I recently read a baffling post on an autism support group message board. In this post, a woman had provided a link to a story claiming that abortion cells in vaccines had been proven to cause autism. This article -- and I'm not going to post the link, because I don't want this non-science to do any further damage -- claimed that the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) had released a report stating this.

Before I go any further, let me just state right upfront that I'm not debating abortion here. I, like just about everyone else, have strong opinions about the subject, and I'd be happy to discuss those one-on-one with you any time. But in this forum I'm talking about autism. And occasionally about stupid TV shows I've watched.

So anyway, back to this baffling post. I was immediately suspicious, because this supposed EPA report hadn't been mentioned anywhere else. I know I'm kind of out of the loop, but that very morning, CNN had led with another story about a deer getting trapped in a Dunkin Donuts, so it didn't seem like they were aware of this report either.

I Googled every possible search term related to this, and the only places I found this link mentioned were on anti-abortion websites. You'd think it would have come up on some autism sites as well. But no.

I finally found a link to the EPA report in question, but when I tried to read it, my brain froze and I could imagine my head generating one of those little hourglass icons like my laptop does when it gets overwhelmed. Despite the fact that I am a big nerd and went to Science and Math Camp in the 11th grade, as I approach the age of 40, I find myself definitely NOT Smarter Than a 5th Grader, particularly when it comes to science.

But luckily, I know people who are. I emailed one of my favorite bloggers at Science-Based Parenting, and asked him to interpret for me. He went one step better: He emailed the guy who did the research and wrote the report, and asked him, "Hey, did you say that autism was linked to abortion cells being used in vaccines?" And the guy emailed back a lot of stuff but basically said, "Umm, no. I did not."

There are also no aborted fetal cells in vaccines. According to the Center for Disease Control, "The rubella vaccine virus is cultured in human cell-line cultures, and some of these cell lines originated from aborted fetal tissue, obtained from legal abortions in the 1960's. No new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make these vaccines, now or in the future. Fetal tissue is not used to produce vaccines; cell lines generated from a single fetal tissue source are used; vaccine manufacturers obtain human cell lines from FDA-certified cell banks. After processing, very little, if any, of that tissue remains in the vaccine."

Essentially, back in the 1960s, fetal cells from two abortions were used to grow vaccines. Whether or not you think that should have happened, rest assured that no further abortions have occurred in service of the vaccine industry. Even the Pope has said that getting vaccinated does not in any way mean that you support abortions.

Some of the sites that are claiming a link between vaccination and those original abortion cells cite the growing number of autism diagnoses that have happened since the 1960s as their proof that that's the cause.

Well, based on that logic, I could say that there's been a spike in autism diagnoses since the premier of the Law and Order, and I'm holding series creator Dick Wolf personally responsible and leading a boycott against procedural cop shows in general, just to be sure that CSI isn't part of the problem as well.

That's a ridiculous analogy, I know. But at least if that were my crazy theory, the worst that would happen is that there would be a slight dip in the Neilsen ratings amongst those dumb enough to buy this nutty rant.

But there are much greater dangers in following a half-baked scientific theory that leads you to not vaccinate your children. Not only to expose your child and others to potentially life-threatening diseases but as has been discussed here before, following this non-existent vaccination link any further wastes time, money and energy that much much much smarter brains than myself can be putting towards real research with the potential to reveal the real root cause of autism.

Cause and effect is an exhausting search for the parents of autistic children. We are always watching, searching for signs that anything -- a particular food, a drug, a color, an environmental factor, a sound, a vitamin or a new therapy -- will have any effect, good or bad, on our child's development. We rely on experts to tell us the truth, because we don't have the time or the energy to become experts on everything ourselves, and there are so many supposed experts lying to us for their own financial or political gain. There are also a lot of good people working tirelessly on real science and not grabbing headlines like certain celebrities that will not be mentioned again here.

