Devon Koren Asdell
Eleven years ago, as I lounged in my mother's apartment at the tender age of twenty, overwhelmed by the heat of the summer combined with my final trimester of pregnancy, I finally settled on a name for the creature who kept poking her tiny feet into my ribcage, the creature who was poised at any moment to completely and irrevocably change my life. I decided on a name derived from the Irish language -- "Aisling," which meant "Dream," and "Stoirm," which meant "Storm." A Dream Storm. At that moment, I had no idea how completely that name would end up describing my beautiful, blond-haired daughter, who would spend much of her time lost in the dreams inside her head, and who would also grow to rage against the confusing world around her. I did not realize that the child in my womb would be diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
For some reason (I'm assuming due to the controversial and heated nature of the discussion), many people, upon learning that Aisling is autistic, ask me if I believe her early childhood vaccinations caused the condition. My answer to this is always, emphatically, "no." Aisling did receive all of her vaccinations on time, and would occasionally become slightly feverish and irritable after those first few sets, but I personally never saw any evidence that Aisling regressed in development, nothing that seemed out of the ordinary compared to the little checklist of probable side-effects that the health department sent home with us.
The reason I decided to write this essay is because a friend of mine suggested that I share my experience and perspective when it came to possible "causes" of Aisling's autism. The current debate seems to often pit extremely concerned parents against the scientific community. It would be nice, he suggested, to present a different perspective. So, on request, I'm offering up my own experience.
First, a little disclaimer -- I am not well-versed in the scientific research or the debate surrounding this particular issue, so I'm not about to try to "prove" or "disprove" that childhood vaccinations cause autism in children. What I am absolutely certain of, however, is that childhood vaccinations did not cause autism in my own child. As Aisling would say, "I need some strong supporting details, Mom!" so I will flesh out this essay with the reasons I never suspected vaccinations as the cause of Aisling's autism.
Aisling was diagnosed at a very early age -- she was only two years old when she started receiving speech therapy, and only two and a half when she was officially diagnosed with autism. I was relatively certain that she had autism before we ever got a diagnosis, from my own personal research on the topic.
Once I knew what the symptoms were, I was able to backtrack through Aisling's life and see evidence of the disorder everywhere. I could remember how difficult it was to get her to breastfeed when she was a small baby, because she seemed to dislike being snuggled up to me. I remembered how I'd heard all these stories about how breastfeeding brought you closer to your child, because they'd make eye-contact with you, interact with you, "bond" with you during those early moments. I remembered feeling like I must have been doing something wrong, or that she simply wasn't interested in me, because she would actively avoid eye contact with me when I was breastfeeding her, and would only eat when she was very, very hungry or when she wanted to go to sleep. I remember feeling as if I was just a "food machine" a lot of the time -- Aisling really only seemed interested in interacting with me when she wanted something and couldn't get it. As a young single mother, I'd actually tried to initiate co-sleeping, because I'd figured it would make night-feedings much easier. However, Aisling would have none of it. She was extremely uncomfortable. In fact, she would cry and scream unless she was on a bare mattress with no blankets, stuffed animals, or anything else touching her.
Aisling also only wanted to wear onesies or pajamas all of the time. She detested shoes with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. What she loved most? Spinning in circles, or bouncing up and down, or swinging back and forth on her swing. Some things never change.
I wasn't the only one who noticed these "oddities" about Aisling. My entire family commented on how "serious" she always seemed, and how interested she was in just "doing her own thing." In some ways, she was an incredibly easy and low-maintenance baby -- she never really demanded attention or interaction from anyone. She would respond to her name or smile at a game of peek-a-boo occasionally, but quite honestly I ended up being so overly animated in my "games" to try to get Aisling's attention or to get her to laugh that it sometimes bordered on the creepy and grotesque. She also walked very early (at seven-and-a-half months), and I'm convinced that this was because she couldn't figure out how to ask for things, and needed to move around and get what she wanted for herself.
And all of these things started from the first day I held her in my arms at the hospital, long before any vaccinations, long before she was exposed to anything. I am completely convinced that my child was simply born with autism. Whether or not her autism was caused by genetic factors, or stressors during my difficult labor with her, or some combination of the two, I will probably never know. But I do not believe that any of this had anything to do with the vital vaccinations she received and that have protected her against several deadly childhood diseases.
Furthermore, I maintain that children should continue to be vaccinated against these diseases. I definitely respect opinions that differ from my own, and I also support continuing research into the cause of autism. However, I think we need to be careful not to get so caught up in trying to determine the cause and hoping that it leads to a "cure" that we pull much-needed services, therapies, and research that help assist autistic individuals interact with this loud, confusing world -- and also that help this loud, confusing world learn to be more gentle and accepting with them!
Which brings me to another, important point of this story. When Aisling was a small baby, there were many indicators I "missed" due to ignorance about autism. However, I did notice that my child was "different" and had her unique personality at a very early age. All of that still holds true -- my daughter still is a different person with her own unique personality which is often delightful and sometimes quite challenging. Autism didn't "happen" to her; autism is very much a part of who she is, who she's always been. I feel she's imperfectly perfect just as she is, and I wouldn't change that for the world. And while I wish it was easier for her to exist in this world, to interact with people, to deal with changes, and to understand the nuances of everything around her, I am perfectly content to continue to work to make that possible for her, to make it just a little easier for her every day. I am so very proud every day that I am her mother, that I was blessed with the amazing gift of having her as a daughter.
A version of this essay was previously published at AdvanceWeb's From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism: http://community.advanceweb.com/blogs/ot_9/default.aspx.