Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (RFK Jr.) is well-known for being an anti-vaxxer. He is less well-known for being hostile to autistic people, but experts agree on one thing: The views that RFK Jr. espouses cause significant harm to real-life autistic individuals.
Autistic people have been victimized by RFK Jr. for decades. By spreading anti-vaccine misinformation — and specifically inaccurately insisting that vaccines cause autism — RFK Jr. has spread dangerous prejudices against autistic people. These assumptions have harmed them in the past and continue to harm them in the present.
“These are people who would rather have their kids get vaccine-preventable diseases and potentially die than do something that they think erroneously risks their kids becoming autistic. That’s a pretty bleak view of autism.”
RFK Jr. has never retracted his views or apologized for his incorrect statement that thimerosal in childhood vaccines can be linked to a rise in autism. Quite to the contrary, he has started applying his formula of “use bad science to persecute marginalized groups” in brand new ways, such as falsely stating that the rise in “sexual dysphoria” is caused by “chemical exposures” despite there being extensively documented historical and scientific validation of transgender identities.
It is very common for autistic people to encounter anti-vaxxers who claim that their neurology is somehow a mistake. Because they buy into the perennial RFK Jr. assertion that vaccines cause autism and other neurological disorders, they make the next logical leap that another person’s autism is “wrong.” Even if this attitude is intended sympathetically rather than contemptuously (which is definitely not always the case), the anti-vaxxer logic still causes neurotypicals to ablesplain about how autism really works — or to outright discriminate against them.
Many autistic people have a dim view of RFK Jr. for that reason.
Steve Silberman, author of the book of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” told Salon by email that RFK Jr. “presents himself as an advocate for the disenfranchised following in the footsteps of his late father, but his lies about vaccines have the effect of reinforcing the oldest and most damaging stereotypes of the people that he claims to be defending.”
Silberman ticked off two of the most infamous examples: RFK Jr. regularly using the term “vaccine-injured” to refer to autistic people, and in 2015 describing vaccinated autistic children to Bill Maher by saying “their brain is gone.”
“Grotesque statements like this present people on the spectrum as entirely lacking in humanity, agency and the potential for development — as if they were zombies,” Silberman explained. “He compares autistic people to Holocaust victims, which does a grave injustice to both autistic people and Jews. And even in apologizing for that comparison, he described autism as ‘shattering’ families, when some of the most loving and supportive families I know are the families of autistic people.”
RFK Jr.’s misstatements, though objectively incorrect, could in theory be morally defended by claiming that he wants to help people he perceives as disabled and is simply going about it the wrong way. Yet RFK Jr.’s own right-wing views on social services spending for autistic individuals — a policy that is actually widely desired by the community and would meaningfully, tangibly assist many of its members — make it impossible to conclude that he is simply a misguided disability rights advocate.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
RFK Jr. “presents himself as an advocate for the disenfranchised following in the footsteps of his late father, but his lies about vaccines have the effect of reinforcing the oldest and most damaging stereotypes of the people that he claims to be defending.”
“The main problem that autistic people and their families face is the lack of support and resources across the life span, but Kennedy condemns the ‘crippling’ cost of providing disabled students with access to education, using an ableist slur to complain about resources that were fought-for by generations of disabled people and their families,” Silberman pointed out. Instead RFK Jr.’s version of “helping” has been to spread ideas which are proven to harm people.
“It increases vaccine hesitancy and people choosing not to give their kids vaccines, and that increases the resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases,” Zoe Gross, director of Advocacy at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, told Salon. Perhaps the most prominent instance of this occurred in 2015, when nearly 200 people were sickened with measles despite the disease having been eradicated 15 years earlier due to parents not vaccinating their children.
“The other reason is that there’s a lot of ableism and anti-autistic sentiment involved in the anti-vaxxer movement, and this lie that vaccines cause autism,” Gross said. “You can see that these are people who would rather have their kids get vaccine-preventable diseases and potentially die than do something that they think erroneously risks their kids becoming autistic. That’s a pretty bleak view of autism.”
Silberman’s and Gross’ views were confirmed by an academic who has devoted her career to studying autism. Mitzi Waltz is a docent/researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and formerly a senior lecturer in autism studies at the United Kingdom’s Autism Centre of Sheffield Hallam University.
“These are people who would rather have their kids get vaccine-preventable diseases and potentially die than risk their kids becoming autistic. That’s a pretty bleak view of autism.”
