Antivaxxers are sometimes violent, often abusive, and always wrong. A leading anti-vaxxer is presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He has repeatedly compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Rolling Stone and Salon retracted an RFK article linking vaccines to autism.
Another piece of Kennedy’s argument about vaccines and autism relates to timing. As we have discussed, the number of children with autism diagnoses has increased in the past several decades, although any true increase is likely small. There are also a variety of beneficial childhood vaccines that have become available in the last few decades and have been added to the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedule.
Of course, many things have increased in recent decades, and not all of them are related. “People like Kennedy can pick their favorite two trends that happen to be going in the same direction and point to them as causal,” Mandell said.
But when researchers have looked at how well trends in autism line up with vaccine introductions and changes, it contradicts the hypothesis that they are connected. For instance, one study found similar autism case trends in Sweden, Denmark and the U.S. from the mid-1980s through the late-1990s, even though thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Sweden and Denmark in the early 1990s.
Kennedy tries to argue for a more exact correspondence in the timing of an autism “epidemic” and a boom in childhood vaccines, focusing on the year 1989. He told Rogan that an Environmental Protection Agency study “said 1989 is the year the epidemic began. It’s a red line. And 1989 was the year the vaccine schedule exploded. That doesn’t mean that’s a correlation. It does not mean causation, but it is something that should be looked at.”
But it’s not possible to pinpoint the beginning of the increase in autism cases to 1989, Mandell said, given the sparseness of data on how many people had autism at that time.
Lord told us that “there is nothing special about 1989 in the frequency of autism. The increase has been relatively steady beginning in the 1970s and partly has to do with when there were prevalence studies in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.”
There is another explanation: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, which made autism a reporting category. In The Politics of Autism, I explain why the special-ed numbers increased:
In any policy area, the act of gathering data brings out cases. Counting may legitimize discussion of uncomfortable topics. It enables people with a condition to come forward as a group instead of solitary individuals. Official record-keeping opens a channel for reporting: once an organization announces that it is keeping count, people send it information. Such reactive effects are especially strong when benefits attach to membership in a category.
With a greater public awareness of general disability issues, and with the new language of IDEA, parents of autistic children began pressing local school districts to get their children into the system. Psychiatrist Allen Frances writes of a “positive feedback loop” between advocacy and the provision of services. As changes in diagnosis increased the population of identified autistic people and their families, they were better able to push for services, thereby increasing the number of people receiving such services.