One of the consequences of wandering all over town with a bumper sticker that says "Yes! You Can Ask Me About Autism!" is that people stop you and ask you about autism. I got another mom asking me the #1 question today: "I'm supposed to get my kids vaccinated today... what do you think? Should I do it?"
I took some time to talk with this mom, because we had some time, and she has kids in the same camp as Andy. Besides, she had chased me down from the parking lot, and the fear behind the question is one that one must take care and investigate before answering. What is she really asking?
Some are honestly asking, "Do you think vaccinations cause autism?" That is a very simple question to answer. No.
Some are asking, "Which do you fear more- these shot-prevented diseases, or autism?" That's an easy one, too. I am far more afraid of measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, whooping cough, polio, chicken pox, hepatitis, tetanus, typhoid, pneumonia, diphtheria, and rotavirus than I am of autism. All of those diseases can kill you. I do not find autism to be frightening, other than the whole mystery of the unknown, since education about special needs in the general population is practically non-existent. Having to fight the school district? terrifying. Then I refer them back to question 1, and the fact that there is no this-or-that question here. If you are really really concerned, talk to your pediatrician about an altered schedule so you can spread out the shots and watch for side effects more effectively. High fevers can do strange things to a child's brain, and you need to watch for them. I would be more worried about seizures, though.
Some are asking, "Is autism worse than death?" This is really a slightly different question from #2. The absolute terror behind this question is something I find rattling. This is a parent paralyzed. They do not want to be blamed for their child being disabled. They don't want to roll the dice and take a chance of harming the child. They have never seen measles, mumps, or whooping cough. Polio is, to them, a distant legend. Pneumonia is a cough. Diphtheria is something they get in third-world countries. But autism... that has been very much to the fore, and the images they see in the media are not images they want projected on themselves and their children. Autism is not worse than death. It is a different way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world. It can result in severe disabilities, such as communication disorders (including social skill issues), sensory disorders, fine motor skill problems, and even gross motor skill issues. Not all of these issues are disabling, and there are therapies available to address these issues, if you can lay hands on therapists, time, and money. It is easier to support your autistic child than it used to be- there are more people out here like me, willing to help, there have been more trails blazed before us, there is more understanding in the educational and medical communities (though there is a lot more work to do), there are law offices who specialize in advocating for and representing autistic people and their families, than there was even ten years ago. I often invite these kinds of parents, asking this question, to come meet Joey, if he is on hand. I give them the address to this blog. I give them my handy-dandy sheet of websites to research autism and special needs issues.
And then there are some who are really asking, "What is autism?" The word is a vague shadow on the edges of information. They have no thought of not vaccinating their kids, because the vague shadows of the diseases they are protecting their kids from is still clearer than that of autism. There is curiosity, intrigue. They have heard fuzzy rumors, maybe caught a glimpse of Jenny McCarthy or seen a few minutes of Rainman, maybe they watch Eureka. This is another case of come-meet-my-kid and and a nice handout to take with them after you've talked a bit and introduced Joey. They don't want too much information- just enough to take the edge off mild curiosity.
Then there the parents asking, "Is my child autistic?" Now, I am not a developmental pediatrician. I can't diagnose kids. I do recommend that anyone worried about their kid should have that child independently screened (not by the school- by a developmental pediatrician or someone else with the credentials and ability to diagnose a child with an ASD or discount ASD.) There are kids out there who are eccentric without being autistic. Sensory integration issues can easily be SPD and not autism. There are disorders that "look like" autism, especially in young children, such as Tourette Syndrome. I always want to take some time with these parents. They are usually scared, worried, and feeling desperate and guilty. What they usually need is reassurance, a kind I don't really feel I can give (I can't give them that resounding, "No!"). A kid that looks normal to me might not be; a kid who looks really in need of service may be normal. I have no idea, I'm not trained for that. All I can say is, get the child screened, and if it comes back an ASD diagnosis, here I am to help you.
Don't be afraid. Vaccinate your children.