Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Television

A counterpoint to Jenny McCarthy’s autism narrative

There was a time when I used to blog about Jenny McCarthy a lot. The reason, of course, is that a few years ago, beginning in around 2007, she seized the title of face of the antivaccine movement in America through her “advocacy” for her son Evan, whom she described as having been made autistic by the MMR vaccine. She even described his diagnosis thusly to Oprah Winfrey in 2007:

Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it? And he said, “No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism.” And he swore at me. . . . And not soon thereafter, I noticed that change in the pictures: Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.

The many contradictions in McCarthy’s story have been pointed out elsewhere, but, for whatever reason, she latched onto vaccines as the cause of Evan’s diagnosis of autism and joined the antivaccine movement with a vengeance, being appointed President of Generation Rescue, the antivaccine organization founded by J.B. Handley. What probably most thrust her into national prominence, after her having appeared with Oprah Winfrey in 2007 was her leading the infamous “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008, which I described as celebrity ignoramuses on parade, pointing out that it was not, as McCarthy and the organizers of the march claimed, about being “pro-safe vaccine” but rather it was about being antivaccine. As I said at the time as I showed photos from the march, you be the judge.

Since then, McCarthy has been a speaker (often keynote speaker) at the Autism One quackfest every year, a collection of the quackiest of the quacky autism “biomed” treatments and antivaccine activism; that is, until this year, when her name appears not to be on the list of Autism One speakers. One wonders whether it was due to her having scored a gig on The View and not wanting to blow it by continuing to press her antivaccine activism. Indeed, I’m sure that when she accepted the job on The View her producers made her promise to tone it down.

Whatever happened, central to Jenny McCarthy’s antivaccine activism over the last six or seven years has been the story that her son Evan became autistic right after receiving the MMR vaccine. True, there have been inconsistencies in her story and indications that Evan likely had autistic symptoms at a younger age than claimed, but the core of McCarthy’s story remains: Confusing correlation (if a correlation even occurred) with causation. That’s why a recent interview with Joyce Bulifant published at Autism News Beat entitled Of seizures and celebrity: Evan’s grandmother speaks up. Bulifant, for those of you who don’t know who she is, is Evan’s grandmother. She’s also an actress who is probably best known for playing Murray Slaughter’s wife Marie on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and has appeared on Airplane!. What she reveals in the interview is yet another competing version of events that further calls into question McCarthy’s preferred narrative. Evan was born in May 2002, yet Bulifant reports:

Bulifant said she was concerned about Evan’s months before his first birthday.

“I remember Christmas, 2002 (age seven months). I was bathing him in the sink, and trying to get him to giggle and respond to me, but he seemed detached. My family was a little concerned but I didn’t say anything to Jenny because I know children develop at different times. But I was concerned.”

And then there was the incident in the park, another example of how difficult it is to see autism in a loved one.

“We took him to the park, and he started running away from us. We called, but he didn’t even turn around. We wondered if his hearing was impaired,” she says. “That didn’t seem right. So I was testing him in the car seat on the way home. ‘Where is your nose? Where are your ears?’ I asked Evan. He didn’t respond, and I wondered what was going on. Then, when we pulled up in the driveway, Evan suddenly pointed to his mouth and said ‘mouth’, and then he pointed to his ears and said ‘ears.’ It was like he was saying ‘Silly gramma, I know where my mouth and my ears are!’”

Joyce has been active in dyslexia education and advocacy for years, and she called on her research contacts for help. “By the time Evan was 18 months old, I was convinced he had autism,” she says.

Some of what Bulifant reports is somewhat in agreement with what McCarthy has written in her books, such as when Bulifant asked McCarthy’s nanny about Evan’s detachment, expressing concern that Evan seemed withdrawn. The result when McCarthy heard about it was that she became incredibly angry and basically threw Bulifant out of her house:

Then John called, and said that Jenny was “very upset “about the conversation with the nanny.

“You just can’t say anything about Evan,” John continued. “She gets very upset.” He said McCarthy would not come back home until Bulifant and her husband left the house.