Like I said, this is not a debate about abortion. If that's your fight, no matter which side of the debate you're on, leave autism out of it. Don't let pseudoscientists hijack your moral argument. It will backfire. Because when the facts come out, people will doubt your judgment if you've been, however innocently, lying to them.

Now because I feel like I've been on a soap box too long, and standing up here kinda makes me dizzy, I'm gonna tell you a Billy story that has absolutely nothing to do with any of this.

Billy has discovered the joy of blowing on Willow's tummy and making her laugh. It totally cracks him up. He's still laughing long after Willow has stopped. So the other day after blowing on Willow's tum for about half an hour, he finally said, "Blow on Mama's tummy!"

I was lying on the couch at the time and lifted up my shirt to expose my abdomen. He blew on my stomach for about 5 seconds, then stood up, pulled my shirt back down and shook his head. "This tummy," he announced, "is too big."

Out of the mouths of babes. Off exercise now in the hopes of shrinking my "too big" tummy into shape to meet my 3-year-old's tummy-blowing requirements.

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  • When meeting a mother and child in the grocery store line, rather than commenting, "Cute baby!" you remark on the child's good "pincer grasp" and "excellent bilateral coordination."
  • Once you get home from the grocery store, you realize that while you now have a cabinet full of mac-n-cheese, Rice Krispie treats and a freezer full of chicken nuggets and fish sticks, you have bought no food for yourself or your husband. And rather than go back to the store, you decide to just eat chicken nuggets this week.
  • Your idea of "Girl's Night Out" is that trip to the grocery store -- by yourself.
  • You have ever warned the exterminator: "Wake the baby up and you are dead to me."
  • With one glance at the screen, you know exactly how many minutes into the movie "Cars" you are and exactly how many minutes until the next commercial break, when you'll be required to find the remote and fast-forward.
  • You finally found your car keys in the dairy compartment of the fridge.
  • You refer to yourself in the third person -- "Mama is going to have the salad bar because salad is healthy" -- when talking to other adults, like waiters and cashiers.
  • In all recent family photos, you realize you have "crazy eyes."
  • When your starving cat meows, you scream, "Feed yourself, you lazy mooch!"
  • Every night, you fall asleep re-reading the same page of the same highly acclaimed literary masterpiece that's been on your bedside table for six months, but you have every word of "Bob the Builder's Easter Adventure" memorized.
  • You make up songs about everything you do -- (to the tune of "Old McDonald": "Mama's getting dressed right now ...") and there's no one in the room to hear them.
  • You count up your list of "10 Signs" and realize there are actually 12.

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Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had a career. I know that to be totally PC, I should add the phrase “outside the home” but I don't look at my family as an alternative career choice. My kids are a higher calling.


But I used to work full-time, all day, every day, outside the home. I was a magazine editor for years and a journalist and a screenwriter. I once interviewed Rick Springfield -- admittedly, it was on the set of a truly poor Sci-Fi Channel film, but I was so excited I was shaking. (FYI, he's not all that keen on answering questions about "Jessie's Girl" or "General Hospital.") I once did the can-can with Sulu and Chekov from the original Star Trek. I even interviewed the guy who wore the R2D2 suit in Star Wars.

I don't write this to name-drop – because come on, this would be the lamest attempt at name-dropping in the history of journalism. But I loved my job.

When we moved back to Florida, I was thrilled to get a job as editor of Emerald Coast Magazine and eventually, Bay Life. My job was to get to know people and go to events in Northwest Florida. I wrote about everything: real estate, jewelry, crime, health, entertainment – you name it.

If you had asked me back then – as baffling as this thought is to me now – I would probably have told you that I didn't care if I had kids or not. Motherhood wasn't something I thought about that much.

Billy changed everything. When he came along, I had had every intention of going back to work at the end of maternity leave. But then that three months whizzed by and I couldn't let go of him. I couldn't let go of his tiny feet or shake his firm little grasp. I couldn't imagine missing a single smile or not being there to pick him up when he cried.

At first, I tried working from home with him. People had told me, "It's easy at this age. They just sleep all the time." Maybe they were talking about cats, because neither of my children could ever have been described this way.

