It’s not a big secret that Donald Trump is probably an anti-vaxxer. Though he’s claimed to be “pro-vaccine,” like many anti-vaxxers, he often talks out of both sides of his mouth, and is on record as saying that he thinks rising autism rates are related to vaccines. They’re not. But that hasn’t stopped him from meeting with anti-vaccine quacks like disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield and Robert Kennedy Jr.
Today, during a meeting with educators at the White House with new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump had this to say in a conversation with a teacher who works in special ed.
“Have you seen a big increase in the autism with the children?” he asks the woman, whose name is Jane. She says that they have seen an increase in a demand for services for kids with autism (note that she’s not saying there are now more kids with autism than there used to be). Trump continues: “So what’s going on with autism when you look at the tremendous increase it’s really, it’s such an incredible… it’s really a horrible thing to watch the, the tremendous amount of increase… do you have any idea? And you’re seeing it in the school?”
Yes, President Trump is asking a random special ed teacher, in front of a huge group of the press, if she “has any idea” what's going on with the “tremendous increase” in children with autism. While she is almost certainly an amazing teacher, and her opinions are really valued, she was probably not prepared to be asked this question by our president. In public. Still, she gamely cites a commonly accepted statistic of “1 in 66 or 1 in 68 children” who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Trump finishes up with a really slippery untruth: “Now it’s even going even lower than that which is just amazing. Well, maybe we can do something.”
“Well, maybe we can do something.”
What Trump means, presumably, is that the ratio is higher (not lower), or that the number of children with autism is increasing. But there's no actual scientific consensus on this, and to suggest there otherwise is really dangerous, because it’s what anti-vaxxers do to make their case. Something is up, they say. But many scientists believe that we now have more children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders because we are better able to recognize and diagnose them, not because there has been any actual increase in the numbers. In fact, autism wasn't even something schools formally recognized until 1992, when the disorder was added as a special education designation. So it's very possible that many children with autism were simply diagnosed with something else, a phenomenon known as “diagnostic substitution.”
While there have been some studies that suggest there's been an increase in the number of people with autism, scientists are far from reaching a consensus on the matter. And until there is a meaningful scientific consensus — which, let's be honest, we have no reason to believe our president will accept — we should not tolerate the kind of harmful rhetoric on display at the White House today.