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.