Autism: A Media Obsession?

Autism has been linked to the MMR vaccine for nearly two decades now. Why won’t the popular press push the inaccuracies of the original Wakefield study?

Another day, another over exaggerated news article about autism. It seems like we can’t go a month or two without tabloids pushing it onto us yet again. The press seems to love hyping up potential cures, treatments or diagnostic methods by using technical language in the loosest possible sense.

I have a lot of thoughts about the relationship between Autism/Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the popular press. I am of the belief that the condition would not be nearly as heavily reported on had Andrew Wakefield never linked it to the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s. Even today, some parents are reluctant to get their children vaccinated for fear of them developing the disability. This is despite the fact that many studies since then have disproven Wakefield’s claims, and the journal it was originally published in has retracted the article.

People don’t understand autism. Unless they know someone diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, many people have a hazy at best idea of the condition. It doesn’t help that we live in a society where some people think it is acceptable to make jokes about the disability, but that’s another matter entirely. The main purpose of this post is to briefly outline autism, and (hopefully) help people to read any future articles more critically.

The autistic spectrum is essentially a series of developmental disorders varying in severity and symptoms. Most diagnoses are made by a psychologist during early childhood, and various procedures put into place in order to aid the lifestyle of individuals with the condition and their families. Whilst autism itself has relatively local impacts upon individuals and those they know, the stigma surrounding it continues to hover over society despite it being nearly two decades since the original study.

Most know the Andrew Wakefield study as scientific proof that the MMR injection was directly linked to autism. This is a view which has been revived by anti-vaccine movements in recent years, and has gained further momentum since Donald Trump appeared to promote the link between the two. But here’s the deal: when you read the study conducted by Wakefield and his associates, it truly is rather a poor study indeed.

The study involved comparing twelve children who had received the MMR vaccine and then gone on to develop autistic behavioural tendencies. That’s right. Twelve. That number is so tiny when you’re making scientific assumptions that it is genuinely surprising that the study ever became as popular as it is. It would be like saying “Jesus had twelve disciples who were all men. Therefore, all men are followers of Jesus.” It would be difficult to find someone who would promote that claim when many key members of the church are female, and the men of the world are free to be religious or not. Yet people will choose not get their child injected because a few children once showed autistic symptoms after receiving the MMR jab? The reason is probably due to the fact that people don’t realise just how small the MMR/autism study was, whereas the knowledge that the twelve apostles were men is pretty widespread.

A more recent study of all children in an entire ward of Japan statistically disproved Wakefield’s study once and for all, though it got surprisingly little coverage by the tabloids. It would appear that autism is only interesting if it is thrilling and potentially dangerous to small children.

This brings me back to the recent article which has appeared. A blood test can apparently diagnose autism with 98% accuracy. That seems pretty impressive to the unassuming general public, for sure. But the test itself looks at indicators of unusual activity in biological pathways which have not been proven to be directly linked to autism. And only five out of twenty four pathways yielded the high percentage results which the news articles are highlighting. New Scientist has an excellent breakdown of the study, with some commentary from a University of Manchester expert. At the end of the day, this new ‘breakthrough’ is essentially another example of the popular press blowing up scientific studies which they can link to both recent politics and public emotions.

Autism should not be erased. It is real and it affects people. However, the general public needs to be aware of the specifics of the condition, and realise that there is still little concrete knowledge surrounding what causes the condition. What we do know is that it is not the MMR vaccine. So next time you encounter an anti-vaccine advocate, or see an article about autism in the press (probably in about two weeks), think critically, and remember there’s info they’re not telling you. The press do have to sell a story, after all.



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