Sex, religion, politics: The three topics you should avoid to keep friendships on an even keel, and to steer clear of arguments in general. That’s not to say they aren’t important topics – quite the contrary. It’s because they are important that they polarize people and bring out their (both rational and irrational) passions. If you’re moving in autism circles, you can add a fourth word to that list: Vaccines.
I confess that I am guilty of thinking less of fellow autism parents and bloggers, when I’ve found out their views on vaccines were diametrically opposed to my own. I still keep them as friends if they already are, I still read the blog if I already did. But if I find out at the outset that someone thinks vaccines cause autism, I am a lot less likely to invest my time and emotions in them.
I used to be part of an autism preschoolers play-group. I was there when it first started and saw many other families come and go. I decided to make an effort to be very welcoming to new families, to encourage them to stay on and to support them however I could. One day a new set of parents turned up with their autistic preschooler, and the other parents and I went to greet and get to know them. The new parents didn’t want to talk about their child, or their struggles, or themselves. The conversation the new family launched into straight away, was about how the MMR vaccine had given their child autism. Telling us how their child was fine before the shot, but straight afterwards they got autism, and isn’t it a horrible thing, and how soon after the vaccine did we notice our children got autism..
I didn’t feel like getting into what would have turned into an argument – these parents were particularly passionate and sure about MMR causing their child’s autism. But I wasn’t going to just stand there and agree or encourage the rant, so I politely excused myself and went off to watch my son playing outside with the other children instead.
It does matter what other people think about vaccines. For many reasons. The belief that autism is caused by vaccines impacts on how those families will “treat” their child. The choice not to vaccinate and to encourage other people not to vaccinate, has an important impact too. Just like sex, politics and religion, vaccines are an important topic with serious implications for millions of lives. Once those parents find out I don’t think autism is caused by vaccines, it also makes them see me as misinformed or ignorant or even evil. It’s hard to just ignore the white elephant in the room once you both know it’s there.
But what we have in common is often more important than our views about vaccines: We’re bringing up children facing the same struggles, fighting to get the same resources from a cumbersome bureaucracy, dealing with the same prejudices in society. So if what you’re primarily looking for is friendship, support and understanding, in a world that is too short of all three for parents of autistic children, it’s usually best to just not mention the V word.