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Contact: Jessica Berthold Jessica@preventioninstitute.org

#510-444-7738, ext 317

In response to news reports that President-elect Donald Trump may form a commission to investigate alleged links between vaccines and autism, Prevention Institute released the following statement from founder and Executive Director Larry Cohen, and an opinion piece by Communications Manager Jessica Berthold:

Statement by Larry Cohen:

“As a long-time public health leader, I am not only opposed but shocked that we would re-examine this issue. We should not face backwards and waste time investigating baseless claims against vaccines, which have been completely proven -- by rigorous research -- to save lives and resources. If President-elect Trump is shopping for health issues to put his stamp on, there are plenty of real and pressing community-based prevention policy issues that need attention and investment: ensuring access to healthy food and clean water, investing in community-based approaches to mental health and substance abuse, addressing health inequities, and preventing injury and violence, to name a few. Let's move forward on finding the best ways to promote health, rather than give credence to long-discredited conspiracy theories on vaccines that stand to do great harm to the public if taken seriously.”

Opinion piece by Jessica Berthold, Communications Manager

 As the mother of a young son with autism, I am livid at the notion that money and time would be spent on investigating long-debunked claims that vaccines cause autism, as would happen if President-elect Trump creates a new commission on vaccine safety headed by a prominent vaccine skeptic. The vaccines-cause-autism fallacy has long been put to rest, and that investment of time and resources would be better spent within the autism community and on pressing public health issues.  Beyond my role as a parent, I can confirm through my work as the communications manager of Prevention Institute that reigniting this issue sends exactly the wrong message.

The “research” purporting to find a link between autism and vaccines has been thoroughly discredited and disproven by countless studies that failed to replicate the results of Andrew Wakefield’s original, falsified “study.”  Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as the tentacles of this study’s false findings continue to alarm parents whose natural instinct is to protect their children. I know many parents who suspect there is no danger from vaccines but still choose to forgo them—why take the risk? Only in an era when vaccines have been so successful in saving lives and preventing illnesses like mumps, measles, and polio, could the idea of ‘risk’ be so tragically misplaced. More cruelly, the lie about a vaccine-autism link has sown doubt and guilt into the minds of many parents of children with autism, who fret about the cause of their child’s condition, and whether there is something they could have done to prevent it. The fact is, we still don’t know for sure what causes autism, but the best research suggests a complicated interaction between genetics and the environment. If we want to tackle autism, let’s focus on pursuing scientifically valid leads—instead of reanimating debates over proven “dead ends,” like a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

Better yet, let’s take a preventive approach that not only acknowledges the many people already living with autism in this country, but provides resources that enable people with autism to thrive in their families and communities.  The need is great, for all with autism, but particularly for those living at the intersections of racism and classism: for better diagnosis and screening, for early intervention and ongoing treatment, for better insurance/Medicaid coverage, for school supports, for respite care for caregivers, for housing and employment options once autistic people age out of the school system, and for embracing autistic people as full members of our society. I know firsthand that fighting for your child to get adequate treatment and appropriate education is a full-time job. I know -- from speaking with many parents in my community -- that it becomes much harder once your autistic child is out of secondary school and in the real world, where the employment rate for autistic people is abysmal and the quirks seen as “cute” in a young child are viewed in an adult as off-putting or even dangerous. And I know that I’m a formally educated, white, cisgender woman with a decent salary — how much more overwhelming this fight for your child must be when you face additional discrimination, or lack the resources to fully mobilize the limited systems and supports that currently exist? Instead of throwing money and time at a conspiracy theory that’s long been stripped of credibility, let’s devote our resources to equity for all with autism.

And let’s shift the frame, too, from one that views autism as a problem to fix, to one that embraces multiple ways of being. The biggest problem my son and family face, by far, is interacting with a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate him. This is why some autism advocates say they were born on the “wrong planet.” Autistic people struggle mostly with navigating a world that’s not designed for them—a world that is too loud, too bright, too fast, and too often unforgiving of differences. Are autistic folks always blameless? Of course not. My son behaves in ways at times that he must be held accountable for—and he is. But it helps to have context and empathy, to understand where the behavior comes from, as well as the struggle he endures daily to calibrate to an environment that his brain isn’t wired for.

If President-elect Trump is truly concerned about autism, there’s a lot of work to do in the real world.  As with any inititave focused on a population of people, a good place to start is to seek the counsel of those who experience autism every single day.