For years, Americans have watched movies, read stories, and even protested in regards to the cause of autism. Although there has been a good deal of study and research to prove or disprove the cause, there are still unanswered questions. If vaccines can hurt the infants that receive them, why do a large majority of health practitioners so strongly stand by those vaccinations? The number of vaccines that infants receive within the first two years of life is staggering, but at the same token, many feel them necessary to protect future generations. Based on readings by Lisa Miller and Joni Reynolds, Jeffrey Baker, and Arthur Allen, it is my understanding that the four writers share the idea that vaccines do not independently cause autism—but a combined effect.

Autism is a neurological disorder that is typified by impairments in communicative or cooperative skills, and repeated actions or motions typically being identified in the child by the age of three (Miller and Reynolds 166). Depending on the child, he/she might be given gifts of extensive memory or even the ability to distinguish a large number of musical pieces, and even today, people such as Bill Gates, who has a form of autism, have created successful careers and lifestyles. Baker states that autism was only recognized in 1948 when Leo Kanner, a respected psychoanalyst, noted that eleven children were “shutting out all contact, as well as an ‘obsessive desire for the maintenance of sameness’ in their play and daily routines” (248). However, there is constant controversy as to how these children develop autism—is it the parents or the vaccines or more harrowing: something else? Parents of autistic children have gone as far as to say their offspring have “always been self-sufficient… ‘like in a shell;’ ‘happiest when left alone’” (Allen 372). One family in particular have coined the experience “going down the rabbit hole” because like Alice they are in the dark and have no idea where they are going—unlike Alice, their world will not be fanciful (Allen 374-375). It is these descriptions that give autism images—gentle children who sit in solitude in their own world while still in the reality of their parents and siblings or terrifying behaviors like thrashing themselves onto the floor and screaming.

When autism was discovered, it was considered a rarity. However, time passed and the statistics regarding autism rose—almost at an alarming rate. Allen remarks that in the 1970’s, autism was still viewed as rare with a commonness being “3 and 5 in every 10,000 children” (372). At this time, people were still unsure as how to handle the thought that autism was indeed occurring. However, when another thirty year passed, and the frequency rose, the approximation was that “3 to 5 children in 1,000” had developed autism (Allen 372). Around this time that children were receiving a large number of vaccinations which only fueled the idea that vaccinations were the origin of autism.

Over the years, there have been many theories, ideas, and accusations of sorts towards the causation of autism. At one point, Bruno Bettelheim, an autism researcher stated that “autism arose in infancy in response to rejection by an emotionally distant parent—a so-called ‘refrigerator mother’” (Baker 248). This idea continued to be popular for sometime before someone actually called out the idea and its creator. Baker also pinpoints Bernard Rimland, who in 1965, tore apart the psychogenic framework and presented the idea that the disorder could be traced to a parent’s biology (248). Rimland’s proposition could be seen as much more plausible than Bettelheim’s notion due to the studies that have focused on genetics’ as being significant for cognitive maturity. However, if genetics are a large part of the cause of autism, why are vaccinations being placed under the microscope of so much public scrutiny? Thimerosal.

Vaccinations were created to help people have immunity to potentially lethal diseases. However, if the general public—parents in particular are in fear of the negative possibilities that could affect their children, it is probable that parents will veer away and look to alternative preventative methods. The earliest medical vaccine was in 1796 when “Edward Jenner vaccinated James Phipps using material from a cowpox lesion on the hand of a milkmaid” and “a later attempt to give Phipps smallpox demonstrated his immunity” (Miller and Reynolds 167). At this time vaccinations were beginning to be seen as a necessity to survive—this vaccine was soon followed by a polio vaccine and a dozen more that are used today. However, it is not the vaccine that is the focus; it is the active ingredient Thimerosal, which was used longer in the MMR doses than other vaccines—a vaccine preservative whose ingredients include mercury, a chemical, if the wrong type could cause brain damage if a certain amount is given. 

