An Ally in the Debate with Anti-Vaxxers –
Autism Researchers

By Dale Dauten, Syndicated Columnist

AUTISM. It’s not just a diagnosis parents fear, it’s the stick shaken in the face of society by the anti-vaxxers. So it came as a nifty surprise to us to find a new pro-vax ally – people working to treat autism.

There is still very much a debate going on, even after all the educational efforts to the contrary: A 2017 study from Ipsos found that 19% of Americans surveyed believed that some vaccines cause autism and another 29% opted out, saying they didn’t know either way. (In India, it’s a startling 44%/36% and in Israel it’s 29%/35%. For a chart of other countries, see the link at the end.)

So… WHAT ELSE CAN WE SAY? We recently visited SARRC (Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center), a leading organization for autism treatment, education and research. We met with Christopher J. “Chris” Smith, the head of research and a former Assistant Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and asked Chris the big question: When people ask you about the link between autism and vaccinations, what do you say?

“We have close to two decades of research addressing this question. Most are large-scale epidemiological studies, trying to find a link. These are researchers who are really looking — they know that if they could find that link it would be an incredible finding; it could be their claim to fame. Researchers have addressed the question from a variety of angles in the U.S. and in different countries that have different vaccine policies and no studies have identified a plausible link. Furthermore, I know of no study that has found a logical mechanism for vaccines to cause autism.”

Chris Smith of SARRC

Chris added, “The vaccine controversy came before we had a good deal of our current knowledge on autism. We have learned a lot since then. We now know it starts very early in life, probably in utero, long before clear delays and behaviors associated with autism emerge. There is evidence that the disruption in growth of some brain cells likely has a genetic connection. That makes a lot more sense than a switch being turned on or off by vaccines.”

In utero. Likely a genetic connection. To a parent receiving an autism diagnosis, that’s gotta be hard. So it makes sense that parents would choose to blame a vaccine. As Chris put it, “There are plenty of parents in the autism community who do not see the link, but you can imagine why some do. Autism can be a devastating diagnosis and parents want answers – Why did this happen? Science can’t give them an answer to their satisfaction, so they choose vaccines as a palatable reason.”

He’s sympathetic: “It’s not the parents’ fault. They are desperately looking for answers as to why this happened to their child, and no one has any clear information for them. There are a lot of parents who reason that their child was developing normally and then everything changed after a vaccine. They believe autism was caused by vaccines. We don’t know for sure, but even though everything seemed to be developing normally, there may have been very subtle warning signs that autism was developing, none of which were dramatic enough to cause a problem for the parents. To them, everything was normal.”


While there isn’t yet a complete answer on why, there is new information on when. The folks at SARRC are collecting data for a study that looks at very early subtle behaviors that may have links to autism. Using eye tracking, they are spotting differences in behavior at 6-12 months. For one thing, that’s before the MMR vaccine typically gets administered, but more importantly, again from Chris, “We focus on early identification because it leads to early intensive intervention which is the most important thing we can do. It helps the individual with autism achieve their individualized optimal outcomes.”

One the successes Chris helped lead at SARRC was their work on NODA (Naturalistic Observation Diagnostics Assessment), which has become an app that lets parent assess their kids for signs of autism. It’s one of the ways that those working with autism are hoping to get earlier and earlier diagnoses.


All of this suggests new approaches in discussing vaccines with reluctant parents.

The old “correlation not causation” assertion, suggesting that the signs of autism just happen to show up about the time of many vaccines, specifically MMR, has failed to persuade some parents, and that’s understandable.

However, thanks to new research, we have additional talking points for the conversation…

Autism can often be detected prior to the MMR vaccine, and probably begins before birth.

Many eager scientists have tried to find a link between vaccines and autism and have failed. Moreover, that there is no logical mechanism for vaccines to “turn on” autism, while a genetic connection makes sense.

Finally, we can add that autism organizations are supporters of vaccinations.  

As for the last point, there’s a statement about vaccines on the SARRC website. (This is, we learned, the most visited page on their site. You can visit that page at….


Some parents of children with ASD wonder whether a link exists between autism and vaccines. The concern first started with the MMR vaccine, an immunization against measles, mumps, and rubella. Some parents believe this vaccine causes the onset of autism. Despite these strongly held beliefs by proponents of the vaccine theory, there is no scientific proof that the MMR vaccine–or any other vaccine–causes autism.


What does exist is a correlation in time between when children are immunized and when they are diagnosed with autism. In other words, children are vaccinated at various times throughout early childhood. ASD is also often diagnosed during early childhood. Just because two events like these happen around the same time does not mean that one causes the other (“correlation does not equal causation”). Media reports, activist groups, and even some respected medical professionals (turned authors) can scare people with more subjective evidence into believing vaccines cause autism.


The onset of autism in a child likely occurs long before developmental delays or behaviors emerge, quite possibly before a child is born. For many children, signs of ASD exist from birth and their development is never typical. A smaller percentage of children seem to develop typically. Then, usually between ages 1 and 2, they regress (or appear to lose skills). Children who experience this regression present the most puzzling evidence for a vaccine-autism link. Researchers have investigated the link in these children specifically but still no evidence for a link between autism and vaccines was found.

Relative to the total number of people with ASD, very few parents actually report a dramatic loss of skills associated with a specific vaccination. However, parents who choose not to vaccinate their child (hoping to protect against autism) expose their child to other health concerns. And unfortunately, some of these unvaccinated children develop ASD anyway. Because professionals cannot provide parents a definitive explanation for the onset of autism in their child, any parent questioning the role of vaccines is understandable, but science does not support a link.


At SARRC, we believe the ultimate decision to vaccinate is personal for each family. If asked, we would recommend vaccinations in most cases because numerous studies prove the risks to a child’s health and well being are greater without vaccines.

Increase Immunizations of Their Children?

By Bill Davenhall

Recently reported Census Bureau data document a continuing decline in births across the United States. The shrinking numbers have left many experts scratching their heads trying to figure out what all this means to the many different health and social service programs. Immunization experts are no different!

Based on recently released Census data, an estimated 1. 5 million births in 2018 will be to mothers who have college experience (either having already archived a degree, seeking a graduate degree, or is presently enrolled in a college program). This group of mothers account for approximately 37% of all the births in the US in 2018, estimated to be about 4+ million babies.

The map identifies the 410 counties that will account for 80% of the 1.5 million births of this group of mothers. That’s about 13% of all counties! Something to ponder as you think about strategies to increase childhood immunization coverage rates. Here is one healthcare issue that relying on historical averages will deceive you.

The data you in the chart, is of course, a national picture – yet the underlying data reveals wide variability from state to state, and county to county.

We don’t have any quick answers, but we do know this: If you don’t understand your changing marketplace, demographically, you will likely struggle with achieving higher coverage rates among some of sub-groups of mothers. This is where taking the time to examine the demographics of your target populations can be a good reality check as you can plainly see in the map, “one size does not fill all.”

Births_2018_W_College Attendance

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