Generation Rescue denies autism

I often refer to those pushing the “vaccines cause autism” lie anti-vaccinationists or vaccine deniers because more often than not, their real target is the vaccines while the autism claim, though the most often mentioned in the media,  is just one of many evils these ideologues try to link to vaccines. Really, in the same way Scientologists blame all the evils in history from the Holocaust to 9/11 on psychiatry, the vaccine deniers try to blame vaccines for everything.

In fact, on any given day, if you visit the Age of Autism blog, you’ll find infinitely more entries condemning vaccines for all sorts of things than you’ll find articles actually discussing autism.

But that being said, they can just as easily be referred to as autism deniers given that they quite literally deny the most basic facts about the condition, particularly the role genes play in causing autism. Of course this position is just a means to an end because since their real target is the vaccines, any science that demonstrates something other than vaccines contributes either a little bit or entirely to causing autism hurts their vaccine unifying theory of evil and therefore must be denied. It’s like how Jack Thompson can never admit to anything other than video games playing as a main role in causing school shootings or why creationists can never accept evolution because it demystifies what in their mind is the majesty of divine creation.

I decided to write about this after discovering a sickening post by Generation Rescue’s own J.B. Handley on Age of Autism where Handley flat-out calls the evidence demonstrating the role genetics play in autism a “hungry lie.”

He reaches that conclusion through mystery-mongering, a denialist favorite:

The researchers, from Harvard and MIT, were surprisingly forthright in characterizing the current state of genetic autism research:

“Modern approaches that harness genome-scale technologies have begun to yield some insights into autism and its genetic underpinnings. However, the relative importance of common genetic variants, which are generally present in the human population at a frequency of about 5%, as well as other forms of genetic variation, remains an unresolved question…Although the Nature paper identifies a handful of new genes and genomic regions, the researchers emphasize that the findings are just one piece of a very large — and mostly unfinished — puzzle.”

Unresolved? Mostly unfinished puzzle? Unlike many journalists, these researchers don’t sound very definitive. In fact, in the study itself, the researchers spell it out even more clearly, saying “attempts to identify specific susceptibility genes [to autism] have thus far met with limited success.”

Now I’m not going to try to go through all the logical fallacies in Handley’s piece but I decided to just dissect the nonsense in this one excerpt. Readers are free to subject themselves to the whole piece if they’re truly in need of a good facepalming.

First, Handley’s confuses journalists, who thrive on sensationalism, with actual scientific researchers, implying that it’s incredibly rare for researchers to be “forthright” and not definitive about their findings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists typically don’t act like Bill O’Reilly, declaring their baseless opinions as facts while huffing and puffing when their views are challenged. That’s what ideologues do. Ideologues like Handley. Rather, science deals in provisional conclusions and more often than not, researchers aren’t quick to declare “Eureka” and close the case.

This leads to Handley’s next problem, his argument from ignorance by way of a false dichotomy. Just because we don’t know absolutely everything there is to know about the human genome,  it remains “unresolved”, and researchers are very reserved in their language, that doesn’t mean we know nothing or that our current findings aren’t fairly reliable. The fact is that Handley remains as ignorant of the science as he’s been since the founding of Generation Rescue and he’s just looking for any shortcut to dismiss whatever science he doesn’t like. So he’s just ripping out an excerpt from an improperly sourced journal article that superficially appears to justify his argument from ignorance and trying to use it to say whatever he wants it to say. A creationist could just as easily quote-mine the same passage to argue against evolution.

While it may be true that we don’t fully understand the full role genes play in autism and that researchers are still considering the possibility of additional environmental factors, as every reputable source will tell you, the overwhelming evidence is leaning more and more towards genes playing the most important role and we’ve already fairly definitively found hundreds of genes directly linked to autism spectrum disorders. And unlike Andrew Wakefield and David Kirby’s completely invented links between vaccines and autism, this research has been repeated and survived peer review.

Here’s just a sample of articles from various sources discussing the evidence showing autism is the result of genetic and other natural factors [J.B. Handley denies everything printed below] :

Science Daily – “Brain Scans Detect Autism’s Signature

Early Diagnosis of Autism – Implications for the Vaccine Hypothesis” by Steven Novella
Medical News Today – “Autism Susceptibility Genes Identified”
“Genome-wide study of autism published in Nature”
Science Daily – “Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene Via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation”

Science Daily “Nature Nurture Gene Link Sheds New Light On Autism
“Autism Genes Discovered; Help Shape Connections Among Brain Cells”
ABC News: “Research Points to Genetic Link in Autism”

“New Clues to Autism’s Cause” by Claudia Wallis
Enlarged Amygdala: The Cause of Autism?
“UT Southwestern researchers uncover Fragile X syndrome gene’s role in shaping brain”
Science Daily – “Modeling Autism in a Lab Dish: Researchers Create Autistic Neuron Model”

“The Genetics of Autism” by Steven Novella

More Evidence that Autism is Genetic” by Steven Novella
Telegraph – “New hope for autism treatments from gene finds” By Roger Highfield
NY Times – “Focus Narrows in Search for Autism’s Cause” By SANDRA BLAKESLEE
Science Daily – “New Insights Into Autism, Obsessive Behavior: Decreased Levels Of Binding Gene Affect Memory And Behavior
“The real agony of autism” by Kent Miller
“New findings released on the genetic basis of autism”
Time Magazine: “Researchers Find First Signs of Autism Even in Infancy” by Claudia Wallis
Time Magazine: “A Genetic Clue to Why Autism Affects Boys More” by Alice Park
“Parents of two autistic sons vaccinated one but not the other” By Robin Hausman Morris
“Researchers: minor genetic flaws may combine to cause autism” By John Timmer
“Experts Summarize State of the Science in Autism Disorders”
New Scientist – “Autism and schizophrenia could be genetic opposites” by Bob Holmes
Time Magazine – “New Research on Autism” By ALICE PARK
“Genes implicated in twins’ autism” By Kelly Brewington
“New study of autism reveals a ‘DNA tag’ (methylation) amenable to treatment”:

For far too long, autism research has been side-tracked by the cranky notion that it’s caused by the MMR vaccine,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Studies like this, which define genetic and epigenetic changes in discrete subgroups of the autism spectrum, offer real hope that effective treatments and accurate diagnosis are closer at hand.

