What causes autism – real science says it is not vaccines

what causes autism

Real science has shown us that vaccines are unrelated to autism. Over a hundred peer-reviewed published studies refute the hypothesis that vaccines are linked to autism spectrum disorders (ASD). And despite the pseudoscience pushed by vaccine deniers, the scientific consensus is that vaccines do not cause autism. So, what causes autism? That’s a question that has not been completely answered, but we have a lot of evidence supporting a few hypotheses.

There have been a whole bunch of proposed causes for autism, other than vaccines. GMOs. Pesticides. Emily Willingham, Ph.D., whom I consider to be one of the leading ASD scientific experts on this planet, wrote a hysterical, but still appropriate, article about all the popular “causes” of autism:

This last week or so, every day seemed to bring a new finding about something linked to autism. I blogged one of them — diabetes — but who really would have the wherewithal to follow the growing list of factors linked to autism? I guess I would because below, I give you that very list, including current pop hits and some blasts from the past, with some brief commentary. Without further ado — The ever-changing face of autism — or, as some have wisely suggested we call it — the autisms.

What causes autism is a question that does not have “vaccines” as the answer. And despite all of the memes, Facebook groups, and nonsense pushed by pseudoscience websites, like Age of Autism, science actually has a pretty good idea about what causes autism. And let me repeat it once more, it isn’t vaccines.

 

What is autism spectrum disorder

I’m not going to go into all the details about ASD diagnosis, symptoms and treatments – that would take up a book. But, I will spend a bit of time defining what constitutes autism spectrum disorder. ASD is a range of different conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders in DSM-5. However, individuals diagnosed with ASD must present with two general symptoms:

  • Deficits in social interaction and communication
  • Repetitive and restricted patterns of behavior interests or activities

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndromepervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder. All of these disorders include the following features – social deficits, communications difficulties, repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory issues, and, occasionally, cognitive delays.

Furthermore, there is a range of symptoms from minor to severe, with each person with ASD expressing it in an almost infinite variety of symptoms and severity. Although ASD is considered “incurable,” it is not a sentence of a mental prison for the patient. The lay public tends to box ASD children into one small stereotype, like people do with most mental health disorders, despite the fact that there is huge variability in how a child expresses ASD.

There is a variety of evidence-based interventions for autistic children. Many of the methods employ a psychoeducational approach to enhance cognitive, communication, behavioral, and social skills. There is no one single treatment that is best for all children with ASD, so treatment is typically adjusted to meet the needs of the child.

Although evidence-based interventions for autistic children vary in their methods, many adopt a psychoeducational approach to enhancing cognitive, communication, and social skills while minimizing problem behaviors. It has been argued that no single treatment is best and treatment is typically tailored to the child’s needs.

I think the most important thing to note about ASD is that it is a complex disorder with a wide range of symptoms. It’s not a “death sentence” for either the parents or child, despite what you may have heard on the internet.

 

What causes autism – genetics

The best evidence we have is that ASD is a genetic disorder. Researchers first recognized genetics as the foundation of ASD in the 1970s. Studies on twins showed that monozygotic twins (genetically identical) were more likely to share a diagnosis of ASD than dizygotic (non-identical) twins. That is a strong indicator of a genetic relationship to ASD.

More recently, a large population study, which included over 7,000 pairs of twins, provided further evidence of a genetic link for ASD. The authors concluded that,

Genetic factors underpinning individual differences in autism like traits show considerable overlap with genetic influences on diagnosed ASD.

Studies have consistently found that the prevalence of autism in siblings of autistic children is approximately 15-30 times greater than the rate in the general population. Based on all of this supporting evidence, researchers have come to deduced that shared genetic variants in families are probably more important than shared environments for triggering ASD in children.

Actually, there have been over 100 genes that have been identified to be linked to ASD. That’s more linkage to genetics than other common health problems that are known to have links to genetics like cardiovascular diseases or some cancers.

The big question that remains is how do these genes affect the brain that leads to ASD. Research is moving to examining those gene mutations that increases (or decreases) the risk of developing ASD.

I know that there is a tendency to want to blame something for ASD. It’s a hard realization that ASD is related to one’s genes that they pass on to their children. But there’s no blame there – it’s how genes randomly combine to form your child.

 

What causes autism – exposure to infections and medications during pregnancy

Let’s be clear – not everyone with the genes discussed above has ASD. Because mutations to genes alone may not be solely responsible for ASD. Once a child has an underlying genetic predisposition or mutation to ASD, it may take a trigger from an environmental factor to fully cause ASD.

This is where the science starts to get a little hazy – there are tons of different potential environmental factors that might contribute to or trigger autism. And no, vaccines are not one of them, that’s been dismissed by scientific evidence. But other contributors are still in the hypothesis stage – pollution, pesticides, anti-depressants, and viral infections. Unfortunately, like Dr. Willingham implied, there are a bunch of hypotheses that lack robust evidence to support them. In many cases, we have robust evidence that the hypothesis is completely wrong (did I mention vaccines?).

