Soapbox: Andrew Wakefield and Scientific Misconduct

When I was pregnant, I thought I should wear a t-shirt with the following:

  1. December 5.
  2. I don’t know.
  3. No, I just cannot be within a 5-foot radius of ham or any other pork product.

This was because every random stranger asked me, “When are you due? What are you having? Do you have any weird cravings?”

Now that I’m an autistic mom I feel like I should wear a t-shirt that says:

  1. It’s complicated, but data shows that it is highly heritable and has a strong genetic component.
  2. In retrospect, at a very young age. When he was 2 months old I asked the pediatrician why our baby was not looking at us, but instead was fixating on the wall.
  3. There is no data to support a link between vaccines and autism. I do not believe vaccines caused my child to be autistic.

Many people have no idea what autism is, what the symptoms of autism are, how many kids have autism in this country, or what the right treatment for autism is. Even though numerous studies have verifiably produced data that show that an individual’s genes are the best predictor of autism risk, the one thing that most people have heard about is the vaccine-autism link. When people find out I have an autistic child, the questions always include, “Do you think vaccines caused autism in your child?” My answer is an unequivocal, “No.”

My child has a disability that will likely affect him for all the days of his life. In all likelihood, I will never know with certainty what caused it. I am pretty sure I will never feel at ease with these facts. But yet, these are the facts and my understanding of the scientific method helps me deal with it. Parents facing autism want some answers; not knowing what caused their child’s horrific disability is paralyzing, frustrating, and excruciatingly painful. Andrew Wakefield’s apparent misconduct has had many consequences. One of the worst injustices of his vaccine-autism theory is that it has preyed on a dreadfully vulnerable population.

What if you had a 4-year-old child that did not have the ability to recall what happened 5 seconds ago? What if you had a non-verbal 10-year-old child with aggressive tantrums that regularly stayed up for 20 hour intervals? What if you had to stop yourself from being embarrassed every time your 13-year-old son touched himself inappropriately in public? Although many parents are able to parse the facts from the non-facts, the need for an explanation can tip the scale toward the non-facts. Especially when the non-facts come from sources that should be credible.

Andrew Wakefield is also Executive Director of Thoughtful House, an organization that is “fighting to recover children with developmental disorders.” In the 2007 annual report of this organization, Wakefield writes:

Epidemic denial and Federal and medical obfuscation meant that another epidemic first reported in California—AIDS—took hold, causing more harm than it ever should have done. History is repeating. In the past two years, with your help, Thoughtful House has changed the history of this disorder for many individual children. In 2008, with the completion and publication of a five-year groundbreaking research study already underway, we might change it for the world. JOIN US.

Searches in the pubmed database show that AJ Wakefield did not publish any peer-reviewed study in 2008.


  1. Peter Attwood on April 27, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    The problem with the genetic hypothesis is that there really ia a lot more autism now than there was 70 years ago by anyone’s count, and genetic drift, of the sort that increases sickle cell trait in malarial ares of West Africa and damps it here in the States, in no way explains it.

    Certainly there are genetic factors, just as genetic factors influence who gets cancer and who doesn’t from the depleted uranium dust spread all over Iraq. But it’s the DU, not the genetic variations in susceptibility to radioactivity, that count.

    Excessive vaccinations and other new environmental insults make sense. Autistic symptoms have been shown at the University of Pittsburgh to be induced in infant monkeys by the official vaccine schedule (

    Vaccines are like antibiotics, useful used appropriately, but harmful when abused.

  2. Rick Colosimo on April 28, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Peter, thanks for your comment. I read the link you provided that discussed the three ape (do macaques have tails?) abstracts. I did a quick search on the author and discovered another article that reviewed the abstracts in greater, if irascible, detail.

    I agree with you that genetics is not 100% determinative of autism; that is fairly well-covered in the various identical/fraternal/sibling studies. The reasonable inference, which you make, is that something(s) non-genetic, i.e., “environmental,” account for the remaining differences.

    The only problem with the word “environmental” is that people automatically drift to “toxin” when folate, ostensibly a desirable substance, might be just as relevant a factor (clearly not well-supported yet; more of an interesting hypothesis tying mandatory folate enrichment of wheat flour to the increase in incidence).

    There are recent papers tracking copy number variants (CNVs) across persons on the spectrum, and there are reported correlations. It seems (to my less-educated eye) that it is possible that the “environmental” factor is affecting DNA repair mechanisms, allowing de novo mutations to accumulate. Following this line of reasoning, it’s possible as well that folate is rescuing some of those mutations during development.

    One thing I learned from following my wife around through her MS and Ph.D.: development is complicated.

    I greatly appreciate your comment and the pointer to that abstract. I will plead ultimate ignorance, however, and ask my scientific expert to review and comment. Thanks again.

  3. Rick Colosimo on April 28, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Strike ape; insert monkey.

    Macaques do indeed appear to have tails. (I’m apparently oversensitive to Curious George, who is pretty obviously an ape rather than a “good little monkey.”)