The Rare Event: Toyota, Tasers, and Autism

by Siegfried Othmer | December 12th, 2009

The issue of sudden, rapid acceleration in Toyota vehicles presents an interesting case study of how our society approaches rare hazardous events, and a consideration of this history can shed light on how other such instances are handled that are of more direct interest to us here.The issue of sudden, rapid acceleration in Toyota vehicles presents an interesting case study of how our society approaches rare hazardous events, and a consideration of this history can shed light on how other such instances are handled that are of more direct interest to us here. It turns out that this issue has been with us for some time. About 1000 suspicious acceleration events have been recorded over eight years, with some 19 deaths registered in Toyotas since 2002.

Complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration rose rapidly after Toyota replaced mechanical throttles with electronic controls in 2002. By the time that this problem received significant attention, however, the hypothesis of causation by floor mats interfering with the gas pedal was well entrenched. So that hypothesis continued to be advanced even after it ceased to be very credible. After all, the problem occurred even in vehicles where the floor mats had been removed, and where nothing was engaging the gas pedal (as at a stoplight). As recently as a few months ago, our National Highway Safety Administration saw no reason to inquire beyond the mundane hypothesis involving floor mats. And the recall of 4.2 million cars is majorly targeted to the replacement of gas pedals so that they will be less confused by the floor mats.

The really unsettling problem with the electronics is still being kept in the background. The whole unfolding episode has aspects of pageantry, of skillful stage management of disagreeable facts to make them appear more benign. The floor mat problem could have multiple causation, thus diffusing responsibility; the electronic malfunction, on the other hand, is entirely the responsibility of the manufacturer. The society has much less tolerance for such failures, particularly when they have existed for so many years.

The Taser presents us with a similar issue. Literally hundreds of deaths have occurred in people immediately subsequent to having been tased, but the connection continues to be denied. The principal rationale for the Taser is that it offers a non-lethal alternative for subduing a person resisting arrest, so the tactic can’t also come with its own risk of mortality. It is amazing to see how disagreeable facts can be rendered innocuous when significant interests are at stake. In this case, the exculpating hypothesis is that the Taser is harmless in “normal” individuals, and if death occurred, then it must be attributed to whatever condition the “abnormal” person may have had.

Now consider the question of vaccine injury leading to autism in children. We are again confronted with a rare event, and matters are once again obscured by a non-operative hypothesis. When the instances of sudden onset of autism after the administration of vaccines first came to light, the field of medicine was still in thrall to two pillars of belief with respect to autism. The condition was deemed to be genetically mediated, and it was thought to be an untreatable psychiatric disorder. Vaccine-induced injury did not fit either of these models.

There was the additional concern that the whole vaccination regime was at risk on account of this issue. It helps to take the historical view here, because we have been here before. When the issue of vaccine-induced injury was first raised in connection with the DPT vaccine, the medical community also stood as one in opposition to the claims. And when doctors such as John Menkes spoke in support of the vaccine-induced injury hypothesis at trial, he was ostracized by his colleagues for breaking rank. Vaccine-induced injury was always rare, but it was often severe, and it typically involved neurological injury, on which Menkes was expert. (See

We had another instance of this when Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues surfaced evidence of intestinal inflammation subsequent to the MMR vaccine jab. This research showed that there may be real medical issues involved in the causal chain of autism. The work was met with solid opposition among his colleagues, and his medical career in Britain was effectively destroyed. Once again, the vaccination regime had been put at risk, and that was intolerable.

By now the whole public relations apparatus of American medicine has been put in the service of delousing and refurbishing the vaccination regime. The disagreeable facts, however, continue to accrue. In our office, we continue to see autistic children whose descent into autistic behavior was clearly correlated with an immediately prior vaccination. The picture is very much the same as it was with DPT: an occasional drastic descent into neurological dysfunction. The rare event cannot be dismissed here any more than it can be dismissed in the case of Toyota or the Taser.

In each of these cases, a statistical or “epidemiological” approach would have missed the story entirely. One could have queried 10,000 Toyota drivers randomly and very well not found a single case of rapid acceleration. It would still have been wrong to conclude that the problem does not exist. When it comes to the rare event, a statistical or epidemiological approach is categorically inappropriate. We have to study the events themselves.

Of course the very existence of vaccine-induced injury leading to autistic behavior does have broader implications for how we understand autism. So how do we sort that out? To date, the “genetic hypothesis” of autism has presented a huge barrier to broader thinking on this topic. And in fact, it is supported by the best of evidence—high concordance for autism among monozygotic twins. It is 70% for classic Kanner autism, but as high as 90% for the more inclusive category of autism spectrum disorders. On the other hand, recent genetic studies have surfaced a substantial genetic heterogeneity in the autistic spectrum. Consequently, one cannot coalesce on a few targets for focused research.

