Thursday, July 12, 2007
Autism Surging - Baron-Cohen's Big and Dangerous Assumption
The Times has reacted quickly to the recent reports of an autism surge in the UK with an article attempting to quell parental fears about vaccination. In itself a sound idea. In support of this objective the article quotes Simon Baron-Cohen as saying “I don’t believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism". On that point Mr Baron-Cohen's belief can be backed up by a number of epidemiological studies and by a lack of accepted scientific evidence to support a causal relationship between vaccines and autism.
Where Baron-Cohen strays is when he goes on to say "I don’t believe that there are hidden environmental reasons for any rise in cases. For the moment, we should assume [any rise] is more to do with diagnostic practice.”
To my knowledge there are no mega studies or studies of any kind which rule out any role for any type of environmental factors in incidents of autism. When he goes that far the Professor is really stating his own unsubstantiated belief and he is essentially saying don't waste time on further research into environmental agents that might be causal factors in autism. That is his big and dangerous assumption.
The changes in diagnosis and standards for detecting autism have been in place now for at least a decade. It becomes less credible to simply blame any dramatic increase on these changes without considering the possibility of environmental factors.
Mr Baron-Cohen was commenting only on the draft report of which he was a leading team member and on UK figures. He made no comment on recent information from Massachusetts which reports an almost doubling or autism cases reported - in the last five years. Again, long after diagnostic changes began.
Vaccines as causes of autism? At this point the evidence does not support a causal connection. Ruling out all other possible environmental causes or factors for autism? Unfounded belief by the good professor. As with the original fears about vaccines causing autism, science should decide, through proper research and investigation, whether other environmental factors might be involved, not unfounded belief even the unfounded belief of a learned authority.