“Probably his greatest disservice to autistic people has been amplifying the voices of figures who see autism as a disease state,” Waltz wrote to Salon, citing his support of “thoroughly discredited fringe practitioners like Mark and David Geier.” As a result, Waltz described how in the 1990s the “‘do your own research’ crowd” created a climate wherein “autistic children were written off by most schools and psychologists, parents were left without the services they and their children needed, and autistic adults weren’t even in the conversation.”
Even worse, autistic children were raised to view themselves as “damaged goods” in need of fixing, which has “caused a great deal of harm to autistic people and their families,” Waltz said. They also encouraged the view that autism is an “epidemic,” so that research goes toward “curing” it instead of things like “local charities and services that were helping children, families and adults, and diverted funds away from the research into education, social care, family support, housing and employment that would help actually existing autistic people and those who care about them.”
The “‘do your own research’ crowd” created a climate wherein “autistic children were written off by most schools and psychologists, parents were left without the services they and their children needed, and autistic adults weren’t even in the conversation.”
Silberman also noted a certain quality to RFK Jr.’s stance that borders on historical gaslighting. After all, autistic people have existed long before modern vaccines, and the only way to hold the RFK Jr. position is to rewrite that history.
“His insistence that autism is a recent phenomenon caused by vaccines or chemical pollutants erases generations of autistic people who were often misdiagnosed with conditions like childhood schizophrenia, and subjected to cruel ‘treatments’ including lobotomies and brutal punishments for autistic behavior that included electric shocks,” Silberman observed. Even more upsetting for autistic people, RFK Jr. uses the popular extremist tactic of repeating his “big lie” over and over again so that people believe it due to the repetition.
“While running as a Democratic candidate, Kennedy also employs the typically Republican technique of repeating a lie over and over again until his misguided followers believe it’s true,” Silberman told Salon. “He recently claimed that ‘study after study after study’ has proven that autism is an ‘epidemic,’ rather than the result of changing diagnostic criteria or better recognition. That’s precisely the opposite of the truth — in fact, study after study has shown that the broadening of the diagnostic criteria was instrumental in boosting estimates of autism prevalence, as I discuss at length in my book NeuroTribes.”
The truth about autism is that, while it is poorly understood, it definitely is not caused by vaccines. The entire conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism can be traced back to 1998, when a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study in the medical journal The Lancet claiming that children who were given the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR vaccine) developed autism. His paper caused an international panic — and also considerable outside scrutiny.
No other scientists could replicate Wakefield’s results. Later, it came out that he had several autism-related medical businesses which needed to link MMR vaccines and a likely-fabricated disease called “autistic entercolitis” in order to succeed. Ten of the 12 scientists who co-signed the paper eventually retracted their support, with The Lancet printing a retraction.
Unfortunately, it was too late to put out the fire. To this day, misperceptions about autism persist because of Wakefield’s paper and RFK Jr.’s later backing of the anti-vaxxer cause. Even anti-vaxxers who do not know RFK Jr.’s name almost certainly have been influenced by his work: A 2021 study by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate found that two-thirds of the vaccine misinformation on social media comes from just twelve people, including RFK Jr.
Yet despite these setbacks, legitimate autism rights activists and scientists continue to learn more about how autism actually works.
“Autism is one of the most ‘genetic’ of all conditions affecting the brain — but the genetics are super-complex,” Waltz explained. “There is no ‘autism gene’ but instead a pattern of well over 100 genetic differences that can, in different patterns and in response to different environmental stressors, cause autism. Many of these differences are shared with our primate relatives and have been part of the human genome since the very beginning, so they are almost certainly functional, not ‘errors.'”
Instead, autism is a result of normal human variation.
“That’s not the same as saying that autistic people and their families are always just fine,” Waltz clarified. “We’ve created a society that excludes more and more people from the norm, and we could do something about that by changing our attitudes and behaviors regarding human diversity. But of course there is also that one-quarter to one-third of the autistic population who also have intellectual disabilities, and there are those with very severe sensory perceptual issues or additional medical needs (for example, due to seizure disorders, which are more common in autistic people).”
These individuals need help in the form of social services. What they definitely don’t need, Waltz said, is “to be someone’s ‘experiment of one’ to be put through potentially harmful therapies and treatments, not someone to be over-medicated for behavior control rather than medical need, not someone to be institutionalized or abused.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Steve Silberman was a staff writer at Wired and autistic. Silberman no longer works for Wired and is not autistic, and the story has been corrected.
This content was originally published here.