Autism and Vaccines: Why This Topic Won’t Go Away
First, I wish to apologize for writing yet another post whose topic is autism and vaccines and at a time when funding for invaluable special education programs and services could be cut. A great deal of attention has been focused on this topic for some years. While autism rates have significantly increased in the past decade—the neurodevelopmental disability is now found in approximately every 1 in 110 children in the US—a specific cause has yet to be pinpointed. Families undergo daily struggles in caring for a child who may be (like my teenage son) minimally or non-verbal; have behavior issues that go beyond the terrible two’s sort of thing (my son used to have regular instances of very self-injurious behavior including head-banging on any available hard surface); have significant cognitive delays; require 24/7 care at a time when most people are dropping off a child for lacrosse practice, and all the way into adulthood.
It is simply understandable that people want to know why there is an increase in autism and why they are not satisfied, and sometimes suspicious of, explanations involving accounts of diagnostic substitution, that it is due to our better, more informed understanding of what autism is that we are literally ‘seeing’ more autism and, therefore, diagnosing it more. People want real, concrete evidence for why their child is autistic, not academic-sounding theories. Further, any parent just can’t let go of the ‘what if’ syndrome, in which one worries that some expert might just be wrong, or that one’s child will be the one who is ‘genetically predisposed’ to have a ‘bad reaction’ to a vaccine and ‘become’ autistic. Thanks to the Internet, many parents have much more access to more information literally while they are sitting in the exam room with their child.
I have been addressing this particular topic of autism and vaccines since the time I first started blogging about autism in June of 2005. My most recent posts on the topic can be found here at Care2; I had previously written extensively about this issue at a blog called AutismVox. (And please see The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, for other parent voices on this topic.) And even though the original Lancet study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been roundly discredited and even retracted by the Lancet, and even though studies investigating the possibility of a link have found evidence to the contrary, the notion remains and, sadly, continues to distract attention from the realities that individuals on the autism spectrum and those who care for them face in regard to lifelong services and supports.
Indeed, the author of a book, Evidence of Harm (2005) that was widely heralded by proponents of some sort of connection between something in vaccines and autism, David Kirby, has published yet another Huffington Post post on the topic. This latest piece has a title reminiscent of posts from previous years (‘The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away’) and is part of a projected two-part series in which the author states that he will review the latest research studies (with a focus on ‘seizure disorders, mitochondrial dysfunction and the destruction of myelin’) that point to some sort of link.
In general, the article follows familiar topoi in Kirby’s writings on this topic, with various research studies cited and also references to the author’s conversations with ‘thousands’ of parents about some sort of ‘regression’ in a child just around the time she or he had received a number of childhood vaccinations. There is a bit of a twist at the start of the article, in which Kirby is a bit more specific about the parents he has been talking to about a purported vaccine-autism link, ‘young parents in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn’ who are ‘highly educated, affluent and politically progressive people — doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, writers and other successful professionals.’ Kirby puzzles over the conundrum of how it is ‘the most highly educated parents who are now eschewing the CDC schedule and vaccinating their children at a different pace’: If smart, comfortably salaried Brooklynites are ‘eschewing’ the CDC’s vaccination schedule, surely the notion that there might be some connection between vaccines and autism can’t be the musings of some ‘lunatic fringe.’
Reading Kirby’s piece, I was struck by a strong sense of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’: That is, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ I quite understand why Kirby has not been able to let go of making claims about an autism-vaccine link, and why he continues to persevere in writing about such a connection, in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. There are questions, and parents and people have their suspicions, and Kirby is well-versed in putting together short accounts of various scientific studies with mentions of ‘tragedy’ and horrors of autism.
Kirby’s latest writing on this topic is rather symptomatic of something about parenting today, about parental fears about raising a child in a world in which we can’t seem to trust the very foods and toys we give our children (and that are marketed to them at an increasingly younger age), and in which we also have declining confidence (and rising suspicion) about experts. Parents also wonder, and worry, to the point of obsession about how they might raise successful, accomplished, children, hence the fascination with the notion of ‘extreme parenting’ detailed in Amy Chua’s ‘tiger mother’ book. If we could just say a bit more for sure that something in vaccines might have something to do with autism, we could out rule one more factor that might be endangering our children, is the thought.
And perhaps it is high time to be wary of thinking that there can be any easy and straightforward answers such as that ‘vaccines cause autism’; that we cannot control everything about our children’s health, future, and lives—except for one thing. Speaking as a parent, and on Valentine’s Day, and a day in which I had such a productive and friendly IEP meeting for Charlie that I actually signed the document on the spot instead of waiting for two weeks to mull over things and consider changes—-I can say, we parents can never stop loving our children enough and, therefore, trying to do our best by them and, at times, letting go of outmoded theories. People used to believe that bad parenting and ‘refrigerator mothers‘ causes autism and one day (though not yet, it seems) the vaccine-autism ‘link’ will be simply a topic for the history books.
Previous Care2 Coverage
Photo by stevendepolo.