Autism Anger

by Theresa Spranger, Bioethics Program Alumna (MSBioethics 2012)

This week I read an article on about a possible link between air pollution and autism.  The article itself didn’t peak my interest as much as the comments.  There were over 200 comments and almost all of them were emotionally charged.  This didn’t surprise me exactly, but made me realize again how passionate people are about finding the cause of autism.

Over the years the rise in autism cases has been blamed on vaccinations, fluoride, GMOs in food, and now pollution.  Vaccination is probably the best known theory of autism cause and has been given a lot of press by Jenny McCarthy.  Ms. McCarthy is the mother of an autistic child; she is joined in her fight by many parents of autistic children.  Their passion is understandable; they love their children and want to know what caused the disease, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.

Autism affects about 1% of children in the United States, or about 1 in 88 births.  It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that not all cases are of the same severity.  The number of autism cases has risen over the last several years and continues to rise.  The facts listed here were obtained from The Autism Society.

An interesting chart on the increase of Autism cases over time can be found on the Autism Speaks Official Blog.  The chart begins tracking autism cases in 1975 at 1 in 5,000 children and ends in 2009 at 1 in 110 children.  This rise has been at least partially attributed to better techniques for diagnosing cases of autism, meaning we are catching more cases than ever before.  Also, because of earlier and earlier diagnosis there is the possibility of over-diagnosing, meaning children who do not truly suffer from the disorder would be categorized as autistic.  The increase could also, of course, be caused by a true rise in the number of autism cases over the years.

I understand that parents of autistic children are passionate about finding the true cause and a cure for the disorder.  What I have difficulty understanding is the anger expressed in the Bloomberg article comments, some of them are obnoxious and downright cruel.

The possible connection to pollution is a correlative relationship and therefore more research needs to be done to confirm a connection.  The suggestion of pollution as a cause of autism is substantiated by the same type of evidence as vaccinations or fluoride: correlative evidence.  In other words, we need to do more research to know the truth in any of these areas.

So, why isn’t correlative evidence good enough?  A correlation takes two independent events and finds a potential relationship in real world scenarios.  This cannot be considered true scientific proof because the events have not been isolated in the study.  Does this mean that a correlative study is useless?  Certainly not!  Events that seem to correlate in the real world should point us toward future research.  Potential correlations should cause researchers to design studies to prove or disprove the correlation scientifically.

In my opinion, we should be actively designing scientific trials to answer the questions of autism relationship to vaccinations, pollution, fluoride, and any other potential cause supported by a real world correlation.

I think that much of the anger coming from the public stems from the idea that vaccinations are to blame for the increase in autism cases.  Remember, that studies supporting this idea are merely correlative at this point and more extensive research would need to be done to prove this hypothesis.

The anger is deepened for some because it is felt that the research funded by the government on vaccination safety has not been enough.  To this I say, “Do it yourself if you think you can do better.”  I don’t say this at all flippantly or sarcastically, I believe very strongly in privately funded research projects and encourage doctors to design trials and concerned citizens to fundraise and pay for these trials.  If you could present me with a solid study to prove whether or not vaccinations play a role in autism cases I would lighten my wallet for you and I am sure you would find parents willing to allow their children to be in the trial as well.  It’s a common theme I see lately in this country of too much complaining and not enough creativity.  Stop crying that “it isn’t fair” and put your energy into positive discovery.

When speaking of vaccinations however, one must also remember how vital they are to our society.  Childhood vaccinations have decreased child deaths by an incredible amount and we have all but eliminated some terrible diseases like Polio.  The good they have done cannot be thrown away because of correlative evidence possibly linking them to autism.

Anger in this issue is not one sided however, some strong advocates for vaccination are downright unwilling to admit that those vaccinations could have side effects.  It is suspected that vaccination side effects are under reported and under studied because of this bias and the idea that the benefit vaccination has brought to our society outweighs any and all potential risks..  This mindset only proves to increase the conspiracy theories about autism and vaccination however.  It’s a vicious circle.  In my opinion, strong supporters on both sides need to take a breath, step back, and be rational.

We spend too much time arguing with emotion instead of fact.  We need to start putting our money and energy into finding information rather than shooting down ideas.  We are in an age of INCREDIBLE technology and ability; there is almost no question we cannot answer.  Let’s stop name calling and tap into some of that potential.

[This blog entry was originally posted in a slightly edited form on Ms. Spranger’s blog on June 22, 2013. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]