Anti-vax activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. aims to spread a false, anti-vaccine...

Anti-vax activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. aims to spread a false, anti-vaccine narrative that could have disastrous consequences for science, public health and, for the children.  Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

It was psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who first used the term "autism" in the early 1900s to describe a patient who seemed immersed in his own world. Four decades later, psychiatrist Leo Kanner analyzed 11 children who he said shared "an extreme autistic aloneness that, whenever possible, disregards, ignores, shuts out anything that comes to the child from the outside."

Kanner emphasized the need for further study. But it took another 40 years before autism became an official diagnosis, and even longer before it was better understood.

Parents, teachers and doctors are still learning, trying to understand the complicated spectrum of symptoms, behaviors and diagnoses that fall under the autism umbrella and making sure children receive the proper diagnosis and appropriate services.

Data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that as of 2020, approximately one in 36 eight-year-olds had autism, an increase from 2018's rate of one in 44, and a stark climb from the one in 150 who were diagnosed in 2000.

This doesn't mean autism itself is on the rise, or that outside factors are causing an increase in autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

It's actually a sign that knowledge is power. As people know what to look for, and as more children have access to medical care, screening and early intervention services, diagnoses will rise.

That's especially true as more recent data contradicts some preconceived notions and trends. Girls, for instance, are now more likely than ever to receive an autism diagnosis, despite the long-held association that autism is mostly found in boys. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander children also have seen significant increases in the rate of autism diagnosis, similarly a likely sign of improved screening and access.

So, in some ways, the rising rates are a positive development. The more we can appropriately diagnose children, the more we can get them the services and support they need, from therapies and interventions to smaller class settings and one-on-one care. As those children grow, and autism is better understood and embraced, we also can address their needs as teens and adults in terms of housing, jobs and more. 

But as we build such acceptance and understanding, it's also important to destroy false tropes, starting with the long-debunked narrative that vaccination causes autism.

It should be no surprise that Children's Health Defense chairman Robert F. Kennedy Jr., long an anti-vax activist, immediately used the CDC data for his own playbook, calling autism a "national cataclysm that dwarfs the devastating impacts from COVID-19" and attributing its primary causes to "regulatory capture and poorly tested vaccines."

He's wrong, of course. But until now, RFK Jr. — son of a former attorney general, nephew of a former president — has had a relatively limited audience, mostly a circle of like-minded individuals.

Now, however, that base could grow. Kennedy is planning to run for president, as a Democrat, with an official announcement due next week. And while his famous family has denounced his views, the name alone might give him a dangerous level of stature and credibility he doesn't deserve. Already, supporters are talking about switching their registrations so they can vote for him in the primaries and finding ways to promote his campaign — and the disinformation that goes with it.

Kennedy's campaign likely won't make him president. But if his goal is to spread a false, anti-vaccine narrative, that alone could have disastrous consequences for science, public health and, yes, for the children. 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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