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Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

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Doctor giving injection to baby boy (2-5 months). Science Photo Library - IAN HOOTON./Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Parents as Observers

"Science is about observation, right?" Lisa Rudley, a mother who has filed a claim in "Vaccine Court" asserting that shots caused her son's autism, told New York's The Journal News. "Well, I watched my son descend into illness. I think a mother's observation of her child is valuable."

Some parents can pinpoint the moment things went wrong for their child. In an open letter reprinted on the blog MomLogic, actress Holly Robinson Peete recalls, "When my son was two-and-a-half, he was just recovering from an ear infection and had been on antibiotics, therefore his immune system was suppressed. He had already missed several appointments for his vaccination so his pediatrician wanted to catch him up on all of them in the same day. Although I asked if he'd consider waiting or breaking up the cocktail, which contains three viruses, he laughed me out of the office and belittled me. I firmly believe that it took my son to a place of no return and his body could not handle it. He had a violent reaction with convulsions and then he stopped talking and slipped into a silence. He no longer said, 'Hi, Mommy,' he no longer responded to his name and he no longer made eye contact."

Others notice the change in retrospect. Ginger Taylor, on her blog Adventures in Autism, writes, "After Chandler's diagnosis I went back and watched home videos to find out when things started changing for him. We had a gap in our video's between my older son's birthday in September and Halloween. It was clear that he had changed sometime during that time. After watching the videos I checked his shot record and found that Chandler had been vaccinated just before the gap in the video, five weeks before Halloween."

As some parents trace the damage done by vaccines, others note the damage done by unvaccinated kids. In his book Your Critically Ill Child, Dr. Christopher M. Johnson writes of a baby's terrible battle with whooping cough in the Pediatric ICU, and of his mother's anger at the family whose avoidance of vaccines put her there. "She was more than unsympathetic to the anti-vaccination viewpoint; she was scornful of its adherents, even angry at them. She told me that she would like all such parents who refuse whooping cough vaccine for their children to see a video of Tiffany, emaciated from lack of food, exhausted from coughing, and nearly drowning in mucous as she gasped for breath."

Neurodiversity or Disease

There are plenty of parents of children with autism who agree that the anti-vaccine viewpoint is dangerous. "Not all awareness and advocacy is healthy awareness and advocacy," writes Estee Klar in her blog The Joy of Autism. "Anything that shifts public perception to lessen the value of human beings based on their disability, sways people to feel sorry for us or our children, or endangers their health, is not advancing the needs of autistic individuals or creating an inclusive society."

Kristina Chew, who has blogged about her son's autism on AutismVox, Change.org, and We Go With Him, writes, "People have started to talk about a child having measles as preferable to a child having autism and so much energy is being directed to explaining about thimerosal and flu vaccines, all while the Supreme Court is making judgments about ... an 'appropriate' education for a child on the autism spectrum, and when everyone knows there isn't enough of anything (housing, jobs, funds) for adults on the autism spectrum."

For parents like Klar and Chew who embrace the notion of neurodiversity, autism is not a scourge to be eradicated or damage to be repaired but an example of normal human variation. "I just don’t see my son as having a 'ghastly affliction.' Indeed, when I stopped worrying about 'recovering' him and making sure he did this that and the other 'appropriately,' things got much better," Chew wrote on AutismVox.

Other parents find that "ghastly" well describes their experience with autism. In a Salon article, Ann Bauer writes of her adult autistic son's outbursts of violence, "I would hack off my right arm in return for something as simple as cancer. The flickering beauty of a sad, pure, too-early death sounds lovely." Jenny McCarthy, who has been outspoken in her criticism of vaccines, said in a Time interview, "If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f___ing measles."

Parents who believe that something in the environment is turning healthy children autistic consider research essential to reversing what they see as an autism epidemic. Jon Poling, who successfully petitioned the Vaccine Court on behalf of his daughter Hannah, wrote in the March 13, 2009, Atlanta Journal Constitution, "We should be investing our research dollars into discovering environmental factors that we can change. ... Pesticides, mercury, aluminum, several drugs, dietary factors, infectious agents and yes — vaccines."

Where It Stands

Regardless of their beliefs about the nature of autism, the dangers of vaccination, and the proper target of funding, most parents recognize that immunizing children against life-threatening diseases is something worth doing. Many who get tagged as "anti-vaccine" really want to make vaccines safer, eliminating potentially damaging ingredients and amending vaccination schedules so that young immune systems are not bombarded. Parents on all sides of the debate see themselves as fighting the good fight for their own children and for all children -- and that ensures that the question "Do Vaccines Cause Autism?" will continue to be hotly debated, regardless of what science has to say on the subject.

To keep up-to-date on the debate, and read how passionate parents apply their own experience and interpretations to all sides of issue, refer to the Today's News, Weekly News, and Vaccines and Autism News folders on this Parenting Special Needs site, updated regularly with posts on this contentious topic from parenting blogs around the Web.

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