The Autism Science Foundation

By Phil Plait | December 7, 2010 10:38 am

[Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting some calls to action for donations and such. I don't want to overdo them, so I'm only putting up ones I feel strongly about - ones that promote science and skepticism. This blog reaches a lot of people, and we are mighty. Thanks.]

I write a lot about the antivaccination movement, people who think vaccines cause autism (among other ills). This movement is very strong, despite there being no real evidence to support their claims, and tons and tons of solid evidence against them. The antivax message puts children’s lives at risk, and that’s something that must not stand.

But an important point gets lost among the shouting: while we know vaccines do not cause autism, we don’t know what does. The good news is, while the antivaxxers tilt at windmills, there are scientists out there trying to find out the roots of autism. One organization, the Autism Science Foundation, is just such a science-based group. They’re running a year-end campaign called recipe4hope, and they’ve put together this cute video:

As they say, every little bit helps. If you’ve got something, please send it along. Thanks.

Comments (36)

  1. Cleon

    It’s also worth noting the abuse that Skepchick Elyse Anders is getting from the anti-vaxxers (including threats of physical and sexual violence):

    http://skepchick.org/blog/2010/12/from-ads-to-ad-homs/

  2. Great post. I will pass this around as well.

  3. Floyd

    Asperger’s is considered a mild form of autism by many. What are the differences between the two, and what are the similarities?

  4. Steve Downey

    In the third paragraph, I believe you meant Autism Science Foundation, where you have Autism Research Foundation.

  5. Thanks for sharing! I’ve passed this along to my tweeps.

  6. Miguel Madeira

    “Asperger’s is considered a mild form of autism by many. What are the differences between the two, and what are the similarities?”

    It is difficult to say – people with Asperger’s don’t have mental retardation no any delay in their speech (unlike many people with autism); however, most people with autism don’t have mental retardation also and many don’t have speech delay.

    In other words, there are someautism symptoms that exclude a diagnosis of Asperger’s (mental retardation, speech delay) vs. , but there is any symptom that exclude a diagnosis of Autism vs. Asperger’s

  7. jasonB

    Thanks Phil

    I for one was getting rather confused with the whole anti-vax thing. Meaning I didn’t know who to believe, but I followed a lot of what was said and linked here and have come to the conclusion that childhood vaccinations are indeed good for ya. That was were I started but there is indeed a whole lot of scare tactics being used. And oh well, thanks again.

  8. Oli

    Asperger’s is not autism, but it’s in the spectrum of autism-related disorders. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Anyway, what I really hate is when people try to look for a cure for autism – it’s not a disease, there is no cure. It’s a disorder. You can’t “cure’ it, but you can research it to try and make life for autists and people close to them easier.

    /rant

  9. J. Wong

    “Asperger’s is considered a mild form of autism by many. What are the differences between the two, and what are the similarities?”

    The current consensus is that autism and Asperger’s are not a specific diagnosis, but a diagnosis is of ASD – autism spectrum disorder. That is, a range of symptoms that vary in severity. So today no one would be diagnosed with Asperger’s, but with ASD.

  10. @Cleon

    I also wrote up a bit about Elyse’s treatment, as did Orac at Respectful Insolence and a few others.

  11. Kirk Aplin

    If they want to do something about autism, coming up with a clear definition would be a nice start.

  12. @#3. Floyd & #6. Miguel Madeira:
    I happen to be a guy with Aspergers. I’m not going to quote the entire catalogue of criteria that is supposed to be used when diagnosing Autistic Spectrum disorders in general and Aspergers specifically, but a major point in Aspergers is a lag in social aptitude – i.e. social behaviour that other children and teenagers just ‘get’ by living with others their age have to be aquired by conscious effort. This causes us to lag behind by 2-3 years. A lot of Aspergers compensate for that by their twenties, though they still come off as ‘weird’ in many cases, due to lack of body language or the refusal to make eye contact (something that’s highly uncomfortable for most it seems – I’m like that anyway, with an added bonus of disliking touch)…
    Another criterion is obsession with only a handful of topics, but those are known to a degree that puts professionals of many years to shame in some cases. ;)

    It makes romancing exceedingly difficult, however *sigh*

  13. Joseph G

    @#8 Oli: Well, yeah, in the same way that there’s no “cure” for a child born with a congenital deformity. But if you understand what the causes are, you can potentially prevent it (ie, fetal alcohol syndrome is entirely preventable now that we understand that’s it’s caused by alcohol).
    In the case of Autism, it may well be genetic, in which case it can never be truly prevented until we have the ability to genetically alter human sex cells.

