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The Autism/Vaccine (Dis)Connection

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.






Autism controversy

A new study denies any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But parents who have heard anecdotal evidence to the contrary are already less likely to vaccinate their kids -- and we've got the measles outbreaks to prove it. Is there a scenario where anyone wins this battle?

Vaccine

There's a disease that affects the central nervous system as well as other critical systems in the body. If contracted, it can cause neurological symptoms months -- or even years -- after the original infection. At times, it's fatal. Fortunately, we've developed a vaccine to keep the measles from affecting our children. Unfortunately, many parents are choosing not to give their kids this immunization.

Well, of course they are! The MMR vaccine can cause autism. Everyone knows that, right?

"Vaccines cause autism!"… Or, maybe not

The link between autism and vaccines first burst into the limelight in 1998 thanks to a study published in The Lancet, a highly respected peer-reviewed medical journal. That study has been quoted and re-quoted over the years, and there are parents who know, with the same certainty as they know their children's names, that the study is right.

Here's the thing: the study looked at 12 children. Twelve. And six years after that study, 10 of its 13 authors retracted their original findings. They announced publicly that they did not have the evidence to support the theory that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

In the 10 years since that original study, several larger, more carefully controlled studies have proven that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But does it even matter anymore?

You know what you know

If you have a child with autism who got the MMR vaccine, or if you know a child with autism who got the MMR vaccine, or if you've heard that some children with autism had the MMR vaccine, you may already know, for sure, in your heart of hearts, that there is a connection. And your mind is made up, and your children are not getting the MMR vaccine, and that's all there is to it. There's just too much anecdotal evidence to ignore. You know what you know. And no doctor with his fancy degrees knows your child, your heart, better than you.

No one says, "Hey, I really want to have a child with special needs when I grow up." Parenting a child with autism -- with any developmental disorder -- is a long, tough road that you are forced to navigate, and you make the best of it, but no one sets off, checks out the two paths, one with flowers and sunshine, and one with abandoned land mines and says, "Hey, I've always wanted to risk life and limb!" (For more on that point, see our article "When autism is family: Everyday life with an autistic child.")

I have a son with a rare genetic syndrome, and I know, it's no walk in the park. And I know that there are things I know about my son -- and no one can convince me I'm wrong, no matter what medical evidence says to the contrary. So I get it. I know what it feels like to know you're right and to have to listen to the rest of the world not get it.

But what you don't know can hurt you

But. But. The New York Times says, "There has been an upsurge of measles cases in the United States." A Chicago Tribune writer agrees and adds that "parents who reject vaccination are shouldering much of the blame." Measles comes to the U.S. from foreigners, in most cases. Ten years ago, the disease might enter the states and quickly dissipate. But now, it's spreading to unvaccinated children. Don't we have a responsibility to our kids to protect them from a disease that could kill them?

So, perhaps the question we have to answer is, "How do we know what we know?" What makes us so certain that there must be a link between vaccines and autism, even when all the evidence says otherwise? So often, the decision not to vaccinate is made precisely because a parent believes she is an educated consumer, doing the right thing for her child. But where is that parent getting her information? And how does she respond to evidence that refutes her beliefs?

It's a genuine question. Please take the time to consider it carefully, and respond in the comments section below. Dialogue doesn't work if it's only one-sided.

Autism resources and information

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