Confessions Of A Pro-Vaccine Autism Mom


Today I took George to the doctor to get his shots. I was very nervous about this prospect: George used to have a terrible fear of doctors, and would always sit in the waiting room literally quivering with anxiety until it was his turn. Fortunately he’s a healthy child and hasn’t needed the services of a doctor for a couple of years, so I curious to see what his reaction would be like today.

When we walked into the waiting room, he sat down and calmly started playing with a toy. He didn’t flinch at the sights and smells typical of a doctor’s waiting room. We didn’t wait for long before we were called into the doctor’s inner sanctum. There, too, George was remarkably laid back as the doctor looked him over.

His composure fell apart somewhat when it was time for the needles, but as soon as they were done and the Band-Aids applied, all he needed was a couple of minutes of hugging, and then he was fine.

Ah, yes. The needles.

As an autism parent who keeps her kids vaccines up to date, I sometimes feel like a minority voice. Or perhaps it’s just that the anti-vaccine people tend to be more vocal than those on my side of the fence. But this is not intended to be a post about who’s right and who’s wrong. Everyone has their own journey, and their own reasons for the choices they make.

My position – speaking only for myself – is that vaccines cannot be blamed for the autism epidemic. You can show me a thousand statistics proving that I’m wrong, and I can show you a thousand statistics proving that I’m right. I do not dispute that some people have bad experiences with vaccines. But I do not believe that anyone has made a convincing enough case to generalize those incidents to the population as a whole.

I know with absolute certainty that George came out of the womb with autism. When I look back over his babyhood, I remember many thoughts of doubt going through my mind.

He should be swatting at toys by now, but he stares right through them.

Shouldn’t he be interested in the texture of these fabric books?

At what age are babies supposed to sit? Crawl? Walk?

Why is he ignoring me when I call his name?

I knew early on that something was going on. Vaccines had nothing to do with it.

Still, there are people who are critical of my choice to vaccinate. Deciding to vaccinate my younger son was like walking through a minefield.

“You are vaccinating your younger child, even though your older child has autism? Really?

From the way some folks talked, you would have thought I was ripping out my child’s fingernails one by one.

My kids’ vaccinations have always gone without incident. There are generally a few tears that are forgotten by the time we are getting back into the car, and there may be an evening of crankiness. Someone might sleep badly. By the following day, everyone is pretty much back to the way they were.

My name is Kirsten, and I willingly vaccinate my child with autism.

(Photo credit:Daniel Paquet.This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Vaccines and Autism: Where Do I Stand?

In yesterday’s blog post, I made a remark about the fact that I do not believe there is a link between vaccines and autism. One of my readers took me to task (very nicely and respectfully, it has to be said) for making blanket statements that could potentially alienate part of the autism community that I try so hard to reach.

I did clarify what I meant with the person concerned, and it all ended on a good note, but the incident made me think that this is a topic I should cover here on my blog.

The subject of vaccines is a very touchy one for autism parents on both sides of the debate, and it’s one that can create a lot of division. Each camp accuses people in the other camp of being disrespectful toward them and their views, and of trying to shove their opinions down everyone else’s throat. It’s really kind of sad, because at the end of day all of us are autism parents who are doing the best we can for our kids. Instead of being a united community working together, we sometimes find ourselves divided into these factions that argue with each other.

This debate is like any other. There are those who are almost fanatical about their opinions and won’t even consider any other possibilities. And there are those – like the person who contacted me yesterday – who want their opinions to be respected but can peacefully coexist and have meaningful dialogue with those who think otherwise.

Until now, I have avoided being too vocal about my own stance on this whole issue. I am an introvert by nature, and I dislike rocking the boat. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or make people mad at me. So when it comes to controversial topics, my usual approach is to be as quiet as possible.

As an advocate for my child, though, I sometimes have to go well beyond my comfort zone. So I will step out of my zone for a moment to make the following statement: I do not believe that vaccines are responsible for the autism epidemic.

I am not trying to say that it is not possible for vaccines to cause damage to a child. I’m not suggesting it would never happen, and I would never presume to tell another parent what did and did not cause their child’s autism. I’m also not saying that vaccines don’t come with their risks.

I am simply saying that I don’t think the dramatic rise in autism over the last 20 years can be blamed on vaccines.

Proponents of both arguments could produce pages and pages of research in support of their views. To me, the salient information can be summed up as follows:

* The research that sparked this whole debate, done by one Andrew Wakefield of the United Kingdom, has been widely discredited for a number of reasons – two of which are that the research was inherently flawed and that there were issues relating to conflict of interest.

* After Wakefield’s paper was published, areas in several countries reported a dramatic drop in the use of the MMR vaccine. All of these places saw a sharp rise in measles and mumps, but there was no change to the rate at which kids were being diagnosed with autism.

* When the rate of vaccinations in these areas started to increase again, there was no change to the rate at which kids were being diagnosed with autism.

* The leaps made in the sequencing of the human genome have opened all kinds of doors to genetics research, and there an increasing body of evidence linking autism to genetics.