  14. Joseph G

    And yes, I know that there are those with Autism who violently dispute that it IS a disorder or something that SHOULD be cured. While I respect their personal opinions, these tend to be quite high-functioning individuals who are toward the “normal” end of the spectrum (ie, individuals with Aspergers, who may be able to get much more out of the “positives” then they are hindered by the “negatives”).
    But I’ve worked with special needs kids in classroom settings, and believe me, there are plenty of people with more severe forms of Autism who would definitely be more happy if they could communicate with other people, or avoid being frightened by background noise, or overstimulated by clothing and music.

  15. Grizzly

    Look at the autism spectrum as just that, and not a 2 dimensional list of symptoms either, but one where people might have greater or lesser amounts of symptoms along a wide arc. I have twin boys, one of whom is on “the spectrum” living with Asperger’s syndrome. No two people are alike either within the spectrum or outside of it.

    One thing that my son and friends of ours who are on the spectrum keep telling us is that our labels do not help. Who defines “normal” anyway? The uptick in the number of diagnoses for autism spectrum related “disorders” is probably due in part to our modern propensity for finding a name for everything. I am of an age where I can recall eccentric relatives and neighbours who were known and loved and contributed to society despite some “quirkiness”.

    I support any and all research in to determining the causes of autism spectrum disorders, but sometimes I wonder if we are to quick to label us as the “normal ones”. I have learned so much from my son about ways of seeing, ways of being. In some ways having him in our midst is like having a poet laureate in the family – poets have that way of turning the world upside down for us to learn to see better.

    While I want him to be able to cope in this world, I think that most of the change might be needed on this side of the divide and not his.

  16. Crux Australis

    As a scientist (science teacher) with Asperger’s Syndrome, I say “Hellz yeah”! Yes, I spend entirely too much time around teenagers.

    Grizzly, how old are your boys? My 7 year old (as of tomorrow) son (one of 3) is Aspie too.

    Might I also add, that due to the concrete way our Aspie brains work, most of the work will be on your side of the ‘divide’. Thank you so much for realizing that. If only there were more people like you in the world.

  17. I may be wrong here, but I am pretty sure they are talking about removing aspergers as a specific diagnosis. People who currently have what we call aspergers will either be diagnosed as autistic or not. Then I believe autism diagnoses will have some sort of numerical or categorical enumeration associated with it.

    I think that would be a shame as I think that people with asperger’s have created an identity associated with that diagnoses, and the term has some mainstream understanding.

  18. Leon

    “One organization, the Autism Research Foundation, is just such a science-based group. They’re running a year-end campaign called recipe4hope…”

    But…how can I support a project that mangles English grammar by misusing the number four?

  19. Joseph G

    @#1 Cleon: Good lord. That just makes me sick. I’m glad that so many rational people seem to be backing her up.

    @#18 Leon: “But…” is a sentence fragment. Hey, if you live in a glass house, ’tis best not to chuck rocks. :)

  20. <> … only if you omit the rest of the sentence…. B-)

    But seriously folks…

    I’ve been pondering the whole anti-vax thing since the recent kerfuffle with the AMC theater spots… the ads were suggesting that one choose mercury-free versions of vaccines wherever possible… this strikes me as a rational and measured message, not the hysterical anti-science rant that many seemed to respond to it as….

    Why NOT choose a mercury-free version? Surely that would be at least AS safe if not safer? Surely nobody disputes that mercury is toxic? Why, then, are vaccines containing mercury supposed to be so safe? What am I missing, science-wise? And why make a mercury-free version if there’s nothing unsafe about the mercury version?

    I ask as a skeptic, not as a heel-dragger…

  21. Naomi

    Wow. I haven’t seen an ad so schmaltzy since the ads during the Thanksgiving Day parade.

    Joseph @ 13, there’s also the… really iffy idea that if parents learn that they could well have an autistic kid, they’d choose to abort instead. Yes, I know not every parent is going to be like that – but having heard some of the Autism Speaks whackjobs, I have no doubt that some of them would take the option (like Jenny McCarthy and her ‘boom, the soul was gone from his eyes’ dribble).

    Sure, knowing what causes ASDs might be useful, but what would you do with that knowledge? You can’t get rid of a genetic disorder. You can make the decision to abort if you know the kid will be autistic, and that’s a pretty worrying world to live in. Think of a world without autistics – it’s not really fun.

    techskeptic @ 17, I think they were considering amalgamating Asperger’s, Autism, and PDD-NOS into one diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder? So it’s not so much getting rid of the disorder as just grouping them together. And I’m sure people will still subdivide further – Asperger’s could become a subdivision of ASD. I mean, even if my diagnosis does change to ASD, I’d still describe it as being of the Asperger’s subset.

