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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Her critics, however, describe that as false hope. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has been outspoken in decrying the antivaccine movement and various alternative autism treatments in his best-selling book Autism's False Prophets. He categorically condemns McCarthy's message. "It's not fair to these parents," he says. "I think false hope is worse than no hope."

The Autism Riddle

The history of autism treatments has been too often filled with false hope. There are 730,000 Americans under age 21 who have been diagnosed with autism. But for decades, autism was considered an exceedingly rare disorder and was viewed as a life sentence. In the 1970s, parents sought out a range of alternative and unconventional treatments. There was patterning (in which the autistic child was retaught to crawl), multivitamin therapy, bee-pollen therapy and various restrictive diets. There was the gentleman who claimed he had cured his son by hugging him a lot--he wrote a best-selling book about it--and others who claimed they had cured their child by teaching him or her to swim. There has been the facilitation movement, in which "facilitators" supposedly helping nonverbal autistic children type words turned out to be making the statements themselves, and the secretin controversy, in which parents paid thousands of dollars for a hormone believed to successfully treat autism before several clinical trials showed no actual impact. All of these cost parents small fortunes and years of anguish. And all of them are still being practiced by some segments of the autism community today.

Yet it is important to remember that the first and still the only treatment that has been shown to make a demonstrably positive developmental impact on autistic children started out as a somewhat radical movement. Behavioral therapy--involving methods, not so different from animal-training techniques, that are now known as ABA, PRT (Pivotal Response Training) and a host of other acronyms--was vilified by many, including what was then the mainstream of autism, when it started in the 1960s. After clinical trials produced positive results, it became the basic treatment for autism. But the success rate for this therapy remains painfully low. A recent study by University of Connecticut psychologist Deborah Fein shows that at least 10% of autistic children undergoing ABA can overcome the disorder by age 9, while others show more modest improvement. That makes for a depressing picture for most parents of autistic children.

And that's where McCarthy comes in. She is telling the parents that yes, your son or daughter can be healed. "I have three children on the spectrum," says Stagliano. "I have yet to really get one actionable piece of assistance from my pediatrician. They offer nothing. Nothing ... These treatments are filling a vacuum."

McCarthy's conviction stems from her having "recovered" her own son from autism. "Evan couldn't talk--now he talks. Evan couldn't make eye contact--now he makes eye contact. Evan was antisocial--now he makes friends," she explains. "It was amazing to watch, over the course of doing this, how certain therapies work for certain kids and they completely don't work for others ... When something didn't work for Evan, I didn't stop. I stopped that treatment, but I didn't stop."

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