February 9, 2015
We aren’t your scapegoats. End of story.
I am oh so glad to see the anti-vaccination movement finally seeing some serious public blowback, and very, very sorry that it has taken a lot of sick kids to do it. And alternately thankful at writing like this (Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, But That’s Not the Point. Stop Being Ableist.) being all over my Facebook feed, and ambivalent about some of its logic. (It is still well worth reading.)
IF vaccines caused autism, even in some tiny percentage of vaccinated children, then whether the tradeoffs were worth the risk might be an ethical discussion worth having. (In which I would still give a hell of a lot of weight to “Measles encephalitis will straight up kill you, autism won’t.”)
But it isn’t. Vaccines don’t cause autism, period.
A hypothetical situation: If there were some form of medical treatment that carried a risk of turning me non-autistic, I would be deeply hesitant to take it, whatever the risks of not taking it were. Not because I think being non-autistic is the worst possible fate. The experience of the 90% or so of people I know who are non-autistic suggests to me that being non-autistic is not the worst possible way to go through life.
But that’s not why I wouldn’t want to be non-autistic. It’s because, as the neurodiversity movement has gone to great lengths to attempt to communicate to the neurotypical majority, the patterns of how we innately experience the world on a neurological level are intimately entwined with our identities as people.
I don’t know what about being non-autistic is so compelling to non-autistic people. I don’t know how many of them could even articulate what it is if you asked them, but they seem attached to it, and as someone not sharing that experience, I don’t get to assume that they are wrong to be so.
Likewise, if there were some form of medical treatment that carried the risk of turning a gay kid straight, I think we would rightly express serious ethical concerns about that possibility. Not because being straight is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person. But because, as the gay community has spent decades trying to tell us, sexuality for most people is as intrinsic to identity and their sense of personhood as things like gender, ethnicity, language, or spirituality might be.
Try it: If you’re cis-gender, would you readily embrace some kind of medical intervention that, whatever its positive effects, carried the potential side effect of turning you into a member of another sex or gender? Even if you chose to accept that treatment because not dying was worth it to you, would you do it with no sense of fear or conflict?
Because the fact that being autistic or not, a man or a woman, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, isn’t a bad or wrong thing unto itself is kind of beside the point when we’re talking about altering deep-seated characteristics that are so profoundly tied to our identities.
If vaccination could cause autism, even if we overwhelmingly decided for good reasons that the tradeoff was acceptable, that would be something we’d have a responsibility to know. It’s not because it doesn’t. In fact, a great deal of research has been dedicated to finding out whether vaccination can cause autism, and I’m resentful of that not because autism isn’t something that should be feared (though it isn’t), and not because Andrew Wakefield turned out to be wrong, but because he committed fraud and every variety of ethical malfeasance and objectified autistic people in the process, for personal gain, with no remorse whatsoever. Being wrong and eventually discovering that you’re wrong isn’t a sin, scientifically, but that’s not how we got the myth that vaccines cause autism. It wasn’t just bad study design or misinterpretation of data, it was a knowing act of fraud and selfishness that set both acceptance of autistic people, and public health, back by decades.
And don’t get me wrong—I am really appreciative and glad to see so many of my friends, so many writers and bloggers that I respect, going “You know what, I would really rather my child be disabled than dead. I would really rather have a living autistic child.” Because it’s still commonplace for parents not to feel that way, and it gets kids mistreated and killed.
But the thing is, the two things aren’t connected. You’re not risking your child becoming autistic by getting them vaccinated, because there is no relationship between the two things. And I’m honestly a little uneasy about reinforcing the link in people’s minds at all by saying “Of course I’d take the chance of my child becoming autistic to protect them from life-threatening disease,” because you’re not taking that chance.
Vaccinations don’t cause autism. And autism isn’t a death sentence. And those facts are unrelated.
And whether autism is a horrible affliction or an expression of human diversity with advantages and disadvantages like any other, has nothing to do with whether it’s okay to make autistic people boogeymen or rhetorical pawns, because the answer is “no” regardless.