We have a lot of confidence that there is a genetic pre-disposition to autism. Very robust, repeated, and published evidence. On the environmental side, there is little clarity (except that vaccines are not related – am I repeating myself?).

So what do we have? There is very strong evidence that a rubella infection during pregnancy leads to a significantly increased risk of autism in her baby. Immunization against rubella before or during may be an effective strategy to reduce the risk of autism in children of those mothers.

The evidence of a relationship between other viruses and autism is not quite as strong. For example, there is some very weak evidence (reviewed here) that influenza in pregnant mothers may be related to an increased risk of autism in their children. Since the flu vaccine is very safe for use in pregnant mothers, it is a good argument to get the vaccine.

Despite what you’ve read on the internet, most of the other evidence is weak, conflicting, or downright inconclusive. For example, what about SSRI antidepressants? Actually, a meta-review of anti-depressant use during pregnancy showed no effect on the risk of ASD in babies as a result of antidepressant use by the mother. However, it is possible that depression (not the use of antidepressants) in the mother prior to conception may be an environmental risk factor.

A massive meta-review of environmental risk factors showed either a small correlation to ASD. Or none at all. Here are some of the factors where there is no robust evidence that there is either a positive or negative association between it and ASD:

  • Preconception chemical exposure
  • Pesticide exposure during pregnancy
  • Pesticide exposure during childhood
  • Air pollution
  • Heavy metals (including mercury, lead, cadmium, aluminum, arsenic, nickel, uranium, and tin)
  • Urine porphyrin
  • Solvents
  • Folic acid
  • Camel milk (yes, camel milk)
  • Gluten free diet
  • Omega-3

In fact, the review found only one environmental risk factor that has a strong association with ASD – valproate, a medication used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder.

Another environmental factor seems to be strongly linked to ASD – being male. According to research, autism spectrum disorder affects boys about 4X more than girls. It also appears that it takes fewer genetic mutations for boys to get autism than girls. The reason for this male risk factor is unknown, though there’s a lot of wild speculation, including that there might not be sex-based differences in risk, it’s just harder to diagnose in girls.

 

What causes autism? Still not vaccines

After reviewing the evidence, we know two things for sure:

  • Vaccines are not related to autism.
  • Genetics are related to autism.

Other than those two scientifically supported conclusions, research is still ongoing and is mostly inconclusive. So why do some parents still want to blame vaccines? There are probably a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s because they ignore the ironclad conclusive evidence about vaccines and ASD, and focus on the general lack of strong evidence in other areas.

The evidence about autism and genetics is complicated and not prone to a simplistic, one-sentence descriptions. It’s easy to wrap your arms around it like “vaccines cause autism” – it’s simple and easy to state.  On the other hand, there’s the little issue that if your child has autism and that’s a result of genes, those genes come from only two places – the mother and father. Maybe its just easier to blame vaccines or gluten in the diet rather than accept that one’s own genes are to blame.

There is a boatload more research that needs to be done for us to completely understand what causes autism spectrum disorders. But we have a boatload of evidence that it’s not vaccines.

 

 Citations

Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated

vaccines and autism

Vaccines and autism are not linked or related according to real science, published in real scientific journals written by top scientists and physicians.

But this false claim is in the news again. Probably as a result of reports that more and more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. So let’s take a look at the science.

On 28 March 2014, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that new data show that the estimated number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a disorder of neural development, usually appearing before the age of 3 years, characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior, continues to rise.  The picture of ASD in US communities is changing. Continue reading “Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated”

Brian Hooker’s vaccine injury claim denied by NVICP

Brian Hooker holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and has a background that involves researching and teaching in related areas. He is also the father of a boy – now almost young man, at 16 and a half – with autism. Brian Hooker believes his son’s autism was caused by vaccines, and he has been vocal about it.

He is the one who initiated the most recent claims that the CDC conspired to hide a link between vaccines and autism because of calls he had with a CDC scientist (the so called CDC whistleblower)– claims shown, on examination of the data, to be incorrect. He has also, in recent years, published (problematic) research articles claiming a link between vaccines and autism. One of his articles has been retracted because of undeclared conflicts of interests and methodological flaws.

In 2002 Brian Hooker filed a claim with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP), the special administrative program created in 1986 to compensate vaccine injuries. On 19 May 2016, the court rejected his claim in a detailed, comprehensive decision. The Special Master explained that “this is not a close case.”

This post explains the decision, explaining the legal framework and the application of it. In short, the claim was rejected because:

  1. The evidence suggested that SRH – the initials by which Hooker’s son was known – had symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from early on. In fact, these symptoms appeared long before receiving the vaccines alleged to cause his harm. Moreover, there was no evidence of regression or other severe reaction to the vaccines.
  2. The evidence does not support, and in fact, contradicts, Hooker’s contention that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism. This evidence consisted of scientific studies and expert reports. Hooker’s experts’ had questionable credibility and qualifications, and were, at least, far surpassed by the Respondent’s, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, experts.
  3. This decision follows the thorough and detailed Omnibus Autism Proceedings, along with many other decisions that found the same.

