Robert Kennedy has been Huffington Posting again, this time suggesting that we study the Amish to see if vaccines are a cause of autism:
If Dr. Fineberg genuinely wants to test his assertions about Thimerosal safety with epidemiological data, he should commission a study comparing American children who were exposed to vaccines to (sic) the Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists or others, who, for religious reasons, did not receive Thimerosal-laced vaccines.
A recent survey by United Press found that autism is virtually unknown among Pennsylvania's large Amish populations -- a strong indication that vaccines are indeed a principal culprit of the epidemic. Despite the repeated urgings of independent scientists and the families of autistic children, the federal agencies involved have refused to commission such a study and have closed federal vaccine files in order to derail the creation of those studies by outside scientists.
It was encouraging to note that many people in the comments could immediately see the flaws in Kennedy’s reasoning. I’ll repeat a few of them below.
First, a “survey by United Press” is hardly solid evidence that there is virtually no autism in the Amish. Maybe it is true, I don’t know, but it sure can’t be taken as a given, and I’m not going to take Kennedy’s word for it.
Secondly, even if true, it is absolutely not “a strong indication” that vaccines are responsible for Autism. In fact, it means virtually nothing: there are many other confounding factors that could contribute towards this supposed piece of data.
The first obvious confounding factor would be genetics: the Amish are largely an inbred community with many genetic diseases. They could easily have a genetic immunity to autism.
Other confounding factors would be the Amish’s many lifestyle differences. For example, they shun much else of modern medicine (not just vaccines), such as ultrasound tests. Additionally, they have a diet of home grown organic un-pasteurized food with no hormones. Theirs is also a typical pre-World War II rural diet: meat, potatoes, gravy, eggs, vegetables, bread, pies, cakes, with no fast food. I’m not saying any of these things are what gives them protection. I am saying that these (and no doubt numerous other lifestyle differences) are confounding factors that would mean the simple “no autistic Amish = vaccinations are to blame” conclusion that Kennedy appears to be suggesting, is absurd.
One interesting comment referred to a recent article suggesting that Autism might be the product of both parents being systems-type thinkers, rather than empathizers:
One needs to be extremely careful in advancing a cause for autism, because this field is rife with theories that have collapsed under empirical scrutiny. Nonetheless, my hypothesis is that autism is the genetic result of "assortative mating" between parents who are both strong systemizers. Assortative mating is the term we use when like is attracted to like, and there are four significant reasons to believe it is happening here.
FIRST, both mothers and fathers of children with autism complete the embedded figures test faster than men and women in the general population.
Second, both mothers and fathers of children with autism are more likely to have fathers who are talented systemizers (engineers, for example).
Third, when we look at brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging, males and females on average show different patterns while performing empathizing or systemizing tasks. But both mothers and fathers of children with autism show strong male patterns of brain activity.
Fourth, both mothers and fathers of children with autism score above average on a questionnaire that measures how many autistic traits an individual has. These results suggest a genetic cause of autism, with both parents contributing genes that ultimately relate to a similar kind of mind: one with an affinity for thinking systematically.
This sort of thinker – scientifically inclined rather than emotional and with social sensitivity – would probably be unlikely to join / more likely to leave the highly regimented and religious Amish. Consequently the “systems thinker” trait would be rare in Amish – and very rare in both parents.
Of course, if the Amish really do have no autism, then a study into the reasons would be extremely useful. It’s just that the rather childish study Kennedy appears to be suggesting would be a waste of time. I don’t know if a study of the Amish could be designed that would reveal anything useful regarding autism. I just know Kennedy’s idea is absurd.