  22. <>

    Not sure what this means. My question was sincere. I suspect there’s some crucial fact I’ve somehow overlooked. But the question remains: why NOT choose a mercury-free vaccine? I have no affiliation with anybody, or any agenda, I’m just asking.

  23. MarkW

    rgdaniel: I think that Naomi’s comment was directed at the video that Phil posted, not at you.

    “I’m just asking” — forgive me, but we’ve heard that before from people who do turn out to be anti-vaccine.

    “And why make a mercury-free version if there’s nothing unsafe about the mercury version?” People have made all sorts of accusations about mercury in vaccines. In these circumstances, removing the mercury is probably seen as a good PR move by the vaccine manufacturers. “Responding to people’s concerns” is the usual phrase.

    Of course the anti-vaxxers will just move the goal-posts and start complaining about something else…

  24. “I think that Naomi’s comment was directed at the video that Phil posted, not at you.”

    Ahh, sorry, my bad…

    “Responding to people’s concerns”

    I suppose so… wouldn’t be the first time…

    But my core dilemma remains: how is it that mercury in a vaccine is NOT toxic? I mean, I believe that it isn’t, I believe in vaccines, I get my flu shot… I just feel I’m missing something, facts-wise…

  25. Geek

    rgdaniel @24 “I just feel I’m missing something, facts-wise…”

    antiantivax.flurf.net has plenty of useful information about various alleged problems with vaccines, including thimerosal.

  26. MartinM

    Surely nobody disputes that mercury is toxic?

    Firstly, vaccines do not contain elemental mercury; they contain a compound, thiomersal, of which mercury is one constituent. Saying that vaccines contain mercury is exactly as accurate as saying that I put chlorine on my chips. Secondly, it’s not particularly meaningful to describe substances as ‘toxic’ or ‘not toxic’. Toxicity is generally a function of dose. There is no evidence whatsoever that thiomersal is toxic at the doses present in vaccines.

  27. RGDaniels, the point you are missing is why they put thiomersal in the vaccine in the beginning. It is a preservative.

    So the assumption the vaccine is “as safe” because it lacks thiomersal needs to be demonstrated, it may have deteriorated in storage and be less effective. Less effective means more people suffer from the disease they should have been protected from.

    Of course they replace the thiomersal with other preservatives, but you now have to ask are these preservatives as safe and as effective as thiomersal? Thiomersal was a cheap and effective preservative, and as Martin points out there is no evidence of harm from it, so it is also safe. The antivaxers have thus forced us to abandon a useful ingredient on the basis of “it contains mercury”. As widely pointed out, less mercury than most Tuna sandwiches.

    In practice the result is probably only that it has pushed up the cost of the vaccines (forced change of ingredient, switch to single dose, shorter shelf life etc), but that only affects poor people, and poor people have little say in how the world works, so I guess no one minds if they die needlessly so we can all be safe in the knowledge we’ve made a negligible reduction in our mercury exposure.

  28. @Geek

    Thanks for the shoutout.

    @rgdaniel

    I just wanted to address your question here, since some people may not go to antiantivax.flurf.net and read the info there. First off, the SafeMINDS ad was misleading through imagery (a syringe surrounded by puddles of elemental mercury, a landfill next to a pregnant woman, etc.) and statements (e.g., saying that flu vaccines can’t be thrown away in a landfill because of the mercury, when the truth is that they can’t be thrown away in a landfill because they are medical waste…it’s a bit more complex than that, but that alone should suffice). Others, like Orac and Elyse (at Skepchick) have addressed the ad in more detail.

    Now, on to thimerosal. As someone mentioned above, thimerosal is not the same as elemental mercury. It is not the same as the mercury compounds commonly found in the environment, primarily methylmercury. Thimerosal contains about 50% ethylmercury, so a flu shot, with 50 mcg (that’s micrograms) thimerosal has around 25 mcg ethylmercury. Furthermore, ethylmercury has a half-life of days, unlike methylmercury, which has a half-life of weeks. That means there is less chance of any of it building up in your system.

    For example, a can of white tuna contains about 69 mcg of methylmercury (compared to the 25 mcg of eHg in a TCV flu vaccine). MeHg has about a 95% absorption rate when ingested, so you end up getting around 65-66 mcg in your system. Suppose you get the flu shot and the same day eat a can of tuna. After a week, the amount of eHg in your system will be around 12.5 mcg. The amount of MeHg (which also happens to be more toxic than eHg) will be somewhere around (and I’m estimating here) 39 mcg. After two weeks, eHg is down to about 6.25 mcg, while MeHg is around 23.4 mcg. My numbers may be a bit off, since I’m not a chemist, biologist or any similar -ist, but this should get the point across.