Which they did.

Bulifant reports that Evan’s first seizure occurred in the spring of 2004, which was when he was around two years old. Jenny McCarthy describes the seizures in her books. It was apparently around this time that McCarthy started having difficulty with the medical profession, getting into arguments with Evan’s doctors, and beginning to be attracted to the alternative medicine fringe that treats autism with all manner of quackery.

The one thing that disappoints me about Bulifant is her reticence in being critical of McCarthy for her embrace of quackery. ANB pointed out to her that McCarthy has repeatedly endorsed a conference at which all manner of quackery, including quackery as vile as chemical castration for autism and bleach enemas have been promoted (and are still being promoted). Other “treatments” include chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, cannabis, and various other unscientific treatments. Basically, she dodged the question, saying, “I think there is value in eating right and exercise for all children.” Obviously, if that’s all there were to the quackery championed by the “autism biomed” movement, of which McCarthy became a prominent leader, no one would be particularly critica. But it’s not.

Still, I can understand and sympathize with Bulifant’s stated reason for stepping forward now:

I understand and have great empathy for parents of autistic children who want to know the reason for their children’s autism. They understandably latch onto anything they can find as a reason. That might be what Jenny did when Dr. Wakefield gave incorrect information about vaccines. I don’t think she did this maliciously. She just needed a reason.

If people know Evan showed signs of autism before his MMR vaccine, parents wouldn’t be afraid to vaccinate their children, thereby saving lives and much suffering.

I might be able to understand, but I think she’s too easily dismissing the harm that her daughter-in-law has done over the last seven years that she’s been promoting antivaccine views and “autism biomed” quackery. I also understand that she doesn’t want to lose contact with Evan by completely alienating Jenny McCarthy. Indeed, she’s taking a risk saying what she’s said thus far. What she’s said thus far, of course, is yet more evidence that, contrary to McCarthy’s account, Evan’s diagnosis of autism probably doesn’t correlate with his having received the MMR vaccine and he showed signs of autism at a very young age, his symptoms enough to concern his grandmother. Unfortunately, I think it’s too late. Bulifant’s account would have done so much more good in 2008 or 2009 rather than 2014, when McCarthy appears to be dissociating herself from the movement she used to lead.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

168 replies on “A counterpoint to Jenny McCarthy’s autism narrative”

That quote:

‘Soul gone from his eyes.’

Really boils my piss!

Seems to imply that autistic children aren’t really human.

It may be difficult to understand why Joyce Bulifant was reluctant to provide information about Evan’s medical condition and diagnosis, but I’m glad that she did provide some information about Evan’s progress. Evan is a lucky child to have a loving grandmother and his father in his life.

Isn’t Jenny McCarthy just like the other “warrior mommies” that we encounter on Age of Autism? They are only concerned with the (negative) impact that their autistic children have had on their lives. It’s always about them, not the children…and it’s always the vaccines that triggered the onset of ASDs.

Unfortunately, I think it’s too late. Bulifant’s account would have done so much more good in 2008 or 2009 rather than 2014, when McCarthy appears to be dissociating herself from the movement she used to lead.

One can hardly avoid suspecting that McCarthy’s lessening involvement is precisely why Bulifant feels more able to speak out.

I agree with Andreas.

She probably feels much more comfortable about it now that Jenny has ‘moved on’ somewhat from her earlier stance and the risk of Jenny withholding visitation of Evan isn’t as large.

Also, what Pris said – that ‘soul gone’ comment really pisses me off.

In a somewhat timely coincidence, the brain trust at The Scholarly Kitchen just got around to the McCarthy rewarming on Friday.

Check this out. Wojick is not only on the masthead, he’s also an AGW “skeptic” and Heartland “expert.” Yes, I imagine “uncertainty typically creates a divergence of opinion.”

“Soul, gone from his eyes.”. Only one person in that picture has no soul, and it’s not her son.

Some people claim that Evan is not autistic at all, but has Landau–Kleffner syndrome.

