Decoding My Autism

For a long time, I've tried to understand what goes on in my brain. Along the way, I've learned some things and made discoveries that have helped me live a better life.

  • Dan Bell

Why People THINK Vaccines Cause Autism

Sorry for my long absence from the blog! I've been dealing with chronic health challenges that have made it difficult to devote the needed time to the blog.

If you know literally anything about autism, you've probably heard of the idea that vaccines cause autism.

Again, for the record, no they don't.

Where The Idea Came From

The idea got started in 1998, after a now-discredited physician, Andrew Wakefield, published a fraudulent study falsely claiming a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, specifically alleging that the MMR vaccine caused a new syndrome called autistic enterocolitis. Wakefield, in a press conference, called for a halt to the MMR vaccine until more research could be done.

The study has since been discredited and retracted, and Wakefield has lost his medical license, but Wakefield has continued his anti-vaccination propaganda. Promoted by believing celebrities, and also expanded to attribute other vaccines to causing autism as well, it has spawned an entire community of conspiracy theorists called "anti-vaxxers".

However, conspiracy theories usually have some degree of evidence, some degree of truth to their claim. So where is it in this case?

Autism symptoms often begin to appear around 18 to 24 months old. It can come on very suddenly. Parents wonder what happened to their child. As I've shared before, this sudden change has been speculated to be the source of the Changeling Child myth, where fairies come and steal a child away, replacing it with one of their own kind, who behaves very differently.

These symptoms usually appear around the same stage of life that a number of vaccines are being administered, or shortly thereafter. Anti-vaxxers often note that the symptoms started appearing right after the vaccinations. According to Wakefield's study, the parents of 8 out of the 12 kids in the study claimed that the symptoms appeared 2 weeks after receiving the MMR vaccine.

And then they think vaccines are the cause, because they fall into the correlation equals causation fallacy. It means that because two events happen together, or one shortly after the other (correlation) - in this case the vaccines and the appearance of autism symptoms - that the one caused the other (causation).

However, since Wakefield's claims, there have been many studies showing that this isn't the case.

So what's really going on? What's happening at 18-24 months that causes the autism symptoms to suddenly show themselves?

Nerve Insulation

In order to answer that, I first need to go into a little bit of detail as to our current understanding of how brain cells work.

In order for one nerve cell to communicate with another, it sends the signal down a long, shaft-like part of the nerve cell, called the axon - rather like an electrical wire. Electrical wires are typically insulated to help the signal get from one end of the wire to the other.

In a nerve cell, this insulation is a fatty substance called the myelin sheath. If there is too much myelin or too little, the nerve can't function properly.

Without insulation, electrical signals can't travel properly. Interference from the other wires gets in the way of the signal, and signals can get crossed. In complicated electrical circuits, wires without insulation could touch and short-circuit. Imagine that happening in the brain.

The myelin sheath isn't fully formed at birth. The process of forming it, called myelination, starts in the womb at 36 weeks and finishes in most areas of the brain in the second year of life.

In other words, myelin happens to finish developing around the same time we're vaccinated.

When Things Go Wrong - And Why It Matters

In February of this year, a new study was published that found a genetic mutation in autism that disrupts the nerve cells' ability to form the myelin sheath properly.

So, in autism, the myelin sheath - the nerve's insulation - can't form properly, and it disrupts the nerve's ability to communicate with other nerves.

So, if the nerve cells can't communicate properly, why do the symptoms show up at 18-24 months? Why not sooner?

It's my theory that it's only when the myelin is supposed to be fully formed that disrupted myelin makes a difference, and causes the symptoms of autism to appear.

The myelin sheath wouldn't typically finish forming until between 12 and 24 months.. Until then, a child's brain development doesn't depend on myelin, so disrupted myelin doesn't make an obvious difference.

Until then, the brain is just going along, developing, not needing the myelin to proceed with early development stages, like babbling, learning how to use their limbs, making eye contact.

But once it gets to the point where the brain needs the myelin to continue growing, developing, and making connections, and the myelin isn't there to help with those connections, that things become challenging and the symptoms start becoming obvious.

More Research Needed

Again, this is just a theory of mine, I don't have studies to back up this claim. These are conclusions I've drawn based on the evidence and studies available. As I frequently say, more research is needed on this.

And this isn't something that explains all cases and symptoms of autism. In many cases, symptoms show up long before the 18-24 month range. I myself displayed symptoms and motor problems long before this - my parents knew something was up when I barely rolled over at 12 months. (We didn't know it was autism until I was 11)

But this is, however, one more piece in the argument against vaccines causing autism. It's a fight we may never be done with, but I'm going to keep fighting in my small way.

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