I’m autistic, and I was diagnosed 10 years ago, in 2008. At 12 years old, I had no way of knowing that anti-vaccination was still a live topic around autism. Luckily my parents didn’t engage with such a conversation. They were concerned about my needs, my access to education and employment. But many autistic children and adults were caught up in this bizarre and often harrowing episode – the discussion was too often centred on how to avoid having an autistic child, or what “mistakes” were made that caused the autism, rather than embracing the possibilities of neurodiversity.
The culture of fear that Wakefield aided and abetted has been taken up by far-right political movements, which capitalise on the fears that surround autism. In their narrative, autism is devastating and to be avoided at all costs. Anti-vaxxers point to rising rates as evidence of their outlandish theories. (In fact, as many studies and analyses have shown, the rates have risen because our diagnostic criteria have become more inclusive and more accurate.)
“For autistic people, the timing of Wakefield’s bogus study could not have been worse,” Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, tells me. “Just at the historical moment when the true prevalence of autism was coming into view because of more public awareness, better screening methods, and so on, Wakefield came along to blame the rising numbers on vaccines. That had a devastating effect on autistic people – who now had to bear the stigma of allegedly being “vaccine-injured” on top of having autism – on parents, and on the direction of research. Instead of arguing about whether or not vaccines cause autism for a decade, society should have been investigating ways of improving the quality of life for autistic people and for their families.”