“It’s fun to watch you both grow up,” the doctor said, putting a Band-Aid over the site where my three-year-old daughter had just received the MMR vaccine. At first, I bristled at her condescension, at the idea that I somehow still had growing up to do. But it was true. When I’d first visited her office three years before, I had been a different person. I had been a child.
My fears were a product of a potentially lethal combination of maternal panic and youthful ignorance. I was afraid. I was afraid of autism, of chemicals, of pharmaceutical companies, of pills, of needles. I saw medicine as an impersonal monolith of unpronounceable words and latex gloves, of figures and averages and data. I didn’t trust it with the pearl I guarded inside my womb. I wanted my baby to be safe—and safety, it seemed, could be promised by midwives and crystals, herbs and exercises. I didn’t trust science to provide it.
So, from the moment my daughter was conceived in my then-twenty-year-old womb, I battled the imaginary foe called Medicine with all my strength. I avoided anything but organic, whole foods, imagining that a baby knitted together with carrot juice and quinoa would be guaranteed a healthy life. Corn syrup and microwave meals were off the menu, along with tuna and deli meat. When I started receiving prenatal care, I vehemently asserted that I wanted to avoid any and all “interventions” that could hurt my baby.
No medically unnecessary ultrasounds, I wrote.
No medications without my explicit consent.
No induction, period.
No epidural. No Demerol. I don’t want pain relief of any kind during or after labor.
No Pitocin unless I’m bleeding to death.
I will breastfeed immediately after the baby’s birth.
When my obstetrician suggested that I might benefit from a low-dose medication to help my anxiety, I balled up my fists and gritted my teeth. Who was this bully, trying to shove Big Pharma down my throat? Why was she so hell-bent on poisoning my baby? My baby had to be a natural baby. I didn’t want her to end up like Other People’s Kids, the ones who eat fast food and watch TV. She was going to be perfect. She was going to be healthy.
So, when the day rolled around that I brought my homegrown organic baby to the pediatrician’s office for the first time, it was predictable enough that I scribbled onto her intake forms, “NO VACCINES.” They caused autism. I knew they did. That’s what I heard constantly from the blogs and the mommy groups and the parenting forums. The vaccines were loaded with mercury and aluminum. They caused brain damage. I knew better than to give my baby poison.
Today, I understand that I might owe my children’s lives to the pediatrician’s fed-up, no-nonsense attitude.
“Great,” she said, pushing her silver hair behind her ear, “So you think you know better than me. Can you tell me, Ms. Russo, where you went to medical school?”
I started to tell her about how the curriculum of medical school was funded by the pharmaceutical industry—that’s what I had read, anyway—but I stopped myself.
“You’re a lucky kid, you know that?” she said.
“I’m not a kid. I’ll be twenty-one tomorrow,” I objected. She rolled her eyes.
“You’ll be twenty-one, and that means you grew up with the Internet, and you’re a smart girl, and you’ve had access to a lot of information, and you don’t know how to tell the good from the bad. That’s not what makes you lucky. What makes you lucky is that you didn’t grow up seeing kids get paralyzed by polio. I did. You’ve never watched an unvaccinated baby slowly choke to death on its own snot from whooping cough. I have. You’ve never seen the grief of parents who could have prevented their kids from getting sick but chose to trust Jenny McCarthy instead of me. I have… So, tell me, in your words, why it is that you think you shouldn’t vaccinate your baby.”
“I… It’s just too many of them, too soon. And there’s got to be a reason that rates of autism are skyrocketing. That doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.”
“Does it not? Because I can tell you right now that if your baby is going to be autistic, she’s going to be autistic whether you vaccinate her or not. The only difference between now and fifty years ago is that kids with autism are diagnosed correctly now. They used to be called ‘mentally retarded’ if they couldn’t speak, but that diagnosis is rare now. If you looked, you’d know that rates of nonverbal autism are going up at the same speed that rates of “Mental Retardation” are going down. And autistic kids who can speak weren’t considered to have a disease until recently. They were called eccentric, or gifted. They were musicians and writers. There is no autism epidemic.”
“But it’s just too many shots when they’re so young.”
“Says who? The CDC? The American Academy of Pediatrics? The World Health Organization? One thing that they’ve done that you haven’t done is actually study what happens when we give babies shots. The schedule is made by a lot of thoughtful, intelligent people who have looked very carefully at the benefits and the risks, and they found out over years—decades—of research that babies are safest and healthiest being vaccinated on the current schedule. If you’ve got any research to show me otherwise, then please do.”
“Isn’t very smart and is jeopardizing kids’ lives so he can make a profit selling a bad book. I don’t make a profit giving vaccines, but he makes a profit telling you to be scared of them. Which one of us do you want to think is the big medical bogeyman? And you can tell him I said that, should you ever meet him.”
(Years later, I would end up encountering Bill and Bob Sears many times over the course of my career, interviewing them sporadically. Somehow, I’ve never managed to include, “By the way, my daughter’s first pediatrician hates you,” in any of my emails to them.)
She handed me packets of information about vaccines and told me to go home and read “actual material by actual experts.” I was unsure whether to be angry or confused or relieved. When I told an online attachment parenting group about the experience, the crowd erupted in anger—more over the fact that someone would insult Dr. Sears than anything else.