Let’s take another example, of something that is generally agreed, including by the people who have it, to be pretty awful, like ALS, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease…all of which are also not caused by vaccination. Would it be any less wrong to fearmonger about vaccines by using a popular fear of something that is pretty awful in its own right?
No—the people coping with that condition deserve just as much as autistic people not to be made pawns in an ideological skirmish, to not have their lives and struggles be made the symbols of somebody else’s irrational fears.
Would it make any sense to say, “Vaccines don’t cause Parkinson’s, but anyway, Parkinson’s isn’t the worst thing in the world?”
Because here’s another thing—you can run the risk of being ‘splainy to someone who has less positive feelings about their own condition. Autism isn’t a degenerative and pretty much universally loathed condition like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but there are autistic people who really hate it. Who attribute a great deal of the pain in their lives to autism, who wish they weren’t, who would take a cure if one were available, who really feel that it is the worst possible thing to happen to them. Usually when I talk to these people, I have to question whether it’s the difficulties of autism itself that makes them feel this way, or years and years of being mistreated for being autistic, which can be a very difficult distinction to make when you have no standard for comparison. But sometimes it is the former and not the latter of those things, and ultimately people have a right to feel the way they do about their own lives. I hope that they come to a better place eventually, but they also have a right to do that on their own time and in whatever way they need to, not by being told by someone who doesn’t know anything of their experience that they should just accept it.
And they still deserve not to be made objects of fear in the wholly irrational campaign against vaccination…because whether a subjective experience of autism is the worst thing in the world or not, is logically, factually disconnected from whether or not vaccines cause it…and they don’t.
Something else that actually happened: A few weeks ago, after the release of a Danish study purporting to establish a link between circumcision before age 5 and development of autism, a Facebook friend of a friend said something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing) “Obviously it’s totally ridiculous, but if it scares people out of circumcising, I’m all for it.”
Which to me was actually far more offensive on its face than the persistence of fear that vaccines have anything to do with autism. Because that’s not just an irrational fear; that statement expresses a conviction that it’s okay to choose a group of people and use our existence as a scare tactic for your own ends. That if a group of people is presumed sufficiently voiceless, you can strip them of agency and the right to self-representation and use them to promulgate a falsehood that’s convenient to your own beliefs just because it’s easy.
(I don’t actually have a lot of blame for people who admit to still being afraid even though they rationally know that the connection is unfounded. Certain people and certain organizations have spent a lot of time, money, and effort to make them afraid.)
In this, it doesn’t matter how sympathetic I am to the cause of pushing back against routine, medically-unnecessary procedures on newborns. It doesn’t matter how good I think that or any other issue is. We are not your rhetorical props. We are not your scare tactics. Our wellbeing and acceptance as full and not defective or broken human beings are not your pawns for whatever your own pet cause is, no matter how good unto itself it might be.
There is one more way in which the anti-vaccination movement puts autistic people at risk that I rarely if ever see mentioned, and it’s this: Vaccination protects autistic children, too, not just non-autistic ones. Non-autistic children are not the ones who need and deserve protection from preventable disease while autistic children are the risk we run to do so. Further, most people at this point know that autism involves communication difficulties by definition, but what is less well-known is that autism often involves particular difficulty in communicating about pain or illness or other things involving body awareness. Also that pain or illness can take a particularly high toll on the communication and coping abilities of autistic kids compared to other kids. Autism is a complicated disability, and one thing that an autistic kid doesn’t need on top of everything else that they are dealing with—is the measles. The anti-vaccination movement treats consequences to autistic lives of preventable, serious illnesses as a non-issue (and the lives of immune-compromised and medically vulnerable people as utterly disposable, but that’s a whole other essay).
I actually find “Vaccines don’t cause autism, period,” to be a perfectly acceptable assertion. If you do feel the need to add an “and furthermore…,” some things to go with could be “Vaccines don’t cause autism, and vaccines also protect autistic people, whose lives count as much as yours,” or “Vaccines don’t cause autism, and autistic people are not appropriate scapegoats for your fears, so stop it.”