“Soul gone from his eyes” sounds like a naive description of loss of consciousness seen in certain types of seizures (absence, etc…).

It’s good to know Evan’s father and paternal family are still active in his life; Jenny has all but stated he abandoned them because he couldn’t handle the diagnosis and she does everything on her own.

I’m glad Evan is doing well, and I can either get angry at his grandmother not speaking up sooner, or be glad she finally did. It’s clear she’s worried about condemning Jenny and making her made; she’s making her points but not attacking. I wonder if she’ll threaten to sue like she did last week when the 4-year-old blog went viral.

I am loth to condemn Ms. Bulifant for anything, given that she had to maintain a decent relationship with her daughter-in-law.

For me, the only possible redemption for McCarthy would be for her to step down as the face of the anti-vaccine movement, which she said she was going to continue being. It will be a hard landing for her if she ever does figure this one out. Here’s hoping that Ms. Bulifant’s recent comments will help her.

I am loth to condemn Ms. Bulifant for anything, given that she had to maintain a decent relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Yeah, I can understand. She didn’t want to be cut off from Evan forever. That doesn’t change the fact that this interview would have done much more good had it been given four or five years go.

McCarthy won’t step/down or apologize for anything she’s ever done. In their own eyes, narcissists are never wrong (everyone else is–grandma, vaccines, doctors) and you can see that in the description of McCarthy’s behavior here. But I’ll take her loosing her cool enough to look bad and get fired from the View as acceptable for all practical purposes.

McCarthy won’t step/down or apologize for anything she’s ever done. In their own eyes, narcissists are never wrong (everyone else is–grandma, vaccines, doctors) and you can see that in the description of McCarthy’s behavior here

Everything is someone else’s fault, someone else is to blame, it’s never anything internal. This reminds me of the time she claimed to be on Oprah’s “$hit list” after losing her show on her network and claimed she didn’t know why. I hate Oprah for reasons you all can probably figure out, but it’s pretty telling that Ms. McCarthy deems herself important enough to be on Oprah’s list. I guarantee Oprah doesn’t think about her at all now.

What everybody seems to forget is that before she claimed her son was autistic, Jenny claimed he was an ‘Indigo Child’, one of many born to bring Humanity into a new age of enlightenment.

I wonder what changed her mind…?

@AOP: Agreed, that Rationalwiki page is a hoot.

I read that list of traits as suggesting sociopathy, rather than psychopathy. But that may be a to-MAY-to vs. to-MAH-to thing.

@Chris Hickie

In their own eyes, narcissists are never wrong

Speaking of narcissists will Jay Gordon show up in the comments?

Hey Orac,

Let me offer this perspective on whether Jenny’s son, Evan, has autism. Perhaps it may help clear things up:

Orac, you guys need to constantly remind the public of this simple rule: ‘Autism’ is for kids of ‘nobody’ parents, while ‘autism-like symptoms’ or for kids of famous or distinguished parents, who having enough power and influence may threaten the denialism establishment. Since Jenny is famous, this by definition precludes Evan from having autism, so he must have autism-like symptoms.

Hey Orac, I am just here to help!

(BTW — Sage of Autism ‘Shillfying Convention’ on the Influenza thread was absolutely hilarious. I couldn’t stop LMAO.)

@AOP — I never realized it before, but after looking at the “Identifying Indigo Children” checklist at RationalWiki, one of our cats is obviously an indigo child. I’ve just been mis-reading her aura.

@ An ObservingParty:

I’ve seen that : if you follow the links there’s more -including a quiz to tell which set of symtoms you ex… I mean… whether you are crystal, indigo or normal-
according to the quiz,
I am ‘normal’- a blue or violet- which is EXACTLY what a New Age aura reader told me after asking me to stand before a white screen at a presentation about 15 years ago.

( it might be better to hold up a swatch of fabric or a crystal next to your face to see which compliments you more**).
-btw- wasn’t indigo an alternative to wode?

