My first grade daughter has a friend—we’ll call him Jake—who has Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder. I’ve talked with her about the condition in an effort to help her understand her friend, but it’s sometimes hard to find the line between providing helpful information and unnecessarily othering or stereotyping a child. In that vein, I was excited when I learned that Sesame Street is introducing an autistic character, Julia. I was glad that other children like my daughter will have access to information about autism presented in an understandable and positive way—and that autistic children will have a chance to see themselves represented.
But that is apparently not what many anti-vaccine advocates saw.
“The rollout of autistic Julia is Sesame Street’s attempt to ‘normalize’ vaccine injuries and depict those victimized by vaccines as happy, ‘amazing’ children rather than admitting the truth that vaccines cause autism in some children and we should therefore make vaccines safer and less frequent to save those children from a lifetime of neurological damage,” wrote Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, of Natural News.
This comment is so over the top that part of me feels like it must be satire. It’s not.
“Yayyyyyy!!!! Autism is normal!!! Let’s celebrate our children’s neurological disorders!!! DON’T ASK WHY!!!” Facebook user Will Durden posted on the page maintained by the Vaccine Resistance Movement.
It’s jaw-dropping, isn’t it?
At least some individuals pushed back, but without much traction:
The father of a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, pointed out that the character was intended to help other children better understand children they might meet who have autism — but the anti-vaxxer crowd shouted him down.
“On the surface it’s promoting acceptance but it’s also trying to condition young children to think autism at today’s rate is normal, (but) we know that is not true,” posted Sarah White, who speculated Sesame Street was part of the conspiracy. “These shows are owned by networks controlled by big money. They have no boundaries. Not even what goes into our children’s heads. Why do you think this is conspiratorial? It’s happening.”
Now first, the obvious: There is no data to suggest that vaccines cause autism, and in fact every study asking the question has found that in fact vaccines do not cause autism. Indeed, thimerosal—a common target of anti-vaxxers—was removed from childhood vaccines over a decade ago and yet autism rates have continued to grow. There’s also the reality that autism is diagnosed more frequently today at least in part because awareness of the condition has increased—in other words, we don’t know actually know past autism rates, which makes it difficult to gauge the actual increase.
But then there’s a second issue—anti-vaxxer’s stigmatization of autism. And it’s not just anti-vaxxers. There has actually been a lot of criticism of Autism Speaks in recent years, because for all the organization’s name seems to suggest a centering of autistic children and adults, it provides nothing of the sort. Instead, the organization stigmatizes autism and presents it as a condition that ruins lives and destroys families—both things adults with autism strongly object to. After all, stigmatizing autism does nothing to help individuals on the autism spectrum. It does the opposite, in fact.
I mean let’s think about this for a moment. First of all, study after study has shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism, and yet, anti-vaxxers continue to insist that there must be a link, and to throw more money in that direction, rather than redirecting it to more profitable areas of research. This does not actually help people with autism. Second, when anti-vaxxers or organizations like Autism Speaks speak of autism as a terrible, horrible, effectively life-ending condition, well, that doesn’t help individuals with autism either. In fact, it makes their lives harder.
Autism used to be something distant, something I was aware of but didn’t have personal in-real-life experience with. But as I’ve gotten to know my daughter’s friend, Jake—as we’ve had him and his family over and spent time at their house—that has changed. And as I look at Jake, and his family, I understand only better how backwards organizations like Autism Speaks go about things—and I am only more incensed by anti-vaxxers above-quoted anger at Sesame Street’s new autistic character. These approaches center parents’ short-term convenience over their children’s individual wellbeing, and that is not okay.