Ministers pledged £2.5m for research to identify the causes of autism yesterday but stressed that the studies would look beyond the alleged link with the triple MMR vaccine.
Jacqui Smith, the Health minister, said: "What we know from all the research is that there is no strong evidence of a link between MMR and autism. The question is how we move on to determine what the causes are."
She added: "Many parents don't know what caused autism in their children and they want to find out. Given the fact that MMR has had a significant amount of research on it, I would not expect the money to go on that link."
The Medical Research Council will decide how to distribute the money, which is intended to plug some of the many gaps in the understanding of autism, a lifelong condition that affects six in every 1,000 children.
In a major review of autism last year, the MRC said that many factors may play a role but the strongest evidence to date was for a "major genetic component" in which several genes could interplay to create a susceptibility to autism. The MRC called for large population studies to look at genetic data and possible environmental risks, such as diet, drugs, toxins and infections, which had not been scientifically substantiated.
More research on the definition of autism, especially in adults, was also recommended by the council, along with biological studies to see how autism affected the brain and other organs and more work to look at long-term effects.
The MRC, which is currently investing £5m in eight studies into autism, welcomed the new funding. Professor Sir George Radda, chief executive of the council, said there was "still a long way to go" to achieve a better understanding of autistic disorders. They range in severity from classic autism to the milder Asperger's syndrome and lead to problems of communication, social interaction and imagination. One third of adults with autism have no social life, half of them live with their parents and only 12 per cent are able to work.
Ms Smith, who was speaking at a conference to mark the start of Autism Awareness Year, admitted that families with autistic children had been given too little support. She promised that services for disabled children, including those with autism, would be given much greater priority as part of the new NHS strategy for children.
She said: "We accept that in the past there has been too little family support including frequent delay in diagnosis and identification of the child's impairments and a lack of information about what help is available. The problem for many children and families is that they feel they are facing a maze of different agencies and support that never seem to be properly co-ordinated."
Her comments came as a controversy blew up because Julie Kirkbride, the Tory MP campaigning for single vaccines, had organised a rival conference at Westminster to highlight alleged links between autism and MMR.
Dr Stephen Ladyman, a Labour MP and chair of the All-Parties Parliamentary Group on Autism, said: "I am furious that a conference that could have been held yesterday or tomorrow is being held on the day we are actually trying to focus, for once, on the needs of autistic people instead of this debate over MMR."
But Ms Kirkbride pleaded ignorance and claimed Dr Ladyman's anger was because she had "the temerity to challenge the Prime Minister and the Government in my campaign for a single vaccine".Reuse content