I fortunately am able to participate without betraying my actual connection to reality. Occasionally I attend events like these with cohorts who vary in the aforementioned skill.. which is entertaining.

** I’m joking I think

@ Eric Lund:

Interestingly enough, one of the idiots I survey refers to all people in mainstream SBM, education, government and media as psychopaths or sociopaths,
I wonder why?

Oh, Denice, I’ve taken them, depending on which test it was, I’m either “normal” or an Indigo (read: borderline sociopath/self-entitled a$$hole). I do so enjoy bringing up the DSM when someone claims to be that nonsense.

Even the form of the questions in all those “tests” are geared towards appealing to the self-indulgent, self-entitled, self-righteous 25-40 something who wants to know why they don’t get a participation ribbon for showing up to work everyday and thought that medieval philosophy PhD would land them their dream job with a beach house and a boat because they’re SO SO special and the world is going to recognize. The world would be so much better off if these people just accepted themselves as d*cks. I’d rather deal with a diagnosed ASPD than someone who calls themself an Indigo, because usually they at least cop to the fact that they’re d*cks.

My prejudice is showing. 😛

And speaking of the selfies ( s-indulgent, s-entitled, s-righteous) of various ages:
Alison MacNeil has a new rant @ TMR
Jake has a new tirade against Blaxill @ AI
Null perseverates anew since being tossed by a radio station ( @ PRN Fri- Sun-Mon) – includes personal finance advice @ yesterday’s Talkback.
Mikey’s in his lab

OBVIOUSLY I find much at which to laugh.

“Speaking of narcissists will Jay Gordon show up in the comments?”

It depends on how much time he has for vanity searching as opposed to Saving Lives.

Like others have said, that “soul gone from his eyes” quote makes me furious. Insinuating that people on the spectrum aren’t human, how caring of her. What a great mom. /sarcasm

I’m glad that Evan still has some people in his life that aren’t bat**** crazy like his mom. I hope that Jenny doesn’t cut Joyce out of his life now that she’s spoken out. Here’s hoping that Jenny’s need for good publicity overrides her need to live in an alt med bubble.

I’ve experienced close hand, how vindictive parents can be with denying visitation rights to the non-custodial parent….especially when that child is a baby.

Evan’s father has stated that he refused to engage Jenny in a public battle to correct the blatant lies she told about John Asher’s lack of involvement in Evan’s life…once Evan started to have seizures and was diagnosed with autism. John Asher wanted to protect Evan…something that was not on Jenny’s radar, who pimped out Evan’s story to revive her fading-fast D-list celeb career.

@ Dr. Chris: Do you really think Dr. Jay is going to show up here on RI…after we whupped his a$$ and called him out for his lies on RI and SBM?


( it might be better to hold up a swatch of fabric or a crystal next to your face to see which compliments you more**).

Well, I tried that, but neither of them complimented me. In fact, they wouldn’t say anything at all. Inanimate objects can be so *rude* sometimes!

@AnObservingParty (#25): Maybe it’s just because it’s Monday, but for some reason my mind immediately replaced the “*”s with “u”s. I guess some people are just reluctant to admit that they’re waterfowl…

FWIW, the last time someone checked my aura it was about a quart low. I find I need to top off every few months. I’m guessing I’ve either got a leak or am burning aura.

Denice @24: I can’t be sure from the description you gave, but “projection” would be my first guess. Among alt-med types, some are True Believers, and some are sociopaths/psychopaths who are in it for the money–those two overlapping groups should pretty much cover the whole gamut. People in the sociopath/psychopath group probably assume that most or all successful people (including the groups you name) are also sociopaths/psychopaths. There are undoubtedly cases where they are correct (stopped clocks, etc.), but I’ve seen no evidence that the proportion of sociopaths and psychopaths among these groups is significantly larger than the population as a whole.

@Mephistopheles O’Brien
You might want to go your aura mechanic and get your pump checked out.

I had to replace mine a year or so back, luckily the psychic that lives below me says my aura is brighter than ever! I know I can trust her since she watches my indigo child cat while I’m away.

