President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Why Trump’s falsehoods about autism matter

Shortly before launching his presidential campaign, Donald Trump wanted the world to know he’s “totally pro-vaccine” and he also believe vaccines can cause “horrible autism.” There is, of course, literally zero evidence linking vaccines and autism, but Trump isn’t an evidence-based kind of guy.

After becoming a candidate, Trump declared during a primary debate that autism “has become an epidemic” and has “gotten totally out of control.” He even had an anecdote to share: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

There’s no reason to believe that child exists in reality, but Trump seemed quite animated about his beliefs – which are directly at odds with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine.

Worse, he’s apparently not done. New York magazine noted yesterday that Trump hosted an event at the White House with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and a group of educators, and the president focused on one principal of a special education center in Virginia.
After Jane noted that many of her students have autism, Trump asked, “Have you seen a big increase in the autism, with the children?” Jane replied in the affirmative, but seemed to couch her response as being more about an increase in demand for services – she didn’t explicitly agree there’s been a big increase in the overall rate.

Trump continued: “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 tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea? And you’re seeing it in the school?” Jane replied – again, in a way that seems a bit noncommittal vis-a-vis Trump’s claim – that the rate of autism is something like 1-in-66 or 1-in-68 children. To which Trump responded: “Well now, it’s gotta be even lower [presumably meaning higher, rate-wise] than that, which is just amazing – well, maybe we can do something.”
As the New York article makes clear, Trump’s rhetoric may be in line with his claims from the campaign – though he did not specifically mention vaccines yesterday – but actual science doesn’t support his assertions. Trump was simply peddling nonsense about a “tremendous amount of increase” that doesn’t exist.

At first, this seemed to simply fit into a broader pattern in which Trump simply assumes, incorrectly, that practically everything has gotten worse in advance of his presidency. He’s insisted, for example, that murder rates are at a 45-year high, despite the fact that this isn’t even close to being true. Trump’s made similarly bogus claims about everything from unemployment to trade to illegal border crossings.

But there also seems to be something specific about Trump, his assumptions about autism, and his misguided theories about vaccines. Note, for example, that he met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last month, and reportedly asked him to “chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity.” Kennedy, of course, is one of the nation’s more prominent voices spreading fringe theories linking vaccines to autism in children, despite the public-health risks created by such rhetoric.

Trump’s transition office later tried to walk that back a bit, but Kennedy told members of his environmental group “that he expects to temporarily leave it to chair a vaccine safety commission he has been discussing with President-elect Donald Trump and his aides for over a month.” (The United States already has a vaccine safety commission, and it works very well.)

The president is confused about a great many things. When it comes to autism, it’d be better for everyone if he kept his confusion to himself.