Autism in America

Parenthood in the Age of Autism

It's no wonder that new parents like Ellie Berkowitz Handler, 32, of Hermosa Beach, CA, feel unnerved. Handler, who is working on a Ph.D. in art history while staying home with her 1-year-old son, Hayden, likes to think she knows a thing or two about distinguishing between medical science and unfounded rumors -- her parents are doctors. Her father, David Berkowitz, M.D., is a gastroenterologist, and her mother, Carol Berkowitz, M.D., is a pediatrician and immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In July The New York Times printed a letter from Hayden's grandmother plainly stating the AAP's position that "there is no link between exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism."

Handler and her husband had Hayden vaccinated on schedule, but she knows parents in her own neighborhood who are not following suit, one of whom passed along Kennedy's article for her to read this summer. "That woman didn't vaccinate, and there are others too," she says. "I find myself questioning my decisions, and here I am with my whole family in the medical field. A little knowledge can make you a little crazy."

With no definitive cause or cure, autism researchers are casting a wide net -- looking at genetics, environmental triggers, immune-system abnormalities, difficulty during birth, early inflammation or trauma to the brain, or some combination of those elements. That in itself adds to the anxiety. With the scope of research so broad, nearly every aspect of childhood becomes suspect to autism-aware parents like Handler and MacNeil.

MacNeil worries about pitocin and about the pain medication she submitted to after 26 hours of unproductive labor, both of which have been studied in connection with, but never conclusively tied to, the increase in autism. She worries about the shot Cormac received in his first days of life for jaundice, and she worries about the two rounds of antibiotics he's been on for ear infections, two other medicines that have been suggested, but in no way proven, as possible autism triggers.

And even though the AAP and the federal public-health agencies stand by their position that childhood vaccines and the solutions they're preserved in do not cause autism, MacNeil isn't convinced. She's found a pediatrician willing to stretch out the standard schedule of childhood immunizations, inoculating Cormac against no more than two diseases during any one office visit. (Some activists believe it's the frequency and intensity of vaccines that trigger autism in some children.) When he gets his shots, she insists on checking the vaccine's manufacturer, ingredient list, and expiration date herself to make sure there is no thimerosal in the dose before allowing Cormac to receive it. But MacNeil mostly watches and, with one eye on her son and the other on the calendar, waits for him to turn 3. "I wish I didn't depend so much on that number, but I am really waiting for 36 months to be up," she says.

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