Home > Science > Dawson Letter to The New York Times

Dawson Letter to The New York Times

Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to an editorial entitled “Autism Fraud.”

To the Editor:

Re “Autism Fraud” (editorial, Jan. 13):

The latest British Medical Journal paper about autism and vaccines, which provides evidence that the initial report linking autism and vaccines was fraudulent, and the media coverage that ensued, miss an important point: Until science discovers the causes of autism and explains its dramatic increase, parents will continue to reach their own conclusions and desperately try a wide range of treatments, whether there is evidence to support them or not.

The answer is not to look to the past and look for blame, but rather to look to the future. We need increased research financing directed toward rigorous science that can provide the answers that parents are looking for and deserve. Until this happens, we will continue to wallow in controversy, and people with autism and families will continue to struggle with autism on their own.

Geraldine Dawson
Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks
New York, Jan. 13, 2011

See the letter on the The New York Times site.

  1. Suzanne Lanthier
    January 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Well said. Autism Speaks is so lucky to have this voice speaking on behalf of the global autism community – scientists, clinicians, teachers, parents and those living with autism.

  2. January 25, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Dawson for speaking out on this issue. The brain must be the focus of truly “rigorous science” on autism, not other organs like the gastrointestinal tract. GI problems are more likely the result of impaired autonomic centers in the brain, as is true for alcoholics and drug addicts.

    Autism is a neurological disorder that prevents normal development of language and social awareness. Brain systems that underlie language learning should be the target of research. Many genetic metabolic disorders appear to be the cause of some cases of autism. Toxic injury from substances like valproic acid (Depakote) or Thalidomide appear to be the cause of other cases, and prenatal infections like rubella can also lead to autism. The “common final pathway in the brain” is what must be looked for, vulnerable to injury by all of autism’s diverse etiologies.

  3. Katie Wright
    January 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

    The Federal Govt is trying to freeze all spending. We need to make our reps understand that $ more autism research is critically important and must be supported. In turn the NIH and the CDC must do a better job of spending the $ they have. Greater community input into the setting of research priorities is critical.

  4. Katie Wright
    January 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

    PS Ellen it is incredibly offensive that you compared my son’s GI disease to alcoholism or drug addiction. You do not know what you are speaking about.

  5. January 26, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Katie, glad I got your attention. If autism is caused by vaccine components, the effect on the brain is most likely similar to that caused by any other toxic substance, including drugs like thalidomide, valproic acid, and yes alcohol. Brainstem sensory and autonomic centers are most vulnerable. Disorders of the intestinal system have long been recognized in people with brain damage caused by alcohol and other drugs.

    Maybe the most lucid explanation I can give is what I posted nearly eleven years ago on my website, at http://conradsimon.org/WorkingPaper.html

    I agree with you that the NIH and CDC are not making great strides with all the research funds they control. Dr. Dawson is correct in calling for rigorous science, and this means focusing on the brain disorder in autism, and how this results from the many known causes of autism.

  6. Sarah
    January 26, 2011 at 6:53 pm


    I disagree that research should only focus on the brain. There is a connection between the GI and brain function so both should be the focus of further study on the etiology of autism.

    Chronic inflammation in the gut of children with autism has been reported by
    Dr. Timothy Buie, a gastroenterologist from Massachusetts General Hospital. Autism Speaks issued a consensus paper about treatment of GI issues in children with autism.

    Inflammation has also been reported in the brains of children with autism by Dr. Carlos Pardo, a Neurologist from Johns Hopkins. Could chronic inflammation in the GI and brain be a clue as to why our children, who had been developing normally, regressed? Equally important is whether this inflammation can be treated medically and how might that effect behavioral symptoms?

    I look forward to further research on GI and brain inflammation in autism. I think the research on GI issues in autism must continue despite the controversy.

    I agree with what Dr. Dawson said “The answer is not to look to the past and look for blame, but rather to look to the future. We need increased research financing directed toward rigorous science that can provide the answers that parents are looking for and deserve.

