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    Posted February 9, 2015 by
    San Diego, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Your message to parents who don’t vaccinate

    I Would Vaccinate my Autistic Son Again


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Shahriar Afshar is a public affairs professional in San Diego and the father of Daryan, 7, and Adrian, 6. He says putting the blame for autism on vaccines is hurtful for parents already overwhelmed by the diagnosis. "Like you could have not vaccinated your kid, and somehow he wouldn't be autistic. That would have been a horrible thing to face as a parent, that you could have saved your son."
    - dsashin, CNN iReport producer

    I remember that time in our lives and I don't regret it because vaccines have nothing to do with autism.


    It is impossible to have a child in this day and age and not think about the vaccine/autism gossip. It’s everywhere! As amateur new parents, we did not have to make that decision right away after our first child was born. As the months went on and we took Daryan to the pediatrician for his regular checkups, the doctor brought up the customary Centers for Disease Control (CDC) vaccine schedule: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 12 months & so on (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/downloads/parent-ver-sch-0-6yrs.pdf)


    During one visit, our pediatrician took one look at us & felt our hesitation on vaccines. He proceeded to tell us about the discredited study linking autism with the Polio and Measles vaccines (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/). He also told us about some minor potential side effects like redness or pain where the shots would be administered. He had offered to spread out the shots over several visits but looking back, that was only meant to limit the discomfort for our child and perhaps give us a small degree of psychological comfort. We decided to go home and get back to him since we still had time according to the vaccine schedule. No new parent can bear to see their beautiful child stuck full of needles & chemicals in one doctor’s visit? It's almost a paternally counter intuitive and unnatural submission. Needles!


    After a brief period of soul searching and contemplation, we did it. We got the shots spread out over several visits.  In retrospect, there was never a possibility that I could have conceived of when not vaccinating our kids was the best option. It would have been unconscionable to deny our first born every benefit of modern medicine and more so, irresponsible to expose other children to a global threat that mankind all but irradiated in the civilized world. Vaccination is not only an absolute medical necessity but a moral imperative and a civic duty.


    Of course, as parents, when you are alone with your thoughts, you think about the rumors, innuendoes and gossip clouds surrounding the vaccine science. Maybe there is something to it, I would say to myself? Doctors don't know everything. Maybe if the pediatrician gives me the shots, I can be the Guinea Pig? If something goes wrong with me, my wife will know not to vaccinate our son. If only I had that choice.


    I thought the vaccine debate was over but its back for no good reason. Nonetheless, I respect the anti-vaxxers dilemma: go with science or your heart? I just don't understand it as a personal choice in a civilized society. I understand the provocative labels they give their campaigns such as 'vaccine injury' but think those labels proliferate dangerous and unnecessary confusion for vulnerable young parents as it did once for me.


    Even within the anti-vaxxer community, there seems to be a wide spectrum full of opinions, choices and positions. Some parents naturally cannot get their children vaccinated for good medical reasons. Perhaps others make a statistical calculation that because they live in a rural or isolated area, their child cannot possibly contract the polio or measles viruses, so why take on the (perceived) risk of getting vaccinated? And yet others who live in highly populated urban environments chose to make a personal medical decision based on vaccine-gossip and intentionally expose their neighbors and communities to an entirely preventable and harmful medical condition. But it only seems like they are making a personal choice by not getting vaccinated when in fact, they are making a very public-health-choice that may impact my child (if not vaccinated), without my consent.


    Anti-vaxxers also cause another form of damage. When they imply that another parent is “injuring” their child by getting vaccinated or in effect, I caused Daryan’s autism; that really does add insult to injury. What parent can live with the knowledge or accusation that their own actions caused irrevocable harm, damage or injury to their child? New parents have enough to deal with, facing a barrage of tough choices, competing priorities and a constant fear of the unknown. Since no child comes with an instruction manual, young parents begin to extrapolate their understanding of their parental responsibilities as a series of choices when in fact; some are not, like getting vaccinated. In these tender moments of new parenting, we are all vulnerable & susceptible to poor choices driven by fear to shelter our children from anything and everything. New parents don't always think with their heads. They think with their hearts.  That's why I understand the anti-vaxxers' dilemma. I get it. I lived it. But it doesnt make their choices, mine.


    As a person of science, I accept the fact that coloration is not causation even without looking at the Fast Company Infographic: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3030529/infographic-of-the-day/hilarious-graphs-prove-that-correlation-isnt-causation#9


    But for some young parents, correlation becomes a matter of convenient coincidence during the overlapping periods of time when vaccines have to be administered to all and developmental milestones are missed by some. Typically, these missed milestones or red flags, like delayed speech, lack of eye contact or socialization difficulties, can lead to a diagnosis of autism by age 3. So it’s natural for new parents in a protective state of mind to draw a cause and effect conclusion between autism & vaccines, duped by an overdose of gossip-injury over an injection of scientific-fact.


