recently as 2015 in the JAMA journal. Researchers worked with 96,000 children, looking at which ones received the MMR vaccine and which ones went on to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The end result was that there was “no harmful association” between the two events.
Further back, the New England Journal of Medicine published its own study in 2002. In that piece, 500,000 children in Denmark’s health registry were examined for neurodevelopmental delays after receiving vaccines. Researchers concluded their piece by saying the study “provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism.”
Autism & Vaccination Theories Today
Despite the overwhelming body of evidence, autism vaccination theories still persist at the highest levels of public policy. In 2015, Donald Trump, then a candidate for president of the United States, repeated a claim that he had made in 2012 of a young child who became autistic after receiving “a monster shot.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, is a prominent vaccine skeptic, falsely claiming that vaccines are both dangerous and unregulated. These points have been methodically refuted by STAT News, among other organizations and even members of Kennedy’s own family. Kennedy himself insists that he is not a so-called “anti-vaxxer,” but instead “advocates against regulatory corruption and in favor of safer immunizations.”
Nonetheless, Kennedy has funded more anti-vaccination ads than anyone else has on Facebook. One of the groups that ran Kennedy’s ads is called Stop Mandatory Vaccination, a for-profit venture that also posts false and sensationalized “fake news” about vaccines risks and autism, such as claiming that the medical community is “covering up the slaughter of children.”
One of the ads run by the group was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom for being misleading and unsubstantiated. The owner of the group was banned from GoFundMe for “promoting misinformation about vaccines.”
Vaccination Theories & COVID-19
The anti-vaccination drive has even extended to the COVID-19 pandemic, with public health experts warning that activists will use social media to spread rumors about the ineffectiveness or outright harmfulness of a vaccine for coronavirus.
Leading that charge is Andrew Wakefield, who spoke at an online event in May 2020 with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Both traded in conspiracy theories and accusations that the COVID-19 pandemic was being used by governments to force mandatory vaccines. Again, these claims are unsubstantiated and without merit.
Notwithstanding that Wakefield’s research was widely discredited, that Kennedy has received stringent criticism for his vaccine skepticism, and that research as recently as 2019 has found that autism vaccination theories are baseless, the organizer of the virtual event at which they both spoke said more than 30,000 people had signed up to attend.
At these anti-vaccinations events, speakers are rarely asked to provide evidence supporting their statements. They make bold accusations without research to back them.
Why These Myths Persist
Social media is largely responsible for the proliferation of these myths. Memes are easy to share, and it’s easy to distort the truth in soundbites. Videos are edited to be misleading, and they are widely shared before they are fact-checked or taken down.
Desperate parents are eager to find a single cause to blame for their child’s struggles. If they can point toward vaccinations, they have a simple answer versus the complex truth that there are many potential causes of autism spectrum disorder, many of which are still unknown.
Raising a child with autism is filled with a world of unknowns. Parents don’t know what the future holds for their child, how their symptoms will worsen or improve in time, or the level of independence their child will be able to gain in adulthood. In a world of uncertainty, conspiracy theories offer a single source at which to point anger and blame. Unfortunately, these theories are all baseless, preying on parents’ fears and providing little substance.
The origins of autism vaccination theories are based in junk science, and medical experts are in consensus on this. As research into autism continues, we’ll learn more about the causes of autism as well as the steps we can take to prevent and treat it more effectively.
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