“Vaccines do not cause autism”, stressed lecturer Aleksandra Badura. She explained what genetic mutations occur in people with autism spectrum disorders, which is an umbrella term for neurodevelopmental disorders of social communication and interaction.

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (5)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

The rumour that vaccines cause autism started in 1998 when British anti-vaccine activist and doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed in a study that there was a causal link between the BMR vaccine (against mumps, measles and rubella) and autism. “But it all turned out to be a lie! The data had been falsified, the whole study was fabricated”, Badura said. Follow-up studies have shown that there is no link at all between vaccines and autism. “Unfortunately, this rumour is so persistent that some people refuse to have their children vaccinated.”

Lecture: Genes, Brains and Society (Monday afternoon 15:15, Lecture Hall 2, EUC building)

Lecturer: Aleksandra Badura and Anderson Mora Cortes

Subject: Autism

Audience: Four Life Sciences students sat in the lecture room. The other ten were missing in action. “It’s exam week, so maybe they are studying hard?”, one student shrugged. But absent students may also have been partying hard with Feyenoord, as the lecture was on the same day as the inauguration day.

Reason to follow the lecture: You get to hear all about different disorders. It’s a small group, and you know everyone, so copying notes is not an issue.

Unrealistic representation

Four students were scattered around the room, focused on lecturer Badura’s PowerPoint presentation. Lecturer Anderson Mora Cortes was also following the lecture from the back of the room. The students had a tutorial with him scheduled later in the week.

“When you think about autism in TV series or films, which character comes to mind?”, lecturer Badura asked. Students mentioned a number of names: Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor, Sam from Atypical, and the famous detective Sherlock Holmes.

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (3)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

The lecturer’s next slide showed the pictures of exactly these named characters. Badura: “And what do they have in common?” According to a student with curly hair: “That they are very intelligent and hyper-focused.” A student beside him added: “And anti-social.”

The representation of people with autism in popular culture is unrealistic, according to lecturer Badura. “People with autism are portrayed as super-smart, anti-social, high-functioning people who need little to no care, which can be very different in reality”, Badura said.

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (4)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

She then played a YouTube video showing an adult with severe autism undergoing behavioural therapy. He was made to perform simple exercises, such as learning to drink and walk. He could not speak and had motor problems, making him dependent on his family’s care. “That’s how severe it can be.” So it is not true that all people with autism are exceptionally intelligent. “Only about 0.06% have the so-called savant syndrome. These people have extraordinary skills, such as an excellent memory, mathematical skills or perfect hearing”, said Badura.

Social aspects

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (7)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Em listened intently to Badura’s story. The Life Sciences student is very interested in how neurodevelopmental disorders develop, she said. “And I also know people with autism. I think it’s really cool that I’m learning this, so I can get a better idea about how to deal with it.” She also finds it interesting that this course discusses more than just the biological aspects. “It’s also about the social aspects: what impact does such a disorder have on people’s social life, what stigma does it carry and what can we do to get rid of the stigma? It’s a fascinating subject.”

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (2)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Early diagnosis

It is crucial that children with autism are diagnosed and receive therapy as early as possible, according to Badura. “Why do you think that is?”, she asked the students.

“Because the therapy is more effective then?”, one student guessed.

“Exactly, research shows that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome”, Badura explained. “The first two years of life are crucial – that’s when you can get the most out of it.”

College Autisme_Pauline Wiersema (6)
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Student Theresa said she gained a lot of new insights from this lecture. “For example, I didn’t know that there are crucial years for certain neurological developments, such as vision and language development in babies and toddlers”, she continued. “This lecture uses a lot of case studies and recent studies. We compare old and new studies to give us a better understanding of how disorders have been studied over the years.”

Student Gabriel likes the small group of students. “You know everyone, and that makes it nicer to work together.” The lecturers are also cool, added student Challah. Lecturer Badura explained the lecture clearly, and they can always have good discussions with lecturer Mora, according to him. “It’s nice to have experts as teachers. They have a lot of knowledge, and they are passionate about the subject. They give us space to express our opinions and ask questions, but they also guide us very well during discussions.”

Read more

Neuromarketing students slide into fMRI machine to examine their own brain

During the Neuromarketing lecture, Master's students in Marketing Management have their…

Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a lecture every month. Together they describe and depict how teaching is done, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.

EM is looking for the best, funniest or most interesting lectures at EUR. Should we visit your lecturer sometime? Tip us at [email protected]