Autism quackery invades my hometown

I hate to see this. I really do.

I really hate it to see people who think they’re doing a good thing, who think they’re raising money for a worthy charity, totally clueless that what they are doing is supporting the rankest pseudoscience and quackery. Here’s an example from my hometown of Detroit. It’s a story about a woman who’s going to raise money for what she thinks is autism awareness and research at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this coming week:

When it comes to dressing for the North American International Auto Show Charity Preview, attendee Val McFarland is sure to look like more than a million bucks.

The former Plymouth resident and current Commerce Township married mother of two will be sporting a gown coated in $1.75 million worth of diamonds, representing the 1.75 million people whose lives are impacted by autism.

McFarland’s 4-year-old son, Callahan, was diagnosed with autism and currently undergoes about 40 hours a week of therapy.

Here’s the kicker:

“We are personally spending $100,000 on our son’s therapy,” she said, pointing out insurance doesn’t cover such needs in Michigan. “The fact is that we are seeing amazing results.”

That was incentive enough for McFarland to found Celebrities Against Autism one year ago. “Our number one objective is to create more public awareness,” she said. “The funds we generate help families.”

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that impacts development in social and communication skills. McFarland believes strongly that “intensive early intervention” is the best means for those with autism to recover.

What’s interesting is that McFarlane appears to be spending all that money on behavioral therapies, as far as I can tell from perusing the Celebrities Against Autism website. I could be wrong, but she does not appear to be spending her money on biomedical quackery of the sort advocated by Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue and the sort that has led parents to mortgage grandparents’ retirement funds in search of yet another “cure.” Yet she is participating in a fundraising project that doesn’t directly benefit her group to build the “World’s Largest Puzzle,” selling pieces at $1 per piece.

And where is that money actually going? To Generation Rescue, that’s where. Yes, all of McFarlane’s efforts are going to fund this:

Celebrities Against Autism and Generation Rescue are building the World’s Largest Puzzle. One million puzzle pieces will be put together and revealed during Autism Awareness month in April 2009. Now is your opportunity to purchase a puzzle piece for $1 and spread global awareness and acceptance for children with Autism. The funds raised will support Generation Rescue’s mission – helping families in need get support from Rescue Angels, begin biomedical treatment and fund research on treatment options.

In other words, McFarlane’s work is going to fund antivaccine quackery and antivaccine propaganda for the masses.

But what’s really infuriating, what’s really annoying is how the press reports this:

“Our hope is to drive people to our Web site,” McFarland said. The site,, is currently selling puzzle pieces for $1 each, which will contribute to the World’s Largest Puzzle, to support families affected by autism. Patrons may also be on the lookout for therapy dogs provided by Golden Ticket Puppies. The puppies made a splash last year and will return to the event this year. McFarland has partnered with celebrities Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, whose Generation Rescue Organization also works to fight autism and support research and treatment for families.

No, Ms McFarlane, Generation Rescue funds and supports antivaccine marches on Washington, DC; antivaccine propaganda in the form of ads in major newspapers and publicity pushing the message that vaccines cause autism using extreme misinformation like the “toxin” gambit; and relentless attacks on anyone who would dispute that pseudoscientific message and simply state the plain science, which does not find a detectable association between either mercury and autism or vaccines and autism, or even just do a balanced portrayal of those Generation Rescue’s founder J.B. Handley consider to be enemies.

I have to wonder if Ms. McFarlane knows just what kind of people she’s become involved with. She’s made a deal with the devil. Sure, she’ll get lots of money hooking up with Jenny McCarthy. Sure, she’ll get to hang out with celebrities. But at what price?

The price of any credibility at all, that’s what. The price is that she has, whether she knows it or not, aligned herself with some of the worst of the antivaccine activists and quacks that exist. Her efforts and the money she raises will go to fund ideological efforts to weaken herd immunity by dissuading parents from vaccinating their children. I hope one day she wakes up. Or, if she does know with whom she’s affiliated herself, I hope it’s all worth it. I understand that she wants to help her child. However, there are some prices that are too high to pay.