Continue reading “Brian Hooker’s vaccine injury claim denied by NVICP”

Autism and vaccinations not correlated in 1.3 million kid study

autism and vaccinations

If you were paying attention to this website over the past couple of weeks, you’d know that the actor Robert De Niro has come out as a vaccine denialist – he thinks that autism and vaccinations are somehow linked, despite the robust and broad scientific evidence that they are not correlated.

The return of this zombie manufactroversy, and De Niro’s involvement, arises from the inclusion of the anti-vaccination fraudumentary, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Controversy, at the Tribeca Film Festival. And if you’re unfamiliar with the fraudumentary, it is from the cunning swindler, MrAndy Wakefield who attempted to “prove” that autism and vaccinations are linked, by inventing a so-called CDC whistle blower incident and other out right lies. If you are interested, you can read about this movie here, here, and here.

I cannot say this enough – if you know nothing more than just the basics about autism and vaccinations, then your education about it should start with Mr. Wakefield who perpetrated one of the greatest scientific frauds in the history of mankind (and that’s not an exaggeration).

Mr. Wakefield published a paper, subsequently withdrawn by the highly respected medical journal, Lancet, that blamed the MMR vaccine (vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella) for causing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Brian Deer, a respected journalist at the medical journal, BMJ, wrote extensively about Wakefield’s despicable deceit which you can read herehere, and here. Basically, Deer uncovered the massive fraud by Wakefield, which included things like working for attorneys who were suing MMR manufacturers, and trying to patent his own version of measles vaccine. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Wakefield from unsuccessfully suing Deer and BMJ several times.

As a result of Wakefield’s , some of the most dangerous outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases can be laid at the feet of Wakefield, as parents started to refuse to vaccinate their children against these diseases. And of course, billions of dollars, money that could have been spent on actually treating and assisting children with ASD, was spent to investigate this claim, with over 100 peer-reviewed papers completely dismissing and debunking any link between any vaccine and any type of autism.

Let me make this abundantly clear– the vaccines cause autism myth has never been supported by real science even when we looked hard for evidence. Continue reading “Autism and vaccinations not correlated in 1.3 million kid study”

The end of the vaccines cause autism myth

Editor’s note – this article has been substantially updated and re-published.. Comments for this article have been closed, and you can comment at the newer article.

If you know none of the details of the antivaccination lunacy, then your education should start with the perpetrator of one of the greatest scientific frauds, MrAndy Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield published a paper, subsequently withdrawn by the highly respected medical journal, Lancet, that blamed the MMR vaccine (vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella) for causing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

From that one fraudulent article, some of the most dangerous outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases can be laid at the feet of Wakefield, as parents started to refuse to vaccinate their children against these diseases. And of course, billions of dollars, money that could have been spent on actually treating and assisting children with ASD, was spent to investigate this claim, with over 100 peer-reviewed papers completely dismissing and debunking any link between any vaccine and any type of autism.

Let me make this abundantly clear– the vaccines  cause autism myth has never been supported by real science even when we looked hard for evidence. Continue reading “The end of the vaccines cause autism myth”

What caused the increase in autism rate? Not vaccines

autism_vaccine_syringe

There are so many outlandish claims about vaccines, it’s really hard to keep track of them all. I once had an honorable goal of debunking every single vaccine myth out there. I was humbled by the sheer volume of lies, anecdotes, and fables pushed by the antivaccination cult, that I figured it was important to just stick with the top ones. Even that’s challenging.

One of the enduring and frustrating allegations made by that crowd is that vaccines cause autism (or more formally, autism spectrum disorders, ASD), and more vaccines cause more autism. It is an endless “debate,” but only if we define debate as one side using scientific evidence and the other uses lies, misinformation, cherry-picked data, and the assertions of one “cunning charlatan” (thank you Brian Deer).

First things first. Despite the fraudulent claims of one MrAndy Wakefield, there is simply no evidence that vaccines are related to autism. Moreover, when we have gone looking, there is evidence that that autism is totally unrelated to vaccines. And it’s more than just me. Orac says so. Science Based Medicine says so. Emily Willingham says so. Oh I know, these are all bloggers, which isn’t real science–except, like me, whatever they write is actually linked to real science in the form of peer-reviewed studies. Continue reading “What caused the increase in autism rate? Not vaccines”

Flu during pregnancy is associated with bipolar disorder in children

pregnant-flu-vaccineA recent article published in a leading psychiatry journal, JAMA Psychiatry, has shown that pregnant mothers’ exposure to the influenza (flu) was associated with a nearly 4X increase in risk to their child eventually developing bipolar disorder in adulthood. These findings add to mounting evidence of possible shared underlying causes and illness processes with schizophrenia, which some studies have also linked to prenatal exposure to influenza. Bipolar disorder, historically called manic depressive disorder, is a mood disorder where the sufferer can experience episodes of a frenzied state known as mania (or hypomania), typically alternating with episodes of depression. It can be treated with medications and psychotherapy (especially cognitive therapy), but more difficult cases require the individual to be voluntarily or involuntarily institutionalized until the mood changes can be reduced or eliminated.

Continue reading “Flu during pregnancy is associated with bipolar disorder in children”