Having said all of this, I want to state the following:

* I believe (and bear with me here – I am not a scientist) that in some children, vaccines can interact with genetics or with other environmental factors to result in an outcome of autism.

* Whether or not you believe in the vaccine-autism link, vaccines are a form of medical treatment, and it’s up to everyone to do their homework, just as they would for anything else, and then decide whether vaccines are the right choice for their kids.

I am not trying to change anyone’s mind with this post. I am simply stating my views that are naturally tinted with my own experience (namely, that my child came out of the womb with autism), and I fully respect that other people have had different experiences that lead to them having different opinions.

(Photo credit: Steven de Polo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Why Autism?

“Why do you think he has autism?”

This question is posed to me quite a lot by friends and strangers alike, people who for the most part intend no malice, but are genuinely curious about the origins of George’s autism.

That they are asking the question at all is something that I see as a positive sign. It tells me that increasingly, people are wanting to be educated about autism instead of blindly believing every tidbit of information – right or wrong – that is thrown their way.

Over the years, I have done research on a variety of theories.

Was it vaccines? No, I don’t believe it was. Deep down, I knew from the time George was a tiny baby that he was not on the trajectory of “typical” development. I don’t buy into the dietary theory either, for the same reason. George was exclusively breast-fed for four months, and by then I was seeing some little signs that something was not quite right.

No, whatever happened within George’s brain to result in his autism, it was a done deal by the time he came out of the womb.

Even with that knowledge, the title of Primary Cause is wide open. I have read a couple of recent studies suggesting that environmental factors in utero could have more of an effect than previously believed. As if moms of children with autism didn’t have enough guilt on their shoulders already. But that is neither here nor there.

When I was expecting George, I did everything that was considered by pregnancy gurus to be “right”. I ate lots of leafy greens and took my prenatal vitamins every day. I ate lean protein and avoided foods with a high fat content. Accustomed to eggs “over easy”, I ensured that my eggs were fully cooked, and I did not touch deli meat or anything else that could be a potential listeria risk. I did not touch a drop of alcohol, I stayed away from places where I might be exposed to second-hand smoke, and my body pretty much bullied me (through the magic of the laughably known “morning sickness”) into kicking caffeine to the kerb. I went to all of my OB/GYN appointments and followed the advice of my doctor. I did not take so much as a headache pill through my entire pregnancy. The only tablets going into my mouth were vitamins and Tums.

I don’t think I could have created a better environment for my baby if you had paid me a million bucks. Of course, there is the possibility that fifty years from now, someone will prove that some obscure enzyme in, say, oranges, has been linked to autism. But I think it is safe to say that the prenatal environment is an unlikely candidate for the cause of George’s autism.

Leaving aside other environmental factors like air pollution, there are two other possibilities: genetics, or the circumstances surrounding the birth itself. Or maybe a combination of the two.

When I was a child, I was developmentally delayed. I didn’t talk until I was five, and I had some motor skill delays. My body was physically capable of doing anything my peers could do, but the communication between my brain and my muscles was out of synch. It was clear – especially in the early years – that I had some kind of learning disability, although I was never formally diagnosed with anything. As I navigated my way through childhood and adolescence, I was able to compensate for my learning difficulties by simply thinking in a different way and leveraging areas that I was strong in. But as my academic performance got better and better, my social awkwardness and anxiety among people became more and more apparent.

To this day, I suffer from social anxiety, although in general, I have found ways to adapt and mask it so that people don’t really notice. I’m not so much a stickler for routine, but once plans are made I get very uncomfortable – almost panicky and kind of, well, spectrummy – if they are changed. Although I am now fully verbal – sometimes, downright talkative – there are times, usually when I’m stressed – when I lose the ability to communicate through speech. It’s as if the words get lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth.

Am I on the autism spectrum? I don’t know. I have never been for screening, and frankly, I don’t really see the point. But if I were to learn that I have Aspergers, I would not a bit surprised. When I look at the way George has evolved through his early childhood, and the way he is at this point in his life, I do see a lot of parallels with my own early years. So, genetics? It’s a strong possibility.

The other possibility is that something happened to George’s brain while he was being born. For the most part, my labour was pretty standard. Everything happened more or less when the Medicals said it would. When I was in the thick of contractions, I heard someone use the word “textbook”. When the time came to push, though, the going suddenly got a lot tougher. Even though the baby was perfectly positioned for birth, no matter how hard I pushed, nothing budged. The Medicals kept telling me to push harder, push harder, but I just couldn’t do it. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple of minutes, the Medicals gave me an episiotomy (if you don’t know what that is, look it up, because I ain’t describing it here). Once that was done, I gave one more almighty push, and an eternal second later, I was rewarded by the sound of a baby crying.

Here’s the thing, though. While I was pushing to no avail, the baby’s heartbeat – usually in a range of 130-150 beats per minute – dipped to below 40 beats per minute. Only for a couple of seconds, mind. Like a momentary blip in the radar. But could those couple of seconds have been enough to alter the wiring in my baby’s brain?

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. George has autism, and knowing the cause with crystal clarity would not change that.

No matter what the cause, George has autism, and I love every inch of him for who he is.

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