@TBruce #30: Violet Beauregarde – the ultimate Indigo Child?

(Yes, I know he was Crystal, but the joke doesn’t work that way…)

And yes, it’s amazing how utterly shamelessly she went from Indigo/Crystal right on over to Autism Because Of The Evil Vaccines, without a word of explanation or admission that she was, even within her own twisted narrative, dead wrong. It’s beyond chutzpah. It would be funny if a: a child weren’t suffering because of it and b: so many people didn’t hang on to her ‘expert mommy advice’ nonetheless.

@ Eric Lund:

Possibly; and their person perception skills are abysmal.
Which we often find @ RI w/ scoffers.
They can’t understand why people do things unless they’re motivated by money, power or prestige because those are the things that motivate them.

Having lessened person perception and social cognitive skills would predict lots of other problems for them also.

I’ve seen some indigo looking children when mom use gentian violet to treat thrush (very messy).

You are right, Lilady…Goron is probably down for the count.


Thanks for the advice. I hear that if an aura pump goes out on you unexpectedly it can cause your chakras to crash together, bending your qi beyond all recognition and require a complete karmic rebuild.

@ MOB,

Just don’t let them tell you you need to change your aura air filter. Everyone knows that’s a scam.

-btw- wasn’t indigo an alternative to wode?

Woad and indigo (the plant) both produce the same dyestuff (also indigo), but indigo (the plant) produces more of it, and lends itself better to industrial-scale production (i.e. slave plantations).

Jenny has all but stated he abandoned them because he couldn’t handle the diagnosis and she does everything on her own.

That ranks up there with the old joke about “My client is an orphan, and deserves clemency on the charges of killing his parents.”

@ herr doktor bimler:

Well, thank you for that.
This evening my outfit therefore will include a blue cotton shirt that I dyed myself totally w/o the use of natural, plant-based dyes. Some stuff in a box.

FYI- ‘IndiGo’ is an airline based on the sub-continent.
I swear.

Isn’t woad a hallucinogen, too?

I always liked to imagine my Brythonic ancestors fighting off what they took to be tentacle-bedecked aliens from Mars, rather than invading Roman centurions. No wonder they were fierce!

FYI- ‘IndiGo’ is an airline based on the sub-continent.
I swear.

I don’t doubt it, and it’s hardly the worst airline name I’ve heard about. While passing through São Paulo some years ago I saw an airliner from an airline apparently called Bra (presumably a domestic airline in that country), and I’ve heard reports of a Russian airline named Kras Air (presumably from the Russian word for “red”, but it’s tempting to add an H to that name) and an East Asian airline called U-Land. And I’ve actually flown on Precision Airlines (a Boston-based commuter airline that went bankrupt in the early 1990s) and JetBlue.

Isn’t woad a hallucinogen, too?
Apparently not:
— the author also reckons that it doesn’t work as body-paint. No-one has any idea what Julius Caesar had in mind when he wrote about the occupants of the British Isles painting themselves. The interpretation that they were using woad first popped up at a time when the woad industry was trying to stop imports of indigo.

The Whackyweedia informs us that woad root is used in TCM, not for its dye but for general TCM bafflegab. There is the reassuring note that “only large dosages or long term usage can be toxic to the kidneys”.

@Denise Walters #27 Where is the like button? This post touched my funny bone. It reminds me of Rachel Maddow’s morning FB posts titled ‘here’s what we’re following’ …. even though I only know what the last one means, Mike Adams. That was enough though, set me off 🙂

@ Johanna:

I really doubt that my ancient Brythonic ancestors were doing any fighting -more like selling dyes/ dyed shirts (and/ or possible hallucinogens).

@ Eric:

Doesn’t *kras* in Russe mean ( somehow) both *beautiful* and *red*?

HDB, some people have speculated that the “paint” may have been tatoos. The cool Celts had spiky hair, due to putting a lime paste in it!

and I’ve heard reports of a Russian airline named Kras Air (presumably from the Russian word for “red”, but it’s tempting to add an H to that name)

C’mon, Aeroflot used to sell seats in the lav.

