Vaccines Did Not Cause My Son’s Autism

By: Brenna, mother, Portland, OR

I do not believe that vaccination caused my son’s autism. 

I do not believe it because a mountain of scientific evidence has established that there is no link between vaccines and autism.  But on a much more personal level, I do not believe it because when I look at my son I do not see a damaged version of someone he was supposed to be.  I see a sweet, bright, empathetic boy who is growing into a warm and loving young man.  I see the son I have wanted since I was a little girl.  My son has always been who he was meant to be. 

But that is not how too much of the world sees autistic people. No one has ever died from autism, and in fact autistic people have made and continue to make foundational contributions to our communities and society.  But the link between vaccine-hesitancy and autism exists in no small part because  autism is more frightening to many people than diseases that claim lives.  The thing that makes autism more frightening than measles, mumps, or rubella is stigma.  That stigma bears much blame for the resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease.

In some ways, I can’t blame other parents for their fear.  Parenting a child with autism is not easy.  But the parents of any special needs child will tell you that the soul-crushing aspects of this experience aren’t caused by our kids, they’re caused by other adults.  They are caused by the amount of time and effort and energy we spend justifying our children’s humanity to people and institutions who would deny them education, medical care, and the support they need to lead lives as members of their communities.  We spend our days fighting school districts, state agencies, and health insurance companies, resisting the casual judgments of strangers, pleading with our elected officials to preserve what little social safety net there is, and worrying about what will happen to our children when we can’t fight these battles anymore.  I can’t blame anyone for being afraid of this experience.  But it is not caused by autism, it is caused by stigma surrounding autism.

No amount of posting or tweeting or righteous indignation is going to change anyone’s mind on the subject of vaccines.  But there are things each and every one of us can do each and every day to combat this stigma.  Reach out to the special needs family in your neighborhood. When you see an older child having a melt-down in a grocery store, instead of shooting judgmental looks at her parents then turning your back, offer to help.  As parents, when your child has a classmate who is struggling, express your support to the teacher, the school, and especially your child.  As employers, explore ways you can hire and retain neurodiverse individuals.  You might find they add unique skills to your workforce.  And most critically, vote for a robust and equitable social safety net.   

Combating vaccine-hesitancy with autism awareness may seem counterintuitive.  But in a society that embraces autism’s gifts and offers help with its challenges, there would be no reason to risk disease out of fear of autism.  Even more fundamentally, a society that does not support all of our children does not truly support any of them.  None of our children is guaranteed a smooth path to adulthood.  All of our kids know that they will struggle sometimes, and they worry about how we adults will respond.  Seeing kids who are struggling receive support and empathy from the adults around them is the best evidence we can offer our children that they are valued for who they are, and that makes them stronger, braver, and kinder.  Disability generally and autism in particular have been a normal part of human experience for as long as we have been human. If we learned to embrace that reality, we would all be better off.

The Importance of Community Immunity

By: Alison, mother, Portland, OR

Terror is the word I use to describe what it feels like to learn that your child has cancer.  A chill that takes over your body, rapid heartbeat, mind racing.

But we cheered in our six year old daughter's hospital room when told that her type of Leukemia has a treatment plan with a high cure rate.  It would mean more than two years of bone marrow biopsies, surgeries, transfusions, spinal taps, and chemotherapy.  So much chemo.  The drugs would kill the cancer and save her life but they would also kill her immune system, leaving her vulnerable.  We did what we could to keep her safe as she endured the treatment-- stocking up on hand sanitizer and limiting where we took her. Weeks were spent trapped in an isolation hospital room when fevers struck.

We did our best to push aside the terror and keep our family thriving, but I could not stop the terror when told that there was a child with Whooping Cough at my daughters' school.  Nor could I stop it as we canceled our trip to Disneyland during the Measles outbreak. 

Our community was not protecting our daughter. 

Our loving community that cooked us meals, helped care for our other daughter, sent our children gifts; the wider community that made a custom wig, built a dream playhouse, provided a special getaway. I will never forget the waived dental bill, or the unordered donuts that appeared with a hot chocolate.  There are so many kind people that want to help. 

I long for a day when all forms of cancer have a treatment plan.  I hope that the treatments we do have can become less toxic.  And in the meantime, I want everyone to know that they can help.  Vaccinating your children and keeping your community healthy is the most important thing you can do to help all people with cancer. 

Choosing Not to Delay Vaccination

By: Rachel, mother, Portland, OR

When my husband and I had our first child, we talked heavily about vaccines. In our Portland community, this was a much-debated topic often fueled by emotion, rather than science or facts. My husband was pretty pro-vaccine, as he works in the travel industry and often sees the importance of vaccines globally.  I, on the other hand, wanted to take as “gentle” an approach as possible.  As a new mom, I consulted mid-wives before doctors, breastfed both babies past 16 months, and attempted to avoid as much Western medical interventions as possible. 

I thought a lot about every decision, including vaccines.  For our first child, we gave him most (not all) of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] recommended course, on a delayed schedule, one at a time.  As he grew older and he was more afraid of shots, it became a huge challenge and inconvenience to go back and forth to the doctor. 

Due to my exhaustion of schlepping the kids to the doctor on multiple occasions, my son’s emotional fear of needles as he grew, and the fact that I had yet to read any current medical evidence that routine vaccine schedules were dangerous (in fact, I started hearing about local outbreaks of preventable diseases in our city), we decided to follow the CDC guidelines for our daughter.  I have cut my trips to the doctor by more than half, and I also have peace of mind when I let her play and interact with children of all geographic locations, both at home and when we travel. 

Vaccines Prevent the Spread of Diseases

By: Leah, mother, Portland, OR

I have lived and worked in other countries, and I have family in northeastern Brazil, a place where some vaccines only became available to the general public recently.  I have family and friends who are doctors and scientists, some of whom have treated illnesses that could have been prevented with vaccines.  They have had to comfort the parents of children who were disfigured, brain-damaged, or died as a result of preventable illnesses.  I lived in Denver, Colorado, where one of my colleagues still walks with great difficulty and the help of crutches, as he has for most of his life, because he did not receive the polio vaccine as a child and then contracted the disease.

I know that most people in Oregon have not seen the horror that diseases can do. That is not just because we are lucky. That is because modern medicine has developed vaccines to prevent the spread and the damage of those diseases.  

Recently while on a vacation, my family witnessed a terrible car accident. One car had flipped over several times and landed on its roof. In the other car, a passenger was stuck between his steering wheel and his seat back. As the first responders, we kept the victims alert and talking until the paramedics arrived. Every single one of them was wearing a seat belt. Every single one of them walked away with only minor injuries. 

Their outcome was not luck; it was the result of the science behind seat belts, air bags, and crumple zones, technology that allows us to live longer, healthier lives and to survive the things that killed and maimed people in the past. 

Similarly, I think of vaccines as life-saving technology. My children and myself will be out in the world, and there is always a chance that we will be exposed to a disease that could hurt or kill us. Thanks to the modern technology of vaccines, we have a chance to walk away from them, unharmed.