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. And there is one group that 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 highly normal and amazing people who are on the autism spectrum. When we debate the validity of vaccination, 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 recent measles outbreak at Disneyland. Other people do not want to vaccinate because they worry about what it might do to their child and they want to have the personal freedom to choose.
“When we debate the validity of vaccination, we also debate the validity of people with autism’s lives.”
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 am 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?
“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”
Autism is a spectrum disorder so it occurs and presents differently for different people. Another thing is that people who are on the autism spectrum who are adults can be very different from who they were as children. (I will explore this more in another upcoming article.) There are actually some very highly successful people with autism and more important, there are many people with autism who live rather normal lives, just like anyone else.
“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.”
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. 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. If you look at any situation with infectious diseases, people who work to stop them say airborne pathogens are the ones they worry most will cause an epidemic.
Between roughly 1855 and 2005, measles is estimated to have killed about 200 million people worldwide. 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 side effects with the current MMR vaccine are minor for the most part—mild rash, or swelling of the neck or cheeks.
“We need to remember that people with autism are first and foremost, people.”
I will not disagree that autism can be a very debilitating condition. But it can also bring great insight. I myself 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 very highly. We need to remember that people with autism are first and foremost, people.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.