Jenny McCarthy: responding to criticism

First, an apology.

My offline existence has led me to neglect Action For Autism recently. This at a time when my blog has never been more popular. But I have no illusions about the reason. It is all down to Jenny McCarthy. I wrote a couple of short pieces about her and Google did the rest. As a result many parents who are favourably inclined towards biomedical interventions for autism have boosted my stats. And many of them have left critical comments that merit a reply. But not all of these are attached to the Jenny McCarthy posts. So I am trying to deal with them all in one blog post.

When reading the comments I noticed a number of common themes.  Liz summed up a lot of these themes in an insightful comment:

I agree that the DANs and their system is sorely lacking (understatement).
You say that a physician should act as a consultant to their patients and advise them on available options. That would be ideal, but very difficult to find such a person. In my experience, I haven’t found many physicians who actually do this. They barely get to know my child, don’t care to listen much to my concerns, and prescribe a one size fits all pharmaceutical drug for everything- not knowing to do anything else.
Unfortunately, there are lots of clowns out there practicing so called medicine. If conventional medicine had physicians who can do more than just Rx drugs, who knew about nutrition, who recognized signs of developmental delays, who analyzed each individual patient’s needs , were open to listen to parents, were competent, etc., perhaps so many parents wouldn’t be turning to alternative methods. Pharma has done some good, but lets not forget how much damage it’s also done. DAN has barely scratched the surface in catching up to the damage pharma has done.
Conventional medicine has no solutions and don’t seem to care to look for any. This is what makes parents go elsewhere.
The ironic thing here is that an actress (bimbo and not so famous), who doesn’t understand sponsored links, can use her mommy instincts and get her child to a place these PhD holders couldn’t!
(and so have many other unqualified parents)
What does that say for conventional medicine?
Shame on them!

There are four main ideas here.

  1. Conventional doctors do not have any answers to autism beyond their prescription pad, which is not very effective.

  2. Consequently they claim that there are no answers to autism.

  3. Parents are not impressed by this and look elsewhere.

  4. They find their own answers and their children make progress.

 These are very important points. When you get  diagnosis for your child you do not immediately google “Autism” and look up your nearest DAN doctor. You ask your regular physician about what happens next and for many people the answer is not satisfactory.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctor and also the parent of an autistic child. In his book, MMR and Autism: what parents need to know, he quotes from the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialities, a popular reference with British junior doctors.

“Autism:

This neurodevelopmenal disoder is, if severe, the antithesis of all that defines mental health.

Prevalence: up to 90/10,000 of those <16yrs old - estimates vary considerably. Sex ratio M/F = 3.

[...]

Treatment: this is not effective. Behaviour therapy may be tried. A good teacher is more helpful than a good doctor.

70% remain severely handicapped. 50% will develop usful speech. 20% will develop seizures in adolescence.  15% will lead an independent life.

Apply for benefits (disability allowance if in UK).”

Fitzpatrick goes on to write,

“Its summary of medical wisdom on autism conveys with brutal economy the simple facts that doctors do not know what causes autism and have no treatment for it. Furthermore, the prognosis is grim: apply for benefits.”

Our knowledge and understanding has moved on in the 10 years since this edition of the Oxford Handbook was published. Though I doubt that this has had a major impact on the medical profession. Autism remains a rare condition when compared to childhood complaints like asthma and eczema. It is also rare in comparison to psychiatric disorders in children. So there is little imperative on doctors to update their knowledge when there are other more pressing claims upon their time.

NO HOPE or FALSE HOPE?

Still, I am surprised and disheartened by parents commenting that their doctor told them there was “no hope” for their child. Do doctors really say this to parents? Or do they say something like “there is no cure but …” by which time the parent has stopped listening, their distress on hearing the diagnosis compounded by their despair on hearing that there is no cure? Their hopes are dashed in the doctor’s office and they go away believing that nothing can be done. Only later, when they come across websites that proclaim that autism is treatable, do they regain their hope and become converts to the cause of biomedical intervention.

CAUSE and EFFECT

Defeat Autism Now makes all sorts of claims about the causes of autism. But they cannot point to any well designed scientific studies that demonstrate causation. Instead they rely on patient testimonials, or more accurately, the parents of patients testimonials. “Recovered” or “recovering” kids are displayed at conferences and video evidence is posted on the web. This is not scientific proof. It is advertising. I am not saying these kids have not improved. I see kids improve all the time in the school where I work. I saw my own son improve.  I am saying that, in the absence of properly controlled scientific studies, claims for particlar treatment protocols cannot be verified

Sometimes improvements are dramatic. Children seem indistinguishable from their peers, as well they might in a supportive environment where staff follow the advice of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Psychological treatment programmes can help parents/carers in modifying children’s behaviour, enabling them to cope with specific difficulties and ensuring optimal schooling. Helpful advice to parents is that it is more effective to change the environment around the autistic child than to attempt to change the child.

This is helpful advice to schools as well. We do well to remember that autistic spectrum disorders are developmental disorders. These children are not frozen in time. They grow and develop, though not always in the ways we might expect. Creating an environment that plays to their strengths is likely to be more productive than constantly reminds them of their weaknesses. As I wrote elsewhere:

We all had a favourite subject at school that we were good at and something else we really struggled with. Imagine being told that you had to drop your best subject and have double lessons in your worst subject.That is not so far from the experience of lots of autistic children whose interests and talents are sidelined while we concentrate on their difficulties. This can send all the wrong messages to our kids. They learn about their limitations but rarely get the chance to achieve. So they put up barriers to protect what is left of their self esteem.

