The Autism Debate: Who's Afraid of Jenny McCarthy?

Parents of autistic children call Jenny McCarthy an inspiration, but doctors say she's a menace to public health. How a former Playmate and television loudmouth became one of the most feared mothers in America

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Jeff Minton for TIME

Jenny McCarthy

In person, surprisingly, Jenny McCarthy comes across as corn-fed cute rather than overwhelmingly beautiful. She has a common touch, and a woman even slightly more beautiful would struggle to connect as she does. When McCarthy meets a mom, when she spits forth a stream of profanity and common sense--the foulmouthed comedian from Chicago never far from the surface--she is there as a mother, not as a celebrity or starlet. That's what got her there, but that's not who she is once she's there. She speaks to so many frustrated, despairing mothers of autistic children because she is plausible, authentic. If you needed a woman to bring hope to these mothers, you couldn't ask for better casting than Jenny McCarthy.

We are sitting around a sushi-laden coffee table in the Sherman Oaks, Calif., headquarters of Generation Rescue, the autism advocacy group she heads. It's a gray, one-story house with white trim and a picket-fence-enclosed yard, across the street from the home she lived in for four years with her son Evan, 7, and John Asher, who is her ex-husband and Evan's father. She has converted the house into a state-of-the-art school for very young autistic kids, an intensive early-intervention program called the Teach2Talk Academy. The school is a model in many ways, not least because of its 1-to-1 teacher-student ratio and sparkling facilities. It's the kind of place she was desperate to get Evan into when he was first diagnosed with autism in 2005.

The lacerating pilgrimage that parents of autistic children know all too well, lugging their child from specialist to specialist, from program to program, seeking help, answers, a cure--catalyzed her mission. First McCarthy was a mother "finding a window" into her son. Then she became a mother who felt she needed to tell other mothers how she found that window. Those mothers have become her flock. She greets them all, here in Sherman Oaks, on her way through airport terminals, in restaurants, on talk-show sets; she will stop, nod, listen, proffer advice, give a phone number and tell these mothers, these families, to never give up hope. "Hope is the greatest thing for moms of autism," McCarthy says. "Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning. I'm on a mission to tell parents that there is a way."

McCarthy's way, however, is one that flies in the face of all credible research on what does and does not cause autism and whether it can be treated. McCarthy claims Evan was healed through a range of experimental and unproved biomedical treatments; even more controversially, she blames the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine for giving her son autism. And yet research conclusively shows that vaccines are safe for children; just last month, the U.K. scientist who had published a study linking the MMR shot to autism was found by a British medical panel to have acted unethically. McCarthy says she does not believe all vaccines are bad--though she swears she will never allow Evan to receive another--nor is she saying you shouldn't vaccinate your child. Her position is more slippery but just as heretical to prevailing medical wisdom: do everything necessary to cure your child, no matter what the doctors tell you.

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