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I have a son with autism, and I sympathize with the anti-vaccine movement

Vaccines are one of several issues that polarize parents, especially within the autism community. Some fiercely believe that vaccines are responsible for autism and refuse to vaccinate their children. Still others, whether or not they believe the vaccine-autism link, choose to protect their children with vaccines. With one side refusing to see eye to eye with the other, it’s a battle that will never have a clear winner.

And for most parents, the reasons behind their child’s autism will never have a clear answer.

When news broke over the weekend that Robert De Niro decided to pull the controversial anti-vaccination film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe from his Tribeca Film Festival lineup, debate between the two sides sparked again. By originally including the film, the actor — who has an autistic son — was trying to create a discussion surrounding the topic. However, most people felt a discussion about widely debunked research by a doctor who is barred from practicing medicine had no place at the reputable film festival.

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I don’t blame De Niro for wanting to find answers for his own son or for wanting to further the discussion on the causes of autism. My 12-year-old son has autism, and I would want answers too if I didn’t already have them.

I know why my child has autism. Since he was born with a cleft lip and palate, he had genetic testing to determine if that was part of a larger syndrome. The results were negative, yet as he grew, we knew there were other aspects of his development that were not typical.

By the time he was 9, we had serious concerns about his social and emotional development. A doctor suggested further genetic tests, which this time revealed a deletion on one of his genes. We learned that one deletion was responsible not only for his cleft lip and palate but for autism as well. We had an answer. His autism was decided long before he was born, long before our decision to have him vaccinated.

In my heart I knew his autism diagnosis was forthcoming. Knowing there was a definitive reason for it made it easier to accept. If feel lucky because I get to have an answer. One of the top fears of parents is that their baby is not developing normally. When you think your baby is developing normally and then one day he suddenly and clearly is not, it is one of the most frightening things any parent can imagine. The search for a reason, for something on which to assign blame, can ease the pain and sorrow parents feel.

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Even though I believe in vaccinations and have four fully vaccinated children who don’t have autism, I understand why some parents choose to not vaccinate. I can understand their fear and their deep desire to protect their children even if I don’t agree with the way they are going about it. What angers me, though, is the way autistic children are being further victimized and used to frighten new parents away from lifesaving vaccines. If some cases of autism can be linked to genetics, isn’t it possible that all cases have a genetic component determined long before vaccines are given?

I can’t find fault with Robert De Niro either. Despite his fame, he is a father searching for answers as well. He is a father who has deep connections with the autism community. He is a father who wanted to do something good with his power and fame.

He is also a father who was responsible enough to take the time to talk to the medical and scientific communities and see the claims for what they are — unfounded, as has been proven time and time again by members of those medical and scientific communities. He is also a famous person who didn’t necessarily bow to public pressure but considered what screening the film would have meant to the integrity of the film festival and to the other filmmakers whose works are to appear.

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He is easy to attack because of his fame. I’m sure that in light of his revelation that his son has autism, some people want him to be the famous face and voice for autism advocacy. But in the end, he is just a dad, a dad who despite his fame will always do what’s best for his son.

In the end, we all want what is best for our children. If that means exhaustively searching for answers and cures, we’ll do it. But villainizing, blaming and shaming those parents whose beliefs are opposite ours isn’t going to bring those answers or cures any faster.

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