    Thank you Dr. Dawson for speaking out. Well said. Let’s keep the focus on helping our kids.

  7. richard fauth
    January 26, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Some well said stuff tonight by all who have posted i cant help but reflect on our commonalities but also how easy we can fracture. After a couple of posts in which i came down a little hard on Katie- I find my self wanting desperately to come to her aid tonight. First what Dr. Dawson said is dead on, as was the first post by Susanne. The concluding statement by Eileen was also very good as was Katie’s first post.

    But katies “ps” post is the best as it brings out what we all forget way to often-We are in this together and it is hard to not push back when people say things which offend us because of how close we are to our Children’s problems and how we can view others statements as a threat to our view.

    We gotta stop this Us Vs. Them stuff. Katie is correct-we need to channel our energies towards fighting for funding when it is time to do so-like now.

    We cannot just dismiss the fact that many children on the spectrum have GI problems as “something else”. That is no more correct than dismissing the siezures that many have or the known genetic defects that others have as something else. And yes it can be incredibly hurtfull and offensive when others say things-whether intended or not- that dismiss the suffering of our children.

    My son does not have GI problems-yet. But I Do. I have one of the two most common types of Inflammatory bowel disease-Crohns disease. I also have had Poly Arterita Nodosa-linked to crohns disease and an autoimmune disorder.

    My son has Autism-he also has varients/mutations in two of the top Suspects for Autism and an abnormal EEG-putting him at risk for siezure.

    So here is a little tidbit for all the folks who think each of our kids suffering and experiences are so different-Doctors have known for many years that the liklihood that a person with an autoimmune disease having a sibling with an autoimmune diseases(but not necessarily the same one)is very high.

  8. Sarah
    January 26, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you Dr. Dawson.

    Eileen, Eileen… our children are all different – you should know that by now (I see from your website, you’ve been around a while). This is what the UC Davis Phenome project is all about http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute/research/app/. And, haven’t you been paying attention to the subtype that has gastro problems (and all the different smaller subtypes within that)? http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/gastrointestinal_concerns_addressed_new_clinical_guidelines.php

    My son has horrific stools as well (but by no means am I claiming that all ASD children have gastro problems):

    Our local expert (not a big name internationally) said (and this was years and years ago), “yes, you’re right something is wrong here – your son has what I call “autistic gut”. But, I disagree with the DAN! people that the gut is causing the brain damage – I think it is the brain causing the gut damage.” I didn’t dare tell him my interpretation – as I was just so thrilled to have a garden variety pediatric gastro doctor acknowledge the “autistic gut” and not treat me as if I was from Mars. My theory (still is my theory), it’s a circle – the gut and the brain play off one another/damage one another/repair one another.

    But, back to thanking Dr. Dawson for her leadership and dedication.

    Thank you Dr. Dawson :)

  9. concerned parent
    January 27, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Dear Dr. Dawson,
    There is confusion in the autism community as to the purpose of this letter. You seem to be saying “Lay off Wakefield.” But at the same time, you criticize him by referring to “evidence” that the report linking autism and vaccines was fraudulent. Not “alleged evidence” or “evidence as claimed by Brian Deer,” but you call it “evidence.”

    You want people to stop looking at the past for blame, but how do you feel about looking at the past for clues to the solving the autism puzzle? How do you feel about Wakefield’s work and the response to it? You’ve certainly read Callous Disregard and are aware of how he’s been treated by the press, and that he was struck off the medical register in the UK.

    You must have an opinion about all this. What is it? Please elaborate. We deserve to know know your position on Dr. Wakefield’s work since you are the Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks.

    Thank you.