But we must inquire further. Some years ago a correlation was observed between the age of the father and the likelihood that his next child would be autistic. The father’s initial contribution to the child is largely genetic, so here we have a possible nexus of the genetics of autism and of environmental factors. Environmental influences on germline cells would have to be postulated, and this could be done without doing injury to the genetic model.

More recently we have had the finding of differences in the DNA between children and their parents. At issue here are “copy number variations” (CNVs), either dropped or duplicated segments of DNA. Substantially greater numbers of CNVs were found in a subset of autistic children. This subset (~10%) is small, but this initial search was deliberately at a gross level, and the vast majority of CNVs may simply have been missed. The CNVs were preferentially observed in families with an isolated autistic child, as opposed to where autism was more familial. Hence in addition to the transmittal by Mendelian inheritance we now have to add substantial risk of “spontaneous” mutation.

High concordance would still be observed under both of the above scenarios, irrespective of whether the mutation(s) occurred in the father or in the fertilized egg. While this may be a scientifically pleasing resolution of a conundrum, it represents a frightening prospect otherwise. We must now take a serious look at how our toxic environment is degrading our own gene pool even across a small number of generations. The rapid growth rate in autism incidence in the developed world could never be understood in terms of classical Mendelian inheritance. Now that we know the underlying genetics of autism to be exceedingly complex, this is even more apparent. If a genetic model is to be sustained, it has to be on the basis of de novo mutations, and now we have indisputable evidence that these in fact exist.

There has to be a mechanism (or mechanisms) for the burgeoning of genetic defects over the last sixty years, and we must look to environmental factors for an explanation. The CNV study suggests that the integrity of the cell division process may not be maintainable under existing environmental threats. Given the obvious heterogeneity in the etiology of autism, we have to look at the rare event as assiduously as we search for larger patterns. One of the key observations of the CNV study was that each of the individual findings was rare in the population. None of the variants was observed more than twice. Given this intrinsic heterogeneity, it is simply preposterous to preclude a role for mercury exposure and for vaccinations as a final insult to send a particularly vulnerable nervous system on its path to autistic expression. The biochemical environment we have created could even be a genetic hazard for us all at some level, and in this respect the autistic child may just be our canary in the coal mine.

The Los Angeles Times

Jonathan Sebat et al, Strong Association of De Novo Copy Number Mutations with Autism, Science, published online 15 March 2007: 10.1126/science.1138659

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

4 Responses to “The Rare Event: Toyota, Tasers, and Autism”

  1. More on the matter of vaccine risk:

    Today in the Los Angeles Times the obituary of Virginia McKinney recalls that she suffered an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine which left her profoundly hard of hearing, so that she could no longer pursue her career as a court reporter. This was in 1957. After she taught herself to lip-read, she changed course to one of helping the deaf, aided by a drug company settlement for her condition.

    It would have been absurd to argue that her hearing loss ‘could not have had anything to do with the vaccination’ merely because such an event was exceedingly rare.
    It is just as absurd to argue the same with regard to autistic symptoms on the basis of statistics.

  2. Rebecca Cody says:

    Dr. Othmer,

    Natasha Campbell-McBride, a British neurologist and mother of an autistic son, found there was a lot of research which she pulled together, and with which she has been successfully healing children of autism, ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other brain problems for something like 17 years. In her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, she states that EVERYONE

  3. Gene Douglas says:

    This reasoning is similar to the establishment of a new religion. One decides that the causes of various things are unknown, so simply makes one up. There may be a one in a million chance he has guessed right, but other possibilities he has not.

    Possibly one avenue of research would be to go to parts of the world where people are not vaccinated, and find examples of autistic children who were not vaccinated at all. Then one would need to explain their autism, by whatever other causes he can imagine.

    • Your suggestion is a good one, but it is not new. We do have examples of populations that have not been vaccinated, and they have been studied—although not with the benefit of NIH funding. The Amish community is a good example, and indeed the incidence of autism is vanishingly small among the Amish. Of course there are not only the differences in terms of vaccination to consider here. There are dietary difference as well, and there is less commerce with modern technology of all kinds. But these findings do, in one way or another, implicate environmental factors in the rise of autism incidence.
      There is also a health care outfit in Chicago that discourages compliance with the current intensive vaccination schedule, and they see reduced incidence of autism as well.
      Take a look at the autism section under “Therapeutic Applications” on the first page of our website, for further information.

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