By Donna Laken
This week was my son John's first week back to school, and was also the very first time in his life in which he arrived when school starts in the morning and left when the school day ends. We have spent the entire past year gradually increasing his time there by 15 minute increments. He will be thirteen years old in a couple of months. 'First Full Day of School' - not exactly a typical preteen milestone, is it?
My mind is overwhelmed with disbelief when when I look back upon the years and years leading up to this event; years of failed attempts at placements in nearly a dozen different classrooms in half a dozen different schools; the years in which we elected to pull him out of the school district and teach him at home with various autism therapies; the years in which he would attend school for as little as fifteen minutes a day, up to the most successful year, in which he managed a 3.5 hour day. And sadly, for the area in which we live, John's experience is not all that unusual. In our neck of the woods, autism services for a child with severe autism roughly amount to receiving a free "I Heart Someone With Autism" sticker along with driving directions to the nearest group home.
So this first full day of school is a huge milestone for John and I am extremely proud of him. And I am not complaining because I am also painfully aware that there are many children out there who either die following vaccination or who end up even more profoundly disabled and will never, ever be able to attend school. But I am deeply regretful of the choices I made and the research I chose not to do so many years ago that landed John in this predicament.
After his school physical a few weeks ago, I forced myself to take another close look at John's vaccination record. From birth to age two (when we stopped vaccinating), his immunization record looks pretty darn impressive to the untrained eye. If vaccine records were resumes, this kid would have been on a fast track to a high-paying CEO position at a major corporation. From birth until age two, each and every infant and toddler vaccine was given on time, perfectly on schedule. Heck, we'd even somehow managed to squeeze in that dreaded RotaShield vaccine in 1999, just two months before they pulled it off the market after reports of intussusception and death. Yep, he was one incredibly well-vaccinated small child. My God, what on earth had I been thinking? Or as my dad used to say to my sisters and I after we'd screwed up as kids, "Were you even thinking at all??"
Looking back now, I guess I was just doing what most every other busy mother does, thinking along the lines of expediency - that he would eventually need all those vaccines in order to attend school, so why not get them done now and according to schedule? And as far as safety concerns, I wasn't exactly blissfully unaware of vaccine reactions, even when John was a baby. I don't really have an excuse. I received all those natural parenting catalogs and magazines in the mail, the ones describing books about vaccination and articles about vaccine safety (or rather non-safety), but after glossing over them and expressing my concerns to family members, I was met with that now familiar blunt reply, "You have to vaccinate!".
I had Internet access (even back then, with the whistling, screeching dial-up modem, remember that?), but I didn't make a serious effort to actively research vaccine safety. I skimmed through a few accounts describing serious reactions to DPT shots and I glanced quickly at a piece discussing a connection between vaccines and autism, but I never really looked closely, probably mostly out of fear. I thought to myself, those things happen to other people, people with some sort of genetic or immune problems or people with just plain bad luck. They could not possibly happen to us. We were an incredibly healthy family with no medical problems and no family history of genetic disorders or developmental disabilities. Surely we could handle vaccines.
Tragically, we - he - could not handle them. Each and every infant and toddler vaccine administered perfectly on schedule transformed our beautiful healthy baby into a child too sick, too confused, and too agitated to ever set foot in a preschool or kindergarten. Adhering to the vaccine schedule had been all for nothing. And yet, so much worse than nothing. And the one glaring truth that continues to haunt me on a daily basis is this: Having your child's immunizations up to date in order for him or her to attend day care or school becomes a moot point when those very vaccines disable your child so profoundly that he or she is incapable of even attending day care or school. It all becomes utterly ridiculous.
So here we are, me and a near teenager, preparing for the first full day of school. Tomorrow morning I will pack John a lunch bag filled with the few remaining foods he's not allergic to. I'll remember to bring the chewy tube he is supposed to use to divert himself from biting the backs of his hands. I'll be sure not to forget the noise-cancelling headphones he has to wear when the sounds at school become too intolerable for him. I'll write in the communication notebook what sort of morning he is having so his teacher and paraprofessional know what to expect, since he cannot verbally tell them - or anyone else - how he feels. And I'll make yet another effort to warn other parents to please, please carefully research the potentially harmful effects of vaccines before deciding whether or not to accept them for your child. Even if doing the research seems like too time-consuming a task, I promise you, the time you spend researching will amount to so much less time than it takes for a severely vaccine-injured child to be able to spend an entire day at school.
Donna Laken is the mother of a twelve year old son with autism.