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Yale Study on Distress in Toddlers Calls to Mind the 1961 Milgram Experiment

Eleven years ago, John Stone wrote Paul Offit’s 10,000 Vaccines and the Milgram Experiment.
 The Milgram experiment was, and is now a name for, a test of obedience to authority. Seems our entire world is engaged in a Milgram experiement right now.  That said, Yale University finds itself in trouble again regarding a study at its "world renowned” (renounced?) Child Study Center involving children with autism. 

For decades, we’ve been called terrible parents for using diet and supplements - unapproved, dangerous (!). At Yale, parents gave consent for scientists to perform this study.

The Milgram experiment has long passed into modern folklore. In 1961 a 28 year-old psychologist at Yale, Stanley Milgram, devised an experiment to test the preparedness of ordinary citizens to co-operate in performing inhuman acts. In the experiment volunteers were induced (as they believed at the time) into subjecting another party to ever larger doses of electricity: “The subjects believed they were part of an experiment supposedly dealing with the relationship between punishment and learning. An experimenter—who used no coercive powers beyond a stern aura of mechanical and vacant-eyed efficiency—instructed participants to shock a learner by pressing a lever on a machine each time the learner made a mistake on a word-matching task.

From Safeminds: Research on Emotional Regulation Draws Ethic Concerns

A new study from Yale University titled, “Attend Less, Fear More: Elevated Distress to Social Threat in Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder” sparked a firestorm of criticism from thousands of people on social media. The unusual research investigated how toddlers (42 with autism and 22 neurotypical) responded to potentially threatening stimuli. Before embarking on their study, the researchers received approval from Yale’s Institutional Review Board and received informed consent from the toddler’s parents. The study’s methodology involved exposing toddlers to fake spiders, mechanical dinosaurs, as well as masked strangers. According to the study’s authors, their research aimed to examine and measure distress in toddlers. It also set out to investigate the level of visual attention these toddlers paid to the stimulus and how they tried to regulate their emotions after being exposed to a stressor. The researcher’s ultimate goal was to better understand the differences of emotional responses between toddlers with autism and neurotypical toddlers. However, since the study’s release, thousands of people have objected to the research on Twitter. The outrage even resulted in a Twitter poll posted by an adult with autism that received 1400 votes. Ninety-four percent of the respondents felt the study’s design was unacceptable. Many in the poll, including Yale students, worried that toddlers may have been traumatized by the research. This study received such an extraordinary amount of public scrutiny that Yale Medical School made a statement explaining the intent of the research.

Original Article YALE NEWS: Yale study on distress in autistic toddlers draws ethics concerns

Rose Horowitch 11:36 pm, Dec 18, 2020

A Yale study that deployed mechanical spiders to assess how autistic toddlers respond to emotional distress has drawn widespread criticism on social media for its methods of eliciting fear in the children.

The study, titled “Attend Less, Fear More: Elevated Distress to Social Threat in Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published earlier this month and examined toddlers’ reactions to a variety of fear-inducing probes. Yale researchers Katarzyna Chawarska, Suzanne Macari and Angelina Vernetti conducted the study at the Yale Child Study Center with the goal, they told the News, of better understanding emotional difficulties in autistic children.

News of the study generated a firestorm on Twitter this week as people reacted in horror to its methods.... Read more.



Thanks, Jenny and BAM, for replies. I have to say that the present situation doesn't give me confidence to trust the ethical standards of UK or USA universities! I'm still concerned about these kids. The parents were not allowed to respond to the needs of the child. (Sounds very Millgramesque to me!) Let me give you a similar example from my family. I took my son (who is so mildly autistic as to have no chance of a diagnosis) to a toy shop when he was a toddler, and the assistant showed us a few toys. One was a clockwork spider which raced along and became out of control, ending up entangled in child's feet. He screamed in terror, but as I was standing next to him I whisked him up out of danger and was able to comfort him. I don't think he has suffered any long term effects! I think psychologists would say the sooner the child is reassured the better the outcome. The parents in this experiment may not have been aware of the child's alarm, and may have been reassured by the professionals' presence. Better to listen to those of us who can tell it from first hand experience.

