No silver bullet

We can remember the way the room went ice cold each time a doctor brought us closer to the diagnosis – really more like a life sentence – of autism.

First there was a primary care check up where Joey’s eyes didn’t track the doctor’s moving finger. “Something doesn’t seem right” was the cautious medical opinion.

Next up was a pediatrician who expressed certainty that Joey was autistic. Melissa remembers “not being able to breathe” as the word sank in.

Finally it was a pediatric psychiatrist. Joey ran back and forth across the room, flapping his arms. We later confessed how we both sat there hoping he would stop – just for a few minutes – so maybe the diagnosis wouldn’t be firm.

Care givers want the autism to go away. That’s not a constant gnawing. But the feeling stays close and pounces just when we think we’ve made peace with how things are.

There’s always the hope that someone will hand us a silver bullet that “cures” the autism – or at least makes it manageable. The right school, the creative therapeutic technique, the magic medicine, the new diet, an answered prayer. Something, anything.

One of the saddest things is the way care givers’ craving hearts are open to announced “causes” of autism. Not that knowing the cause means assurance of a cure, but there’s a sense of control that comes from drawing straight lines. “This happened and then that happened” is more comfortable than “We have no idea where this came from or why it happened to our family.”

And it’s probably true that some care givers wonder what they did to “cause” the condition. It would be a relief to know that some common environmental factor showed up in all cases; that it wasn’t our “bad parenting” or that we pissed off the gods or something.

Top researchers empathize with care givers. David Amaral of the University of California, Davis, says, “I always feel apologetic we haven’t done more faster. Sometimes parents will come to us wanting to try a desperate treatment — and we don’t have the evidence to even say don’t waste your money on that.”

The craving for certainty is powerful. One of the most passionately clutched silver bullets is that autism is caused by the Measles, Mumps and Whooping Cough vaccination. Celebrities promote it, and many care givers swear by it.

We won’t pound you with all of the research and arguments here. We think that the vaccination-autism connection is correlation, not cause. The vaccinations and the appearance of autism symptoms both happen in the second year of life, so it’s small wonder that people with broken hearts look and see a silver bullet explanation of their plight.

But firing the silver bullet can lead to terrible unintended consequences. In this recent report from Maryland, which never mentions autism by name, it’s clear that some have shot the bullet and it is bouncing around causing all kinds of harm,

Deadly diseases, once nearly wiped out, are making a frightening comeback in Maryland and across the country. Now — a warning that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are putting others at risk.

We’re not going to tell anybody what to do – we are amateurs just like most family care givers. But please, please, think long and hard before buying any silver bullets that folks are selling. And be even more cautious about loading and firing one through a rash choice.

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