America’s shady autism cure industry has been flying under the nation’s media radar for years. Not any more.
Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan at the Chicago Tribune introduce us to the quacks and charlatans who prey on parents in a Pulitzer-worthy series that you can read here and here. The stories follow last May’s blockbuster Trib investigation of autism quackery, including Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David, who chemically castrate disabled children.
Two common criticisms of the investigation, coming from radical anti-vaccine groups such as Generation Rescue, are that the paper dismissed hundreds of medical citations that support alternative bio-medical treatments for autism, and that the Trib missed a bigger, more important story.
Kent Heckenlively, a California grade school science teacher and GR acolyte quoted in the story, lists 32 articles that he sent to the Tribune reporters that he says were ignored. Only 11 are actual medical studies; the rest are news articles, blog posts (including one by Heckenlively himself), a chapter from a textbook, a press release, and a letter from a German physician. The studies are either irrelevant, debunked long ago, or published in low-impact journals. Kudos to Ms. Tsouderos and Ms. Callahan for not falling for Heckenlively’s data dump.
The Defeat Autism Now network, which has much to answer for, responded harshly by telling the reporters to look elsewhere for a story. Executive Director Jane Johnson wrote:
“The painful part of this story is that the Tribune had the opportunity to cover one of the greatest tragedies of the last twenty years: there is no approved treatment for the core symptoms of autistic disorder (there are two FDA-approved medications for irritability associated with autism, Risperdal and Abilify; both are known for unpleasant and sometimes serious side effects). How is it possible that so little progress has been made? Why do medical organizations and government agencies feel no urgency to alleviate the suffering of these children? That’s the real story, and the Tribune has failed to cover it.
Shorter version: There is a dearth of knowledge of how to treat autism, so we will go on pretending like we have the answers.
Which is precisely the point of this well researched and thoughtful series: That the near absence of legitimate treatments for autism has given rise to a cottage industry of unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.
“The Tribune obviously took a lot of time to prepare these articles. They cite the experts in the field,” notes Sullivan at LeftBrainRightBrain, “Let’s face it, the supposed experts in the alternative medical “treatment” of autism are clearly misunderstanding or misrepresenting the research they rely upon. The Tribune did the work, talked to the experts and clearly showed this.”
It’s called journalism, Ms. Johnson. Get used to it. Expect more in the coming months as the news and entertainment media’s narrative switches from “alternative medicine produces miracles” to “science is being highjacked to fool parents”.