August 11, 2021


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Tags: Autism, backlash, Contentious, prompts, Researchers, Spectrum, Study


Categories: autism

Contentious research prompts backlash from autism researchers | Spectrum

Calls for Conflict: Journals urge researchers to disclose financial ties, ideological commitments, and personal beliefs or relationships that skew or may skew their results.

Photo by Rebecca Horne

Conflicts of interest and methodological issues tarnish a study published July 18 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, autism researchers say.

The study’s researchers – which tries to predict the prevalence of autism and associated costs in the United States in 2060 – all have ties to organizations that mistakenly associate autism with vaccines, critics note, a conflict of interest none the researcher has adequately disclosed.

The lead investigator, Mark Blaxill, is the editor of Age of Autism, a website promoting suspicions about vaccinations and the long-unmasked link between vaccines and autism. Blaxill has made headlines across the country for its anti-vaccine views.

Co-investigator Toby Rogers is a political economist who has written for the Children’s Health Defense Fund, a website that seeks to discredit the safety of vaccines; Co-investigator Cynthia Nevison, a research fellow at the University of Colorado, is a former board member of SafeMinds, an organization that has tried to link vaccines to autism.

“It is perfectly clear that this paper does not follow the guidelines of the journal,” said David Mandell, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and editor-in-chief of Autism magazine. “When you refer to the Conflict of Interest guidelines of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, it means that certain ideological commitments and personal beliefs, personal relationships, and all of these things must also be disclosed.”

“I have not received any income from writing articles in Age of Autism over the years, so obviously this is not a conflict,” Blaxill wrote to Spectrum in response to Mandell’s comments.

Methodical missteps:

The study used autism prevalence data from the state of California to predict that 3 to 10 percent of children in the United States will have autism by 2060. Based on that number, she estimated the future cost of autism to society at $ 5.5 trillion a year. A third analysis claimed to model how prevention might reduce the prevalence of autism in the future.

The prevalence forecast is flawed, says Mandell, because it was calculated by “looking at really old data, comparing it to new data, and then taking an exponential function. If you multiply small numbers like this, you end up with large numbers. “

The rise in the prevalence of autism in recent years can be attributed to “better observation and diagnosis at the community level,” says Mandell. “The basal rate of autism doesn’t magically increase because there’s a toxin that is causing it, which is the underlying assumption [the paper’s authors] to have.”

“Magic numbers,” said Madison Hyer, biostatistician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, were also used in calculating prevention because it is not clear what prevention means or what is being measured. “Are you saying that this is the cost of supporting or treating an autistic person throughout their life? Or is this the cost that is higher than the cost of supporting a non-autistic person? Everyone costs something. “

Mandell notes related questions about prevention prediction.

“[The authors] made some really tough assumptions about productivity … it looks like they assumed that anyone with autism is not productive, ”he says, but many autistic people work.

“What we are observing is that [autistic people] may have some disabilities and challenges and we as a society should think about how we can support them. But they are still quite productive members of society. “

Some of the data used to calculate productivity could also come from questionable sources, says Kristen Bottema-Beutel, associate professor of teaching, curricula, and society at Boston College in Massachusetts. “The data they are using seems to come from a non-peer-reviewed PDF.”

Blaxill declined to respond to criticism of the paper’s methodology and instead emailed Spectrum to reply, “Read the paper …

The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders was founded in 1971 and its first editor-in-chief was Leo Kanner, one of the first clinicians to describe autism. Some researchers say the new study decreased their awareness of the journal, which has an Impact Factor of 3.047. (A journal’s impact factor is how often its articles are cited.)

Hyer raised his concerns in an email to the magazine’s current editor-in-chief, Fred Volkmar, professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. Volkmar did not reply to Spectrum for comment, but replied by email to Hyer asking him to write a letter to the editorial staff. Mandell says he also plans to write a letter to the editorial team.

“[This paper] makes me question the peer review process, ”said Brittany Hand, assistant professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, who also wrote a protest letter to Volkmar. “How on earth does something like that come around [peer review]? “

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