What message do we send children with autism?

When I was a kid, getting those dreaded vaccinations was a rite of passage, like a bar mitzvah or quinceañera if you replaced all the dancing and food with needles. Everyone went through it – it was just a part of growing up. But according to a U.S. News article published in 2012, fewer and fewer children are receiving those shots, as the number of parents who opted their kids out of the required vaccines rose between the years of 2005 and 2012.

On one side, we have concerned citizens who are afraid that reluctance to vaccinate children will result in long-eradicated diseases rearing their nasty heads once more. On the other hand, we have worried moms and dads who shiver at the thought of some mysterious concoction being released into their baby’s veins. But right there in the middle of the debate sits the oft-overlooked puzzle piece, the much-feared autism.

Model and funny lady Jenny McCarthy was one of the voices who popularized the idea that vaccinations lead to autism. Despite several studies saying otherwise, the myth persists and is one of the reasons many parents are choosing to opt out.

The pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination both have some valid arguments. But this column isn’t going to try to persuade you to take one side or the other. Instead, I want you to consider that neglected third group – people with autism.

Autism, as you may already know, is a developmental disorder that primarily affects social skills and communication. Some people can live independently, while others cannot. Severity and symptoms can vary greatly. It had often been said that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism – you don’t know them all.

Having a child with autism can be a great strain on families, considering various therapies and special accommodations. But the child can live, thrive even.

On the other hand, measles, diphtheria, polio – those kill. So parents would rather their children be dead than have autism? What kind of messed-up message is that sending to kids with autism?

Those are some pretty unfortunate implications.

I used to do volunteer work at the Autism Collaborative Center every weekend or so and let me tell you, those kids were the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet. Sure, they weren’t “normal” by society’s standards, whatever that is even supposed to mean. They have difficulties doing certain things and idiosyncrasies that set them apart from their peers. But they have talent, personality and potential, just like any neurotypical kid. And by no means were their lives less valuable than that of a neurotypical kid.

In 1993, autism activist Jim Sinclair wrote an eye-opening article called “Don’t Mourn For Us” for the Autism Network Newsletter. In it, he writes about the grief parents experience upon finding out their child has autism.

“You didn’t lose a child to autism,” Sinclair writes. “You lost a child because the child you waited for never came into existence. That isn’t the fault of the autistic child who does exist, and it shouldn’t be our burden.”

Keep in mind, an autism diagnosis doesn’t mean the person can’t grow up to do great things. Satoshi Tajiri was the mastermind behind Pokémon. Dan Harmon created the sitcom “Community.” Adam Young, better known as Owl City, crafted that saccharine chunk of ear candy known as “Fireflies.” These three men – and many others like them – thrived in the face of their disorder.

It seems like autism has become the new a-word, a fate worse than death. But this viewpoint is reckless and disrespectful to the very people who are living with autism.

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