  10. Lyndy Kelley
    January 27, 2011 at 9:55 am

    My son has been having intestinal problems starting from extremely hard dry stools to having diarrhea 3 out of 7 days. We had him tested for allergies, and they found a very mild peanut allergy that he has that has been causing the wild swings in his digestion.
    A very wise man, who works with the support groups of children/adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and who has Asperger’s, said that 99% of these kiddos/adults are allergic to just about everything.
    His name is William Stillman, and the book I have of his that I insist anyone having contact with my son read is titled “Demystifying the Autistic Experience”. Read it, if you have a chance to see this man speak, GO….it changed my whole outlook on the disorder spectrum.
    So…if you haven’t had your child tested for allergies, and they are having intestinal problems, and the doctor hasn’t figured out that problem yet, it could be a simple allergic reaction to food, including liquids of various types, or even to their medications.
    I’m happy to say, since we took peanuts out of his diet all-together, we have had no more problems bowel-wise.
    Thank you, just needed to get folk’s heads out of the medical journals long enough to see that sometimes the most simplest of answers are the correct ones.

  11. Lyndy Kelley
    January 27, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Ps….my own personal motto is “My son has Autism, Autism does NOT have him”

    just wanted to share that

  12. January 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Dr. Dawson, can I suggest having Autism Speaks fund research on the inferior colliculus in the midbrain auditory pathway? This auditory processing center has higher blood flow than any other area of the brain. Therefore, this is where the greatest exposure to anything in the circulation will occur, whether injected as a vaccine or absorbed from the gut.

    Loss of inhibitory neurons in the inferior colliculi should be investigated as a possible reason for hyperacusis in autism, as well as difficulties hearing word and syllable boundaries.

    Please start by looking at the brief proposal I submitted to the IACC 2 years ago as a possible vaccine research strategy:

  13. Matt
    January 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    the answer is not to look to the past, but to learn from the past.

    There were a lot of mistakes made. Not just by Andy Wakefield. The media and many autism organizations were and still are guilty of promoting his ideas. The fact that evidence is now in, as Geraldine Dawson notes, that Wakefield’s ideas were supported by fraudulent research is important in learning from the past.

    • Concerned parent
      January 29, 2011 at 11:05 am

      Dr. Dawson,
      Is Matt correct in attributing to you his statement that the “evidence is now in that Wakefield’s ideas were supported by fraudulent research”? This is why I requested in my previous comment that you to elaborate further. I’m sure you would not want people misinterpreting or misquoting your words, but what you’ve written to the editor does seem ambiguous regarding your opinion of Dr. Wakefield’s work, especially in light of your organization’s work in the area of GI and autism. http://www.autismspeaks.org/press/gastrointestinal_conditions_symposium_pr.php

      Please clarify. Thank you.

  14. Katie Wright
    January 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    We all have different perspectives and that is OK. Autism is a huge spectrum. I had no idea who Andy Wakefield was when my son had horrible reactions to vaccines and developed GI disease. Wakefield is 1 doctor of dozens who have found GI disease among ASD kids.
    If your child is not affected by this great-I probably would not believe had I not lived it either.

  15. Sarah
    January 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Whether Wakefield’s single paper has meaning or not is immaterial (and as I see it, a smoke screen). However, there are many papers re: oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction and/or disorders that have a great deal of meaning.

    With my child, there isn’t ONE smoking gun. There are many (starting with his gestation) and he had many regressions (some small, others startlingly horrific).

    Please note: I by no means mean to indicate that for all ASD individuals, the epigenetic spiral into ASD can only start gestationally. Simply, for my child, this is where it began.

  16. January 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    My first two sons had traumatic births. Both were full-term and just under 9lbs. My oldest son had horrible colic. My second son, Conrad, had to be resuscitated and he suffered what they call “multi-organ dysfunction,” projectile vomiting, endless spitting up, bowel issues too, and worst of all a “collapsing trachea” that was very scary.

    Conrad’s motor and early speech development were right on time, and we thought he had overcome early handicaps from asphyxia. Then at age 3 his nursery school teacher (not the pediatricians) suggested we have him evaluated for autism because of his strange “echolalic speech”.

