Who’s The Denier?

autism deniers

One of the greatest theoretical gifts of the Internet, in my opinion, is that it grants nearly unfettered access to all sorts of scientific data. Unfortunately, many of the people who access and attempt to use scientific data have no formal scientific training. Trying to analyze data when you’re not trained to do so is akin to performing open-heart surgery without the benefit of a medical school education. It leads to gross mistakes, which leads to wrong ideas, which leads to memes like this one.

But before I dismiss this meme as so much poppycock, let me give it a fair shake. I did a bit of digging on the three supposedly inept officials pictured in this meme, and on the alleged surge in autism cases over the past few decades. Dr Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acknowledges that diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have increased dramatically in the last few decades. He notes that doctors have expanded the definition of ASD to include many children who might previously have been diagnosed with a different condition; also, ASD testing has become more sensitive, allowing for the diagnoses of mild autism cases that could have escaped detection in previous years. But Dr Insel does not stop there; he also points to an alarming increase in other childhood ailments, including asthma, Type I diabetes, and food allergies. If environmental factors are contributing to an uptick in those other conditions, perhaps there is some external factor causing a greater incidence of ASD in children. Dr Insel believes that the cause behind the uptick in autism diagnoses is probably a combination: there are more children being affected, and more being detected. Those hardly sound like the words of an autism denier.

Dr Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsop and Dr Coleen Boyle gave a press briefing in March to talk about the growing ASD epidemic. They both say that ASD diagnoses are increasing, and stress that further research is needed to explain why. They mention the improvement in diagnostic practices but say little about the possibility that environmental factors are leading to an increased incidence rate of ASD. Dr Yeargin-Allsop and Dr Boyle are not deniers; they are cautious scientists who do not wish to hang their reputations on unsupported speculation.

If only everyone else felt the same way…

So we can dispense with the notion that these doctors are autism deniers, or that they are culpable for the apparent increase in ASD during their tenures. Why would anyone suggest otherwise?

In my research I came across a letter drafted by several “concerned organizations” that expressed the same sentiments contained in this meme. They charge that the CDC and NIMH are refusing to investigate environmental causes behind the ASD epidemic (which is patently untrue, as per Dr Insel’s article) and demand that President Obama remove these people from their posts. They claim that it is impossible for a genetic autism epidemic to arise in a single generation and that there is no “autism gene”; ironically, the three doctors they lambast would probably agree with them. Most health experts believe that autism is the result of genetic and environmental factors; in other words, there is no single cause (or gene) that makes a person autistic.

The entire scientific community is still struggling to understand the causes and nature of ASD, yet the creators of this missive (and this meme) have painted themselves as experts. How wonderful it must be to possess certainty when the best and brightest minds – the people who have spent a lifetime training to interpret scientific data – are still scratching their heads.

One thing the letter and meme do not do is provide an actual culprit for the alleged ASD epidemic. If ASD isn’t genetic (as the “concerned organizations” assert), then what environmental factor could be causing it? Thankfully, some of the “concerned organizations” are listed at the end of the letter with links to what are sure to be fact-filled websites. Click on a few of them and it becomes clear that one word is on all of their minds:


From Age of Autism (emphasis mine):

We are published to give voice to those who believe autism is an environmentally induced illness, that it is treatable, and that children can recover. For the most part, the major media in the United States aren’t interested in that point of view, they won’t investigate the causes and possible biomedical treatments of autism independently, and they don’t listen to the most important people – the parents, many of whom have witnessed autistic regression and medical illness after vaccinations. We do all those things, and more.

From Autism Action Network:

Autism Action Network is a national, non-partisan, grassroots, political action organization formed by parents in support of children and adults with autism, vaccne (sic) injuries, and neurodevelopmental and communication disorders.

From Canary Party:

The proper definition of safety involves a clear vision of the larger goal of regulatory work, which is securing positive health outcomes for children and families. This vision of safety requires a commitment to a total health perspective, including chronic as well as infectious disease, developmental disability as well as episodic illness, and quality of life as well as the absence of disease. It embraces a philosophy that sets a goal of zero vaccine and other medical adverse events, where these events are treated respectfully, indeed, as a resource for prevention of future adverse reactions. Achieving this goal requires a strong and global commitment to safety science, especially the study of health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.

From the Elizabeth Birth Center for Autism Law & Advocacy (EBCALA):

The autism community faces severe legal hurdles in many areas, including special education, insurance, healthcare, family law, criminal law and tort law, particularly related to vaccine injury. Since 2009, EBCALA has organized an annual conference each May in Chicago, Illinois during the Autism One conference to address the unique legal needs of the autism community.

From Generation Rescue:

Generation Rescue firmly believes that all parents have the power of choice – to vaccinate or not – and should be armed with the right questions to make an informed decision. We encourage all new parents to educate themselves about vaccinations so they can stand with confidence behind their decisions. Parents need to discuss vaccination options directly with their child’s pediatrician.

From Thinking Moms Revolution (in response to a question about doctors who refused to treat a mother’s unvaccinated child):

While I cannot give you advice on finding an MD who shares your (valid) concerns about immunization, I can tell you what I did for my sister when she lived in North Carolina. I asked around at all the local health food stores, yoga studios, and complementary health clinics for names of all-round well-recommended health professionals, and created a short-list for her with the names which had come up 3x or more.
From that list, there was an osteopathic doctor, a naturopathic doctor, and a traditional chinese medicine doctor, only one of which was covered by her insurance. She sees that osteopath every time she goes back, even though she’s moved overseas.

All of the “concerned organizations” who signed the letter that inspired this meme express a strong concern about vaccines (with the exception of the Holland Center, whose website doesn’t mention vaccines at all as far as I can tell). Let’s be clear, if you run an autism awareness website, there is no scientifically valid reason to mention vaccines at all, unless it is to debunk this dangerous misconception. Science-Based Medicine has a lot to say about the safety of vaccines, and many other scientific institutions, many of them operating independently, have offered their assurance that vaccines are not connected to autism at all. If there is an environmental factor contributing to a rise in the number of children affected by ASD, it isn’t vaccination.

So what about this meme? Well, it doesn’t specifically mention vaccines, but it is spawned by a mindset that clearly believes there is a link between vaccines and autism. Therefore I will go with my original impression: this meme is hogwash, and not to be taken seriously.