Vaccine manufacturers use Thimerosal as a preservative for multidose vaccine vials that are used in third world countries where they cannot afford to pay for the vaccination at one time if at all. Miller and Reynolds describe why Thimerosal’s use is so controversial; it is half or 50% mercury in weight (170). However, there is a distinction that needs to be made—ethyl mercury versus methyl mercury. Like the two forms of alcohol, there is one that is lethal and the other is not. Methyl mercury “can accumulate in the brain and cause neurological damage” whereas ethyl mercury “is metabolized and cleared by the body” (Miller and Reynolds 170). Ethyl mercury is used in Thimerosal—but methyl mercury is “synthesized by bacteria living in mercury-polluted waters, where it is passed up the food chain and concentrated in fish,” and more often than not, found in Tuna (Baker 246). What is much worse is that Allen reports that in 1998 a study was carried out that showed “8 percent of childbearing women in the United States had levels of mercury in their blood above the EPA recommended level” and a “breastfed child would get roughly twice as much methyl mercury in mother’s milk as ethyl mercury from vaccines in its first six months of life” (378). This knowledge is clearly something to be noted because its significance points at not the vaccine as the cause, but to the parents and what they consume during pregnancy—causing harm to a child is high on a parent’s list of fears. 

However, in the 1990s, a good majority of people were sure that autism was indeed genetic leading many a parent to question themselves and severity to which they had hurt their child (Allen 387). Then again, there were even bigger majorities that were calling autism and its progressive nature an epidemic. This practice led to researchers, activists, and parents alike scrambling for answers—always receiving more questions than actual answers. Allen notes that if there was one thing that no person could deny it was that “autism diagnoses had gone up during a period in which vaccine use was going up… it was a handy correlation, whether coincidental or not” (387). Vaccine critics use a good deal of the smallest shreds of evidence they can gather to prove that autism is caused by vaccines and nothing else.

In recent years, due to the remarkable talents that come with autism such as extensive memory, auditory, gustation, higher pain tolerance, etc, autism has been called the “geek disease” (Allen 400). Studies have shown that autistics are more often than not born to high intelligence persons rather than average intelligence persons. Many people feel that this is a positive thought in a reality that shows otherwise. For example, Allen dictates than in 2006 “more than 6,000 new autistic 3- to 5-year-olds entered the California mental health system—roughly 40 percent more than” was entered in 2002 (411-412). So, does this mean that 12,000 individuals that are highly intelligent are reproducing autistic children? No—placing the blame is easiest when people are at wits end and desperate for answers—much like many parents of autistics.

In that, it goes without saying that parents with no answers and many questions are going to become even more frustrated when their concerns are deemed insignificant. A committee created in 2004 to investigate the claims and indictments on vaccinations went on to say that, “From a public service perspective the committee does not consider a significant investment in studies of the theoretical vaccine-autism connection to be useful” (Allen 411). However, in 2001, that same committee stated that “a link between Thimerosal and neurodevelopmental delays was ‘biologically plausible’” (Allen 410). In between 2001 and 2004, what proof could they have found that would make them speak to the contrary—going from plausible to insignificant? Unfortunately, the government never gave reason as to why they had switched their views and opinions.

Autism may not be caused by vaccines or the Thimerosal in the vaccines. Parents, activists, and others have given way to an awareness that could have been fully acknowledged years ago. However, new light has been placed onto the genetic idea that was given 40 years ago. People are beginning to believe that other persons could be autism carriers and the vaccines trigger the gene—a combined effort through genes and vaccines. This knowledge ultimately moves to the point that it is no one person’s fault if this is proven to be fact. It may place humanity on a path that would hopefully give the answers to the questions about what has caused my brother and thousands of other children to develop autism.

Works Cited

Allen, Arthur. Vaccine The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. New York: W.   W.  Norton, 2007.

Baker, Jeffrey P. “Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism One Controversy, Three Histories.” American Journal of Public Health 98.2 (Feb. 2008): 244-253. Academic Search Premier.

Miller, Lisa, and Joni Reynolds. “Autism and Vaccination—The Current Evidence.” Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing 14.3 (July 2009): 166-172. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. O’Grady Library, Lacey, Wa. 26 Sep. 2009        e&db=aph&AN=43017185&site=ehost-live.