In November 2007, the US Department of Health and Human Services made a landmark ruling that Hannah Poling, 9 years old from Georgia, had developed autism-like symptoms from regular vaccinations.

Despite this ruling, study after study continues to show that there is no direct link between developing autism and vaccinations. In fact, it has been meticulously reported that, although the US government conceded that vaccines ‘may have hurt’ Hannah and has agreed to pay her family for her care, they did not recognise a direct link between the vaccines and autism (1).

Indeed clarification was sought, and Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, was forced to state: “Let me be very clear that the government has made absolutely no statement indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism.” (1)

So – that clears that up, does it?

Well, in a nut shell, no; more and more cases are being taken to courts in the US, and that means one thing – that soon cases will be heard here in the UK.

I think with such public inaccuracy and ‘dodgy reporting’ it is vital we remind ourselves of some facts (2):

  • No one knows exactly why but the brain develops differently in people with autism.
  • Finding the cause (or causes) of autism is one of the most challenging questions facing medical science.
  • The absence of a clear understanding about what causes autism makes finding effective therapies very difficult.
  • It is now widely accepted by scientists that a predisposition to autism is inherited.
  • It is not clear why a genetic predisposition affects some family members and not others.
  • Autism is no longer attributed, as it once was, to lack of affection in the child’s mother (see my former blog post on refrigerator mothers).
  • Levels of autism appear to be rising, but that may be the result of improved detection, identification and diagnosis.
  • There are currently no biological tests to confirm a “diagnosis” of autism. Identification of the condition is at present based solely on observed behaviours.
  • Research is also taking place to establish the part played, if any, by environmental factors either prenatally or after a child is born.

I have been involved in a lot of developmental provision over the past 3 years in working with young people on the autistic spectrum in mainstream schools, and have had some considerable success. But there is no escaping the fact that there is a lot more that we do not know than that which we do know about autism.

Personally, for what it is worth, I feel certain that needs on the spectrum cannot be ‘caused’ by a post-birth event – medical or emotional. We all have needs on the spectrum, and it may be that some young people struggle to cope with their needs more after a significant event. But current research simply does not conclude any categorical definitive link between vaccines (or any other medical treatments) and the onset of autism.

Last week the first ever disability-specific law in England, The Autism Bill, made it through its final parliamentary stage and will now become the Autism Act (3). The Autism Act will guarantee the introduction of the first-ever adult autism strategy, which will set out how local services should be improved to meet the needs of adults with autism.

The strategy will cross different sectors of care and support and cover a range of issues including health, social care, employment and training and, crucially, will be accompanied by guidance which places a legal obligation on local authorities and NHS bodies to meet certain requirements.

The strategy will be published by April 2010 and the accompanying legal guidance no later than December 2010. Things are developing all the time and more recent readers of SENCology may wish to look at previous posts on the subject to see how my own thoughts and provision has developed over the last year or so?

Whatever happens in the wider areas of research, high courts and governments; I think we (SENCos and other ‘on-the-ground-professionals’) need to remain guarded against sensationalism and stick to trying our best in achieving the best, and most appropriate, outcomes for the young people we work with, and strive to give them the best life-chances we can, within the systems in which we work.

This job is never easy – but would we be doing it if it was?