This is a guest post by Andrea Clement-Johnson who lives with her husband and three children, Breanne, 12, Hayley, 9, and Caleb, 7, in Wellington, CO. She is the Health Education Supervisor at the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment in Fort Collins, CO. The whole family loves music, hiking, sports and animals, including our two yellow labs Jackson and Archie.
When I was a child, my cousin, Nadine, died in our home while she was visiting us. She was only two. Later we found out she had died from complications of Haemophilus influenzae, type B (Hib). Years later, I learned that a vaccine had been developed for Hib and could have saved her life.
Though I did not really understand vaccination at that point, I remember being struck that my cousin’s death could have been prevented if she had received a vaccine.
After college, I happily entered the health education field. I got married and had two beautiful daughters. We were so happy when our son, Caleb, joined us and became the icing on the cake. However, it was quickly evident that Caleb was different from my girls. I noticed that he tantrumed very early and he was always difficult to soothe. However, I dismissed the differences as unique qualities of my son.
As a toddler, the communication and behavioral differences became more pronounced. I took Caleb to his pediatrician and insisted that I needed someone to tell me what was happening. Once Caleb was fully evaluated by a team of experts, we received the official diagnosis of autism.
I immersed myself in reading everything I could about autism. One of the first websites I stumbled upon indicated that vaccines were a “likely culprit” contributing to the high rates of autism. I was initially surprised. I had remembered hearing other moms talk about a fear of poisons being injected into their children. I remember thinking at the time that this was silly, recalling my cousin’s tragic death. I had no idea how pervasive the autism and vaccine debate was or how much this would impact my life.
I started looking at more information about autism and vaccination. I read stories that parents shared about their typically developing children who, following immunization, were diagnosed with autism. This was perplexing. I didn’t want to doubt any parent of a child with autism. I investigated thimerosal, schedules, and I even learned how immunizations worked.
I read all the research, listened to the concerns from parents who are looking for an answer. Through my research, I began to see there was no evidence to support vaccines causing autism or any other childhood developmental disorder.
I understand that because of the complexities surrounding autism, and the variety in onset and degree of severity, it’s difficult to accept unknowns. I learned that my thoughts, though based on extensive research and good intentions as a mom, are not always enough to sway those people who see things differently, but I continue to make my feelings known about vaccination. I’ve come to learn that if I don’t convince a parent to see things “my” way, so be it. At least I may encourage those parents still weighing their options to consider talking to their provider or to learn more before delaying or avoiding immunizing their children. Through my experiences as a parent of a child with autism and a health educator, I feel I can confidently say that I have looked at the issue through both lenses. I strongly support immunization as one of the best choices a parent can make for their children.
I became so impressed with immunization that I eventually took a position as a manager with the Wyoming Immunization Section. My appreciation for and belief of timely, appropriate immunization across the lifespan has continued. I’m so fortunate to continue working in immunization in my current position in Larimer County as a Health Education Supervisor.
Like most parents of a child with special needs, I often take a path that has many uncertainties, which can create fears. One thing I don’t fear is that vaccination causes autism. The fears I have related to immunization are fears that choosing a delayed schedule or choosing not to immunize could cause a child to become infected with a preventable illness, causing unnecessary suffering or death for them and other vulnerable individuals.
Although autism would not have been the path I would have chosen for Caleb, he has been my greatest lesson about truly meaning it when you say you only want for your child to happy and to have a place in the world. My son makes regular, fabulous progress and he is a beautiful, loving, wonderful child who is still the icing on my cake!