I am a huge fan of a podcast called “You’re Wrong About,” and just wrapped up listening to an episode about the anti vaccine movement as it pertains to autism. The guest was an autistic political writer named Eric Michael Garcia, and he and the hosts, Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, did such a bang up job of not being cliched in their way of talking about what is somehow both endlessly relevant and wretchedly overexposed. Overexposed because, during a pandemic, why are we giving more voice to anti vaxxers who are already such a horrible blight on efforts to curb more Covid variants, and also, because autistic people have had enough fear based experiments enacted on them, and do not deserve to be victims of a movement that has used the paranoia about autism to hurl so many of them into other unjust and wholly non evidence based, faux medical “treatments.”
So first, I am glad that the hosts invited an actually autistic person to speak. Garcia has a book called “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation,” and is wonderfully eloquent on the history of why autistic existence is still such a fight in this country. I don’t think we need give more kudos to the hosts than that. Their show is amazing, but they are not saviors just because they are enthusiastic disability allies. That’s how all of us should be, and we should be trying to learn from people who know what autism is from the inside of their brain, and what it’s like to be autistic out in the world, if we want to be better parents to our kids.
I just wanted to touch on a few things that came up in this episode. One thought provoking idea was that just because something has been scientifically debunked doesn’t mean it has left the public sphere. It stays, and continues to cause damage. The cruel theories about distant, unloving mothers being the cause of autism were supposedly replaced by vaccine paranoia. But the mom thing never really went away.
Many of us know how we are judged and spoken to by school and medical personnel, as compared to how fathers are feted and fawned over for not leaving a difficult family situation. Every neuro exam or feeding therapy session we take our kids to, we get asked if we had a normal delivery. It has taken nearly four years of therapy for me to stop saying abusive things to myself about how I am responsible for A’s reality being what it is. And even then, I may not say the words to myself anymore, but I cry when they try to form. My head knows I am being illogical, but my heart is lacerated by every implication I have internalized.
So as you can imagine, it was largely mothers who embraced and ran away with anti vaxx theories BECAUSE IT EXONERATED THEM. And that was how the image of mothers fighting the “scourge” of autism became entrenched in the collective imagination. If this cruel thing was done to our children by a medical establishment bent only on public health and not our individual darlings, then we had to be the mitigating factor.
As autistic self advocates are quick to point out, this way of looking at things still centers parents. We continue to take up too much space. So if ending the exhausting journey of self blame is still too loving to ourselves and we won’t stop because the narrative of mom hatred is too familiar, and appeals to our internalized misogyny , then let us at least use the fact that we are being selfish (by not correctly passing the mic) to make ourselves stop.
So that brings me to the pandemic. We have not left behind centering mothers. And we have not let go of cherished ideas about toxins. This extends to vaccines, and also elimination diets. Conventionally grown foods, gluten, and casein must go, it seems. Guts and brains have a direct pipeline to each other! Sigh. These mental blocks are now clashing horribly with the urgent need to get people vaccinated quickly enough, and in enough numbers, that Covid infections go down, and new variants don’t keep cropping up. America is not immune to variants from elsewhere, and beating up Chinese grandmas is not going to do anything except further expose the convergence of racism, science denial, and refusal of responsibility to the collective/global. If we do not reach herd immunity here, there may very well be an America variant, so let’s stop embarrassing ourselves.
Nothing, it seems, will dislodge this idea that vaccines are poison. And as Garcia points out, even though there are white liberal enclaves that feel the same (the belief that they are too wealthy and rarefied and clean eating to be infected by dirty germs), it is largely a right wing conspiracy (the belief that doctors and government are colluding to strip “true” Americans of their liberties). Unsurprisingly, both are racist in nature. And unsurprisingly, both factions see it as something else entirely. I am too enraged by both to elaborate, but I’m sure you are also familiar with these ideas even if you don’t wish to be, as both factions are vocal to the point of being asinine. In any case, I am not giving them further real estate here.
Which brings me to the idea I found the greatest resonance with in this episode: that many people think “What’s the harm in asking the question?”
For example: do vaccines indeed cause autism?
The harm is that no one is merely asking. Just like memes have pointed out about (mostly) men who persistently do what is called “sealioning,” the questions are themselves damaging to the endeavor of science, public health, and disability justice. We have made it okay to cause so much pain and injustice and death by our “I am just asking.” The actual loss of liberties we have rendered acceptable because, in a twisted way, it somehow symbolizes that we are actually thinking for ourselves.
Garcia is insistent that the only way forward is to listen to actually autistic people. Accept autism for what it is. Make this BS society we live in less intolerant. Stop trying to lead when we really don’t have the credibility to do so. Things we already know, yet we as a collective continue to flex and push back. And autistic people keep paying the price when we shrink away from accountability and meaningful change.
If anyone is dithering about getting their children vaccinated, I am going to say this now: Go get them their shot. Autism doesn’t just happen, like turning into a pumpkin.
If anyone is dithering about getting their autistic children vaccinated, I am going to say this now: The price of your fear should not be them getting Covid. It is now time to turn your advocacy from toxins and gluten to saving them from a virus that could actually kill them or cause long haul damage. Imagine our non speaking kids whose pain signals we already misread umpteen times a day having to endure further Covid-related pain they cannot describe–and act to prevent that.
Because that? That’s something we can get right.