Jump to accessibility statement Skip to content

"I thought I’d heard everything….I was wrong”

Home / More / News / "I thought I’d heard everything….I was wrong”

Published on 27 April 2018

University of Sunderland expert on the dog/autism debate
University of Sunderland expert on the dog/autism debate

Controversy has been raging all week after a national breakfast television programme appealed for participants to debate the issue of autism – in dogs.

 It comes amid growing concerns that 'Anti-vaxxers' believe that immunisations have harmful side effects and may be the cause of autism in family pets.

 Now, a University of Sunderland autism  expert is hitting back against the “scare mongerers” who are insulting those living with the condition.

 Here, Lecturer in Psychology, Dr Amy Pearson, has her say on the debate – and she’s not holding back.


 “Good Morning Britain have stirred controversy this week, seeking out participants for a debate on vaccine safety.

 The show were interested in speaking to people whose nearest and dearest had developed autism after being vaccinated. But far from what you might expect, this isn’t a show about autistic children. It’s about dogs. Autistic dogs - I thought I‘d heard everything. I was wrong.

 In order to address the issues surrounding this debate, there are a few things that it is worth being clear about upfront.

*Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition: this means that it is present from birth, and likely the combination of complex brain differences and genetic factors.

*Autism isNOTcaused by vaccinations.

*Dogs CANNOT be autistic.

 It’s difficult to know where to start with this one – I could begin by discussing the MMR scandal, in which discredited ex medical researcher Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between bowel problems, the MMR vaccination, and autism.  I could discuss vaccine safety in general, and conspiracy theories surrounding vaccine administration.

 Instead, I’m going to begin by talking about dogs, and what we know about canine behaviour.

 Dogs have evolved to live, and communicate with humans using body language, facial expression and vocalisations to signal how they are feeling. Dogs do not generally like direct eye contact - as they may interpret it as aggressive and challenging - their enjoyment of physical contact may vary, and they may display seemingly random aggression towards other dogs.

 Dogs benefit from a set routine, and enjoy engaging in repetitive sensory behaviours. These preferences may be present from birth, may change during sexual maturation, and if neutered may change again.

 Some dog behaviours – like barking at other dogs in the park - may be modified through training, however training a dog is no guarantee that a dog’s behaviour will always be consistent.  Canine professionals recommend that training for dogs is as consistent as possible, and that opportunities for positive socialisation are taken whenever possible.

 When a dog displays behavioural difficulties, it is often a result of hormones, lack of socialisation, or the result of a negative encounter with another dog. It is not autism.

 Autism can be understood as an expression of Neurodiversity, the idea that human brains differ from person to person, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of being. The brains and behaviour of autistic people may be different from that of non-autistic, people, but that does not make them less.

 The Autism Spectrum reflects the immense diversity we see in autistic people: some autistic people require a lot of support with their daily activities and some do not. A diagnosis of autism is based upon a range of behaviours, some of which may be present from early childhood and some which may go unnoticed until later in life.

 Though we don’t know exactly what causes autism, we do know that it is present from birth, and that it never goes away. Aside from the fact that comparing autistic people and their behaviour to that of dogs is fundamentally patronising and irresponsible, an autistic person will always be autistic regardless of the level of difficulty they may be experiencing at a particular time. A dog having behavioural difficulties is usually a temporary change which can be dealt with through appropriate training.

 The development of vaccinations to protect both humans and canines from disease is the most effective way to ensure that a child or pet does not contract a life-threatening illness. In the UK in 1940 there were 857 deaths from measles, in 2015 there were 0. Though the statistics on Parvovirus aren’t as clear, research suggests that unvaccinated puppies have a survival probability of just 10%, compared to 90% in vaccinated puppies.

The suggestion that vaccines cause autism in humans and dogs raises the question of how this could be possible. If we are to argue that vaccines do cause autism, we must look at two distinct possibilities:

*The ingredients in the specific vaccinations cause autism.

The ingredients for the MMR are the disease strains, sugar, water, and amino acids.

The Parvovirus vaccination for dogs contains the parvovirus strain, and a saline solution to dilute. These ingredients are not the same, thus unless we are suggesting that water causes autism the ingredients cannot explain this occurring.

*The act of inserting a needle into a species causes autism. If this was true, every person on the face of the planet to be vaccinated would be autistic.

 It is fairly easy to refute the autism-vaccine link. The MMR scandal was based upon faulty data, and any link between autism and the MMR has failed to be replicated.

 It isn’t to say that in rare cases vaccine allergy or intolerance of vaccine ingredients do not cause harm and damage to a person, but they do not cause autism to develop. Furthermore, there is no evidence that autism exists across species.

 Animals may exhibit behaviours that we associate with autistic humans, but linking them to a diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental condition is anthropomorphism gone haywire and spurious at best.

 Those who are humouring anti-vaccination rhetoric are contributing towards a distrust of the medical profession which has resulted in human and canine vaccination rates lowering, and the rise of curable diseases.

 It is also doing a disservice to autistic people and parents of autistic children by continuing to scaremonger and treat autism as a tragedy that could befall an individual instead of a neurological variation. In a month dedicated to autism acceptance, it is about time to put the vaccination-autism link to bed and instead focus on spreading factual knowledge about what autism is, and isn’t.”

  • Dr Amy Pearson has a Masters in Cognitive Neuroscience and PhD in Autism research
  • Read more about busting the myths of autism here