Looking Into My Former Anti-Vaccine Thought Process

Years ago, I worried that a vaccine awakened my son’s autism.

Psychology Today, February 10, 2021

Recently, for a brief period, anti-vaccine activists managed to shut down a COVID vaccination clinic in Dodger Stadium. They shut it down. With more than 450,000 dead in the United States, how can people be so opposed to a vaccine?

I know why I used to be. There was a time, 27 years ago now, when I worried that my oldest son Nat was poisoned by his Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) shot and that this vaccine awakened his autism. Those were the tender raw days of Nat’s early childhood, when, newly diagnosed, I would wonder how it happened and why and what was I supposed to do. I would cycle from devastation to anger to jealousy of friends with non-autistic kids. The kids at the playground who did not just throw mulch in the air, who played with each other. The little ones headed off to the preschool down the street.

But the most difficult times for me by far were when I thought about the future. What would grown-up Nat be like? How severe was his autism? How affected would he be? But because I had neither the time nor stamina to dwell on these questions for long, more often I turned to action. What should I be doing now?

I asked around and learned about a whole new theory of autism: that it was accidental. It was dietary, digestive—and due to vaccine injury. Friends suggested I put Nat on a gluten- and casein- (or dairy)- free diet. And how did this relate, I wondered. The answers I got were loaded with scientific jargon, like “peptides,” and “blood-brain barrier,” along with a whole array of little-known medical tests to pursue. Test his hair for too much copper. Test for arsenic. Test his urine, test his blood for lead.

And why was all this relevant? Because of the MMR vaccine. Or because of mercury in the vaccine. Autism moms would tell me that the vaccine had blown out Nat’s immune system, and so his body’s response to dairy and gluten was to turn them into “opiate-like substances” that manifested in autistic-like behavior.

I let all the implications settle and crystallize: If not for the vaccine, Nat would not be autistic. Therefore, I did not have to accept the diagnosis, because the real Nat was hidden underneath. The real Nat had been there before that vaccine.

These theories have since been debunked. But at the time it all felt true. And it felt good to be angry instead of sad. So we tried the diet—back then there was rice pasta (disgusting) and corn pasta (mushy) and a few other foods that Nat would not eat. I learned that you had to be obsessive, scrupulous and allow absolutely no gluten to come near him. And I had to do it for “a long time.” I had to commit to it. And once I had done all that, I would “see a difference.” But no one could tell what that difference would look like. And that if it did not happen, it meant I was doing something wrong.

Sure enough, Nat was no different after our diet trial. So basically, I was back at the “blame the mother” point: that moment I let him be vaccinated.

The autism moms would point out that it wasn’t my fault; no, an entire system was behind this tragedy. I felt mountainous anger as I realized how widespread this evil was: from the pharmaceuticals to the doctors who kept pushing vaccines and were now afraid of liability. Blame was easier than the fog of uncertainty.

At the same time, this all-encompassing cynicism just didn’t feel right. Was every beloved doctor, was the CDC, that bastion of authority, wrong? And more to the point: Had Nat been a typical baby prior to the MMR vaccine? I had to be honest. No. He had always been a bit off, developmentally. He had always been different, from birth. From the way he did not play with toys other than to mouth them. Or that he was scared of and uninterested in his peers, and that he could not answer simple “yes” or “no” questions at 4 years old.

It was so hard to accept what all of this meant. It would mean that Nat’s autism was real and incurable. It meant a life of uncertainty for me, a motherhood of trial-and-error, of having few role models to show me the way. It meant that Nat would always struggle, would always appear behind and would always exhibit strange behaviors.

But then I thought: Come on, who in this life isn’t weird? Who doesn’t struggle at something? Life is as unpredictable and cruel as it is miraculous and beautiful.

Would we rather expose our children to more suffering—from illness or even death? Is autism worse than death?

Absolutely not. Oh yes, autism is extremely difficult to live with. But I celebrate the day that I realized that this son of mine, this complex human being, was indeed autistic—and that he was also so much more. And I wanted to fight for him, I wanted to fight real obstacles, like ignorance, lack of resources, ineffective education approaches. I wanted to focus on how to build Nat’s skills, but more importantly, I wanted to enjoy Nat without the anger that only mired me in the clouded past. Without thinking of him as damaged or injured.

Nat is now a man of 31. He is definitely still deeply autistic. He is also an athlete, a good teammate, a frontman in a rock band. He and I have started our own bakery. Nat is also a responsible citizen: Just two weeks ago, Nat got his COVID vaccine. Now he will survive this awful pandemic and not cause others to get sick. Nat is one of these people who makes the world a better place, because of who he is and who he’s been, autism and all.