No, autism isn’t caused by the MMR or any other vaccine. Despite many (neurotypical) parents noticing changes to their autistic children’s expected behaviour paths at around 12-15 months – exactly the time that they receive their MMR. In fact, current studies suggest between 61-91% heritability and therefore a very strong genetic component.
My mother has always told me I was a grumpy baby. Even before a year old, I would scowl at strangers who had peeked into my pram and make these grown adults recoil. As I told my GP when I finally worked out that I had many autistic traits and related this story to him – “I’ve been inadvertently alienating people my whole life.”
Since autism is largely genetic, it often runs in families. So perhaps my spinster great-aunt was autistic and possibly too, her confirmed bachelor brother whose bedroom walls were lined with his handmade model trains. With hindsight, my mother can certainly recognise autistic traits in their sibling, my grandmother. Both of my mother’s two sisters had epilepsy from childhood, the eldest of which, Jeanette, died at 5 of sepsis – but apparently there was always something “not right” with her beyond her epilepsy. (By the way, the genetic links between autism and epilepsy run both ways and I’ve seen research papers suggesting that because the link is so strong, all unaffected siblings of epileptic children should be routinely screened for autism.) I know that Jeanette could walk and talk and in the only photograph of her that I’ve seen, she is a pretty little blonde girl – with no obvious signs of disability.
Lest you think this is all coming from my mother’s side: my father is a retired engineer. And he’s ambidextrous, writing with his left-hand but playing guitars right-handed and playing racquet sports and golf with both hands (his golf bag includes both left and right clubs). Both technical careers and mixed-handedness are associated with increased likelihood of ASD diagnosis. In fact, if you met my parents you’d probably think he was the more obvious potential-autist with his engineering “toys” and his plane-spotting (for much of my early childhood, every blinking Sunday morning was spent at Heathrow Airport to give my mother a break – he thinks I have forgotten – I have not) and his multiple telescopes and his odd thinking-style (which is very much like mine – much to my brothers’ amusement and frustration – for instance, when playing Just One my father’s suggested words are so out of left-field, i.e. displaying associative rather than linear thinking, nobody can get them except me).