Beleaguered Autism Mom

Grace, I don't think your comment was churlish. Your comments are always concise and to the point and I appreciate them. I agree with you verbal autistic people have made it known that they often feel distress but do not show it. That is what makes the Yale study so offensive. Did you ever see the old movie As Good as It Gets (1997) The character Melvin Udall says: I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water! That is what most autism research looks like to me, psychiatrists, psychologists and MDs studying genetics etc., self-satisfied, despite of their lack of accomplishment and earning more money as ASD diagnoses increase. I am glad people are starting to push back, and ask the authors how their findings are going to help any one with ASD.

Jenny Allan

Thank you Grace. I am well aware of your point "autistic people have made it known that they often feel distress but do not show it", and that is one of the reasons why I regard this particular research as being fatally flawed. Observation is not enough to determine whether or not a child is distressed by visual stimuli.

My experience of neuro-typical young children is they enjoy 'scary' images, as long as they are presented in a situation where they feel secure, i.e. when a parent, or other trusted adult is present. Dinosaurs, particularly of the Tyrannosaurus variety, with lots of sharp teeth, are particular favourites. Even very young children instinctively understand the difference between real and staged dangers. Of course, the children might well be apprehensive, or even frightened by the experimental environment, where they are clinically assessed by strangers. This would inevitably 'scew' any experimental results for both cohorts.

The brains of autistic children are 'wired' very differently from those of neuro-typical children. There have been very few experimental research projects into the ways autistic children perceive and process visual stimuli. More is needed, particularly communication pathways for non-verbal autistic children, for whom such alternatives as signing or Macaton often fail.

I was particularly shocked by Age of Autism comparing this research to the Milgram Experiment. Assuming universities in the United States have similar ethical scrutinies for research projects, particularly those involving children, as UK ones, parents should have confidence their children would not be unduly distressed. As the Yale spokesperson stated 'were present throughout the experiment and could revoke consent at any point.'

Grace Green

I have read the article again, and it does seem to be the case that the autistic adult posted the poll. and many people responded who thought the study was unacceptable, and that the toddlers may have been traumatized by the research. I note from your previous comment that you don't believe that to have been likely. One of the issues highlighted by the autistic community was that the children were observed for signs of distress, but autistic people have made it known that they often feel distress but do not show it. This is the sort of thing I'm referring to when I say that autistic people understand, and explain, the experience of autism better than those who only see it second hand. It would be good if we could occasionally be listened to, especially by those who have influence over our lives.

Jenny Allan

@Grace Green "these toddlers were defended by an adult"
No Grace. It was the research, that was denigrated by the 'verbal, autistic person', who organised an internet 'poll'. There's no evidence the toddlers involved in the research required to be 'defended', and their parents were present to ensure their children were not unduly distressed.

Maybe this would be a good time to remind everyone here, particularly those persons convinced their autistic children were damaged by a vaccine, about the way Dr Wakefield's research into measles vaccines, was publicly vilified and discredited, all thanks to Murdoch's Times which employed 'attack dog' Brian Deer, a mediocre so called investigative journalist, with a talent for mixed metaphors, and a mediocre degree in philosophy, to invent 'research fraud' using a mixture of fact cherry picking , misinformation, invention and sensationalism.

In addition, we had a UK Government health department hell bent on protecting a novel vaccine, which introduced three live viruses in one Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine to toddlers. The first vaccine was dangerous and was withdrawn, not by our Government, but by the manufacturers afraid of litigation. The replacement was overly rushed into the child vaccine schedule. My autistic grandson got this one. He went completely haywire after the vaccine.

It is also relevant to remind people, Dr Wakefield was employed by the Royal Free Hospital in London as a researcher, NOT a clinician. He was investigating possible gastro side effects from the single measles vaccine, in UK use for 20 years before the introduction of the MMR vaccine. (We also had a single Rubella vaccine which my daughters got before puberty). Dr Wakefield only requested a return to monovalent vaccines, whilst more research into the safety and side effects of the MMR vaccine was carried out.

