Vaccinations and autism: The myths and truth

Numbers of “non-vaxxers,” or people who choose to not vaccinate themselves or their children, have risen dramatically in the last few decades under the false impression that vaccines cause autism. In an age of constant media updates and social media groups, nearly any idea (regardless of its truth or morality) can gather a following, and the rise in non-vaxxers has had drastic, damaging effects across the world.

For a lifestyle article, vaccinations is a tricky subject. While it is a lifestyle to choose not to vaccinate, I believe it is not a lifestyle to believe that vaccines do not work. Extensive scientific research has clearly shown that vaccines are essential in preventing disease in populations, protect people from getting sick and are necessary for good public health. It is not a choice to “not believe” that these things are true, because they are true. The ability of vaccines to prevent disease is not an opinion but a fact. The lifestyle I am promoting is one of understanding how autism diagnoses have risen, how vaccines are essential to protecting our society and how science can be wrong when one person is allowed to make sweeping decisions without other scientists who can support or prove elsewise. 

In the late 1990s, Andrew Wakefield, a British scientist, published a study showing that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to rising rates of autism in Britain. Now, more than 20 years later, after several organizations have disproved the study and even after Wakefield announced that the study was fraudulent, the implications of the report still have effects. Wakefield, as one wrong scientist, misused his power and perceived expertise to spread a lie for his own gain. Some parents now refuse to vaccinate their children due to fear that the vaccine will cause autism, somehow believing that their unprotected children will remain safe from deadly diseases like measles, pertussis (whooping cough) and more common diseases like the flu. 

When digging into the data, it becomes clear why Wakefield’s study seemed acceptable. It is true that more vaccinations have been given to children (and adults) over the past half century, and it is also true that the rates of diagnosed autism have risen over the same time period. However, these two things have no cause and effect relationship—although the events happened concurrently, there is no actual causative relationship between them. In the same way, you would never say to yourself “The mailman delivers mail every day at one o’clock, right before I eat lunch. I must get hungry then because I see the mailman.” You get hungry because you haven’t eaten since breakfast, not because the mailman happens to deliver mail at 1 p.m.

Vaccines don’t cause autism. This claim was made based on the dedicated research and technological advancements that allow scientists and doctors to understand how the body works and how to help it work better. But this begs the question: what does cause autism? Why have autism diagnoses risen over the past half century? This question can also be answered by the acts of one scientist who affected millions of lives for years, like Wakefield. 

In the 1940s, child psychologist Leo Kanner, considered one of very few experts on autism, defined the diagnostic criteria for autism based on 11 autistic children he had observed. His parameters were extremely narrow: if a child had seizures (now known to be common in patients with autism), he discouraged the diagnosis. The children he based his diagnostic criteria on all lacked social instinct, were obsessed with specific objects and had extreme reactions to changes in routine. While these criteria fit many autistic people, Kanner enforced them to such a degree that he would turn away nine out of ten previously diagnosed as autistic children, declaring them not autistic. He maintained that autism was rare. Steve Silberman, who spoke in a Ted Talk titled “The forgotten history of autism,” stated that Kanner believed autism to be “a form of infantile psychosis, caused by cold and unaffectionate parents.” 

Kanner’s definition of autism has persistent effects. Many parents, then and now, feel shame when their child has autism and blame themselves, which was externalized in the 1950s as autistic children were sent away and disregarded. For nearly 30 years Kanner’s diagnostic criteria persisted until the 1970s, when British scientist and cognitive psychologist Lorna Wing, who considered herself an affectionate parent, had an autistic daughter. 

In an effort to increase the support system for children with autism, Wing and her colleague Judith Gould did an extensive study on the prevalence of autism in a community and ultimately discovered that Kanner’s definition of autism was much too narrow. Wing and Gould saw that some autistic children couldn’t talk, while others couldn’t stop talking about their passions, and that these children fit into a large range of different categories that were far more extensive than Kanner’s narrow parameters. 