COMMONSENSE versus SCIENCE

There are still parents who will insist that they know the treatment worked. This happened with Secretin. Victoria Beck reported a dramatic improvement in her son’s autism after he was given Secretin to test pancreatic function. Secretin was enthusiastically espoused by DAN. The late Bernard Rimland claimed:

The use of secretin appears to be the most promising treatment yet discovered for the treatment of autism.

Rimland was so convinced that he and Beck secured the patent for using secretin to treat autism and sold it on for a reported $1 million USD to Repligen Corp. There was nothing wrong with this deal. They were paid in shares in Repligen which they made over to the Autism Research Institute. The CEO of Repligen had a double interest in Secretin. He was not just another businessman looking for a profit. He was also the parent of two autistic children. He wanted it to  work and he was ready to pay handsomely to make it work. Unfortunately his company’s research, rigourously conducted to satisfy the US regulatory bodies, “failed to meet the study’s dual primary endpoints.” That has not stopped other, less scrupulous individals from continuing to promote secretin and even homeopathic secretin as a cure for autism.

Chelation is another remedy favoured by DAN practitioners. But autistic kids do not like taking strange medicines by mouth or being strapped down for a slow intravenous infusion. So some enterprising doctors have formulated skin creams containing chelators like Transdermal DMSA. There are glowing testimonials for TD DMSA on the web. But DMSA is water soluble and so it is extremely unlikely that it could ever pass through the skin. Think about it. Our skin is a barrier that acts to keeps the water in. Without it we would dehydrate and die. It also keeps the water out. We do not absorb water like a sponge when we bathe or shower. So how does the DMSA pass through our skin? It does not. And so there is no way for it to have any effect on our bodies at all.

When people think something works, where there is no scientific reason for it to work, we call it the placebo effect. That does not mean they were conned or are trying to con the rest of us. Placebo affect means people get better because they think they will get better. You can call it faith healing or the power of positive thinking. It is a real effect and one of the reasons why the gold standard of medical research is the double blind study in which a control group is given a placebo and nobody, neither the researchers nor the patients, knows which is which until after they have evaluated the results. The experimental group must not only show benefit, they must also show a significant benefit over and above the group on the placebo.

But how does this explain improvements in autistic children who are given placebos? They may be completely oblivious to what is going on. First there is an important effect noted by researchers into regressive autism, the distressing condition where children develop normally and then lose previously acquired skills or fail to progress thereafter. From a previous blog.

Much of the evidence for regression comes from parental reports. And it is not always clear whether they are reporting regression or failure to meet expected milestones. It is also necessary to exercise caution when dealing with parental evidence. Aitken knows this. It is in the same study by Taylor et al.

“ A review of each record showed that in 13 children the history given by the parents had changed after the extensive publicity about MMR vaccine and autism. Before the publicity the parents often reported concerns early in their child’s life, usually before their first birthday; the current history for the same children recorded symptoms as developing only after MMR vaccination, in some cases shortly after.”
(Taylor, Miller, Lingam, Andrews, Simmons & Stowe 2002. page 395)

We reinvent our memories in the light of experience. Memory is not a transcript of history. It is a constantly changing attempt to interpret that history with the benefit of hindsight. So parental accounts may not be the most reliable evidence without external corroboration.

Secondly, children are very sensitive to the emotional state of their parents or other primary caregivers. You can get a vicious circle where totally stressed out parents unwittingly add to their child’s stress. The child then freaks, adding to their parent’s stress, et cetera, et cetera. Then someone offers the parents a way forward. They feel empowered. They are less stressed. They approach their child with a more positive outlook. They are consistent in their dealings with their child. The child senses all this and benefits from the change in his parents. We have placebo by proxy. The parents think the therapy changed their child when, in fact, it was their belief in the therapy that changed them and then their child changed in response to the change in themselves. The therapy did not cause the change directly. It was the catalyst for change.

JENNY and I.

Most parents are not au fait with the scientific method or the history of autism. And why should they be? They have been thrust into a difficult situation and may not be enjoying the best of support from professional agencies. This makes them vulnerable. They are looking for a way out of this mess. They turn on the TV and see Jenny McCarthy spreading her message of hope. Who would not be sold in those cicumstances? Then Google brings them here and they read me bad mouthing Jenny. Outrage!

Listen up. McCarthy is only spread all over the media because she previously spread herself all over the pages of Playboy. Why should the opinions on autism of a young and buxom, B list celeb and wannabe film star be more credible than those of an overweight, middle-aged guy like myself? Last year McCarthy was an indigo mother with a crystal child. Her kid was the next stage in evolution. Then he became some kind of toxic disaster zone and now he is cured. Oh, and it was the vaccines what done it! This from a woman who had her son circumcised because she wanted him to have a “pretty penis.” Excuse my cynicism, please.

YOU and I 

I have tried to address general criticisms of my position rather than go for a point by point rebuttal or engage in personal arguments. If anyone thinks that I have ducked their question or ignored their point of view, please feel free to repost it in the comments to this post and I promise to respond.