There has been a lot in the news lately about the anti-vaccine movement. At the crux of the debate is whether vaccines cause autism, and whether vaccination should be a personal choice, or something that is required by law. I feel one group is never represented in these stories — people who already have autism. What does that say to people on the spectrum, and what does that tell society about them? If I was not on the spectrum myself and had no experience with it, I would think these people were completely worthless, that autism is the worst thing that can happen to a person. That is not the case. There are amazing people on the autism spectrum.
When we debate the validity of vaccination, I believe we also debate the validity of their lives.
Some people will say yes, we must vaccinate — it stops diseases like the measles. If not everyone vaccinates, you can still have outbreaks of these types of illnesses. An example would be the measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2014. Other people don’t want to vaccinate because they worry about what it might do to their child, and they want to have the personal freedom to choose.
There is a third group here that gets nominal acknowledgment, but that is not considered important enough to have a voice in the debate — people with autism. The anti-vaxxers claim that vaccines can cause autism. I’m not going to refute whether they do or not, because I think the truth is clear, and people will have their opinions regardless. What I will say is that we are putting down a whole group of people by saying, “Look how terrible it is for them to being this way” without letting them have a voice in the debate. If we did this to women, gay people, Muslims, Hispanics or African Americans on any issue, there would be outcry. And rightly so. So why do we think nothing of doing this to people with autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder, so it occurs and presents differently for different people. Also, people who are on the autism spectrum who are adults can be very different from who they were as children. There are some highly successful people with autism and more importantly, there are many people with autism who live rather normal lives, just like anyone else.
So the question seems to be, “Is having autism worse than having the measles?” Measles has been an epidemic for centuries. In 1912, the United States required physicians to start reporting measles cases. According to the Los Angeles Times, a study done in the U.S. showed that from 1912 to 1916 for every 1,000 measles cases, 26 people died. That does not seem too bad, except for the fact that almost everyone caught the measles at some point. One of the reasons almost everyone had it was because measles is an airborne disease which usually spreads faster and is harder to contain.
Initially, there were some side effects of the measles vaccine, such as pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Today the measles vaccine is grouped with vaccines for mumps and rubella in a vaccine known as the MMR. The CDC states that “most people who get MMR vaccine do not have any serious problems with it.”
I will not disagree that autism can be a debilitating condition. But it can also bring great insight. I know I have struggled and learned to live with autism, even using some of its effects to my advantage. So is having the measles worse than having autism? For those who already have autism, this question does nothing but show how society thinks of autism. And that would appear to be not highly. We need to remember that people with autism are first and foremost people.
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