I work with some children who have very difficult lives. My school specializes in serving students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Typically they are unable to control themselves enough to be included in a regular education classroom. Compound that with various other disabilities that they may have and things get interesting.
Some of my students fall on the autism spectrum. They range from just mild Aspbergers to severe nonverbal. It’s an understatement to say that occasionally they can be a handful, but that’s the case for all my students.
I’m not complaining about this. I love working with my students.
Still, I recognize that what these kids deal with on a day to day basis is no picnic. Their disabilities often leave them frustrated and angry. I get to see firsthand that autism is a difficult thing to deal with, and I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who struggles with the disorder or has to take care of a family member who’s on the spectrum.
I wish that there were a way to definitively prevent this affliction.
Having said that, I find the anti-vaccination movement to be a heartbreaking development in autism’s story. If you aren’t familiar with this, it goes like this: A team of scientific researchers published a study about fifteen years ago that suggested there might be a correlation between the rise in autism diagnoses and the administration of vaccines to children, and this question should be investigated further. Further study was done, and it was found that there wasn’t a link at all. In fact, it came to light that one of the researchers, Andrew Wakefield, used ethical and fraudulent research methods for the original 1998 paper. He subsequently lost his license to practice medicine in the UK. The prominent medical journal that originally published it withdrew the paper, and many of its co-authors distanced themselves from the project.
TL;DR: The original paper was bunk to begin with.
Despite this information, some people who were and still are understandably concerned about the rise in autism diagnoses latched onto the idea that something in the vaccines we give our children might be causing this disorder. Those folks have banded together to promote non-vaccination for children.
“So?” you might ask. “What’s the harm in a few people not getting their shots? If they get sick it’s their own fault.” Well, on the one hand, yeah. But on the other hand, people need to get vaccinated in order to promote herd immunity. There are always going to be people within a population who for legitimate reasons cannot get inoculations against serious illnesses, and they rely on the rest of us to not catch those diseases and spread them. When everyone who can be hasn’t been vaccinated, vectors for spreading virulent diseases open up. It can be very bad.
Rachael’s written a little bit about the positive effects of inoculation on her blog. She’s better at explaining science stuff than I am, so check her out.
If you want to read more from someone with a lot of experience reporting on this issue, check out Phil Plait’s excellent blog Bad Astronomy over at Slate. He’s one of my favorite writers regarding current issues with educating the public about science.
Do you guys have any experiences with autism or the anti-vaccination movement that you want to share? They’re both serious issues that more people should be discussing and educating themselves about.