Last year I took Martin to a friend’s sixth-birthday party. I talked to the birthday boy’s mom in advance and knew they were serving pizza. For Martin I brought homemade GFCFSF pizza and cookies.
I thought Martin would be happy with those choices. With the pizza, he was. I heated it in the hostess’s oven and served it on a party plate, just like the other kids’ pizza. Unfortunately, the situation went south when cake time rolled around. Martin didn’t want just any treat. He wanted the cake. And when he didn’t get cake, he went into meltdown mode.
I might give in to something like a non-organic apple. But I don’t concede gluten-, dairy-, and sugar-laden cake. I picked up my screaming kid and moved to another room, where I held Martin on my lap and tried to calm him with promises of a special cupcake when we got home. (I would gladly have stopped at blessed Babycakes, which sells cupcakes that are free from gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and refined sugar.)
Martin was having none of my peacemaking. He cried and wheezed, inconsolable. At this point, another mother, whom I never had met, entered the room and asked, “What’s the problem?”
“My son is upset because it isn’t a cake he can eat,” I replied.
The stranger came closer and said, directly into my ear, “Just tell him you’re taking his piece home for him to eat there. By the time you get home, he’ll forget about it.”
I had a child on my lap near hyperventilation. This was not the time to explain that I don’t follow lie-now-and-hope-he-forgets approach to parenting. So I replied, “I wish I could, but he remembers everything.”
This woman was not to be deterred, neither by my blow-off attempt nor by Martin’s tears. “What is he, gluten-free?” she asked. “Why don’t you give him some of the ice cream?”
Her voice was loud so I could hear her over the racket, and her tone was sharp so I would know that she didn’t approve of a gluten-free diet.
“It’s harder than that,” I said, trying to sound sheepish so she would leave and let me return my attention to Martin. “He doesn’t eat gluten or dairy or refined sugar.”
I didn’t bother adding soy, corn, starches, most carbohydrates and fruits, non-organic or processed foods, or preservatives to the list of what Martin doesn’t eat. No matter. Apparently gluten, dairy, and refined sugar were enough to earn this stranger’s condemnation. She said, “Oh my God.” Then she rolled her eyes, turned her back to me, and walked away.
So I got what I wanted: She left us alone, letting me return to comforting Martin.
The rudeness I could have done without. Also, the particular phrase she chose, which is offensive to me.
Most of the children attending the birthday party had special needs. Later, after Martin calmed down, I saw this woman with her son. He wore ankle braces and hearing aids, and he engaged in atypical behaviors. Our conversation had been special-needs-parent-to-special-needs-parent, but it sure didn’t feel that way.
What went wrong at the birthday party? First, it was a terrible time to discuss anything. Martin was in full meltdown mode. The stranger could have said, “You have the most intriguing eyes I’ve ever seen, and I would kill for a figure like yours,” and still I probably would have tried to blow her off. Second, she was plainly unwilling to think outside her own box. Really, I don’t even think she wanted to help. She wanted to judge.
Let’s compare to a conversation in which I found myself a few weeks later. This one happened after a meeting of our district’s special-education PTA, when parents were hanging around to mingle. I ended up talking with a woman who introduced herself as the mother of an 11-year-old with Asperger’s. When she asked about Martin, I said that he has made enough progress that I’m not sure whether to say “autism,” “high-functioning autism,” “Asperger’s,” or something else. She asked about what therapies have helped the most. I replied that we do biomedical and homeopathic interventions, and that those, combined with a restricted diet, seem to have made the difference.
We talked some about Martin’s diet. Then the mother said, “I think a lot of so-called autism remedies are snake oil, people trading on hope and desperation.”
I replied that she has a point. Even after years on the biomedical path, I find it hard to distinguish between legitimate interventions and unsupported promises. I try not to let it get me down. I hire and rely on experienced doctors, and I do as much research as I can manage.
The mother asked, “Do you do the dangerous stuff, like chelation?”
I replied that we haven’t chelated yet but plan to; that from what I know, chelation is safe if done properly; and that, in terms of which interventions have relieved autistic symptoms, chelation rates highest in parental reports.
She said, “I hear what you’re saying. But people who say you can treat autism are the same people who say vaccines cause autism. Do you believe that?”
I replied that I think the strict cause-effect narrative has undermined legitimate debate about vaccines. Everyone knows that vaccines are dangerous for a child with a compromised immune system—that’s why parents are told not to bring a child for shots when she has, for example, a cold or an infection, and why a child undergoing chemotherapy cannot be vaccinated. Autism, I said, is the symptoms of an underlying immune disorder, often with a genetic component. The immune disorder may exist before the symptoms manifest. If a child is asymptomatic, his parents and doctors may not recognize the immuno-problems, and they may therefore go ahead and vaccinate. The vaccine, in turn, causes the already compromised immune system to go haywire, and then the symptoms manifest. In such a scenario, the vaccine didn’t “cause” the autism, but it did exacerbate the pre-existing immune disorder and cause the symptoms (i.e., the autism) to appear.
The Asperger’s mother listened to my entire monologue. When I finished, she boosted my ego a little by saying, “You know, you’re the first person who’s ever told me about a link between autism and vaccines without sounding insane.”
We talked for 20 or 30 minutes, this mother and I. Don’t worry! It wasn’t all me rambling on. She knew tons about navigating the special-education system, and I grilled her for tips. We ended up exchanging numbers and thanking each other for the shared insight.
Did I convince this mother to begin biomed with her 11-year-old? Probably not. Did we have a positive interaction? Definitely. Unlike at the birthday party, the special-education PTA event was the right time to discuss helping our children, and the mother I met was curious and open-minded.
Civility is out there.
Even if it doesn’t always seem that way.