The Decade’s Most Overblown Fears

By Alison Singer

Newsweek  has just posted a special “end of the decade project” in which the editors attempt to recap the last ten years. They have produced twenty different top 10 lists, including one on overblown fears; threats that fortunately didn’t materialize or were later debunked. Topping this list are Y2K, and the threat of shoe bombs (and frankly nothing is more annoying than having to take off your shoes at airport security, especially in winter when the floor is cold. Number 3 on the list is “Vaccines and Autism”.

More than a dozen studies done over the past decade indicate that neither vaccines nor any specific ingredients in vaccines cause autism. While research on environmental factors is important in autism, it makes little sense to continue to pursue a specific study of vaccines, the one environmental factor that science has already ruled out.

Writing in Newsweek, Dr. Paul Offit explains the origin of the disproved notion that vaccines cause autism, and concludes with the following: “In the meantime children whose parents were frightened by MMR have died from measles and those frightened by thimerosal have died from bacterial meningitis: sacrificed at the altar of poorly conceived ideas. The tragedy is, given all we now know about the neurological basis of autism, these hypotheses had no chance of bearing fruit.”

As we approach a new decade, let’s keep focused on areas in autism research that have potential to yield new, actionable information for families. Let’s commit to asking new scientific questions in the coming decade and to putting the vaccine-autism myth squarely behind us.

Judging vaccines and diagnosis: Autism takes the hit

By Robin Hauman Morris

Truth in advertising is hardly a novel approach. The mantra for Syms discount stores: “An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer” rings provocative. Everyone wants a bargain, but do we gamble with our health in the process? Does a diagnostic label bring us to our knees? How so, does the public manage to skew scientific research or concrete data in favor of speculation? What bias alters the classification system admitting or denying diagnoses into a spectrum disorder?

Michael Specter’s new book Denialism, as reviewed in the NYTimes tackles the recent segue from science. The term “denialism,” used by Mr. Specter as an all-purpose, pop-sci buzzword, is defined by him as what happens “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.” Regarding the link between vaccines and autism, he ridicules Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (accused of writing an antivaccine article “knit together by an almost unimaginable series of misconceptions”)

Simon Baron- Cohen thoughtfully argues the dangers in eliminating Aspergers Syndrome from the spectrum of autism. The Short Life of a Diagnosis explains in careful detail that the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the bible of diagnosis in psychiatry, and is used not just by doctors around the world but also by health insurers. The implication of diagnosis far exceeds the paper it is written on; what happens to the individuals who have already been diagnosed? What is their future regarding supports and services?

Dr. Cohen reminds us that the psychiatric manual is decided by a group of doctors who consider symptoms and behaviors, not biology. This is a significant point of fact. Adding and removing qualifications for diagnoses are part of the nomenclature, but it is not without caution and caveat. We don’t yet know if Asperger syndrome is genetically identical or distinct from classic autism, but surely it makes scientific sense to wait until these two subgroups have been thoroughly tested before lumping them together in the diagnostic manual.

I am the first to agree with the concept of an autistic spectrum, but there may be important differences between subgroups that the psychiatric association should not blur too hastily. Ultimately, the importance of science should prevail. It is an unbearable responsibility for parents and families to make decisions based on hearsay. Whom, where and when to trust should be more comfortable choices for the “educated consumer”. Hopefully, research and hard evidence will make the difference.

Autism Science Foundation Agrees with Decision to Keep Vaccine Research Out of the IACC Autism Plan

(November 11, 2009—New York, NY) Autism Science Foundation President and Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee member Alison Singer joined her colleagues on the IACC in voting to eliminate references in the autism strategic plan that could imply that vaccines cause autism or that call for additional vaccine research. “Draft materials submitted to the IACC suggesting vaccines and/or vaccine components were implicated in autism were rejected by the committee because the IACC determined that they were not based on good science,” said Singer. In addition, the two research objectives proposed that specifically called for additional vaccine research were not approved.

Two initiatives in the plan, one old and one new, could allow for vaccines to be studied as part of larger environmental initiatives if circumstances warranted. First, the IACC voted to retain language from the 2009 plan calling for studies of environmental exposures outlined in the 2007 IOM report “Autism and the Environment”, which could include vaccines. The IACC also voted unanimously to add a new objective to study whether or not there are certain subpopulations that are more susceptible to environmental exposures such as immune challenges (including naturally occurring infection, vaccines, and/or immune disorders).

“More than a dozen studies indicate that neither vaccines nor any specific ingredients in vaccines cause autism. The IACC affirmed that there is no reason to call out vaccines as a specific area worthy of further study in relation to autism,” said Singer. “Vaccine safety research is an ongoing process at the CDC. If some new science were uncovered that brought vaccines into question, then new studies could be done under the auspices of this strategic plan. But there is nothing in the plan that specifically calls for additional vaccine research because there are no data implicating vaccines as a possible cause of autism. While research on environmental factors is important, it makes little sense to pursue a specific study of vaccines, the one environmental factor that science has already ruled out.”

Singer added that some groups seem to be misinterpreting the inclusion of the word “vaccines” in the list of examples of immune challenges as a mandate for vaccine research, and have issued misleading statements. “Based on the votes taken yesterday, the IACC was clear in its position about autism and vaccines. But if there is public confusion about this new research objective then I will try to make sure we clarify it at our next meeting,” Singer said. The IACC will continue its work on the plan at a meeting on December 11, 2009 with the goal of finalizing the revised plan by January, 2010.

Singer was appointed to the IACC in 2007 by HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt.

To learn more about the Autism Science Foundation, visit

NIH Awards More than 50 New Autism Grants

(From the NIH)

The National Institutes of Health has awarded more than 50 autism research grants, totaling more than $65 million, which will be supported with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. These grants are the result of the largest funding opportunity for research on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to date, announced in March 2009.

Awards were based on the quality of the proposed study and how well it addressed short-term research objectives detailed in the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee’s (IACC’s) Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research.

“These studies currently hold the best promise of revealing what causes autism, how it might be prevented, what treatments are effective, and how service needs change across the lifespan — questions noted in the IACC strategic plan as critically important to improving the lives of people with ASD and their families. The Recovery Act funding makes it possible to do the type of innovative research necessary to find these answers more quickly,” said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of NIH, and IACC chair.

Read more, including examples of grants funded.

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