Still, I suppose in trying to make a point, I returned to the same office for all of our well-visits, not budging on my anti-vaccine stance. At my daughter’s four-month checkup, the pediatrician said, “I’m going to give you a referral to Early Intervention. This baby has some developmental delays. She’s going to be okay, but you’ll need to get in touch with them.”
She showed me how my daughter’s muscles weren’t responding as they should, and that her gross motor development was lagging behind average. I waited for her to lecture me about how important it was for me to get vaccines, but she waved the worries aside at the moment, adding, “I don’t want you to blame me or a vaccine for your baby’s delays.”
I spent weeks crying over the idea that something was wrong with my baby. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was doing everything right, and developmental delays were supposed to happen to other people’s children. I felt horrified and out of place when I went to the physical therapy office to try to boost my daughter’s development. The other children there had something wrong with them. What did I do to put my child in the same category?
As the years went by, things changed in my heart and in my mind. It was clear that my daughter wasn’t developing normally. She was clumsy and awkward in her movements. She couldn’t walk until 16 months and wasn’t learning to talk the way other kids were. Something was off.
I mentioned at her one-year checkup that her speech development was unusual.
“She can say ‘manatee’ and point to a picture of a manatee in a book, but she doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘bye-bye,’” I said plaintively.
At eighteen months: “She’s speaking in sentences, but it’s just repeating things she’s heard somewhere else.”
At twenty-four months: “She can read short words and she recites whole books from memory, but I can’t get her to answer a question.”
At two and a half years: “Doctor, I’ve been doing a lot of research and I know what these symptoms are now. The echolalia, the pronoun reversal, the gross motor delays. I’m pretty sure she has autism.”
The pediatrician twisted her face, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and said, “We’ll see.”
She referred me to a neurologist and a speech therapist. Both said at my daughter had signs of so-called high-function autism, but warned that it was too soon to diagnose it.
As time had gone by, I’d ended up consenting to vaccines here and there—“just the most important ones,” I’d said— because little by little, the doctor’s words had started to make sense. I couldn’t deny that my daughter had developmental delays well before she was ever vaccinated. I also couldn’t argue against an increasingly large stack of evidence confirming that vaccines were safe and effective.
I started to understand science. How the peer review process works. The difference between a study and a systematic review. How you can tell a good study from a bad one. How groups like the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics form consensus statements. How easy it is for people peddling pseudoscience to pass themselves off as experts. How often a parent, struck by grief, will look for a reason to blame an outside force when her child doesn’t turn out the way she expected.
By the time my daughter was three, I could no longer deny three things: she was developmentally different, she needed to be vaccinated, and vaccines had nothing to do with her differences. At her three-year checkup, she became completely “caught up” on all of her vaccines, including the dreaded MMR shot, which I had phobically postponed for as long as I could justify.
She cried a little when she got the vaccines. She had a slight fever after a few of them. But, ultimately, her reactions were mild and unremarkable. She felt fine. She looked fine. And, although she continued developing unusually, she never had any developmental regressions that coincided with immunizations. They had nothing at all to do with her autism symptoms.
I’m now the mother of a beautiful, brilliant, eccentric six-year-old who is both vaccinated and autistic. She’s clumsy and awkward and a social disaster. Other kids don’t understand the complex sentences and grown-up words she uses. She tends to have meltdowns at the worst possible times, flapping her arms and making high-pitched noises. She has trouble understanding boundaries and social norms. Her motor skills are still on par with a three- or four-year-old.
And there are wonderful things, as well—things that make me proud. She reads on a fourth-grade level and writes amazing stories. Her greatest passions in life are kittens, fuzzy blankets, and her baby brother. She dreams of opening a cat rescue when she grows up and hopes that her cat, Happy, will live long enough to be a permanent resident and ambassador. She insists that Happy must be autistic like her, because he shares her love of fuzzy blankets “and because he’s weird.” I feel proud of my autistic daughter every day.
It’s funny, but it’s turned out that autism, the thing I feared most, became one of the most wonderful and important things in my life. It’s not a curse. It’s not even a disease. It’s a neurological difference that makes my daughter unique and makes me proud to be her mother. Even if I could have somehow prevented it, I wouldn’t have, because I genuinely love my child exactly the way she is.
My son is two weeks old and was born to a completely different person than my daughter was born to. I’ve grown up. I’m not afraid of ultrasounds or medicine. I took medication when I was pregnant with him and I even enjoyed an occasional soda. I smiled when I got vaccinated for flu and whooping cough during pregnancy. When my blood pressure skyrocketed during labor, I didn’t hesitate to accept medication to protect him. And, when his two-month checkup rolls around, I will be glad that he will have the protection afforded by his first vaccines. I want my son to be safe and well, and I’ve learned over the course of the last seven years that vaccines are miracles of modern medicine that help to guarantee that my kids will lead long and healthy lives. If my son turns out to be autistic like his older sister, I will love him just as deeply and completely.
I will not blame the miracle of medicine for the fact that my children are beautifully and wonderfully unique.