There was not much in Jenny McCarthy's early career as a Playboy model and MTV star to suggest that she would become a passionate advocate for family issues, children's health and autism awareness. But the birth of her now almost 7-year-old son Evan, who developed autism early in life, changed all of that. McCarthy has become a best-selling author, first of lighter stuff like Baby Laughs and Life Laughs; then of more serious fare, like Louder than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism. (Read "Fragile X: Unraveling Autism's Secrets.")
Now, she is releasing her fifth book co-authored with autism specialist Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, titled Healing and Preventing Autism. The book is awfully smart when it comes to hardheaded advice for families trying to heal or at least draw out an autistic child. But McCarthy goes soft when she starts exploring the causes of autism, making the usual charges against the usual suspects, including nutrition, environmental toxins and, as always, vaccines. McCarthy and TIME science editor Jeffrey Kluger sparred over the causes of autism and the safety of vaccines. (See the year in medicine 2008.)
Your book points out that autism rates between 1983 and 2008 have climbed in lockstep with vaccination rates, yet childhood obesity, diabetes and even cell-phone use have soared since then, too. Why do you find causation in one and not the others?
I'm not saying it's only the vaccines. But children are given so many shots from the moment they're born. They get multiple injections all at once, and if they fall behind, doctors put them on a catch-up schedule. Babies get the hepatitis B vaccine immediately after they're born and the only way for a newborn to contract that disease is if the mother is a carrier. Why not just screen the mother? Evan was handed to me pre-vaccinated with a Band-Aid on his foot.
Most people who blame autism on vaccines point to the mercury in the shots, yet mercury has been removed from most vaccines and autism rates continue to climb.
We don't believe it's only the mercury. Aluminum and other toxins also play a role. The viruses in the vaccines themselves can be causing it, too.
Your collaborator recommends that parents accept only the haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) and tetanus vaccine for newborns and then think about the rest. Not polio? What about the polio clusters in unvaccinated communities like the Amish in the U.S.? What about the 2004 outbreak that swept across Africa and Southeast Asia after a single province in northern Nigeria banned vaccines?
I do believe sadly it's going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it's their f___ing fault that the diseases are coming back. They're making a product that's s___. If you give us a safe vaccine, we'll use it. It shouldn't be polio versus autism. (Read "New Clues to Autism's Cause.")
And yet in many cases, vaccines have effectively eliminated diseases. Measles is among the top five killers in the world of children under 5 years old, yet it kills virtually no one in the U.S. thanks to vaccines.
People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines. Please understand that we are not an antivaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins. If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f___ing measles.
Many scientists believe we're simply diagnosing autism differently now both overdiagnosing it in kids who don't have it and spotting it better in kids who do. That makes it look like the condition is on the rise when it's not.
All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they've never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we're overdiagnosing it by maybe 1%. Now you look around and there are five shadows kids with disabilities in every class.
You write in your book that when your son began to emerge from the worst of his autism he said that having the condition felt like being buried alive. What's the most important thing a parent can do to help draw a child out?
Just remember that there is a very alert, bright, loving sweet child in there who simply looks like he doesn't care and can't hear you. They very much know what's going on. Evan has repeated things to me that I said to him when he was three and in his worst state. (See six tips for traveling with an autistic child.)
How do you manage the frustration or even resentment any parent would feel after pouring out so much love to a child who seems utterly indifferent to it?
It's really, really difficult. I remember being on the floor with Evan sometimes 10 hours a day trying to get him to smile. Eventually, my mother said to me, "Jenny, everything responds to love." It was what my mother said that allowed me to stay on my knees with my child.
How do you balance the needs of the autistic child with the needs of the other children in the house who are far less challenging and are rewarded for that with far less attention?
Therapists deal with that all the time. They strongly urge that you bring the healthy kids or what we call the typical kids into the therapy. Get them involved with the autistic child. Also, it's absolutely imperative for the parents and the typical kids to have time by themselves, to go out to dinner or even go on vacation while someone else cares for the autistic child. When families eat at home, sometimes the autistic child will have dinner first and then watch a movie, while everyone else has dinner in peace.
What's the best prognosis for autistic kids?
For a seriously autistic kid, the best prognosis might be getting into a mainstream school without being too much of a shadow. For a moderately autistic kid the best prognosis is full recovery.