Autism quackery invades my hometown, part II

Not again.

I have no way of knowing if the media in my hometown happen to be more credulous when it comes to pseudoscience than average, but, given the number of stories referred to me emanating from Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, you’ll forgive me if I’m very depressed right now. For instance, we have “investigative reporter” Steve Wilson of WXYZ Channel 7 Action News, who, although claiming the title of “Chief Investigator” for that station, clearly couldn’t investigate his way out of a paper bag–at least when it comes to medical stories–given that he is known for routinely parroting pseudoscience and antivaccine misinformation about thimerosal-containing vaccines that even the mercury militia has abandoned as being too discredited. They’ve moved on to various other dubious hypotheses, such as other “toxins” in vaccines and the claim that children are getting “too many too soon,” both of which have the advantage for the antivaccine movement that they are much more difficult to falsify scientifically than the thimerosal hypothesis–if they are falsifiable at all. Indeed, Wilson’s “reporting” in this issue was so…2005. Then we have the same station (although not Steve Wilson this time) reporting misinformation about Gardasil. Sadly, it’s not just about autism and vaccines, either. About a year ago, there was an unbelievably, mind-numbingly credulously idiotic story on the local news about orbs. It was so bad that I did an installment of Your Friday Dose of Woo about it.

In addition, in some of the local newspapers, particularly the Observer-Eccentric group, whose combined newspapers cover a large swath of the Detroit suburbs, there are similar problems. For example, as I described in Part I of Autism quackery invades my hometown, the Plymouth Observer published a puff piece about a mother of an autistic child named Val McFarland, whose charity Celebrities Against Autism has partnered with Generation Rescue. Neither McFarlane nor the reporter who wrote that article, seem aware that Generation Rescue is not a benign “autism charity” nor is Jenny McCarthy doing good work as a celebrity supporter of autism research, but rather GR is virulently antivaccine and arguably the wealthiest and most famous propaganda organ for the antivaccine movement. Indeed, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey have become its celebrity spokespeople, spreading the antivax gospel far and wide, with a resurgence of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases following in its wake.

And now I’ve discovered through my contacts that the Plymouth Observer has done it again. Actually, the entire Observer-Eccentric group of newspapers has done it again. That’s because all of its papers are in essence versions of one main newspaper with features that appear globally in every newspaper, but with each newspaper customized with local news and views specific to the community in which it is distributed. Apparently, the Health & Fitness section appears in all these papers, which gives it a wide distribution in the Detroit suburbs. Behold an example of truly bad journalism entitled Controversial treatments for autism. It’s so bad that it doesn’t even just “tell both sides” with the false “balance” that seemingly elevates pseudoscience to somewhere near the same order of magnitude in terms of measures of credibility as science and contributes to the impression that there is a scientific controversy when in reality it’s a manufactroversy. Unfortunately, the reporter, Linda Ann Chomin, couldn’t be bothered to provide any actual token quotes by scientists or skeptics. No, it’s all antivaccination propaganda all the time, with Chomin the credulous mouthpiece. Indeed, it’s everything I hate about bad science journalism concentrated into a single 1,000-word apologia for the antivaccine views. It begins:

Biomedical treatment for autism is controversial. For that reason Heidi Scheer is telling her story at the first international conference on the disorder which stole her son from their family at 15 months. It was then she says Gannon started to fade into his own world.

Scheer ran on the platform of defeating autism for Mrs. Michigan USA 2008. She continues to speak on the neurological disorder whenever the opportunity presents itself, as 1 in 150 children are affected.

Can you count how many canards are in just these two brief paragraphs? I can. First, there’s the description of “biomedical treatment” for autism as “controversial.” Left out is that it’s not scientifically controversial, because there’s no good evidence that any of the types of biomedical interventions (many of which border on being, if not being outright, quackery) do anything to alleviate the symptoms of autism. Next up is the description of autism as having “stolen” her son away from her, with the implicit belief that somehow, something must get him back. Then, we have the whole concept of “defeating” autism, as though it is always something that must be defeated. This is a broad generalization that lumps all the autistic spectrum disorders into one “evil,” child-stealing entity that must be defeated at all costs. While an argument can be made that the most severe forms of autism, in which the child is permanently nonverbal and unable to function without continuous care, is a condition for which it would be highly desirable to have treatments that allow such children to overcome it and not be totally dependent on others, many of the other forms of autism are perfectly compatible with a relatively normal life. Moreover, even children with the most severe forms of autism can develop to the point where they can function on their own. Yet, in the mind of the biomedical culture, it seems (at least to me) that all forms of autism are scourges.

