Autism and Vaccines: A Plausible Link?

vaccines-autismPart One: The Problem

One of the hottest subjects in the everlasting debate around vaccinations is the question of whether or not vaccination has been – or will ever be – legitimately linked to Autistic Spectrum Disorder (autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified [PDD-NOS] – for the purpose of this article, all three will be referred to as ‘autism’ or ‘ASD’). This comes up time and again as an excuse for not vaccinating, and is used by the pro-vaccination brigade as a reason to dismiss all claims of dangers as if autism is the only potential problem with vaccines. Mountains of stories have been written around it, and the arguments will likely never stop. Today, we’re going to look into exactly how plausible this is.

Generally speaking, the autism debate is split into two distinct camps. On the one side, we have thousands upon thousands of parents claiming their children developed normally until they received a certain vaccination (usually MMR, around 18 months of age) and then regressed in the space of a few days to a non-communicative, extremely sick shell of their former selves. Backing them are many experts in the field whose research suggests links between vaccines and the onset of the disorder. On the other side, we have the ‘experts’ claiming no such links exist, that the ‘only one’ that ever came along – Dr Andrew Wakefield’s infamous case series – was fraudulent, and that it’s not possible for vaccination to cause autism.

So who is right?

First, we need to examine what exactly autism is.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a serious, often disabling, developmental disorder currently at epidemic levels in the developed world, and which affects over 40,000 New Zealand families1. First described independently from one another in the 1940s by Drs Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, it causes impediments in most aspects of a person’s life, primarily impacting ones’ ability to socialise and interact normally, and leading to idiosyncratic behaviours and obsessions, intense focus on certain individual topics, linguistic delays, extreme sensitivities, and often co-morbid with other disorders such as anxiety, selective mutism, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and phobias2, 3). Generally speaking, ‘Kanner’ or ‘Classic’ autism is at the extreme end of the spectrum, whereas ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ is at the higher functioning end.

Historically, ASD has been classed as a psychiatric disorder. Indeed, formal diagnosis is still undertaken by psychologists according to criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), despite advocates noting these criteria are best used as a starting point, and are by no means comprehensive. By classifying it as a mental health problem rather than a physical one, many aspects common to people on the ASD spectrum are left out, such as food allergies and intolerances, intestinal hyperpermeability, dysbiosis, immune dysfunction, mineral imbalances, upregulated phase 1 /downregulated phase 2 detoxification pathways, high toxic load, and problems with methylation, sulfation, transsulfuration, homocysteine, and other metabolic abnormalities3, 4. It also means research into a cause has been slow, and until recent years little was undertaken.

A number of hypotheses have been put forward over the years in terms of a cause of ASD. One of the most famous original schools of thought was that it was the result of ‘refrigerator mothers’; cold, emotionless, unloving mothers who treated their children with disdain, causing them to retreat into themselves. After this, it was popularly thought to be a genetic mental health disorder, although one Dr Bernard Rimland founded the Autism Research Institute, with the view that ASD occurred as the result of physical factors3). Theories proposed by subscribers to this school of thought over the years include sensitivity to food additives, allergies, gut disorders, environmental causes, vaccines, nutritional deficiencies, heavy metal toxicity, mitochondrial dysfunction, various viral insults, or a combination of any or all of the above5).

Nowadays, the current most popular theory is that it is the result of a genetic susceptibility triggered by an environmental insult. Many still hold that the syndrome is purely genetic, as it is often seen in siblings – indeed, if one child in a family has ASD, his or her siblings have much higher chance of also having a diagnosis than in the general population6– however, it is clear by the way numbers have risen in recent years (from 5 in 10,000 in the 1980s to 1 in around 68 in much of the world in 2012), and from the lack of an ‘autism gene’ being discovered, that it is not merely genetic. You cannot have a genetic epidemic.

The lack of a known cause has meant treatment options in conventional terms are very limited, with most doctors opting for Applied Behavioural Analysis, or to prescribe psychotropic drugs such as anti-depressant and behavioural modifiers such as Ritalin and Risperidone to control symptoms7. Being classed as a psychiatric disorder as opposed to a physical one has also meant a lack of research into the pathology and physiologically abnormalities of the syndrome, despite parents of affected children reporting multiple physical problems in common with one another.

Got that? Good.

So now, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus largely on the evidence for that environmental trigger being vaccines – although here would be a good place to acknowledge that this is by no means the ‘only’ probable cause of autism, and therefore not everybody who is vaccinated will ‘regress’ into ASD, and not all cases of ASD result from vaccines. Other likely culprits are misused antibiotics (especially maternally), acetaminophen/paracetamol, pesticides, dioxin, DDT, other environmental chemicals – the average child being born these days with at least 200 toxic chemicals in his or her cord blood at birth!8 – and inherited toxic load from parents, passed down generation to generation via the placenta, which unfortunately is no barrier. Of the 287 toxic chemicals detected in the cord blood of the children in the infamous Ten Babies study, 217 are known to be neurotoxic.

So with that in mind, let’s move to Part Two, and examine the evidence for the vaccination theory in depth.

Part Three will examine the anecdotal evidence and what researchers and parents are now saying.



  1. Autism New Zealand, 2012
  2. Attwood, T. (2007) The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  3. Marohn, S. (2002). The Natural Medicine Guide to Autism. USA: Hampton Roads
  4. Matthews, J. (2008). Nourishing Hope for Autism. USA: Healthful Living Media
  5. McCandless, J. (2009). Children with Starving Brains: A Medical Treatment Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fourth Edition. USA: Bramble Books
  6. Tsai, L.Y., Stewart, M.A. (1983). Etiological implication of maternal age and birth order in infantile autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Volume 13, Number 1, 57-65
  7. NIMH (2009). Treatment Options for Autism. Retrieved from
  8. Houlihan, J., Kropp, T., Wiles, R., Gray, S., Campbell, C. (2005). Body Burden: The

Pollution in newborns. Environmental Working Group.