    Every autism experience is as different as the individual. For us, Daryan progressed normally till about 12-18 months when I used to read Dr. Suess to him every night. He anxiously watched and listened to me as I would tell him to bring me a Dr. Suess book. He would follow my finger on the pages & flip the page just at the right time. His favorite book was “Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?”  He was there. He was engaged. He was everything we could have dreamed of until his first year when he began to regress; losing the eye contact, mama & dada babbling and basic socialization skills that we took such great joy in experiencing. That was tough to watch.


    From when we first noticed the red flags, 12-18 months, to the time we received the official diagnosis by 36 months, everyone was giving us unsolicited & unqualified advice. Maybe he is just delayed? He’ll speak any day now! Apparently, my uncle didnt speak until he was 7. It came at us from all over the place. Even our sweet old-school pediatrician touched Daryan’s head once in an office visit and because he did not react negatively, as some stereotypical autistic kids may, he told us that Daryan is probably not autistic. See how gentle & calm he is? All this talk did not help us and it wont help other young families that have to start shaping their new realities with autism; not any less, just different.


    My wife noticed Daryan's gradual disassociation first whereas I wrote it off to boys are boys and late to everything. Thankfully, she insisted we have him checked out by a specialist and by 20 months, Daryan was in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy paid for by a local regional center (currently our insurance pays) thanks to California law. I later learned that not all states offer these autism insurance benefits, making life for working autism families in some states almost unbearable. According to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group, 38 states have enacted autism reform laws while another seven are at various states of legislation. Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, Alabama and Oklahoma are not pursuing any autism reform bills in 2015. http://www.autismspeaks.org/state-initiatives


    The Affordable Care Act also advances autism insurance coverage by state. Here is a quick summary: http://www.centerforautism.com/data/sites/1/press/Affordable_Care_Act_by_state.pdf


    As many autism parents can attest, the worst thing about autism is not just the developmental delays of your beautiful child. It’s when you pile on the bureaucracies of insurance, healthcare and educational institutions that wears you down. Autism parents are already hurt, sleep deprived and stressed out. So by the time you have to start arguing with bureaucracies about every single service, benefit or bill, you are worn out. It can be intensely overwhelming, exhausting & demoralizing, never-mind what it does to your marriage, relationships and career, if there is any time for all that.


    Most parents remember D-day: the day your child is officially diagnosed at age 3. Since Daryan was in therapy for most of his life by then, I cant say we were shocked, hurt or upset. We knew it was coming but for two years we were hoping for the best. Nonetheless, it was a surreal experience and we had to accept it over time. My family tells me I was depressed for several years following the diagnosis but the experience helped me realize that men and women have different coping mechanisms, timetables and forms of acceptance. For example, were I interpreted the pain on another autism dads face as denial, my wife rightly assessed it as being heartbroken.


    The diagnosis and the different realities families must face can be as bad or as good as they choose to make it. We have chosen the unconditional acceptance of our son and the categorical acceptance of science over fear, gossip and regret. So we are incredibly grateful, happy and proud of everything Daryan is and do not dwell on what he is not. As I have reaffirmed with my wife many times over these seven years, even if we could change Daryan now to not be autistic, we would not. He is who he is and we respect him and love him as he is. After all, no one is perfect, so we'll keep trying to help him be the best he can be.


    By the time Daryan was 15 months, his brother Adrian was born. We did not know back then that if we had an autistic son, his brother is four times as likely to be on the spectrum. Would we have avoided having a second child had we known with certainty about Daryan? I dont know. However, if we were mildly cautious in spreading out Daryan’s vaccine shots schedule, especially the close proximity of the MMR & Polio vaccines, then we were on a heightened state of paranoia by the time it was Adrian’s turn. So we spread out Adrian’s vaccines even further leading up to his start of kindergarten.


    Today, I have two perfect & vaccinated sons. One son is autistic & beautiful and the other is not & brilliant. They both challenge every ounce of our souls a thousand times a day, like all kids do.  Looking back, we have zero regrets and not because we know something others don't but because we are people of science. We value the medical advancements that have extended our lives, treated our many illnesses and in the case of vaccines, protected us from each other.


    In the end, we are also people of faith. Why put all your eggs in one basket?  We believe that wherever science leaves off, love, faith & strength will take over. That’s why we pray for strength. At least, some days it comes & some days it doesn't.  I cannot foresee what lies ahead for my sons but I am not afraid because I have faith, I'll be there for them and they'll have every modern advantage that science has to offer. Vaccines are just one measure of my parental & civic responsibilities and if I had to do it all over again, I would.


    My advice for new parents is simple: Vaccinate your children, build a life with no regrets and face the future without fear. The rest was never up to you.


    Shahriar Afshar is a public affairs consultant and lives in San Diego with his family. He may be reached at afshar365@gmail.com.

    Linkedin in/afshar365

    Twitter @safshar365


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