I freelanced for a while, but as Billy's developmental delays became more apparent and the demands of treating them increased, I let go of the final shreds of my career. A couple of little jobs came up here and there but it was hard for me to commit to even the simplest assignment, because I never knew when our life was going into a minor tailspin, and to be honest, I was super-stressed and finding it difficult to think about anything except Billy's autism.

I'm a control freak. I'm a planner. I like to organize things and make to-do lists and feel like I've accomplished something at the end of the day. I think that made me a good magazine editor. But parenting an autistic child is not something you can do from a Day Planner -- believe me, I tried.

That doesn't mean there wasn't plenty to fill up my Day Planner. Quite the contrary. We had doctor visits, tests, therapy appointments almost every day. From a practical standpoint, it just made sense for one of us to commit to chaffeur duty.

Slowly things started to change. Billy started preschool, Willow arrived and turned out to be world's easiest baby, and opportunities for me to write started to pop up.

This blog, started earlier this year, was my first attempt to dip my toe back into those waters. I was worried, at first, that I would have nothing to say. But when the floodgates opened, I found it difficult to shut up – which is probably one of the reasons I write some of the longest and most rambling blog posts on the Internet.

Then I got hired to be “Tallahassee Motherhood Examiner” for That makes it sound like I go around examining people's motherhood credentials, but it actually just means that I write about parenting stuff at I love doing that: I can now turn any afternoon with my kids into a tax write-off. Also, I get paid based on traffic, so if you check out my page, you're actually helping pay for Billy's expensive summer camp. Thanks! That kind of support entitles you to one macaroni craft or finger painting of your choice ... while supplies last.

My kids will never be impressed by my career. I can only imagine the baffling stares I'll get when I one day try to explain who Rick Springfield is. Or that there used to be a different Spock than the one played by the bad guy on “Heroes.” Maybe if had ever interviewed Lightning McQueen or Abby Cadabby it would be different.

But I make a mean batch of Rice Krispie treats, and if my life can serve as any kind of example to my children, I hope it shows them that sometimes the greatest miracles in your life are the biggest surprises; that you're capable of more than you think you are, so keep evolving; and the most exciting conversations you'll ever have will take place, not on movie sets, but in some of the quietest corners of your life with the people you love most.

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Billy started drawing this week. Not just scribbling. Not just stabbing the paper with a pen. Not peeling the paper from the crayons or breaking them or, worse yet, eating them (though we haven't seen that last one in a while, thankfully).


No, he's been drawing. People. People with hair. People with beards. People with arms and legs. And always with smiles.

He and I have a deal. If he goes to the potty, he can watch "Baby Signing Time" while I load the dishwasher. But he has to draw while he watches the TV in his play room. The first time I explained this deal to him, I set up a piece of art paper on his easel (Ms. Stacee, his occupational therapist at school, explained to me that autistic children find it easier to draw on a vertical surface), turned on "Baby Signing Time," and handed him an orange crayon.

"Draw what you see on TV!" I said to him with a bright smile, trying to make it sound like the most fun activity ever.

He gave me a weird look, and I fully expected to come back into the room and find him peeling the crayon while staring transfixed at the TV. I had to get the kitchen cleaned up, though, because we had guests coming so I left him with it.

When I came back into the room, I was totally shocked that he had followed my instructions. To the letter. The entire surface of the TV screen was orange. And he had his eyeball half a millimeter from the screen, trying desperately to see his program through the crayon.

He had drawn what he saw on TV. On the TV.

And he looked up at me like, "Hey, don't look at me. This was YOUR big idea." I couldn't help but laugh.

Over the past few weeks, when he gets his TV time, he's humored me by making a few half-hearted squiggles on the paper. But the big breakthrough moment came when I wasn't looking.

I copied a move that I saw our private occupational therapist, Kathy Merydith, do during one of her sessions with him: I drew three circles on the paper and said, "Now, can you give the balloons faces?" Then I trotted off to the kitchen to get dinner started and left him to it.

