Autism rates are climbing, for reasons largely unknown. The general consensus is that some people are genetically predisposed to autism. But certain environmental factors may also contribute. No, before you go there, I don't mean vaccines. (Autism rates have continued to climb despite the removal/reduction of the mercury compound thiomersal in the 1990s. Not least of which, in 2011, the independent investigation and subsequent retraction of research by Andrew Wakefield found it to be "the result of deliberate fraud and manipulation of data.") No, I mean all those other speculative prenatal causes—from exposure to high levels of air pollution and certain chemicals ( metals, and several pesticides and phthalates), low intake of the B vitamin folate, maternal infections, medications (namely, SSRI anti-depressants)—that have been posited over the years.
Every week it seems a new study surfaces. I will read it, and even though I know better, a tiny part of my brain will latch onto the idea that I somehow was responsible for causing my son's autism. Could something I did or didn't do during pregnancy have made my son, now 8, the way he is? The truth is, in my last trimester I had a urinary tract infection—quite common, my doctor told me. I took his word for it and duly filled the prescription for a course of antibiotics. What else was I supposed to do?
Yet every now and then the nagging thought lodges in my brain, like a tick. What if I caused it somehow—all the struggles my son has faced since birth? All the agony of meltdowns. When he kicks or slaps his own head. His inability to play a sport or make a real friend. What if it in some way all of it was my fault?
To this day the tick burrows deep in my brain. Its name is guilt. Its tiny whisper says, maybe you did this. Maybe you had a hand in this.
I want to slap myself straight, to drive out the tick. Because, even if there is some element of truth to that any number of unproven theories, I know it doesn't matter. It doesn't change a damn thing. It doesn't change that my job is to love my boy fiercely. To love him and fight for him relentlessly.
It doesn't change how I feel about my son. Nothing can touch my love for him, which is as explosive as that of any other parent. In 1940s and 1950s psychiatrist and 'godfather' of autism Leo Kanner and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed autism was caused by mothers who were cold and unloving toward their children. The refrigerator theory, it was called. And bullshit, it most certainly was. Fortunately that so-called research (also found to be fraudulent) went up in smoke.
Still it begs the larger question: when anything happens with our children, why does the blame automatically land squarely on the mother's shoulders? Kid won't eat? Blame mom. Kid can't learn? Blame mom. Kid gets in trouble? You get the idea... Even before the baby is born, the blame game starts. And it serves no one.
These damaging thoughts take a long time to redress. It's been 8 years for me, and I'm getting better at shrugging off the blame. But every so often a new study will come along and try to point the finger at me. On a bad day, the tick comes back to drive me slowly crazy.
On a good day, I hold up a middle finger, and walk away.