I remember just a couple of years ago, when parents made claims online that their children were vaccine injured (and they usually meant autistic), people would sort of tip toe around them. No one wanted to cast doubt on a parent’s claim that vaccines caused their child’s autism because they didn’t want to look like a jerk picking on a parent who was clearly having a difficult time.
Things have changed. But before I get to showing you how things have changed, I want to float a few theories about why.
1. More parents of autistic children and autistic self-advocates are speaking up in favor of immunizations. And importantly, they are getting more attention. Organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism made stands, but those stands are not just about the value of immunization. They are also about how anti-vaccine campaigning tends to dehumanize autistic people by casting them as tragedies and as damaged. Shannon Rosa was one of the first parents to speak up, commenting:
I care about this topic, deeply — I care that it is diverting the issue of care, support, and respect for our children — mine and yours — and autistics, right now. I care when dollars that could be invested in those positive supports are solicited for organizations like Age of Autism [AoA]– a for-profit, LLC company sponsored by an (alternative and so unregulated) pharmaceutical company — which unironically and continuously attacks anyone who rightfully questions their horrifyingly misinformed and negative agenda as “mercenary pharma shills.” I care that your and AoA’s negative messages have poisoned public perception about autism to the point where misinformed and mentally ill autism parents are killing their children because they’re so afraid of autism.
2. Outbreaks have shown us that we cannot be polite about another parent’s misinformation, even when that misinformation comes from a place of hardship. “MRR caused my child’s autism” is a fine trope to float if no one gets sick from it. But people have gotten sick, and the pace of those illnesses are a direct result of the Wakefield-inspiread fear of autism and the MMR.
In the past two years, these outbreaks have come closer to home, with one outbreak of 383 measles cases in the Ohio Amish community in 2014 and the Disneyland outbreak of 117 measles cases in 2015. The stakes are too high to allow parents of autistic children to make false claims about autism.
3. Autism advocates (both parents and self-advocates) have encouraged other parents permission to talk about autism and vaccines. I make this claim and include one important note: pro-vaxxers can only take on autism claims if they also refuse to take part in the fear-mongering and dehumanizing of autistic people. The person who may have encouraged people to debunk the vaccine-autism myth the most in the past year may be Jimmy Kimmel, who responded to anti-vaccine blowback by noting that autism has touched his family (and it has probably touched yours, too). Talking about autism is not taboo, and celebrities can advocate for vaccines and talk about autism. If they can do it, so can we all.
So what is the result? To be honest, some of it isn’t pretty. But on the whole, when people make “vaccine injury” claims that actually mean, “vaccines cause autism,” those claims are no longer standing unchallenged. I noticed this yesterday when one father made a comment on the Minnesota Department of Health Facebook page that his child was given a “hot lot” (this isn’t a thing) of the MMR and came down with measles within 12 hours (even though wild measles incubates for days) and then autism. Some of the comments, all from people whose children are not autistic, challenged him.
One advocate commented:
I’m sorry to hear that life has not played out the way you expected and I am glad to know you are doing everything you can to help your child.
That said, it is irresponsible and false to claim his condition and autism in ANY child is caused by vaccines or their ingredients. There has been abundant research from multiple countries showing that, despite a small dip in MMR and other immunization rates, diagnosed of autism continue to rise.
One explanation may be that vaccination was protective against autism.
Another may be that awareness of the symptom profile and better diagnostic tools have improved autism recognition and diagnosis (as evidenced by the falling number of other mental illness cases that roughly mirror the rise in autism).
Regardless, despite that MMR does not contain Mercury (as it would damage a live vaccine), it does not follow that autism cases continue to increase after thimersol was removed from childhood vaccines (which was an unnecessary but overly protective overreaction to an imagination threat); unless the vaccines were never the cause in the first place.
And that’s really how you do it. You can express empathy, but then you have to present the facts. If we all shy away from taking on these claims, who knows how large the next measles outbreak will be.
Here’s a completely unrelated video that I made to kick off National Immunization Awareness Month (lyrics by Dr. Nathan Boonstra and vocals by Melody Butler):