And then there’s the depressing thought that Scheer is representing my home state.

Now here’s where the antivaccine quackery invades my state. Apparently Scheer has done more than just speak out about how various “biomedical” interventions “saved” her child. She’s gone and organized a quackery conference and brought it to within 10 miles of where I grew up. The conference is being held at the Crowne Plaza Detroit-Novi by the American Medical Autism Board. In fact, it’s the American Medical Autism Board’s (AMAB) First International Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders.

A brief perusal of the conference brochure reveals the quackery within:

The Autism Spectrum Disorders (known as ASD’s) include autism, PDD/NOS, AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, RAD, OCD, and many other developmental disorders. They affect at least 1 in 150 young children in North America, and also are present in many teens & adults. The number of individuals & families touched by them is on an alarming rise. Traditionally, ASD’s have been regarded as behavioral/psychiatric disorders with little hope for improvement. In reality, they are the result of an underlying set of medical problems such as nutritional, immunologic, and toxic issues. This leads to effective treatment, known as biomedical treatment, that offers hope to persons and families affected by ASD’s. The American Medical Autism Board and Phillip C. DeMio, MD, provide the first International Conference on biomedical and other techniques for parents and healthcare providers, presented Feb. 20-22, 2009, in Novi, MI/Metro Detroit, by world leaders in these treatments. Join us to learn the state-of-theart of biomedical and other techniques. You do not want to miss this exciting conference!

Here’s a rule of thumb: When you see the terms “nutritional,” “immunological,” and “toxic” applied to autism and ASDs all in the same sentence, you know you’re very likely dealing with pseudoscience. Add to that a mention of “biomedical” treatments, and the probability that you’re dealing with quackery approaches 100%. Then add to such a paragraph this description of the man running the course:

Phillip C. DeMio, MD: Parent of a child with autism, Biomedical Treatment Physician, Founder of the American Medical Autism Board, and Chief Medical Officer of the US Autism & Asperger Association.

And this list of the course “faculty”:

  • Steven Bockmann, parent advocate
  • Phillip DeMio, MD
  • Patrick Elliot, DO
  • Dr. Don Galovich, DC, Chriopractic Physician
  • Kristin Selby Gonzalez
  • Boyd Haley, PhD
  • Jerry Kartzinel, MD
  • Raun Kaufman, Autism Treatment Center of America
  • Bette Lamont, MA/DMT
  • Nicole Poirier Keenan, DC, Chiropractic Physician
  • Monica Mackenzie, Certified Family Nurse Practitioner
  • James Neubrander, MD
  • Mary Tocco, vaccine & natural health speaker
  • Angela Woodward, Physician to Parent Liaison and other exciting acclaimed speakers in ASD-related fields.

Boyd Haley? I have to wonder if Mark and David Geier or Dr. Jay Gordon were somehow unavailable. Remember, Boyd Haley is the discredited former Chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, who became convinced that mercury in vaccines causes autism and in essence destroyed his academic career pursuing that belief. He’s also known as the man behind the anti-amalgam organization known as Toxic Teeth. Also, as Kathleen Seidel pointed out, he’s also the man who characterized autism as “mad child disease.” Lately, Haley has been marketing a new product that he calls Oxidative Stress Relief that is very similar to a class of industrial chelators as a “nutritional supplement.” Indeed, his activities have led the University of Kentucky to distance itself from him even further, especially given that he is marketing it for cats but seemingly also selling it for kids. That’s the same game played by the people who sold dichloroacetate to desperate cancer patients. They claimed it was for pets, calling it Pet DCA, but it was clear that they were marketing it to human cancer patients. Indeed, Haley even gave a speech to Jenny McCarthy’s antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington last summer.

Next, check out the subject matter to be presented at this conference:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s): not psychiatric or “just behavioral”
  • What is Biomedical Treatment? Concepts and daily use for ASD’s.
  • Hyperbaric treatments: When & how to do it right
  • Complimentary and alternative treatments for ASD’s
  • Alternatives to the alternatives: controversies and division within the biomedical autism community
  • Methyl-B12 update: how to maximize the outcome
  • Parents’ recovery stories of their ASD children
  • Nutritional supplements in ASD’s: State of the art
  • Unique effective therapy techniques for improving your child/loved one’s outcome
  • Immunologic treatments for yeast, viruses, and other pathogens, with an update of the curcumin protocol
  • Principles and implementation of special diets for ASD’s & other developmental disorders
  • The technique of Neuroreorganization
  • Biomedical treatments for behavioral problems in adoptive children
  • Biofilm issues in ASD treatments
  • Update on vaccines: risks vs. effectiveness
  • Immediate strategies you can start today to help your Child/loved one with ASD
  • School/IEP rights and issues
  • Practitioner Clinical Overview Course

