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

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With the diagnosis of her son and the book she wrote about their journey together, McCarthy became the world's most famous parent of an autistic child. "I knew I was going to be the voice of the families when this happened," she says. "Because I had the platform. In my head, something said, 'You can get booked on talk shows.' If there was a purpose from God, he just picked someone who can get booked on talk shows. I just fell into this truth ... The only reason I'm getting this much attention is because I represent hundreds of thousands of mothers who have the same story." During appearances on Oprah, 20/20, Good Morning America, Larry King Live and other television shows, she decried what she claimed was a vast, profitable conspiracy to vaccinate children, which she said was responsible for the great upsurge in autism diagnoses. Often appearing with her boyfriend Carrey (who lives with Jenny and Evan), she glibly and with irate dismissal of the scientific evidence accused pediatricians and doctors of poisoning children and then withholding the treatments that could save them.

During her appearance on Oprah in 2007, she launched a typical fusillade: "What number does it have to be ... for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have autism have been saying for years ... I told my pediatrician something happened ... after [he was vaccinated] ... Boom--the soul was gone from his eyes." Later, when Oprah read a comment from the CDC stating that the vast majority of the science to date did not support her assertion, McCarthy replied, "My science is Evan. He's at home. That's my science."

Such statements could not have won over mothers and found such a ready audience if there weren't many who felt they were hearing someone state what they had long suspected. McCarthy may have been promoting her book, but she had inadvertently become the poster mom for a movement. "Jenny gave us a face," says Kim Stagliano, a mother of three autistic girls and one of the founders of the popular blog Age of Autism. "I feel like Jenny going public was pretty brave ... There is a certain personality within the Curebie community [parents who believe they can cure their autistic children], and that was who she was."

The biomedical treatments McCarthy espouses--and it is hard to find a controversial, novel or alternative treatment that McCarthy doesn't say has some merit--are often decried by mainstream pediatricians and other physicians and as being untested or unproven. Yet it is rare to find a family struggling with an autistic child that hasn't tried at least some version of one of them. While every illness brings forth unproven treatments, autism, because there has been so little progress in terms of finding a cause, much less a proven cure, has been a field replete with controversial therapies that lure in desperate parents.

"Try everything," says McCarthy. "Hope is the only thing that will get us up in the morning."

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