Special Needs Now

Here's Why the Vaccination Debate Is Complicated for Me

Yes No Maybe
Update (2/9/15) Based on reader feedback, the headline and some information in the post (about Liam receiving his first MMR vaccine) has been clarified. Please note that this is an opinion piece from one mom about her personal point of view on vaccines. The official Parents stance is that families follow the CDC vaccine schedule, though we understand it's a personal decision for parents.

Vaccines-measles-autism— these three words are coming at me from all sides this week. My husband is sending me links about anti-vax moms who have "converted" to getting shots.

My best friend (who is very selective about the vaccines her kids get) and I are still having the same conversation about immunizations that we started when our boys were born within a few days of each other.

When my editor asked me which side I fell on in the debate, the answer I gave her was more of a ramble than anything else. The truth is: I'm not sure exactly where I stand. I've read Jenny McCarthy's books and I understand why the issue is polarizing, but for me, vaccines and autism are way more complicated than questions about right/wrong or yes/no.

Here's why:

Of all my friends, I was the mom who vaccinated my firstborn immediately. My mom and sister are nurses; I was raised in a healthcare-savvy household. Shots made sense to me. I stood by them.

It's a long story about why I waited to give Liam the MMR vaccine until he was 2 years old (the recommended age is 12 to 15 months). But I didn't delay the MMR because I was thinking about autism, even though in the months leading up to the vaccine, I noticed Liam's vocabulary was dwindling. After he did get the vaccine, he lost all of his words in a matter of 24 hours. I'm the only mom in my group of friends whose child has regressed dramatically, and my heart hurts as I think about the choices I made.

And sure, I know rationally that correlation doesn't equal causation, and I truly believe that vaccines are vital to public health. But, I also wholeheartedly believe that we need to rethink how we dose out vaccines. I think kids are given way too many, way too fast, and I do think this can overload a fragile system (like Liam's).

I'm also deeply saddened by the way the vaccine question has ripped the autism community apart.

I think labeling a child as "vaccine-injured" means seeing that child as irrevocably damaged. And yes, I've been there. I chased a cure for my "ruined" child for the first long year after Liam's diagnosis, and it led to tremendous financial strain and immense heartbreak. And so, this position is no longer acceptable to me. Because I don't think the anger from the anti-vaccine side of the debate is used in productive ways, and because this view has harmful ramifications as Liam's mom.

These days, I sit firmly in the neurodiversity camp, which accepts autism as a part of Liam's make up. Since it's part of his wiring, he's different, not destroyed. And in this part of the autism world, vaccines are seen as necessary, just like they would be for any child.

So, in a nutshell:

Do I think vaccines caused Liam's autism?


Do I wish I had spread his shots out a bit?

Yes. A thousand times, yes.

Will I give Liam other shots as he gets older?

I want to say "yes," I really do. But the truth is simply that I don't know.

And am I freaking out over the idea of giving my younger son the MMR vaccine when he turns five soon?

Yes. And no. And yes again. And then back to no. Elliot was vaccinated for everything except the MMR because--frankly--I was scared he'd get autism. But given the recent measles outbreak, my husband and I believe Elliot's body can handle the vaccine, and we have decided to give it to him soon.

Like I said, it's complicated.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.comFacebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton

Vaccines for Babies and Older Kids

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