Here are some typical arguments put forward by parents who choose not to vaccinate their otherwise healthy child (by “healthy” I mean they’re not asking for an exemption because the child is immunocompromised or otherwise couldn’t medically tolerate vaccinations).
For this example, I will pull quotes directly from a recent New York Times Article, Vaccine Critics Turn Defensive Over Measles:
“It’s the worst shot,” [Missy Foster, mother to an 18 month old daughter] said, with tears in her eyes. “Do you want to wake up one morning and the light is gone from her eyes with autism or something?”
Kelly McMenimen, a Lagunitas parent, said she “meditated on it a lot” before deciding not to vaccinate her son Tobias, 8, against even “deadly or deforming diseases.” She said she did not want “so many toxins” entering the slender body of a bright-eyed boy who loves math and geography.
You’ll notice a common theme in these defenses—the brightness of or light in their children’s eyes. This is a direct reference to Jenny McCarthy’s narrative of the “light” leaving her son’s eyes after he was vaccinated. It’s used by parents who don’t want to say the word “autism” but want to imply that they’re scared their kid will become autistic (or something similar).
Here’s what McCarthy said to Oprah in 2007:
“Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something,’ and he swore at me, and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot,” she says. “And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, I hope he’s right.’ And soon thereafter—boom—the soul’s gone from his eyes.”
Now consider the standard response from vaccine advocates to stuff like this—it’s always, without fail, “Vaccines don’t cause autism.”
Because they don’t, right? They absolutely, scientifically do not cause autism. That’s a solid fact.
But here’s what everyone gets wrong: regardless of whether or not vaccines cause autism, our entire conversation surrounding them is completely ableist.
When those in the anti-vaccination movement treat autism as a calamity far worse than a debilitating disease or death, that is ableism. What we also need to recognize is that every time we respond to fear-mongering about vaccines and autism with the words, “don’t worry, vaccines don’t cause autism,” that is also ableist. Because instead of pointing out that, hey, autism and neurodiversity are far from the worst things that could happen to a parent, “vaccines don’t cause autism” falls into the same narrative as “vaccines cause autism”—both suggest that autism is this boogeyman that lives under our kids’ beds that could strike at any time.
Even though telling people that vaccines don’t cause autism is factual, the way in which it’s said only validates people’s negative view of autism.
Says Allison Garber, an autism activist whose most recently claim to fame is being blocked by Jenny McCarthy on Twitter, “The language from both sides of the vaccine camps is definitively ableist. What’s even more jarring is that neither side seems to ever want to invite someone who is, you know, actually autistic to the party. I guess that’s because it would be awkward if they were actually in the room when we were all talking about how somebody’s neurological makeup is a tragedy to be feared and avoided at all costs.”
Instead of reassuring parents that vaccines don’t cause autism (which, again: factually true), why don’t we start refuting anti-vaccination advocates with the fact that autism isn’t a catastrophe. Why not start sending them links to blogs and articles written by people who actually have autism. Why not say something like, “it’s been proven that there’s no link between vaccines and autism, but I think it would be great for you to re-evaluate why you think so negatively of autism.”
And for the love of Pete can we please stop talking about how autistic people have no light in their eyes or no soul or whatever. First of all, you’re confusing vampirism with autism. Second of all, how can you talk about real, living people like that? Would you tell Temple Grandin to her face that the “light” (whatever that even means) is missing from her eyes? If you went to a book reading by John Robison, would you greet him afterwards with the words “So, what’s it like not having a soul? Do you still have a reflection? Can you eat garlic? Do you sleep in a coffin?”
Autistic people aren’t “gone.” Their brains function differently than neurotypical brains, which often leads to them becoming overwhelmed by outside stimuli in a way that other people might not. So, in a sense, they’re more present than many of us are—they’re bombarded by sights, sounds and smells that neurotypical people can ignore or dismiss. They are very much “here,” trying way harder than most to process what “here” is. So get out of here with your misinformed ideas about autistic people having no light in their eyes or no soul. Get out of here and maybe go meet an actual autistic person.
At the end of the day, words matter and how we talk about issues matters. And when those of us who believe it’s important for children to be vaccinated keep pulling out “but vaccines don’t cause autism” without following it up with some kind of explanation that also autism isn’t a tragedy, we need to consider the impact our words might have. Because of course the end goal is to vaccinate every child eligible for vaccination, but we don’t need to throw autistic people under the bus to accomplish that goal.
The debate about vaccination should be autism-inclusive, and that means re-evaluating the way we talk about autism and vaccines. Because while it’s great to raise a happy healthy kid, you can do that without turning them into an anti-autism bigot.