Fifteen minutes later, I realized it was way too quiet in the play room. I ducked my head, expecting to catch him in the act of filling the puppets with Moon Sand or running over Willow's baby doll with his fire truck.

But no. He was still drawing. The three "balloons" now had happy faces, green beards and LEGS! With feet! The cutest little "Ls" emerged from the bottom of each head. And a crooked smile adorned each face, along with both eyes and a nose. I called Dave to tell him the news and he confessed that he was more happy and shocked at that moment than he had been when Willow took her first steps. Willow, who already says two dozen words and colors as well as Billy did just two months ago, will probably always have to work that much harder to amaze us. I know that's not great parenting, and the subject of another blog could probably be how to make the "normal" sibling of a special needs child feel "special" herself, so when I figure that out, maybe I'll write about it.

Anyway, over dinner, we all admired Billy's picture again and dubbed it "Three Happy Guys." Over breakfast the next morning, he reached for his sketch pad and furiously filled it with drawing after drawing, which we named "A Pear Takes a Walk," "Clown Face" and "Daddy Needs a Shave."

Of course, the first thing I did was go out and buy him every art supply known to man. I have sketch books of every size, crayons of every texture, shape, color, and surface, including the bath tub, and a variety of paints.

This morning, he sat down with his Pop-Tart and sketch book and began to draw carefully and slowly. First, there is a giant head. Often, this fills most of the available space. Then he made two dashes for the eyes and added a crooked smile and a round nose. "Where are his legs?" I asked. He thought for a second and then added the miniature "Ls" emerging from Mr. Big Head. Then he hesitated, put crayon back to paper and made straight lines emerge from both sides of the head. "Are those arms?" I asked.

"Arms!" he agreed. Then, "He's sleeping!"

You could have knocked me over with a feather. That was the first time he narrated or explained what he was drawing for me.

"Sleeping?" I just repeated.

"Needs a blankie!" he shouted back to me.

"Well, let's draw him a blankie!" I shouted back. Billy grabbed a yellow crayo and drew a roundish blob on the front of Mr. Big Head.

"Needs a pillow!" he shouted again. Intonation, as you might have guessed, could still use some work. While he's starting to communicate great, Billy tends to shout everything as though he's calling a Bingo game. But I was so excited I was shouting too.

We continued like this, with him adding a pillow, "covers," which is apparently different from "blankie," and "Brown Bear" to the bedroom scene. Then he abruptly decided that "Billy Goes to Sleep" was a completed masterpiece and asked very politely, "Can I be excused?" And he ran off to stage a race between Lightning McQueen and Batman until it was time to leave for school.

I just couldn't stop staring at the picture. After he left for school, I Googled "drawing" and "child development" and found this link:

And this description seems to suggest that Billy is right on target, age-appropriate, with his drawing.

That chart also suggested that kids at this age start to work out problems with their drawings, and I wondered if there was anything going on at night that was bothering Billy. He has several “brown bears” that sleep with him and two pillows, and he has plenty of “covers,” so all I can figure is that maybe he wants a yellow blanket. Or to grow a beard.

I love Billy's drawings. And as I looked through the pages and pages that he has filled in his sketch book the last few days I was struck by how all the faces are smiling. I know that's not unusual in children's drawings, but I think it reflects something beautiful about a child's soul. As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I hope Billy never loses that part of himself that sees smiling faces everywhere.

Reader Comments

Child development

Fascinating chart about child development and art but I am a 30 year old mother and I couldn't not do what they show a 8 year old drawing!

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A shout-out to single parents: I don't know how you do it. I know this is Autism Awareness Month, but I've got a special message for the single moms and dads out there.

I'm a whiner, and I regularly use this blog to complain about every inconvenience in my life. But I also have somebody to complain to (oh, how he loves that), someone to point out the jelly in my hair, someone to gently lift my head up from the table and say, "Go take a hot bath. I got the kids for the next hour."

