Autism and the Anti-Vaxx Cult

The anti-vaccine movement very seldom comes to the clinics where I work.  We serve mostly Medicaid and uninsured patients, and parents here know that a kid coming down with chicken pox would mean a parent missing up to two weeks of work.  Skipping the Varicella vaccine could be a financial disaster.  In addition, our state laws requiring vaccination to attend school or daycare are the strictest in the country which is why in a state that seems to be last in so many health care measures, we have a 99.7% vaccination rate for kindergartners.

Skipping vaccines is a luxury.  Discussions of possible complications and disruption of herd immunity may not persuade people to vaccinate their children, but if they know that a round of whooping cough means they may not be able to pay rent, a trip to the pediatrician or health department makes economic sense.

It is no accident that the anti-vaxx movement comes out of more affluent communities. Not everyone has time to join in the “crunchy mom” movement characterized by cloth diapers and suspicion of foreign chemicals, the government, and the medical establishment.

Where does this movement come from? These fears are not without merit, after all.  The ingredient list in a vaccine is full of hard to pronounce foreign sounding compounds, and if history teaches us anything, we are right to be suspicious of unknown side effects.  Thalidimide, for example, never got through the United States FDA, but it was used widely during pregnancy by European women who then gave birth to children with serious limb deformities.

On-line and neighborhood communities have sprung up for “crunchy moms” who reinforced each other’s fears and convictions.  Those who express doubt or change their minds about vaccines are ostracized, which is one of the criteria for being a cult.

While I do feel some suspicion of the establishment is justified, the evidence for the safety and efficacy of vaccines is overwhelming.  I would argue that vaccination is the most well-researched, well-practiced, and well-tracked medical breakthrough of our time.   The evidence is in.  But apparently it isn’t reaching everyone. Refusal to vaccinate your child is cultish behavior.  And it’s hard to leave a cult that tells you vaccination may cause your child to be autistic.

Fear of autism is a main characteristic of the anti-vaxx movement.  Now debunked research pointed to preservatives in the MMR vaccine as the culprit.  But was this really so hard to believe? Diagnoses of autism are on the rise with as many as 1 out of 150 children now being diagnosed by age 8.   Surely this is caused by something, right?  When first categorized, cold uninvolved mothering was blamed for autism in children, as if just not loving your child enough caused the neurological disorder.  As this explanation fell out of favor, parents struggled to find alternate reasons for the prevalence of autism.

A brief look at the history of Autism as a diagnosable disorder, however, points to a much simpler explanation than the preservative thirmosol or other suspected culprits including GMOs, plastics, and chemtrails. I think this is an important piece of the puzzle that is often ignored.  Autism Spectrum Disorder has only been in the DSMIII since 1980, and it has been revised multiple times since then. The majority of children today classified as being “on the spectrum” would never have met the criteria in the 1980 DSM. And prior to that, most children with severe forms of autism were simply thought to be schizophrenic.

Whether or not this knowledge would be convincing to anti-vaxx parents is questionable.  In fact, studies show that presenting parents with scientific evidence about vaccination does little to nothing to change their views on the risk factors their children face.  What does seem to change their minds is actual outbreaks.  This is horrifying because an unknown number of children, even vaccinated children, may contract measles before this phenomenon passes into obscurity.

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In Defense of the Throwers of Tantrums and the Parents who Love them

When I was in my early twenties, I did a lot of tutoring. A lot of my clients were Korean wives of visiting professors. One afternoon, I showed up for a session with a client. I’m not sure if she had forgotten I was coming or what, but when I got there, she let me in with a sigh. She was in stained sweat pants and a ripped t-shirt. I walked into her kitchen where her one-year old son sat on the floor. Naked. With an entire cake. He was happily licking the frosting off the wall. Tsk. I thought. The way Koreans coddle their children.
Of course, this was before I had two boys of my own. I can tell you now that what ever series of unfortunate events led to this particular scenario, it is a universal human experience of parenthood, not some cultural anomaly. When you have children, you do things you would never think you would do. Like letting your baby suck on sugar packets at a restaurant so you can eat, driving in circles in the parking lot of your apartment trying to get the kid to sleep, or sticking the binky in your mouth to clean it off once it hits the floor.
I was about 10 months pregnant when I went into Babies R Us for some last minute items. I don’t know if all Babies R Us stores are like this, but the one I went to had the loudest toilets on the face of the earth. Any time anyone flushed, there was a pressure change that made your ears pop. My toddler was fully aware of this and was absolutely not going to go into the Babies R Us bathroom. You’d think I would be able to make him, but you’d be wrong. I made it to the door, and he put his hands and feet on the door jam and screamed. I was about to just pee on the floor and hope people thought my water had broken when a complete stranger came up to me and offered to hold my child so that I could relieve myself in the pit of despair.
“Oh God, yes.” I said. “Take him.”
Despite my greatest hope, I mean fear. She gave him back after I was done. He was still screaming.
This is why it makes me cringe when I see strangers criticize the parenting skills of moms and dads just trying to get by. Let me just tell you, you can do absolutely everything exactly right, and your child may still have a complete meltdown in the middle of Walmart. And you’re probably not doing everything exactly right. If we still lived in large family groups, people would know this. But they set out into their single or coupled childless lives with this idyllic image of what they think parenthood should look like. Apparently, some people are blessed with especially well behaved children, or so I’ve heard. They are probably boring dull children.  This is why I am still grateful to that kind stranger. I wish I could send her my son’s handsome Senior Picture and a copy of his ACT and tell her he’d turned out ok after all.
Baby number two was slightly less prone to tantrums, which is why I actually left home with him on purpose. I took him on long walks in his umbrella stroller. We were a mile and half from home when he suddenly determined that Sunday outings were unholy torture. There was to be no more pushing in the stroller. To ensure this, he put his huge baby feet behind the front wheels and made banshee noises. For about an hour. Finally, a grandmotherly lady came out of her home to see what the ruckus was. She spoke to me soothingly with tales of her own children and let me use her phone so I could call for a Dad pick up. Thank you, Mrs. Henson. He’s doing much better now. He still has big feet. Just like your son in Idaho, he wears a 14 now.
Both my kids were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, actually  Asperger’s Syndrome, and perhaps I had more difficult toddlerhoods than many moms. But whether a child is a little bit different or not, he has bad days just like you do. And nobody gives him a margarita after work.
By all means, if you see a child being abused by an adult, notify the authorities. But if you see a kid at the grocery having a complete breakdown because of the way plums smell, he is probably overtired and over stimulated, and so are his parents. Some days, there is a battle of wills, and some days the parents lose. That doesn’t make them bad parents. It makes them human. A kind smile of understanding instead of a dirty look could really make a Mom or Dad’s day.