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Stop Using Autism to Scare Moms

Photograph by Facebook

A few nights ago, I noticed that a company called Bump Water was following me on Twitter. I was tired of eating chocolate and scanning through fitspiration tags on Instagram, so I clicked over to see what the company was about.

Bump Water (if you didn't realize bump refers to pregnancy, you'd think the water had an unfortunate texture) is folic acid-infused water for pregnant women. Apparently, swallowing a supplement is too hard for some delicate pregnant women, who instead wish to sip their supplements from a bottle that retails for $28.99 for 12 bottles, plus $6 for shipping. And if you are supposed to take folic acid every day during your pregnancy (and many OBs recommend it), that can quickly add up.

But more than their outlandish commercialization of pregnancy, the company uses fear to sell. They note on their site, "Recent studies are also showing a link between folic acid deficiency in mothers who have conceived and autism."

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The validity of the claim is immediately suspect. Melena, a mom of two children who are both on the autism spectrum, explained to me in an email, "The study only shows an association between folic acid supplements and a lower risk of ASD ('severe' autism only, not Asperger's or PDD-NOS), not a folic acid deficiency and ASD. It does NOT establish a cause-effect link." (Her emphasis, not mine.)

But more than a misreading of science, the company does what many companies have done: use autism-based fears to sell unnecessary products. Melena further explained, " … using autism as the boogeyman to shill flavored water is insulting. I realize it's difficult for a lot of pregnant women to accept that they don't really have control over who their baby is going to be—disability or no disability, but certainly being fed lines like "BUY THIS AND YOUR KID WON'T HAVE AUTISM" is not doing anyone any favors. And it's incredibly damaging to the autistic community. And of course it gives me the rage."

More than being misleading and scientifically unsound, (these products) contribute to misinformation, guilt and stigma that surrounds autism and makes the jobs of parents so much harder.

Throughout history, any unknown complication with children or pregnancy was immediately blamed on the mothers. Ambroise Pare, an 18th century physician, blamed stillbirths on a mother crossing her legs too tightly. In 1943 Leo Kanner attributed autism to so-called "refrigerator mothers" who didn't love their children enough. This theory held on until the 1960s, when Bernard Rimland published a book attacking the theory.

And yet, despite living in an age of science and technology, whenever something about pregnancy and early childhood remains a mystery, as autism is for many, it is still popular to blame the mother. Bump Water is just one of many products that uses using autism as a mainstay in their fear-mongering tactics. Many fad diets, chemical-free make ups and products targeted to mothers claim the ability to prevent or cure autism. But more than being misleading and scientifically unsound, they contribute to misinformation, guilt and stigma that surrounds autism and makes the jobs of parents so much harder.

Look, it's understandable. Pregnancy and early motherhood is a time of extremes, fraught with fear and joy and unknowing. Many claims about what you should and should not do during pregnancy change with time and the sway of cultural norms. The most extreme example of this is drinking alcohol during pregnancy. In the United States, drinking alcohol is basically verboten for pregnant women. I mean, sure, you can, but beware the wrath of passive-aggressive judgement and the overwhelming sense of guilt.

In her book "Expecting Better," Emily Oster breaks down a lot of the myths and stereotypes of pregnancy pointing out that the science behind them isn't as conclusive as it could be. But science's inability to confirm or deny some of our basic myths about pregnancy isn't reassuring for pregnant women. We want something to soothe our worried anxious minds, so we seek out reassurance in products, technology and false information.

Almost two years ago now, a dear friend of mine lost her son to SIDS. She once told me that the experience has shown her both how vital she is as a parent and how completely irrelevant. "We want to be in control," she told me, "but we just aren't and it's so scary and also, maybe sometimes, a little freeing."

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As the woman who sleeps with the baby monitor two-inches from her face, I empathize with the urge toward control and comfort. But security isn't going to come from a bottle of over-priced water. And it shouldn't come by perpetuating stigmas, bad science and stereotypes that hurt the thousands of families affected by autism.

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