Single parents of special needs kids: Your capacity for strength, patience and persistence is so awesome it kind of ticks me off. You're making the rest of us look bad -- not that you have the time to notice. Not that the press holds you up as heroes. No, the single parents of special needs kids that the press covers 24/7 are ones like that insane lady who locked herself and her autistic son in a hotel suite, murdered him and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill herself.

Her story was and is a tragic one. But if you aren't aware of them, there are single parents handling their lives -- and their special needs kids -- with love and devotion every day. They never have enough time or energy or money to meet all the needs that are thrust upon them. They are tired and dedicated, happy some days and worried most of the time, inspiring to me and they don't even know it.

Case in point: Let's call her Sue. (Though that's not her name. I'm not going to write about people without their permission -- unless they are a crazy celebrity.) Sue has not one, not two, but THREE children on the autism spectrum. One son is more severely challenged than the others, 14 years old and still minimally verbal. She rarely gets a full night's sleep. She works full time and still volunteers to help other parents navigate the mire of government programs, special education services and medical tests that come with an autism diagnosis. And I know all this because she approached me in the lobby of a therapist's office with a bright smile and said, "You have a beautiful son. What's his name?"

Sue then told me about her children, describing the fascinating way one them put together block towers, the love her second child had for art, and the amazing capacity that her 14-year-old had for love. "He sees everyone the same," she said. "I've learned a lot from him."

And she said all this, not with the slightly manic, crazed tone of a woman over the brink. No, she was genuinely admiring of her special kids. I only got the details about the sleepless nights and challenges of their autism after we had shared stories for a good half-hour. Rather than a gripe session, she turned every story into great advice about navigating the school system.

I'd love to tell you that after my encounter with Sue, my whole outlook on autism changed and I now see it as a great learning experience and chance for me to grow spiritually. Nah, I'm not quite there yet. I still wish Billy didn't scream when he gets his hair washed or repeat "The Easter Beagle" non-stop throughout breakfast. But I cut him some slack about carrying a bar of soap around the house. I don't see the life lesson in that, but if it makes him happy and he's not hurting anybody, so be it.

But Sue opened my eyes to the fact that single parents have it a heck of a lot harder than I do. As author Robert Fulghum said, "If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience."

Even if you don't have Sue's enlightened outlook on life, I admire you, single parents. (In fact, truth be told, Sue would probably be a little hard to take over long periods of time, because I kinda start feeling like the world's worst mother around her.)

So do me a favor this week: hug a single parent. They probably need it.

Reader Comments

Thanks! I needed this!

I really needed to read this. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with raising my two small children. Oftentimes, I take out my frustrations on my hubby who would most definitely do anything I asked him to do. I really needed to stop and count my blessings. Blessings of support!!! Support is so easily taken for granted! Thanks for posting this!

Loved This

I loved your perspective on single moms with special kids. I am one (single mom) and have two (very special kids). Most of us are crazy as a nuthatch, but I am blessed with extended family who take up the slack when my skills or my schedule are lacking. Though that does nothing to remedy my sanity. The boys are my 24-hr concern and if I had no faith I have no idea how I would cope. I done my share of poor coping and having righted that, the boys and I are on a new adventure through life every day. I agree with "sue" in that mine have taught me how to live. From my first, I've learned unending joy in ALL things and you wouldn't believe the things he's been through medically. From my littlest, I've learned absolute, unwavering, and desperate love--unbeatable and unbreakable. And I know that's not all...they just keep on comin'!

From Amanda Broadfoot

I'm so happy to hear that, Bramble! Keep on keeping on, because the world needs to see more strong, loving single parents like yourself -- do you think maybe we could get *you* interviewed on CNN and then they could stop giving us updates on that psycho mom who killed her autistic son. Sigh. Unfortunately, success stories don't play nearly as well in the media as the horror stories do.

But nonetheless, I'm sending you a virtual hug today and want you to know that I don't know how you do it. Please stay in touch, because I'd love to hear updates on how your special people are doing!

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