Tuesday, April 01, 2008

National Autism Day


April 2 is national autism day. Since a young cousin of mine was just diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, I am paying more attention to the day than usual.

Austism, and its spectrum of related disorders, are confusing and difficult to understand. The array of developmental syndromes known as autism spectrum disorders range from severe disability and cognitive impairment to the socially awkward eccentric with Asperger's syndrome.

Parenting a child with any these disorders can tax all one's resources--financial, emotional, relational. In addition, parents also have to deal with an often disapproving and unsympathetic public. I saw this in action two weeks ago. I was flying to Florida with my toddler. The family in front of me included three children, one of whom had autism. After we boarded the plane, the pilot announced a one-hour ground delay. All the parents on the plane panicked (an extra hour on the plane is not something small children tolerate readily.) But, for the family in front of me, this was a catastrophe! While none of their children were happy, their autistic little boy was simply incapable of staying in his seat. No amount of disapproving stares from other passengers, or whispered comments, would change that fact. I was amazed at how little sympathy and how much blame was directed at the poor parents who were doing everything they could think of under the circumstances.

With so little known about the causes of the disease, it is no wonder that conspiracy theories, particularly those involving vaccines, thrive among parents. The research and a growing body of evidence does not support the theories. Unfortunately, evidence does not seem to matter when dealing with conspiracy theories.

If parents simply believed disproven conspiracy theories, that would be one thing. But a conviction that vaccines "cause" autism can lead to dangerous choices. Recent reports document the growing number of children whose parents refuse vaccinations. The public health consequences are frightening to contemplate. In this country we have forgotten what epidemics are like, and how many children die from measles. Unvaccinated children are at risk themselves, but they also pose a threat to their peers, the elderly and pregnant women. Vaccinations are far more than an individual choice — they produce a public good that is as valuable as it is fragile.

Children of parents over 40 (euphemistically referred to as "older parents") are supposed to be at greater risk for autism and autism related disorders. So, in passing fits of paranoia, my partner and I overanalyze our daughter's behavior searching for the faintest symptom. (the warning signs are available here — early intervention is very important with autism, so take a moment to read the symptoms) While paranoia seems to be an inevitable part of being a parent (a perhaps inevitable result of "having one's heart waking around outside one's body" — the most apt description of parenthood I have ever read) you can be sure she is getting her full complement of vaccines. It is our duty, not only to our daughter, but to society at large.

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