Nurse Helen Gonzalez Talks Autism, Vaccines & the Burning Question: What Causes Autism?

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Young autistic girl

They may not make eye contact. Or respond to their names. Those are among the early signs of autism in children.

Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a continuum of cognitive and neurobehavioral disorders. It includes autism.

About 1 in 68 U.S. children have been identified with having ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Worldwide, there has been an increase in the rate of autism diagnoses. This is likely driven by increased awareness and new diagnostic standards.

A handful of celebrities blame their children’s disorders on vaccination. They base their belief on a 20-year-old debunked link between ASD and vaccines.

Studies have shown many times over that there is no link. Still, the notion plays a role in the modern anti-vaccination movement.

So the question remains: If vaccines don’t cause autism, what does?

Researchers think autism develops from a combination of genetic and environmental influences. They also found pregnant women who take antidepressants risk having children with autism.

Debunked Autism Study Lacked Controls

The autism debate began in 1998. British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield conducted a study. Eight children developed their first symptoms of autism within one month of receiving the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.

All eight children had gastrointestinal symptoms. Wakefield stated that the vaccine led to a release of toxins from the GI tract to the bloodstream and then to the brain. It therefore affected development.

This study, published in The Lancet, was deeply flawed. It had no control subjects, there was no blind testing and data was not collected systematically.

There was no data supporting the claim and no believable biological mechanism was stated. The article has been debunked, disavowed, retracted and is considered one of the most infamous pieces of scientific fraud. Wakefield was stripped of his medical credentials.

Flawed Study Leads to Vaccination Drop-offs

Since Wakefield’s paper, there have been dozens of large-scale studies around the world that have failed to support an association between vaccines and autism. But Wakefield believers still exist.

Unfortunately, due to his erroneous article, vaccination rates have dropped. Children are getting sick, sometimes dying because parents are terrified.

People who question whether vaccines cause autism focus on thimerosal. Thimerosal is a preservative used to prevent contamination when multidose vials are used.

Many parents think one or more of the following:

  • The combination MMR vaccine causes autism by damaging the intestinal lining, allowing the entrance of brain-damaging proteins.
  • Thimerosal is a preservative which is toxic to the central nervous system.
  • The administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system.

Another reason for the drop-off in vaccination rates is timing.

Children with autism begin to exhibit signs of the disorder between 12 and 18 months of age. This is a time when they are receiving vaccinations. But that doesn’t mean vaccines cause autism.

Health care providers may notice early signs of autism but not make an official diagnosis until after age 3.

CDC: Study Showed No Autism Link

A 2013 CDC study looked at vaccines during the first two years of life. Specifically, the CDC studied the number of antigens.

Antigens are the substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies.

The results showed children with ASD received the same amount of antigen from vaccines as children who did not have ASD.

Autism Linked to Genetics, Environment and SSRIs

Autism tends to run in families. Changes in certain genes increase the risk that a child will develop autism.

There is an increased autism risk with:

  • Advanced parent age (either parent)
  • Pregnancy and birth complications (extreme prematurity, low birthweight, multiple gestations such as twin and triplet pregnancies)
  • Pregnancies spaced less than 1 year apart

There is a decreased risk if a woman takes prenatal vitamins.

A study earlier this year in JAMA Pediatrics linked antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) with an increased risk of autism.

Women taking Zoloft and Paxil face a 200 percent increased risk that their children will have autism. The risk from all antidepressants was 87 percent, according to Professor Anick Bérard of the University of Montreal and other researchers. They reviewed data from nearly 150,000 Canadian pregnancies.

Researchers continue to examine the many possible factors behind autism. Vaccines don’t prove to be one of them.

David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm, states in his best-selling book: “The irony is that vaccine skepticism, not the vaccines themselves, is now looking like the true public health threat.”

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Helen Gonzalez RN-NIC Neonatal Intensive Care
Written By Helen Gonzalez, RN-NIC Registered Nurse

Helen Gonzalez, a passionate advocate for newborns and their parents, is a registered nurse who holds a certificate in neonatal intensive care nursing. The certification requires a significant amount of insight into a specialized medical practice and notable experience as a professional health-care worker. Candidates must pass a certification exam…

5 Cited Research Articles

  1. National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). When do children usually show symptoms of autism? Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/symptoms-appear
  2. Discover. (2009, May 6). Why Does the Vaccine/Autism Controversy Live On? Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jun/06-why-does-vaccine-autism-controversy-live-on
  3. Centers for Disease and Prevention. (2018, February 6). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Children and Adolescents Aged 18 Years or Younger, United States, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/imz/child-adolescent.html
  4. Centers for Disease and Prevention. (2015, November 23). Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html
  5. Wright, Jessica. (2017, March 3). The Real Reasons Autism Rates Are Up in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-real-reasons-autism-rates-are-up-in-the-u-s/
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