Scapegoats and Witches

I have this internal discussion running in my head. Sometimes I forget to keep it quiet and “talking to myself” becomes “dramatic monologue.”

I hesitate to even bring up the topic that is swirling in my mind because it’s surrounded by controversy, and I totally have zero interest in engaging in the heated discussion about Autism and What Causes It.

But the brain keeps stewing, so here goes.

With the recent outbreak of measles, there is a renewed focus on vaccines as a best practice for public health and personal well-being. As with any current-day discussion of vaccinations, the topic of autism comes up. Ever since the discredited Dr. Wakefield of England published a bogus study linking autism to the MMR vaccine, many parents have become fearful of vaccines.

I have my personal opinions about vaccines–their safety, efficacy, and importance. But I’m not going to get into that. People who avoid vaccines or who slow their child’s vaccination schedule don’t care what I have to say about the subject. They believe fervently one way, and I am not going to change anyone’s mind.

Ultimately, people can make their own choices. So be it. If I smoked, I would totally smoke a peace pipe with pro-vax and anti-vax alike. We could discuss baby names and preschoolers, and just be moms together. Because parenting.

The part about this discussion that gets under my skin and makes me talk to myself like a crazy lady is the assumption that optional environmental factors must be triggering autism and therefore it’s a mom’s fault if her child is on the spectrum.

Never mind genetics or the fact that nothing has yet been proven. Let’s blame moms for getting an epidural or receiving Pitocin during labor, or taking prenatal vitamins and following their pediatrician’s advice to have their child vaccinated. It’s easier to point at something—anything—and say, “That caused it!” It feels definitive, tidy.

Guys, this is what I walk around my house saying out loud to nobody but myself.

Back in the eighteenth century (incidentally, before vaccines when diseases killed indiscriminately), this behavior could have implicated me as a witch. “Burn her! She’s consorting with the devil when she mumbles about crazy magical ‘shots’ that prevent diseases! And what is this mystical ‘autism’ of which she speaks? She’s a witch!”

Times change, but the urge to assign a scapegoat may be timeless.

Just as many a parent doesn’t care about my personal stance on vaccinating, I do not want to hear speculation about how I have unwittingly brought a developmental disorder upon my child. It’s counterproductive and frankly, inappropriate.

I get that when we don’t have definitive answers to big dilemmas like autism, it’s tempting to latch on to unproven culprits. We can’t cure autism, but we can manipulate our kids’ diets and reject vaccines, and feel like we are effecting real change.

Maybe it gives us some semblance of control. But it’s an illusion. Raising a child with special needs teaches parents many lessons, none of which is more powerfully understood than this: we are not in control. I have personally learned that life generally doesn’t follow the blueprinted trajectory we envision in our youth because the unexpected unfolds, changing our course and offering us something different.

A better approach in my experience is to ask autism parents what life with their child is like. Get to know their child and be a friend. Listen. Offer support. Special needs parents are already keenly aware that there is much we do not yet know about the disorders that our children live with every day. Friendship and concern are far more effective than speculation.

My sister asked me once why I believe there is such a high occurrence of autism now. I’ll tell you what I told her then.

I know from personal experience that children with autism are valiant souls. Perhaps God is sending them to us en masse because they have something useful to offer the world. And maybe the rest of us have something we can learn from them, too.

 

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