Scientific American – “Schizophrenia shares genetic links with autism, genome study shows” By Katherine Harmon
“It’s not the vaccine”
“IntegraGen Announces The Publication Of The Results Of A Study Assessing The Impact Of A Combined Analysis Of Four Genetic Variants On Autism Risk”
The Philadelphia Inquirer – “Research points to new causes of autism” By Marie McCullough
“Genetic Map of Autism Comes Into Focus” by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
Medical News Today – “New Autism Susceptibility Genes Identified”
Science Daily – “World’s Largest DNA Scan Reveals Rare Variants That Disrupt Gene Activity in Autistic Children”
“Autism and the search for simple, direct answers” by PZ Myers
“More evidence for a genetic basis for autism” by Orac
WebMD – “New Autism Research: More Proof It’s in the Genes” by Ari Brown, MD
“The genetics of autism” by David Gorski
“Cellceutix Autism Research Demonstrates Increase In Serotonin Levels In Three Areas Of The Brain”
“Canadian Study Uncovers DNA Changes In People With Autism Spectrum Disorders”
Science Daily – “Gene Variant Associated With Both Autism And Gastrointestinal Dysfunction”
“A-Z of Genetic Factors in Autism” by Kenneth J. Aitken
Forbes – “Unlocking The Genetic Secrets Of Autism” by Henry I. Miller and Elizabeth Whelan
“Babies as young as 1 month may show signs of autism.”
Medical News Today – “Researchers Connect APC Protein To Autism And Mental Retardation”
Science Daily – “Autism Linked to Multisensory Integration”
“Gene scan finds link across array of childhood brain disorders”
Science Daily – “Misfolded Neural Proteins Linked to Autism Disorders”
“Autism in some boys linked to missing DNA” By Sheryl Ubelacker
Science Daily – “Link to Autism in Boys Found in Missing DNA”
“Social Demographic Change and Autism: part 2″
“Neonatal Jaundice Linked to Autism” By Nancy Walsh
LA Times – “Siblings of autistic children may have some autism-related traits, study says” by Eryn Brown

“Will all babies get tested for autism in the womb?” By Charlie Jane Anders

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3 comments to Generation Rescue denies autism

  • my first comment on this site and i want to preface it by saying This is a great and needed organization, and I have eaten up all your podcasts in about two weeks. As good as anything from NPR or iTunes U!
    I don’t know much about the vaccine/autism relationship, and I do not doubt the scientific papers provided. I also do not doubt a strong component of genetic factors in most if not all autism disorders. I think it highly likely however that there has been a significant increase in autism in the recent past, and it is almost surely from some environmental cause or causes. My wife worked for a few years with an autistic chid and she was a child care worker for a number of years. Just from her experiences, she came to very similar conclusions as Stanley Greenspan ( whom she has never read) regarding the environmental factors necessary to successfully treat autism.
    The vaccine issue may be totally bogus, but the social/environmental factors need to be looked at very hard in preventing and treating, as well as possible, the symptoms of autism, regardless of the genetic factors involved.

    • Michael Rosch


      I’m very glad to hear your positive feedback for the NYC Skeptics. The issue of whether there is a true increase in autism or if what we’re seeing is exclusively an artifact of a broadening of the definition of autism and increased awareness is a tricky one. I certainly can’t answer it and right now, no one really knows the answer.

      I agree that environmental factors need to be investigated and fortunately, they are. But possibly the one good thing that has come out of the anti-vaccine community is that their efforts pushed us to thoroughly examine what role, if any, vaccines play in autism and this research has allowed experts to conclude fairly definitively that vaccines are perhaps the one thing we know for certain at point doesn’t contribute to autism. In fact, after declining use of thimerosal and even declining use of vaccines in general, the apparent rate of autism has only risen. And my home state of New Jersey has the highest autism rate in the country while being the sixth lowest vaccinated state in the union. The good news is that science has moved away from exploring this dead end and has moved onto more compelling leads, which will hopefully answer our questions about this still very mysterious condition.

  • Michael,
    I am basing my assumption about increase in autism from anecdotal evidence and guessing that the rapid increase in occurrence is not just due to definition or awareness.
    Certainly the data you provide undermines the specific claim of vaccinations causing autism. It strikes me as a crucial part of the dysfuntional nature of aspects of society that individuals in groups that have a deep emotional attachment to an idea, are often more and more determined to hold onto it as the evidence for it shrinks.
    I personally think that autism, in some cases at least, is often just a description of symptoms. The importance of Greenspan’s work, is in showing that very specific environmental stimuli are needed in order to allow optimal development. That it is possible for individuals with even extreme forms to circumvent many behavioral and cognitive limitations. While I thoroughly disagree with his evolutionary perspective on human biology, his scaffolding ideas of how culture developed seem totally in keeping with modern childhood development. And I agree with his view that understanding the environmental social factors in autism are a key to understanding important parameters of human nature in “normal” people and the inhibiting nature of many cultural norms.
    I have my own ideas about what some of these could be but they are just conjectures. Some related to the behavior of people who engage in pseudo scientific beliefs. Hence my belief that understanding childhood development is a key to understanding both rational and irrational behavior.

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