I gave my child autism.
It wasn’t because of vaccines. It wasn’t because of tuna. It wasn’t because of formula. It wasn’t because of Tylenol, ultrasounds, antidepressants, Pitocin, tobacco, television, or pesticides.
How do I know? Because she wasn’t exposed to any of these things when she was first diagnosed with developmental delays.
Yet, I know it, from the bottom of my heart: I gave my child autism.
My first clue that I gave my child autism came when she was in the middle of an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist at two and a half years of age. The therapist had noted that her eye contact was poor, but acceptable for her age.
“Oh,” I explained, looking straight at my lap, “Well, that’s probably a learned behavior. We just don’t really ‘do’ eye contact in our little family. I’ve never been much of an eye contact type.”
The speech therapist bit her lip.
The same pattern was played out time and time again as we danced between physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, neurologists, psychologists, and teachers.
“No, she’s not potty-trained, but I still had accidents all the way into second grade. It just runs in the family.”
“Hyperlexia? Yeah, she’s a great reader. My family is full of early readers.”
“Picky eating is just something she got from me. I don’t like food much. And as a kid, I would completely flip out if someone tried to make me eat with a spoon or eat foods that had touched each other on my plate. No big deal.”
“Clumsiness runs in the family. I couldn’t ride my bike until I was eight, so the motor delays are just in her DNA, that’s all.”
“Oh, sure, she won’t wear her pants correctly, but that’s just another thing she got from me. You should have seen how I use to shriek if someone put a turtleneck on me!”
“Sure, she can’t dress herself. But I couldn’t dress myself at her age, either. I was almost eight before I could tie my own shoes. Fourteen before I could put my hair in a ponytail. No big deal.”
“The chewing on her hair and shirt collars—she probably learned that from me. I chew my shirt collars to shreds. It’s why my wife doesn’t let me borrow her clothes anymore.”
“Yeah, I know, but obsessive interests are just a thing we do in our family. You should hear the Pandora’s Box that opens when I’m given an opportunity to talk about the taxonomy of freshwater fish. We Russos are just passionate people.”
It was when I said this that I noticed the expression on the school psychologist’s face—the desperate attempt at a poker face, like someone trying to choose between choking on a laugh and spitting it all over the table.
“Maybe,” she said, pursing her lips carefully and jotting something down in her notebook, “You might want to consider getting yourself an evaluation. Most autistic people of your generation weren’t diagnosed, especially if they were verbal.”
Me? Autistic? Could I be?
In my own childhood, I certainly had some signs, but the symptoms I had were all explained away with one label or another. My avoidance of certain foods and clothes, and my extreme passion for things that interested me, were diagnosed as OCD. The nonsensical blur of numbers that appeared every time I saw a math test was diagnosed as dyscalcula. My strange patterns of learning were just assumed to be part of the developmental fingerprint of a gifted and eccentric child.
I am one of many people who, today, would likely be diagnosed with autism, although during the 1990s, the diagnosis was almost exclusively reserved for children who were nonverbal. Children like me were given other diagnoses. Sometimes they fit; sometimes they didn’t. But the pattern that set me apart from the norm was there– and was undoubtedly similar to my daughter’s.
In fact, the majority of scientists believe that there is no “autism epidemic” at all—that people with autism are no more common than they were 20, or 50, or 1,000 years ago. Autistic individuals have always been a part of human society. It just wasn’t until recently that the condition was correctly identified. It was even more recently, in 2013, that medical science finally acknowledged that Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS are simply variations of autism, not distinct conditions. The science of autism changes constantly, and we quickly realize that many people with autism have been overlooked or misdiagnosed.
Consider these two studies, for example. One looked at the diagnoses of children in United States special education from 1984 to 2003. They found a huge increase in the number of cases of autism, and a corresponding decrease in diagnoses of mental r*tardation and other learning disabilities. Children with the exact same symptoms—little or no speech, sensory differences, difficulty with socializing, and learning challenges—were called “mentally r*traded” in 1983 and called “autistic” in 2003. The rate of one diagnosis went straight up while the rate of the other vanished to nearly zero, at the exact same rate. Likewise, many kids who in the 1990s who were diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive or ADD/ADHD would have been labeled as autistic today. The study’s authors concluded that there is no increase in the number autistic children, only the number of autistic children who are correctly diagnosed.
The other study directly compared this data, along with other studies about the incidence of autism diagnosis, with the incidence of the notorious MMR, or measles-mumps-rubella, vaccine. The conclusion: “There has (probably) been no real increase in the incidence of autism. There is no scientific evidence that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine or the mercury preservative used in some vaccines plays any part in the aetiology or triggering of autism, even in a subgroup of children with the condition.”
In other words: no, MMR doesn’t cause autism, ever, and autism probably isn’t on the rise anyway.
Autism is almost entirely genetic. The studies about the heritability of autism, particularly twin studies, have found that over 90% of the differences between autistic and non-autistic people are because of DNA alone. In about 20% of these cases, the genetic differences are linked to a specific, measurable chromosomal abnormality like fragile X or 22q11.2 deletion. The others are far more complex and harder to find, but still clearly inheritable, and appear to be just as genetic in origin as a child’s eye color and skin tone.
My youngest child is eight months old. He just learned to sit up a two weeks ago, much to the excitement of his 7-year-old sister, who proudly declared that, “Maybe he has gross motor delays, and just might be autistic like Big Sister!”
She leaned toward my chubby, black-eyed baby boy and cooed, “We’re all very special in this family. This family is full of brain problems and love.”
He grinned, leaned forward, and planted his big, toothy mouth against her cheek. He wrapped his little arms around her head and gave her his drooly “kiss” while they both giggled with absolute delight. Then he toppled over awkwardly and I scooped him into my arms.
This family is full of brain problems and love. Some of the brain problems are autism. Others look a lot like autism. Some of them—like my son’s– might not be autism at all, just normal variations of human development that follow unique, meandering patterns no more or less exceptional than the color of their eyes or the shape of their noses.
I made my children many things: olive-skinned, dark-eyed, black-haired. I made them affectionate and sensitive and cuddly. I also made them clumsy, awkward, and quirky. And in my daughter’s case, I also made her autistic.
But it wasn’t because of something I did wrong. It wasn’t because of her shots, or her environment, or my parenting. It was because of the little chains of carbon inside all of our bloodstreams, the chromosomes my kids inherited from me and only me. It was because we have a very special family, and it’s full of brain problems and love.
And it’s perfect, exactly the way it is.
This article is based on this personal anecdote, and collection of evidence, by Juniper Russo. Along with Maranda Dynda and Megan Sandlin, Juniper Russo helps run an evidence-based blog to combat people who still carry old biases and misunderstandings that she used to share.