Vaccine Advocates: Don't Discriminate Against My Autistic Son

Image: a fully vaccinated autistic teen boy
running towards the camera
in a bright orange sandstone canyon
Public opinion has turned, sharply and loudly, in favor of supporting vaccines. Yay! It took an outbreak of measles at Disneyland for it to happen. Boo! (Your grandmother might have survived her measles, but for others it can be fatal.)

But even though formerly wishy washy types are now joining the previously silent pro-vaccine majority in getting righteously riled about the very real harm from anti-vaccine rhetoric, there's still one part of the argument that needs to change. That I'm asking you to change. Please:

Don't just say: "Vaccines don't cause autism

Please say this instead: "Autistic people have always been here. Vaccines don't cause autism"

Simply saying "vaccines don't cause autism" implies that autistic people like my very awesome teenage son Leo should be feared. Which is a really, really hurtful message.  One I'm asking you to help counter. Again, please.

Unless we push back against negative public messages about autistic people -- negative ideas the "autism is vaccine damage" science denialists are largely responsible for and continue to promote -- then the world will continue to be an unfriendly place for Leo and his autistic friends and spectrum-mates. It doesn't have to be that way. As Anne Theriault writes:
"The debate about vaccination should be autism-inclusive, and that means re-evaluating the way we talk about autism and vaccines. Because while it’s great to raise a happy healthy kid, you can do that without turning them into an anti-autism bigot."
Note that I don't hold anti-vaxxers entirely responsible for their initial fall down the misinformation rabbit hole. I blame the media for detonating autism-vaccine fears with its years-long, largely uncontested coverage of Andrew Wakefield's infamous "MMR jab causes autism" article. The article has since been retracted, along with Wakefield's medical license and any shreds of credibility, but even so the media continued to insist on the false balance of "two sides" for years. Even though one side was science and the other was ... Jenny McCarthy's "mommy instinct." (Note that Jenny McCarthy herself is suspiciously silent despite years of fanning autism-vaccine flames for fun and profit.)

Yet I can see why parents who stumbled across the wrong information after their kids were first diagnosed with autism might be confused about who to trust, because I know what it's like to be a scared, misinformed anti-vaxxer. I'm not proud to have once considered my sweet Leo "damaged" because I believed the cure-hawkers who had little interest in Leo's welfare but vested interest in the contents of my wallet. Guilt and anger over being duped when Leo and I both needed so much post-autism diagnosis support is part of what drives my advocacy work now.

So I have some empathy for anti-vaxxers. I believe, to the best of our abilities (including the ability to resist punching our screens), we should remember that they're human too, and ask them what their questions are, and try to answer those questions. People who knew I was misguided and misinformed but who nonetheless listened to my fears, and talked me through them, helped me along my path to recognizing vaccine-autism pseudoscience for what it is: total BS that not only degrades my son but derails autism conversations into causation, when those conversations should be about rights, accommodations, and support.

I won't stop countering anti-vaxxers efforts to dehumanize Leo and autistic people like him. I want a better, accepting, autism-friendly world for my dude. He and his people have always been here: Science says so, historical researchers say so, and very soon Wired reporter and NeuroTribes author Steve Silberman will say so, too. Leo and his tribe deserve better.
Please, please help spread the pro-vaccine message in an autistic-positive way. And if you need more ammo for your autism-supporting vaccine advocacy, follow these links:
Do report back and let me know how it goes.