When it comes to research, you will always have skeptics, and you will always have the people who doubledown when face with even overwhelming results. The case of vaccines and autism is one of those situations.
On some level, I do understand those feelings. Science can seem cold. We certainly love depicting our scientists as the enemy, or at least as misguided, wanna-be gods. Just compare how many heroes work in a scientific field compared to the villains. But it’s mostly overwhelmingly something that I find to be extremely strange, since science is what opened up and brightened my world and really helped me click all the pieces into place. But then, that’s how my brain is wired. I spend several hours a day talking to people who don’t see things that way. So, for those who don’t find all the science debunking the vaccines-cause-Autism idea to be convincing and trustworthy, I want to propose an alternative line of thought:
The diseases that vaccines prevent kill people and leave the survivors disabled and disfigured. They are also most likely to affect young children. That’s why vaccines were invented — to stop the spread of these awful diseases so that parents wouldn’t have to experience losing their small child to what is now, thanks to breakthroughs with vaccines, a preventable disease.
Autism, on the other hand, does not kill people. Children who live with Autism will continue to live the way they have lived every day before this point. With caring, supportive, and encouraging families, they will grow, and be happy, and maybe even learn to handle the great wide world. They can’t do that if they die from a disease that could very easily have been prevented if they’d been vaccinated.
Take, for example, the measles, which is one of the biggest diseases that has been prevented by vaccinations. They had been declared completely wiped out in the US a few decades ago, but now we’re seeing several hundred cases a year. And while death is less common in developed nations (1 or 2 per every 1,000 cases), it is a symptom. As is permanent brain damage and hearing loss. If you aren’t vaccinated and come in contact with the virus, there is a 90% change you will get it.
On the other hand, if 90–95% of the population gets their vaccinations, we’ll have a pretty strong herd of immune children. And adults, of course. That 5–10% on the other side should account for people who can’t, such as those who have compromised immune systems. Those people in particular rely heavily on that herd immunity protecting them because they are extremely likely to die from many of these very preventable diseases.
It also doesn’t take a big dip to start seeing ill effects. Just a 5% drop could triple the rates of diseases in children ages 2–11.
But, what about Autism. What if that off chance that vaccines do cause Autism is true, what if my kid ends up developing Autism?
To that I ask — why are we so afraid of Autism? No, I’m more curious, why are we more afraid of Autism than we are of epidemics and the chance that our children can die?
I’m sure a bit of that has to do with what we see right in front of us. On one hand, we haven’t seen a truly severe outbreak of any of these diseases in decades (thanks to vaccines). Most Americans have never even seen a child with mumps or measles. Meanwhile, Autism is here, and now, and everywhere. It does seem like there has been a rise in the number of kids who have Autism thanks to a rise in diagnoses. I’m sure it also doesn’t help that we only highlighted the most severe cases for years. Until Sheldon debuted on The Big Bang Theory as presenting as having Autism (and becoming a bit of an icon in that regard), I never had a way to visualize or contextualize Autism because I’d never been introduced to it in a potentially positive light.
I know that negativity can really make things seem a lot scarier than they are. Not to mention how historically bad America has been at actually taking care of anyone that is classified as ‘different.’ Not just in school, but medically as well. For example, once you turn 18, most insurance providers will not cover Autism screening. So if you missed out while you were a kid, it’s not going to be $4,000+ to even get a screening.
But things are changing.
That rise in diagnoses is heavily attributed to better access to care and a general improvements in our understanding of Autism. For example, Autism has regularly been depicted as mostly being boys-only, but recent research has shown that it’s not as uncommon in girls as once believed. Girls just present differently or handle themselves better as kids due to how American culture treats girlhood as opposed to boyhood. This has allowed for care providers to more readily diagnose girls than in the past. And, speaking of the past, just a few decades ago, mental health in general was constantly swept under the rug. Sure, you might have something wrong with you, but you didn’t speak of it. You certainly didn’t go to therapy or get diagnosed with something, because that would mean there’s something wrong with you. I grew up in a time when this culture was shifting and things like depression were more openly being discussed. When I was in middle school, it was shocking that preteens and teenagers could have depression, where as now our culture is more willing to accept that and get those kids help. Something similar is happening with Autism. Kids with Autism that would have never been granted a diagnosis before now have families willing to take them in to have them screened. It’s better to know and take care of your kid than it is to oppress things that are out of their control, after all.
We have also shifted our overall cultural perception of people with mental illnesses. Mental diseases in general are becoming less stigmatized. It’s not completely destigmatized, of course — bullying is still a huge issue, employers are still less likely to hire someone with a known diagnosis, and there are still pockets of people who insist that a good attitude and persistence is all that you need to cure any mental disorder. Not to mention those who completely dismiss mental health issues outright. On the other hand, though, thanks in no small part to the internet, we have more access to our peers than ever. More access to examples, more access to their stories, and more access to, again, care. There has also been successful changes in media. Sheldon, for all the flack he gets, is a great Autism 101 course for those who aren’t familiar with it. And, for the younger crowds, we have Sesame Street, still going strong in shaping the future.
A few weeks ago, I saw some tweets (that were covered later by Huffington Post, if you’d like to see the whole thread) about a mom and her autistic son who encountered a little girl who wanted to play with said son. When the girl’s grandmother said “be careful,” the girl said “ I saw on Sesame Street” and jumped right on in to play along with her new friend.
I know, it can be a challenge. But…most kids can get along just fine, if you give them the tools they need to do so, in the way that they need those tools. And they’ll get along even better if we stop treating Autism as some horrible, terrible nightmare that must be purged.