Pregnancy

There’s Amazing New Research About Autism And It Has Nothing To Do With Vaccines

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If you weren’t searching for news about autism, you might think that the only research being done today centers around vaccines and their autism connections. After all, the anti-vaccine crowd is vocal and determined. The have celebrity spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump. Vaccines are frequently discussed on parenting blogs all over the internet, including this one.

The problem is that all of the anti-vaccination discussions can pull focus from some truly amazing advancements in autism research. While thousands of parents are reading the work of fear-mongers with dubious and unverified research, they’re missing out on real data that takes the debate into completely different areas.

This weekend, the New York Times published a piece on the extraordinary work done by multiple researchers in connecting immune disorders and autism. Scientists believe that the immune dysregulation and inflammatory disease account for at least a third of all autism cases. Here’s how the diagnosis works:

“It starts with what scientists call immune dysregulation. Ideally, your immune system should operate like an enlightened action hero, meting out inflammation precisely, accurately and with deadly force when necessary, but then quickly returning to a Zen-like calm. Doing so requires an optimal balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory muscle.

In autistic individuals, the immune system fails at this balancing act. Inflammatory signals dominate. Anti-inflammatory ones are inadequate. A state of chronic activation prevails. And the more skewed toward inflammation, the more acute the autistic symptoms.”

So if autism is caused by an immune disorder, why has it grown exponentially in recent years? Well, inflammatory diseases as a whole have been on the rise for the past 60 years. In fact, the growth in autism actually mirrors another popular disorder, asthma. And various inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease in the mother have been shown to increase the chances of autism in the child.

And why is the immune system so prone to inflammatory diseases lately? One prominent theory goes back to the hygiene hypothesis, the one that’s been blamed for the increase in allergies as well. Researchers believe that we’re eliminating too many bacteria and infections from our lives. Our immune systems don’t have anything to fight against and therefore become over-reactive. Scientists have seen that people living in conditions similar to those of our evolutionary past, who deal with parasites and microbes, don’t see the problems with inflammatory diseases that we do now.

So how will this explanation help us treat or prevent autism? Research is expanding and coming up with answers on that end as well. Scientists are actually looking at introducing medicalized parasites to help the immune system. They’re talking about drugs during pregnancy that could bolster the anti-inflammatory response. The most important thing here is that they’re finding actual solutions and things we can do to help treat and prevent autism.

This research is incredible – and more complex than I could describe here so you should read the piece on your own as well. And it’s unquestionable breakthroughs are overshadowed by a hyped-up conspiracy theory. Do we really need to get inflammatory disorders a celebrity spokesperson so that parents will pay attention? I hope not, because there’s a lot of great medical research going into problems like autism and we should be talking about all of it. Focusing on just vaccines keeps the discussion too narrow and it ignores important information that can help keep kids safe and healthy.

(Photo: Andrii Kondiuk/Shutterstock)

10 Comments

  1. MJ

    August 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I was willing to accept that you wrote a piece belittling Donald Trump for his vaccine opinion. I was happy to simply point out that he has held this belief for some time. Now that I have read your follow-up article and the linked Times article, I have to speak up.

    I have worked with people who have Autism for almost 15 years. I have been told tearful stories of how children were changed forever after receiving a vaccine. Parents have brought me old home videos of the children to illustrate the dramatic differences. Perhaps I should have looked them in the eye and told them to stop with their “hyped-up conspiracy theory”. Your surface discussion of this issue serves no one. The article you reference is on the Times “Opinion Pages” for a reason. There is a new “opinion” in Autism research constantly. I suspect this particular “opinion” was presented in the Times for it’s potential to make money. Drug development, and “medicalized parasite” development, are big money-makers.

    ps. Why would the Times article debunk the vaccine theory? Obviously all children who receive vaccines do not get Autism, so something else (increased inflammation, autoimmune disorder…) must be involved even if vaccines are a problem. Many researchers have been aware of a link between Autoimmune Disorders and Autism for several years.

    • Julie

      August 28, 2012 at 1:47 am

      Researchers may have known about it for years, but I can bet most of the general public does not. That’s because all we ever hear about when it comes to autism is the myth that it’s caused by vaccinations. That’s the point. Perpetuating a myth is blocking out some of the other really important stuff. I’m not going to do something because the idiot known as Jenny McCarthy said that it’s bad. Nor Donald Trump or Jim Carey or whatever other celebrity wants to get on the bandwagon. I’m going to do my research and decide what’s best for my child. And the research says to vaccinate. And everything I’ve read by accredited doctors, researches and hospitals say the vaccination/autism link is bunk.

    • Aly

      August 29, 2012 at 11:31 am

      I think you mean well but you are overlooking the simple fact that Autistic children do develop normally up to a point and then regress. This regression occurs, even in unvaccinated children who develop Autism, at around the same time that most vaccines are typically given (between ages 1-2). The same is true for many other disorders such as Tay-Sachs and Narcolepsy. So you can see why many suspected that vaccines may be the cause of not just Autism but Narcolepsy as well. However, and after much investigation, it is now pretty clear to all of us in the medical community that the this is unfortunately just a coincidence. Believe me, I empathize enormously with Autistic individuals and their families and I do wish it could be that simple: vaccines are the cause so let’s just avoid these vaccines. But it isn’t and we’re going to have to keep investigating.

  2. JGC

    August 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    I think this is great, Lindsey. Seth Mnookin has a fantastic book called the Panic Virus that breaks down how our fear of vaccines is causing more harm than good for both the general public and kids with autism.

  3. sara

    August 28, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I’m fascinated this piece opens with this statement: “If you weren’t searching for news about autism, you might think that the only research being done today centers around vaccines and their autism connections.” Really? I guess because I am a geneticist and know that science has proven time and time again that vaccines are 100% unrelated to autism, I am amazed that people continue to have this discussion. Because I know what research is being done, I have to say that people talking about autism and vaccines on blogs does not constitute ‘research,’ it’s called fear mongering. Thank you very much, Jenny McCarthy. MOVE ON! Man oh man, people, not vaccinating your child will not prevent them from developing autism and will cause more harm to them and the people around them. (And, FYI, for all the people who will freak out about this comment – my nephew has autism so don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

    • LindsayCross

      August 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Sara, thanks so much for sharing your perspective! I’m sad to tell you that we have a lot of commenters who are still very adamant about the link between autism and vaccines. I can’t figure it out either.

  4. pharma-funded

    August 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Studies can fail to find an association, but they cannot prove there isn’t a link.

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