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Revisiting the Autism “Epidemic”

Anyone who cares about autism, and particularly the supposed spike in autism in recent years, would do well to read this very informative, cogent, and non-hysterical OpEd by Paul T. Shattuck and Maureen Durkin. It is written on the occasion of a case before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that’s investigating whether autism is linked to childhood vaccinations, as many parents of autistic children believe.

Shattuck and Durkin’s argument, in a nutshell, is that:

1. Vaccines do not cause autism, according to the scientific consensus;

2. There surely has been an eruption of documented cases of “autism spectrum disorder,” but this does not mean that autism itself is actually on the rise, as many people believe.

3. There are a variety of reasons for the increase in documented cases of autism and related disorders, including:

a. better reporting/diagnosing;

b. more funds available for treatment, which incentivizes parents to have their children diagnosed;

c. a much broader definition in recent years of what constitutes “autism,” including the reclassification of other disorders into the autism umbrella label.

If you have an autistic child or know someone who does, you may not be satisfied with Shattuck and Durkin’s article, for it may be more comforting to have a tangible villain, like vaccines, to blame for this disorder. And a tangible villain would certainly make it easier to prevent autism in the future. But you should still read the article with an open mind.

There is one point that Shattuck and Durkin didn’t raise, which I sometimes wonder about when people discuss a link between childhood vaccines and autism. Autism usually begins to present itself at about three years of age, by which time kids have started to get a lot of vaccines. This proximity may naturally cause many parents to link the two events in their mind. But just because one event happens shortly before another does not mean that the first even caused the second — as comforting, in a warped way, as that may seem.

Here’s what we’ve written in the past about the subject.