April is National Autism Awareness Month. Its goal is to increase the public's knowledge about how to recognize and treat autism as early as possible—before the age of two. This is important because early multi-modal treatment has the best outcomes.
It would be even better if we could prevent autism, but so far the only two variables associated with the development of autism are:
- The premature delivery of the baby; and
- The older age of the parents.
But even these two variables can not be assumed to be causative.
Unfortunately, many still feel that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine is the causative factor. Just last week, the well-known actor Robert De Niro, who has an 18 year old son with autism, spoke on the NBC “Today” news show and still claims there is a link between that vaccine and autism.
This viewpoint developed from a study that was published by the British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, MD, in The Lancet way back in 1998. A journalist, Brian Dee, who investigated the study, found that data was fabricated and that Wakefield was paid over $700,000 by the lawyer of an anti-vaccine group intending to sue. The study was later retracted and Wakefield lost his medical license.
Many scientific groups in the United States tried to replicate Wakefield's claims, including the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) and our federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No link between the timeframe of vaccination and autism was found. It can and should be appreciated that parents of children with the challenging disorder want to understand and eliminate the cause, but to the best of my medical knowledge, it is not the vaccine.
Certainly, anybody has the right to refuse vaccines or any medical care as long as it doesn't jeopardize the health of others, including children who can't make there own decisions. Reducing vaccination has correlated with increased cases of measles.
Where to focus attention
Instead of paying so much attention to vaccines, attention must be paid to increasing educational and work opportunities for those with autism. Often, publicly funded education programs, such as special residential programs, end for individuals by the time they reach age 22 in most states at which time, very limited Medicaid funding begins.
We all can help with public education. We need to be aware and respond whenever the public is receiving erroneous information about any mental disorder. So, if you have not already done so, do what you can to spread the facts about autism.