Anti-vaxxers, or parents who display significant hesitancy to vaccinate their children, were named by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten public health threats for 2019. Not only has the percentage of unvaccinated or undervaccinated American kids quadrupled since 2001, at least twenty state legislatures recently proposed bills to make it easier for parents to opt out of shots.
Anti-vaxxers believe that the risks of vaccines, some of which may not even be true, outweigh the benefits. While vaccines can have side effects (just like any other medical aid), their risks are rare and miniscule compared to the risks associated with the diseases vaccines prevent. Anti-vaxxers also tend to claim that the issue is not vaccines, but rather individual liberty and the right to make choices about one’s health. This argument is often made in legislatures when anti-vaxxer bills are on the floor.
However, the core of the anti-vax movement is not about individual liberty, nor is it about vaccines in general. It’s about autism.
As vaccines were manufactured through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were overwhelmingly celebrated, especially for wiping out infamous killers like polio. Although vaccine hesitancy has existed in some form for as long as vaccines have, many parents were overwhelmingly grateful for the new protection against disease. As The Guardian gushed in 1955, “Nothing…could bring such rejoicing to the hearths and homes of America as the historic announcement last Tuesday that the 166-year war against paralytic poliomyelitis is almost certainly at an end.”
But in 1998, a British then-doctor falsely claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) caused autism. Though he was unanimously proved wrong, and he lost his medical license, his beliefs endured among parents in Western countries. Whereas 92% of the U.K. had received the MMR vaccine in 1996, only 84% had received it in 2002. Falling MMR rates can be seen in the U.S. from the various measles outbreaks of the past decade. This year, measles has afflicted 268 people as of March 14, most of them unvaccinated.
Anti-vaxxers thrive on the Internet, where a simple search about vaccines can quickly spiral into insistence on an autism-vaccine link. An analysis of 480 anti-vax websites by Time magazine found that about two-thirds of them claimed such a link. Anti-vaxxer celebrities can be seen on talk shows claiming a link. An anti-vax movie, produced in 2016, is all about autism with many an emotional testimony from a parent saying that their neurotypical child suddenly became autistic after a vaccination. The fear of autism is what kickstarted and continues to drive the current wave of vaccine suspicion.
While there has been much discussion about the impact of anti-vaxxers on the rest of society, especially those who are medically unable to get vaccinated, there has been little discussion about their impact on autistic people: those who live with the disorder that anti-vaxxers are afraid of.
Autism is still highly stigmatized. Narratives of autism are often told from a neurotypical (or non-autistic) point of view, with autistic people portrayed as burdens to the neurotypical people around them. Though autism is a lifelong disorder, autism funding and research continue to focus disproportionately on young children and genetic markers. As a result, services and opportunities for autistic adults are often scant. According to the 2017 National Autism Indicators Report, only 27% of autistic adults have a paid job, and 10% live independently, largely due to societal reluctance to accommodate their needs.
Anti-vaxxers fuel these attitudes (and resulting discrimination) about autism. Even if they don’t say it outright, their argument is that they’d rather their child die of a preventable disease than be born autistic. They perpetuate an image of autism as a parent’s worst-case scenario, a fiend that must be eliminated as soon as possible.
Because many neurotypical reporters neglect this focus on autism, autistic adults have increasingly been the ones to point out the messages anti-vaxxers convey. People like Karl Knights and Sarah Kurchak, both of whom are autistic, speak in no uncertain terms about the ableism of anti-vaxxers. They also explore the many benefits that autism offers, benefits that anti-vaxxers tend to ignore.
So, as measles rates rise and doctors wonder how to persuade reluctant parents to vaccinate, it is best that they use the ultimate counterargument: autistic people themselves, providing first hand proof that autism really is better than measles.