Surely the easiest way to produce an Indigo Child would be through copious quantities of colloidal silver?

*anticipating twitching*

@Denice – whereas mine were no doubt up to their ankles in muck in some field and wondering what all the noise was about… 😉

Sigh. I am disappointed by the lack of Airplane! and/or MTM references in the comments. So I’ll arbitrarily throw one in: “I hate spunk.”

@Denice #27
How can you survive? How do you live keeping track of so much woo? You amaze me. You suffer for the rest of us.

Mephistopheles O’Brien – it’s “Mood Indigo.”

In airline fame, there’s always ValuJet. They had a big billboard near my grandmother’s house with a cartoon of a jet, and I remember commenting that was probably the plane they sent you on. I wasn’t really surprised when one of their jets crashed because they cut corners.

Just for Xplodyncow:

“Surely you can’t be serious?!”
“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

Doesn’t *kras* in Russe mean ( somehow) both *beautiful* and *red*?

Close. Krasnyi (красный) means red, krasivyi (красывий) means beatiful. Similar enough to be commonly mistaken by new learners.

@puppygood: I note Wiktionary lists “beautiful” as an archaic meaning of krasnyi.

There is a Dutch travel-agency named Kras, which can be translated as ‘scratch’, but also as ‘strong’ ‘v igorous’ or ‘robust’ (in persons), or ‘drastic’.

@ Den!s:**

Well, thank you.
Re Mikey’s lab- he now tells you which products are alright- which he sells ( Green Polka Dot Box is his concern)

I understand that Null will now be doing ” 100 experiments”: the first with broccoli sprouts wherein he’ll have a control group and two condtions where the sprouts will either have meditative music played for them or have a group of healers encouraging them to grow.
All will be covered by time-lapse photography.

@ Logo:

How do I survive?
Believe it or not- surveying woo is not an imposition at all for me- it’s actually fun as well as being useful. So don’t worry, I don’t suffer for others.

I appear to have some ability for managing large amounts of information and for doing several tasks simultaneously.
For example, when I track market prices/ trends I don’t write anything down but keep updatable estimates in mind- it doesn’t have to be perfect because I can always look it up and it changes constantly anyway.

With woo, I just watch a few places which lead to other places. I look at tons of material and notice particular themes that serve as organising factors and bases for predictions about further movement.
I look at things globally then pull out specifics as need be. I did do some research about how professionals make decisions in their areas of expertise but that isn’t really what I follow.

I counsel people, manage money for myself and others, play tennis and try to go out and have a good time with my cohorts- I can do a lot at once.


Really Domina Walter,
You are too, too modest, you’ve left all of your daily duties for the Empire off your list. Which reminds me, thanks for that tip about Canadial Allied Petroelum. We made a killing and had a good laugh in the process.

Lord Draconis Zeneca, VH7ihL
Foreward Mavoon of the Great Fleet, Grand Vitara of the Vat Racks, Less Filling-Tastes Great

Glaxxon PharmaCOM Orbital
Makers of MonkeyMist™ Soporific

————————————————-MESSAGE ENDS

I started reading this blog and several others for the information. But, one of the things that keeps me coming back are the people. I find reading posts by people such as Denice Walter to be highly educational and entertaining. I wish I could put my thoughts down so clearly and in such a logical manner. I wish I had not wasted so much of my life on crap thinking and am actively trying to get my daughter interested in these blogs/people at an early age to offset some of the junk she hears at school and from friends. thanks everyone.

Bill Smith took the words out of my mouth. Every day I feel like typing ‘I LOVE YOU PEOPLE’. But some may think that a little creepy.

Glad you are here Bill, so glad to see there are other parents out there concerned for their children’s learning. Thanks for letting me know you are out there.

I’m sure you speak for many of us lurkers, Bill (and Scared Momma). IMHO this is the one blog to rule them all.

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