When my twins were about 6 months old, we went for their 6th month checkups, and then to the immunization clinic in the same building for their shots. Shortly after that, my son, Corwin*, broke out in a high fever that reached 104.8 at its peak and a prickly red rash that spread over his body. Not long after that he regressed. He stopped babbling, stopped responding to us as much, and spent a lot of his time sitting by himself pressing a button on a toy to make a song or sound over and over again. He was enrolled in the early intervention program by 11 months, started speech therapy at 15 months, and was diagnosed with autism by 17 months. For some in my family, the diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere. No one else had been diagnosed in my extremely large, extended family. He was the first of the twins to smile and play peekaboo and other social games.
I’ve always been very scientifically minded and never understood the anti-vaccine movement until this point. I saw it as similar to denial of evolution, close-mindedness in the face of overwhelming evidence. As a parent, I understand the fear surrounding the choices we make for our children and the social judgment not far from the days of the refrigerator mother theory where we parents (especially mothers) are scrutinized and criticized for our every actions. We special needs parents are asked if we vaccinated, took medicine while pregnant, used infertility treatments, did drugs during pregnancy, etc. Sometimes strangers openly blame us for the children they see as a curse. A friend of mine with autistic twin boys was told that the reason she’s had her special needs boys was that she hadn’t been Christian enough. The just-world fallacy is rife in parenting communities as well as the idea that children are blank slates who reflect the values and qualities of their parents. However, any parent of multiples could tell you that children are born with their own personalities, needs, and desires.
The hardest part of being a special needs parent is not my son, whom I regard as a blessing, but ignorant people who judge and pity us. I had to leave a local parenting group because so many there saw my son as vaccine injured and broken. To them, he was a mistake. To them, his autism is a black stain to be scrubbed away as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
They are wrong.
Vaccines did not cause my son to have autism. He was born with it. How can I be certain? For one, I knew he was autistic before his first regression. Since male twins have a higher rate of autism than the general public, I was watching for signs at a very early age. I started to suspect that he had autism at 4 months based on how he’d look away when I’d play games like pattycake with him. I also observed that he seemed to be easily overstimulated by my presence when he was tired. Although no one in either of our families had been diagnosed with autism when my son was diagnosed, now that I understand more about autism, I can see signs of various relatives being on the spectrum, and two have come to regard themselves as autistic.
That reaction after the 6 month check up and shots? We never got the shots that day. The immunization clinic was closed for training. My son most likely had roseola, which was passing through some of his playmates at the time. Another time, only Alden got the vaccines and was fine, while Corwin developed a fever and fussiness over the weekend. Corwin seems to get high fevers easily, and may have picked up a bug in the waiting room.
Having been through that experience with the fever so shortly after visiting the clinic, I feel a great deal of understanding for parents who see the shots as the cause or potential for problems. It’s a decisive moment and society tells us that we are responsible for who and what our children become. However, it is very important that we do not confuse correlation with causation.
As part of my undergraduate degree, I conducted a study on foraging behavior in rhesus macaques. We’d observed a unique method of handling food in some of the macaques and suspected it had to do with ground cover, but also thought it might be due to other factors such as population density and age of the macaques in the group. In order to tease out the variables, we conducted a large-scale study and each member of the group analyzed a different aspect. As I collected and started to process my data for analysis, I thought for sure I’d found a possible cause for the odd foraging behavior. Once I ran the data, I found that not only was there no causation, but there wasn’t even correlation. I had imagined it. My first instinct was that I had processed my data wrong and had to run a different method. My professor reminded me that proving something wrong is just as valuable as proving something right, and that, if you manipulate data enough, you can make it say nearly anything you want. There was no correlation.
There is no positive correlation between autism and vaccines. There are positive correlations with autism and parental age, maternal infections during pregnancy, pesticide-treated fields and even organic food sales. In fact, studies of the flu and MMR vaccine in pregnant mothers suggest that vaccines might help prevent autism. A Danish study found that “children whose mothers had influenza or a fever lasting more than a week during pregnancy had a higher risk of autism”. Congenital rubella syndrome, caused by mothers catching rubella during pregnancy, is positively linked to autism.
I’ve heard some parents argue that even a slight risk of autism means that it’s better to forgo vaccines. However, many of these parents imagine that they are playing Russian roulette with only one gun. They see the bullet labeled autism and figure that if they never get vaccines, they never have to risk autism. However, by choosing to avoid vaccinations, they are playing Russian Roulette with a gun stocked with bullets labeled with vaccine preventable diseases. Not only are they playing with it for their own children, but other individuals as well, individuals immunocompromised, too young to be vaccinated, or with conditions that make vaccination an unwise choice. Disease has come roaring back and for what? The chance to avoid having a child like my son?
These beliefs are why I leave the groups mostly comprised of anti-vaccine advocates because they see my son as something so terrible, they would risk serious complications, even death, to avoid him. To avoid an infant who was and is far more of a momma’s boy than his neurotypical twin. To avoid a little boy who loves music, cars, being tossed in the air, dancing, and owls. To avoid a sibling who loves his brother so much, even though we put them in separate beds to go to sleep, he can’t resist joining his brother after we leave. To avoid a child who sees the world in a beautiful, unique way and has taught me so much.
I had a parent ask me, “when you knowingly have the diagnosis in your family, why reproduce anyway if you are of the belief it’s genetic? That’s just unfair to the child.” I could not disagree with this more strongly. Although I didn’t learn that I had autism in my family until after my son was diagnosed, if I could go back in time, I would do everything all over again. I would be very happy to have another son like my own. I strongly believe that part of the reason he’s come so far with therapy is that I was accepting of his autism from a very early age.
It’s natural to fear a connection between vaccines and autism when autism is presented as a big, scary horrible disease and vaccine preventable diseases are brushed off as nothing. It’s natural to fear a connection when individual parents say that it happened to their children and could happen to yours. It’s natural to draw conclusions between two unrelated events. It’s important to be aware of the latest research and not reach for medicine to solve every childhood ill. Children are over-prescribed antibiotics, and fevers can be helpful and don’t necessarily need to be treated with painkillers. There are many other reasons parents say that they avoid vaccines, but most of those are all too similar to the fears about autism.
My son is not something to fear. He’s amazing. Any parent would be blessed to have him.
*Names changed to protect privacy. Last updated Feb 1, 2015