It’s all there: bogus “immunologic treatments” for pathogens that do not cause autism; dubious dietary ideas; “recovery” stories, supplements; “alternative” medical therapies (including a talk by Nicole Poirier Keenan and Don Galovich about chiropractic treatments for ASDs); and toxins, toxins, toxins (as epitomized by a talk by Angela Woodward called “Stop the Assault: Environmental Techniques for the Home”). In other words, we have a cornucopia of the latest and greatest autism and antivaccine quackery on display!

Chomin could have made herself aware of this were she to have actually–oh, I don’t know–interviewed a couple of autism experts while preparing her story. Whether she did or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that there isn’t one word of science-based discussion of these “biomedical treatments” in her story. There is, however, a whole lot of anecdote-based discussion:

Gannon stopped responding to his name and his speech came to a halt more than six years ago. Devastated, Scheer began researching treatments and found many children with autism have food sensitivities.

The Commerce Township mother removed gluten from his diet even though the speech therapist told her there was no scientific evidence it would work. In three weeks Gannon’s 3-year battle with diarrhea ended. He spoke his first sentence and behavioral problems such as biting other children began to subside.

With further research, Scheer discovered DAN (Defeat Autism Now), a project of the Autism Research Institute to educate parents and clinicians about biomedically-based research and safe and effective treatments.

Gannon underwent a variety of alternative therapies from supplements to chiropractic, chelation (removal of heavy metals from the body), and hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat underlying causes of symptoms. Today Gannon, age 8, can speak fully. He is above grade level academically. Scheer’s advice to parents is never give up.

I can’t emphasize this strongly enough, as Prometheus so frequently does: Autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis. Children with autism can and do develop. Sometimes they even develop to the point where they “lose their diagnosis” of ASD–perhaps as much as 19% of the time. That is why carefully conducted randomized, double-blinded clinical trials are so essential. Without them, it is impossible to differentiate development and improvement of symptoms that would have occurred anyway with time from any potential improvement that could be attributed to any therapy. What parents see at the single-person level can be very deceiving; they can easily be fooled into confusing correlation with causation, while confirmation and recall bias, as well as a lack of the knowledge of what to look for in terms of early signs of autism, can lead them to misremember and believe that their children’s autism began right after their vaccination. This problem is especially exacerbated by the fact that the first symptoms of autism frequently appear between ages one and two, which is when children are getting most of their vaccines; so by chance alone there will be a lot of children whose first symptoms pop up in fairly close temporal proximity to vaccination. Again, that’s why epidemiological studies are needed and anecdotes can mislead. Finally, I also can’t emphasize strongly enough that Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) is a group of practitioners dedicated to subjecting autistic children to all manner of “biomedical interventions,” with the belief that they can “cure” autism. It matters little that the evidence supporting their treatments is scant, nonexistent, or even completely unsupportive of their preferred interventions.

Worse, Scheer subjected her son to a variety of dubious treatments. Chelation for autism is quackery; not only that but it’s quackery that can kill. Chiropractic for autism is also quackery. Hyperbaric oxygen for autism is a dubious therapy at best and quackery at worst. The evidence for the efficacy of gluten-free diets in treating autism is at best conflicting and at worst negative. Although I can understand the unrelenting desire to “fix” or “cure” one’s child, Scheer’s subjecting her child to various forms of dubious, unproven, or even outright quack therapies reminds me uncomfortably of how Kent Heckenlively continues to subject his daughter to all manner of quackery, including taking her to Costa Rico for stem cell injections directly into her cerebrospinal fluid.

Not surprisingly, Scheer strongly suspects that vaccines had something to do with her son’s condition and spouts the worst antivaccination canards:

“I want parents to know there is help,” said Scheer who still is uncertain if vaccines caused Gannon’s problems. She believes some children have stronger immune systems, like her older son Carson, and are not affected by certain additives such as mercury. Daughter Ella though had 23-days of diarrhea after her 6 month vaccination.

“I’m not saying I’m totally against vaccines, but parents should be diligent about seeing what’s in the vaccine. I also have a problem with the schedule of how closely vaccines are given.”