The rest you know. BUT in these interesting times we are getting other, overly rushed, Covid-19 vaccines which use completely novel technology, involving messenger RNA to 'instruct' our cells to produce a protein which is intended to then be attacked by our immune system. I quote Dr Wakefield here 'what can possibly go wrong?' Frantic attempts by the social and mainstream media providers to censor Dr Wakefield, Del Bigtree and all internet sites which attempt to question the so called 'science' and possible dangers from these new vaccines, are failing. These vaccines are for adults not children and people are rightly wary.

It is all too easy to whip up a frenzy on social media sites. We need cool heads, and logical arguments.

Kate C

I should have known that Age of Autism would have been the first to report on the Irish mother and baby homes!

Grace Green

Would it be churlish of me to point out that these toddlers were defended by an adult, presumably verbal, autistic person (a category of people routinely vilified on this website), and not by their parents.

For Kate C

Kate C

There’s an article in the Globe and Mail today regarding a report on abuse in Irish orphanages, including vaccine experiments. In Canada, it is said that medical experiments were done on indigenous children at residential schools. We are no better than Nazis after all.

Jill in MI

All the other things they could have been working on to help children with autism and this is what they choose? This community is literally dying for help. It’s like we’re floating out in the middle of the ocean on a life raft, and a boat comes near us and we think they’re going to help us, bringing water or food or rescue. But no, they just want to study us. Like we’re not real people, just an experiment. Wow, talk about living in your ivory tower.


I would argue that these children are not exposed to all these negative stimuli at one time with their parent calmly sitting beside them. Yale claims that any study they do is ethical if they have gotten the parent's consent and that the parent is allowed to witness the study (or should I say abuse). It would have been more interesting if they delved into how an injured child may experience physical pain during moments of extreme emotion (negative of positive) and may for this reason control their emotions.

Bob Moffit

I know I am "off topic" but I would much prefer Yale conduct a truly independent study of vaccinated v unvaccinated to ascertain if BOTH populations have the same chronic-life-long-life-threatening-life altering autoimmune disorders all of which were far less common in past generations of relatively UNVACCINATED GENERATIONS.

Instead of studying whether or not toddlers respond to "potentially threatening stimuli .. Yale should conduct a study to determine .. once and for all time .. if the world-wide increasing numbers of PARENTS WHO ARE RELUCTANT TO VACCINATE AS RECOMMENDED HAVE REASON TO BE RELUCTANT OF "POTENTIALLY THREATENING VACCINES"

Jenny Allan

From the Yale News link above:-
"The researchers released a statement saying that descriptions of the study had been misinterpreted. They argued that the experiment was not detrimental to the children. Additionally, the toddlers’ parents gave informed consent, were present throughout the experiment and could revoke consent at any point. The researchers saw almost all the children in the study again when they turned three, Chawarska said."

I do not think the parents of these children would have allowed their toddlers to become unduly distressed by these experiments. We have to be very careful about allowing ourselves to judge this research via comments on 'Twitter' or other social media forums.

Jenny Allan

I'm in two minds about this. My autistic grandson had no fear of anything, and was certainly not phased by mechanical spiders or dinosaurs, (most neuro-typical kids know the difference beteen mechanical and real anyway). My Grandson often thought 'cartoons' and mechanical artifacts were 'real' , but had no fear of them anyway. An interactive educational game using The Muppets, had him chatting away to these characters as if they were real. It was great for his verbal vocabulary, (he could read before he could talk).
It would have been useful if some way of making my Grandson wary of strangers, never mind fake dinosaurs and spiders, had been devised using this research, but I fear the entire concept was flawed before it even started. We struggled to keep my Grandson safe. He would run into the road in front of traffic. Restraining him was not easy; he was both strong and determined! Many parents of autistic children complain of similar problems and of course the 'toll' of drowned autistic children continues to cause heartbreak.

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