Before I Stopped Believing Vaccines Caused My Son’s Autism

WBUR Cognscenti, February 11, 2015

In 1998, when I was pregnant with Ben, my third son, I often prayed to God, “Please don’t let him be autistic.” This was because my oldest son was autistic, and pretty severely so. Nat was 8 and we were already dealing with him not sleeping at night, destroying our things and hitting people. When Ben was born, I watched for autism almost constantly. Because of Nat, we had learned that genetically our chances were one in 20. And yet my second born son, Max, did not have autism.

Still, all around me children were being diagnosed with autism. Being a writer, I started researching this phenomenon and I stumbled across the 1998 Lancet study that connected the dots between measles, leaky gut and autism. Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s findings indicated that giving your children the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine could cause autism.

At first, Wakefield’s theory seemed to make so much sense. I imagined how immune-compromised baby bloodstreams could become filled with what the doctor had called “opiate-like substances,” that caused the terrible autistic behavior of preferred isolation, spaciness and aggression. This felt so true. At the same time, it speared my heart to remember Nat getting his MMR vaccine and actually smiling at the doctor. Smiling, at the very moment that his life would change so tragically. I was despondent. I felt responsible — like I had allowed him to be given autism. My mother tried to reassure me. “You can’t think that way,” she said. “You don’t know what caused it.”

But he had autism. If not me, it was his doctor’s fault. My grief morphed into rage. And perhaps a little bit of relief.

But then I did more digging, and discovered the maelstrom that had followed Wakefield’s study. His research had been debunked. More studies were done. None established a connection between MMR and autism. And yet still, no one knew exactly what did cause autism.

So Wakefield’s theories persisted. Acquaintances continued to tell me the horror stories of how their children abruptly regressed after having the MMR vaccine. One friend explained to me the logic of her beliefs: that pharmaceutical companies sometimes fund studies and have relationships with physicians. How maybe you were told this pro-vaccine stuff so that you wouldn’t hold your doctor responsible for your child’s autism. How we should all remember how fallible doctors could be — so many of us autism parents had been told from day one that we were being oversensitive to our infant’s unusual behaviors, only to find out later that they did indeed have autism. Perhaps the parent is always right, these friends would imply. They told me I was naive to believe the medical establishment. Wakefield, who had started it all, became a martyr to the cause. Hollywood activists like Jenny McCarthy pushed it even further, popularizing — even glamorizing — the warrior moms who took a stand against “Big Pharma.”

Ultimately, I believed in science over this very vocal minority — however compelling their stories. But fear and superstition are powerful motivators, so when it came time to vaccinate Ben, I hedged. I begged my pediatrician to delay his vaccines, even though she believed firmly that we should vaccinate him on schedule. But she was a mom, too. She knew of my intense autism worries because she had lived through my pain of my oldest son Nat’s challenges. And so we waited to give Ben the MMR until it “felt” safer. We had nothing to back this up, and I know now that we had even endangered his life by exposing him to measles for so long. We should never have done that. But I understand why the younger me did.

So, yes, I can understand where the anti-vaccine contingent is coming from. But I no longer give their beliefs credence. I urge people to get vaccinated. My husband, who is entirely pro-vaccine (and still supported my desire to delay Ben’s MMR), says we fear autism because it is more prevalent than measles — but that’s because most people are vaccinated. If measles — or some other dire disease — becomes more rampant, will our fear of autism take a back seat?

Like autism, the ways of human beings are subtle, contradictory and complex. It’s hard to call into question the logic of a terrified parent. I understand this firsthand. Still, I know that Nat’s shot did not cause his autism. And the strongest belief I carry is that if my former vaccine doubts had caused Ben to die of measles, I would have gladly wished autism on him instead. And that is a truth I know with all my heart.