Opinion: How RFK Jr. and Shanahan help deliver false hope to parents of children with autism

Editor’s Note: Catherine Tan (@Catherineoscopy) is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Vassar College. She is the author of “Spaces on the Spectrum: How Autism Movements Resist Experts and Create Knowledge,” published by Columbia University Press (January 2024). The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN. 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime critic of vaccinations whose third-party presidential candidacy has drawn strong opposition from his famous family, found his ideological match in vice presidential pick Nicole Shanahan, a California lawyer and philanthropist.

Catherine Tan - Lauren Crothers
Catherine Tan - Lauren Crothers

Shanahan, who has a child with autism, was largely unknown to mass audiences when Kennedy selected her — but she is well known to the anti-vaccine movement. While claiming she is “not an anti-vaxxer,” during her first campaign speech Shanahan drew a connection between vaccinations and autism that touched on many tenets of the movement continually pushing disproven claims.

“Pharmaceutical medicine has its place, but no single safety study can assess the cumulative impact of one prescription on top of another prescription, and one shot on top of another shot on top of another shot, throughout the course of childhood,” Shanahan said, adding that “we can and we will” research her claimed link between vaccinations and autism. “Conditions like autism used to be 1 in 10,000. Now here in the state of California it is 1 in 22.” Nationally, autism impacts 1 in 36 children . Experts attribute the rise in diagnoses to a number of social and historical factors including deinstitutionalization , social influence and awareness and changing diagnostic criteria .

Kennedy (who also claims he has “never been anti-vax”) and Shanahan have brought their anti-vaccine beliefs — including linking vaccines to autism — to their presidential campaign through key hires and a track record of activism.

Facts are facts: Numerous studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism and, in 2010, The Lancet retracted the study by Andrew Wakefield that helped popularize the myth. Yet, thousands of parents in the United States continue to believe in the vaccine-autism link.

What many do not understand is that for a significant number parents of children with autism, anti-vaccination beliefs carry the pernicious and agonizing false hope of a cure. Blaming vaccines for a child’s autism is cruel and misleading, and preys on parents and families at their most vulnerable. Currently, there is no medical “cure” for the core symptoms of autism. Children with autism typically receive behavior and educational interventions for skill development.

I know this genre well, having spent three years studying parents of children with autism, practitioners and researchers who are convinced that early childhood vaccines contribute to autism.

A vaccine-autism link proposes that children are born non-autistic and later are made autistic by environmental “triggers,” most notably vaccines. Wakefield and other vaccine skeptics argue that these triggers set off physiological problems, like gastrointestinal disease, that are related to autistic behaviors.

This causal framework also suggests that autism “recovery” is possible with treatments that claim to target the physiological problems induced by vaccines and other environmental insults during early childhood. In other words, the hope of treating autism depends on this causal relationship being true. Yet, as studies have shown again and again, vaccines do not cause autism and children do not develop autism after birth. Shanahan herself runs a foundation that is researching a cure for autism.

Behind the vaccine-autism myth is a multimillion-dollar industry dedicated to reversing autism. The autism recovery industry is populated by a number of entrepreneurs and businesses, but most common are specialized laboratories, compounding pharmacies and purveyors of experimental treatments.

The majority of these experimental treatments lack scientific support and, in some cases, are incredibly harmful as well as wildly expensive. During my study, I observed parents of children with autism experimenting with parasite therapy to address inflammation, hormone therapy to delay puberty, and even stem cell therapies in Mexico and India.

The parents I interviewed have spent thousands of dollars on the hope that one day, with enough experimentation, their children can be closer to “normal” — or less autistic. One mother sold her house and accrued $125,000 in credit card debt to pay for her son’s “recovery.” While I was observing a prominent vaccine-skeptic doctor, he charged a low-income, immigrant family $1,700 in cash for an autism consultation, at the end of which he sold them helminth worm larvae and essential oils to treat their son.

The vaccine-autism industry preys on desperate parents. It is heartbreaking. We live in a country without sufficient safety nets to support disabled people, so it is understandable why parents chase after the hope of recovery, the hope of neurotypicality. The vaccine-autism myth encourages them to do so.

Up until recently, anti-vaccination beliefs were relatively fringe, finding an audience among certain parents of young children, wellness movements and libertarians. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. The politicization of vaccines and lockdowns during the pandemic and an out-of-control misinformation industry on social media unfortunately mainstreamed large planks of the anti-vaccine movement.

And now, a presidential campaign, however much of a political longshot, is anchored by two people who have championed a message that threatens to expose many more vulnerable families and children not only to a chimeric mirage, but to extreme physical and emotional danger.

Misinformation about vaccines has led to declining vaccination rates and the return of vaccine-preventable diseases, as we see now with measles outbreaks across the United States.

We cannot afford to think of RFK Jr.’s campaign as just a possible election spoiler. Kennedy and Shanahan are sowers of misinformation and the lasting damage they may have on vaccine trust should not be underestimated. As a researcher and an educator, it is my hope that enhanced public scrutiny will help reveal how this movement is based on debunked research, lies and delusions.

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