    Never did I think Conrad’s autism was caused by bowel or persistent respiratory problems. My subsequent research made me realize these were part of his neurological problem. How I wish we could have found a cure for his autism. Our oldest son by age 7 did appear to have outgrown his early problems, but by his late teens it was clear that he would not go to college. He is gifted in many ways, and we are writing a memoir together, which is proving to be a most interesting endeavor.

    Research on autism must focus on the brain, whether vaccine injury, mitochondrial disorder, or birth asphyxia are to blame.

  17. concerned parent
    January 31, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Dr. Dawson,
    Please see my two comments above, asking for clarification from you. Your statement seems contradictory – that Dr. Wakefield committed fraudulent autism research, but that he should not be blamed.

    Either he committed fraud, in which case you would be openly supporting sanctions taken against him, or he did not commit fraud in which case you would be calling for his exoneration.

    To remain silent on this matter is an injustice to the cause of autism.

  18. Robin
    February 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    All interesting insights. I have never been in favor of the vaccine theory, so the fact the Dr Wakefield’s research was fraudulent was not earth shaking to me.

    My son does have huge GI issues, a hard birth (true knot in the cord and the cord was wrapped around his neck twice)his Apgars were low, asthma, horrible ear infections until he was 7 years old, plus we have autism in the family.

    He did however participate in a study, when he was about 15, through Children’s Hospital and JFK (they do lots of autism studies and groups). The study was to see if there was a connection between Leaky Gut Syndrome and Autism. The outcome for this study was that there is no connection. I don’t know that this means there is no realtionship between any GI issues and autism though.

    My feeling is the genetic link seems to be there with almost everyone I know that has a child with Autism, I find it interesting that no one has touched on that.

  19. March 6, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    There have been some very interesting comments in this thread. I would like to suggest one area that is most often overlooked. Diet or a poor diet is the most likely cause for the various forms of autism. My recent research has shown that when the diet is made adequate, many of the symptoms disappear, many in less than a month. I agree with the need for research that will provide the answers that parents seek, which is to see the goal of finding the cause, prevention, and cure.
    Fifty years of research has left this area untouched from my vantage point.

  20. June 11, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    @concerned parent:
    Perhaps Dr Dawson knows that Mr (no longer a Dr – that is seriously damning) Wakefield’s fraudulent research was just that — but does not want to be sued for libel by Mr. Wakefield and all the slick websites out there run by “diet” focused Autism treatment snake oil peddlers. (And guess how much money parents are wasting on those.) You know the ones – they all have a paid-for “BBB accredited” badge at the bottom of their websites. Not exactly what a doctor’s website would look like, don’t you think? I hope I’m wrong but highly doubt it.

    The other reasons being that (a) in the future there may very well be a diet association to “autism” – but that could be just about anything right? hormones in your milk, benzene/mtbe water in your veggies, too much BHT preservative consumed, even alcohol drunk. For all we know it’s potentially caused by asbestos off brakepads of highways (wasn’t “autism” first diagnosed 60 years ago?), culturally or socially (genetically) inbred people of certain ethnicities… who the heck knows. As a doctor, Dawson is also a scientist, and scientists go by data, not theories… and more relevantly, are meek to completely “rule out” things, even bogus things, as we the general populace would. Same thing with global warming. IPCC is very conservative. “Science” hasn’t stood on its own – but slick PR and marketing by car makers, Exxon-Mobil and others certainly has. So it appears to me in the “autism” space. If anything, this autism thing reminds me of AIDS’ early days: confusion, uncertainty.

    And finally, Dawson is probably being “nice” as a professional courtesy, though I don’t think MR. Wakefield deserves a damn bit of it — he lied to thousands of parents worldwide, who have spent countless millions of dollars and wasted time on fake “treatments” for their ADD/PDD diagnosed children… all that time, resources and energy should have gone toward LEGITIMATE treatments which would have actually partially cured their children and yours. You know, the kind of treatment regimes which are accepted in peer-reviewed medical journals.


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