Wing then discovered something incredible: just one year after Kanner published his diagnostic criteria for autism, German scientist Hans Asperger (sound familiar?) published a paper about autism with conflicting results to Kanner’s criteria. Unfortunately, Asperger published his paper in 1944 in Germany, where it was easily overlooked in the midst of World War II. Asperger described autism as a polygenic disability that requires compassionate care throughout the person’s life, and he interacted with autistic children by allowing them to help him create educational methods appropriate for them. His results were not seen by English speakers until Wing’s husband, fluent in German, translated the paper 30 years later. 

In the following years, Wing and Goulds’ study, as well as the movie Rain Man and other cultural movements, raised awareness of the large spectrum of autism, causing the diagnoses of autism to rise. This heightened awareness allowed diagnoses of autism to increase, giving parents of children with autism much more support in raising their children. And none of this had anything to do with the rise in vaccinations. 

Despite the multitude of evidence presented that shows how vaccines work and how they explicitly do not cause autism, vaccine rates have decreased over the past twenty years, generally due to the false study published by Wakefield. States have different rules on under what circumstances parents are allowed to object to vaccinations: all states allow exemptions from vaccinations due to medical reasons, with five states having this as their only allowed exemption. In addition, 45 states allow exemptions for religious reasons, while 15 of these states also allow exemptions for philosophical reasons. 

Many diseases that were considered eradicated just a decade ago are now on the rise, like measles. 


The 2014 spike in the graph shown at the top of the article occurred when unvaccinated children went to Disneyland and spread the disease. One unvaccinated child traveled to Disneyland in California, and the disease spread to 125 other people ( The outbreak even spread to Canada due to exposure at Disneyland. All of these people contracted the disease due to the higher rate of unvaccinated children.

When parents (and you) choose whether or not to vaccinate, you must keep in mind how your decision affects the people around you. Vaccinations only work effectively when enough people are vaccinated, allowing herd immunity to take effect. Herd immunity occurs when enough people are vaccinated, so when an infected, unvaccinated person comes into a community, the person will cause little or no transmission of the disease because a large majority of people are protected. Unfortunately, not all people can rely on herd immunity: if a community of unvaccinated people are exposed to a disease (for example, a religious group), they are all likely to become sick, as they are not protected from disease transmission when in close contact with one another. 

The importance of vaccinations cannot be underestimated. People who are immunocompromised, elderly or young (like babies), depend on the rest of society. People who cannot vaccinate don’t have the choice to protect themselves and can only rely on other people to preserve their health. For these people, relying on herd immunity is a matter of life or death. Whooping cough, measles and even the flu are deadly to young children. In order to protect yourself and others from preventable diseases, you can get vaccinated today from the flu. 

The Hope College Health Center (located on the first floor of the Dow Center) will be having flu vaccination clinics until this Thursday (November 7), with walk-in flu vaccines being given every day from 3 to 4 p.m. They also have other flu clinics in different areas on campus, with one happening next Tuesday (November 12) between Maas Auditorium and Phelps Dining Hall from 5:30-7 p.m., and offer flu vaccines by appointment. Flu shots are free for full-time students. Call 616-395-7585 to make an appointment or go today!


Megan Grimes (‘20) was the Lifestyle editor at the Anchor during the 2019-2020 academic year. She has a biology and English double major and computer science minor at Hope, and she spends most of her free time playing with her 1-year-old son, Teddy. Running is one of her favorite activities, along with any other outdoor activity, reading, writing, yoga and spending time with friends and family. She loves to share people’s stories with the belief that hearing more about other people’s experiences can help you better navigate your own. After Hope, she intends to find a job in science writing to help better communicate science through story and quality writing.

'Vaccinations and autism: The myths and truth' has 1 comment

  1. February 24, 2020 @ 4:13 am Alyce Lucas

    Thank you for your very powerful post which I hope many will read. Unfortunately large swathes of the population, including many politicians aren’t interested in facts.


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