    Now, you won’t be getting another flu shot for about a year, most likely. But, if you enjoy your seafood, you will be getting more mercury in the form of MeHg several times (more from larger fish like tuna or swordfish than from smaller fish).

    That should illustrate how it clears from the body compared to other forms. There have also been a number of studies looking at a variety of neurological outcomes between those who received a full schedule of thimerosal-containing vaccines compared to partial or no TCVs (back when the childhood schedule had a lot more TCVs than the current schedule with only some flu vaccines containing thimerosal). The studies found no significant differences between groups.

    Shorter version: a little bit of thimerosal to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination in a vaccine does not have toxic effects on humans and is eliminated from the body pretty quickly. And, according to the MSDS for thimerosal, the LD50 (dose at which 50% of the population will die from the substance) ranges from 30 mg/kg to 98 mg/kg (i.e., over 1000 times more than in a flu vaccine at the low end of the range), depending on the method of administration and the model used.

    Shortest version: the dose makes the poison.

  29. @Simon

    Minor correction, thimerosal does not prevent degradation of efficacy of a vaccine. It prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi that may contaminate the vaccine and cause significant health issues. This is an issue with multi-dose vials of a vaccine, where the seal may be punctured multiple times and increase the risk of a contaminant being introduced into the remaining vaccine.

    With the exception of some formulations of the flu vaccine, childhood vaccines no longer have anti-bacterial/anti-fungal preservatives, since they have moved to single-dose formulations. Multi-dose vials of vaccine (some flu vaccines and vaccines that are not part of the childhood schedule) still contain thimerosal.

  30. MarkW

    Minor snark, but when did micrograms stop being μg and start being mcg?

  31. @MarkW

    When I got too lazy to use the special character?

  32. This is great, exactly what I needed, thanks guys… feeling better informed now…

  33. truthspeaker

    Firstly, vaccines do not contain elemental mercury; they contain a compound, thiomersal, of which mercury is one constituent.

    Note that many contact lens saline solutions also contain thimerasol as a preservative. Some people, including me, seem to be sensitive to it, so they also sell solutions without it.

    Also, a saline solution is a solution of salt in water. Salt is also “toxic”, in that ingesting too much can kill you. So when you are shaking some salt on your French fries, you are introducing a “toxin” to your food.

  34. @truthspeaker

    Re: thimerosal sensitivity

    Good point to make. There are some people who have an allergy to thimerosal, a real reaction. That is a good reason to avoid it for those with the allergy.

  35. Hmm. Still there are people banging on about thimerosal, and now it’s been withdrawn, straws are being clutched looking for other culprits.

    1. I have an ASD/C, and I did not have MMR – neither have I had a BCG. Polio, Mumps and Measles were routinely given at school on coloured sugarlumps – that’s what I’ve had. Plus the odd tetanus jab. Why am I autistic if I have not had an autism inducing vaccine? ‘cos vaxx does not cause autism! In fact, a Cochrane study in the UK (of around 2000 people) found a lower percentage of autism cases in those that had MMR than in those that didn’t. So go figure.
    2. There are 26 genes (so far) implicated in ASD/C
    3. There is an obvious brain structure difference in ASD/C
    4. One of the world’s leading experts on autism has been able to identify autism traits in non-autistic parents of kids with autism (http://www.molecularautism.com/content/1/1/10)
    5. The ‘rat model’ of autism uses VPA to induce brain lesions in rats, and mothers using VPA relatively recently prior to conception or during the first trimester have a significantly high risk of producing a child with an ASD/C
    6. Apart from chemical insult (5), brain injury during pregnancy or during birth could result in an ASD/C

    What we don’t know (yet) is what the difference is between insult/injury related ASD/C and inherited ASD/C, apart from the specific genetic markers that would not be present in insult/injury related conditions unless an insult makes specific changes in the various chromosomic sites that implicate an ASD/C, which I find highly unlikely.

  36. … and I ‘spose, with the science, what it all boils down to is ‘What causes autism?’, ‘Can we prevent it?’, and more importantly, ‘What interventions can we develop to help people who are profoundly disabled?’.

    Sadly, the science is going to get taken over by commerce, and it’ll turn into ‘How much money can we make?’ or ‘Is it cost effective for this intervention?’, ultimately resulting in people with autism being cash cows (very much like they are now, with ‘miracle cure’ quackery for sale to every desperate, ignorant and vulnerable parent, unaware that they could be potentially killing their child), making the few rich at the expense of the many.

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