Special Education

Executive Steps Down From Autism Speaks

By Christina A. Samuels — January 15, 2009 2 min read
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Alison Tepper Singer, formerly the executive vice president for communications and outreach for the powerful New York-based advocacy organization Autism Speaks, announced today that she was leaving the organization based on a disagreement over the need for further research into vaccines as a potential cause of autism.

Autism Speaks would like to see more research into a possible link between the two. Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in childhood vaccines, is considered a culprit by many, though no studies have shown a connection. Others believe that the number of vaccines, and the ages at which they are administered to children, could be a possible cause.

Singer said in her e-mailed statement, and a later conversation with me, that she believes that money is better focused on other issues, including possible environmental causes and better treatments and services for people with autism.

“My views on this differ from Autism Speaks’ views,” she told me.

Singer is one of six “public” members of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, created under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help guide the direction of autism research. There are also 12 federal members, representing different government agencies. Singer’s term ends in 2011.

At the committee’s Jan. 14 meeting, the committee decided to refer two vaccine-safety studies to another committee, the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, rather than fund the studies itself. The vote was a disappointment to those who wanted the vaccine research funded this year, like Autism Speaks.

Singer said she resigned before the meeting, because she knew her vote would be in conflict with the organization’s views. “It would be unprofessional to vote in a way that the organization wouldn’t want. But it would have been disingenuous to vote against my conscience,” she said.

Autism Speaks blasted the decision not to fund the vaccine studies. Bob Wright, a co-founder of the organization and a former executive with NBC, said the plan was now “tainted” and could not be supported by the autism community.

Singer took pains to say that she thinks that Autism Speaks does “wonderful” and “fabulous” work. If research dollars were unlimited, then maybe additional vaccine safety studies would be all right, she said. But the research must be focused, she said.

A draft of the strategic plan of the IACC, dated August 2008, is available here. (pdf)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.