Validation is Sweet (and a Shout-Out to my Graduate Advisor)

Jeremy Sharp, PhD research Leave a Comment

So there was a big “oopsy” in the world of psychology this week. A major article looking at the etiology of pervasive developmental disorders was retracted. Which basically means that the data and procedures were so questionable that the article is being “un-published” after more than a decade.

This article put forth the claim that onset of autism (or Autistic Disorder, according to the DSM-IV-TR) was associated with administration of common childhood vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella. Since its publication, public awareness of autism-like symptoms, and therefore early diagnosis of Autistic Disorder, has been on the rise. This is a good thing; research shows that early intervention is crucial in helping these children develop appropriately. Unfortunately, the article’s publication also gave rise to a lot of misconceptions about these important childhood vaccinations, to the degree that some parents went so far as to not vaccinate their children. Not good.

When I was in graduate school, I conducted several evaluations of children suspected to have Autistic Disorder or related conditions (i.e., Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder). The question that inevitably came up was, “Where does this come from?” I think we all like to know where our issues come from – this is the bread and butter of many approaches to therapy – but parents are a particularly vulnerable population because they just want their kids to be better. And knowing where something comes from means that you have a much better chance of making it better or even preventing it.

This false hope is my problem with the article mentioned above. By publishing such statements in a scientific article, the authors made it easy for parents to latch onto an explanation that ultimately lacked credibility. While there’s a lot of so-called credible research out there supporting environmental causes of biogenic disorders (gluten-free diet to treat ADHD, anyone?), this article was particularly bad.

Finally, I’ll get to the title of this post. Bet you were wondering when that was going to happen, eh? Like I said earlier, I conducted a lot of evaluations in graduate school and had to answer many questions from concerned parents. Like many graduate students, I initially didn’t know the answer to most questions and had to ask my advisor, Dr. Lee Rosén, who knew everything. He always told me – emphatically, like most things he told me – that there is NO link between vaccinations (or diet, or mercury, or whatever) and Autistic Disorder. So I, like any good graduate student, repeated it just as emphatically to my clients.

That said, I would like to give an official shout-out to Dr. Rosén, who I imagine is reveling in the validation that this article’s retraction provides.

The causes of Autistic Disorder, and other pervasive developmental disorders, remain unclear. I hope that the retraction of this article may motivate those who research this stuff to redouble their efforts. With more early identification going on, we need a better idea of where these symptoms come from and how we may treat them.


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