In other words, Scheer is parroting the “toxins” gambit and the “too many too soon” mantra beloved of the “green our vaccines” movement. Moreover, the organizer of this conference, Dr. DeMio inadvertently reveals one uncomfortable truth about the whole “biomedical” movement:

DeMio says treatment for autism is parent driven. Each child is different so parents must search out and investigate appropriate therapies for their child.

This does describe it. From my perspective, the “biomedical” movement for treating autism yokes the natural desire of parents to “cure” their child to a never-ending search for ever more radical treatments, many, if not all, of which are based on the belief that something has “damaged” the autistic child, be it “toxins,” “live viruses,” heavy metals, or whatever. Moreover, the overall philosophy is that autistic children are somehow “contaminated” and must be “detoxified.”

Finally, if you doubt that this conference will likely be antivaccine through and through, take a look at the person chosen to discuss “vaccine safety.” Actually, given that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, the very presence of a talk on “vaccine safety” in a conference on autism therapies tips the organizers’ agenda, especially when its organizer says something like:

I’m not against vaccines. Some forms are safe, some are not for a certain person. The decision is between a parent and a doctor to vaccinate. Children are given up to 14 vaccines in one day. I’ve never had that many in my life and I’m 50 but we’re going to have as ethical and unbiased a conference as we can. We’ve gone out of our way but do believe certain scientific beliefs shouldn’t be put on everybody.

Be that as it may, however, the woman chosen to speak about “vaccine safety” is Mary Tocco. Look at what she proclaims on her website:

My Goal is to Provide Parents The Factual Pro’s and Con’s of Vaccines.

I want to save children From un-necessary toxic shots that do not protect them or encourage real health.

She then goes on:

  • My goal is to see the mandatory vaccine program stopped. Parents need full disclosure on all shots recommended and must have the right to make vaccine decisions without pressure. Those responsible for the injuries to our families must be held accountable.
  • My goal is to insure that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) who has failed miserably and benefits financially from vaccines, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), who approve vaccines and is riddled with conflict of interest, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) who supports and benefits financially from vaccines, the regulatory boards and licensure boards who mandate vaccines, are stripped of their authority and the program be scratched. 
  • My goal is to see that vaccines are no longer mandated but a choice to be made by parents without pressure, based on efficacy and safety by informed consumers.
  • My goal is to study the “unvaccinated children” to see how they compare with their vaccinated piers.  I currently have a few hundred names of unvaccinated children for the study and am looking for more.  (contact me if interested)
  • My goal is to help organize multi disciplinary health/treatment centers for those injured from vaccines, who suffer with autoimmune disorders like asthma, diabetes, learning problems, seizure disorders, and autism to name a few. The focus will be on rebuilding the immune system, cleanse the body of the neuro toxins and promote  health, using all of the natural health care options available.

Gee, what do you think the odds are of Tocco presenting “objective” and “unbiased” information to the participants? I’d say it’s slim and none, probably a lot closer to the latter, especially since she describes herself thusly:

  • Director of Vaccine Research and Education on the board of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, since 1994
  • Spent 23 years managing and promoting a chiropractic clinic and studying natural health care.
  • I am an independent investigator of vaccines for last 27 years.

In other words, DeMio invited a die-hard antivaccine loon to discuss “vaccine safety” at his conference.

Unfortunately, newspapers and radio stations in smaller markets seem especially prone to being taken for a ride by antivaccinationists. They usually don’t have dedicated science or medical reporters, and, I strongly suspect, the antivaccinationists and autism quacks know this. They also often don’t have as easy access to experts as reporters at larger newspapers located in larger markets. Even so, despite its decline in manufacturing, its faltering economy, and its population loss, Detroit still boasts a larege research university with an excellent medical school (Wayne State University) within its borders, and there is a world-class research university (the University of Michigan) a mere 40 miles west in Ann Arbor. There’s no reason that Chomin couldn’t have interviewed faculty at one of these universities, which is yet another reason that the way Chomin handled this story is unforgivable. It was completely one-sided–slanted towards the wrong side of the issue, scientifically speaking. She didn’t provide even a token quote from a science-based practitioner. Even providing the token skeptical quote would have been totally inadequate and, unfortunately, par for the course with all too much media coverage of vaccines, but not even doing so borders on journalistic malpractice.

And it depresses the hell out of me that, not only is autism quackery invading my hometown in a big way, but the press is covering it with utter credulity. I shudder to think what sorts of articles will appear in the local newspapers and what sorts of stories will appear in the local media two weeks hence, when the conference itself actually occurs.