Monday, September 29, 2008

PO'd at PETA

In today's news, one could not help but notice the appalling new publicity campaign initiated by the radical group, PETA.
In this campaign, currently propagated via billboards in Newark, NJ, the following message is delivered:

Yes, that's right, this ad campaign chooses to associate autism with a frowning face in a cereal bowl. The entire ill-conceived concept is based on the ridiculous concept that drinking cow's milk causes autism.


Okay, lets begin with the "science". The brilliant minds at PETA have apparently been hearing as much as the rest of us recently in the major media about how the GFCF elimination diet can initiate a recovery from autism (hey, thanks Jenny McCarthy!). While I am not going to cast aspersion on or otherwise debate what parents will attest to as they put their kids on this elimination diet, I will take my usual position and refer you to the science. Yes, this theory has been put to the test. Here are some direct results, as well as results of some academic reviews:
J Autism Dev Disord. 2006 Apr;36(3):413-20.
Excerpt from abstract: "Group data indicated no statistically significant findings even though several parents reported improvement in their children. "

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Apr 16;(2):CD003498.
Excerpt from abstract: "
Research has shown of high rates of use of complementary and alternative therapies (CAM) for children with autism including gluten and/or casein exclusion diets. Current evidence for efficacy of these diets is poor."

Pediatr Nurs. 2007 Mar-Apr;33(2):138-43.
Excerpt from abstract:
"Dietary treatment of children with behavioral disorders has had wide public appeal and been a source of controversy since the 1920's. Yet, to date, there is little empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of dietary restrictions in treating child psychiatric disorders, in particular, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)."
And of course the most recent study, which accentuates the risk of the assumed-to-be-harmless GFCF diet:
J Autism Dev Disord. 2008 May;38(5):848-56.
Excerpt from abstract: "
Bone development, casein-free diet use, supplements, and medications were assessed for 75 boys with autism or autism spectrum disorder, ages 4-8 years ... The 12% of the boys on casein-free diets had an overall % deviation of -18.9 +/- 3.7%, nearly twice that of boys on minimally restricted or unrestricted diets (-10.5 +/- 1.3%, p < .04) .... Our data suggest that the bone development of autistic boys should be monitored as part of routine care, especially if they are on casein-free diets.
So what the he**, you may ask, is PETA doing? Have they gone mad? Well, we all know they were never sane to begin with and are basically just a charicature of an important socially-conscious movement. But they lead off their press release about the campaign with the following statement:
"In light of two scientific studies that link milk consumption to autism in children and a third that establishes that the Newark metropolitan area has the highest rate of autism among 14 regions studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PETA has just unveiled in the city a brand-new billboard parodying a ubiquitous milk ad."
Whoa! They sure have done their homework! Or ... have they?
It took a bit of digging to come up with the two studies they are referring to. Here is the first, conveniently linked to from the PETA blog:
Panminerva Med. 1995 Sep;37(3):137-41.
Excerpt from the abstract: "
Our results lead us to hypothesise a relationship between food allergy and infantile autism as has already been suggested for other disturbances of the central nervous system."
Lets discuss that for a moment. Oftentimes, we hear people in the autism community with the rallying cry "Science has ignored us!" or "Let us see the science!" I hold the opinion that the scientific method is alive and well - and generously funded - in autism etiological research. It simply has not delivered clear-cut, easily digestible results to date. This study may be a good case of that. As the authors at the University of Rome state, the results are good for the formulation of a hypothesis. They are not, and the authors never claimed them to be, conclusive.
Since the study was completed - 13 years ago - the hypothesis has been put to the test. To date, we can only say that the data do not support the hypothesis that dietary intake of casein is a causative factor in the development of autism.
Here is the second study they rely on:
Nutr Neurosci. 2002 Sep;5(4):251-61.
Excerpt from abstract: "
A randomly selected diet and control group with 10 children in each group participated. Observations and tests were done before and after a period of 1 year. The development for the group of children on diet was significantly better than for the controls."
First off, this was a single-blind study. Secondly, the control group and subject group had all of 10 kids each. The general research/treatment community was willing to set this one aside 6 years ago when it was released, so its hard to figure why PETA wants to dredge it up now.

Or is it?

You see, it is really quite clear what PETA is doing, and there is a word for it - EXPLOIT:
ex·ploit [ik-sploit] utilize, esp. for profit; turn to practical account: to exploit a business opportunity. use selfishly for one's own ends: employers who exploit their workers. advance or further through exploitation; promote

Yes, PETA is engaging in exploitation of the autistic community to serve their needs, to further their agenda, to "use selfishly for one's own ends".
As the father of two boys on the autism spectrum, I am deeply bothered by the callous exploitation exhibited by these self-righteous people.
How, as an autistic adult, would you feel as you saw this ad for the first time? Would you feel marginalized? Degraded? Would the "sad face" build your self-image, or chip away at it? Would you feel like a valued contributor to society, or a "burden" who need not exist were it not for kids drinking milk?

Perhaps in a future post I will get into the issue of how bogus the New Jersey prevalence figures are in relation to other states (an important aspect of their ridiculous campaign). Or maybe I'll jump into the dubious - no, discredited - nature of the opioid excess theory of autism that the entire casein house of cards is built upon. Or maybe I'll just discuss the basic concepts of causation v. correlation. In any case, I cannot reach nearly as many people as the fools at PETA will this week in Newark. Shame, PETA, shame.

I dunno, folks. At times it seems that the idiocy gets ahead of us and I feel like not much we can do will really create a better world for autistic people. I hope the Autism Hub, ASAN, and like-minded folks will remain aware of travesties such as this PETA embarrassment and provide a united front to counter open bigotry of this nature.

More on this topic from Kristina at Autism Vox and from Orac at Respectful Insolence.


Ms. Clark said...

Thank you, Steve. I am discouraged by the milage Jenny McIndigo and her book are getting. I sure hope something blows up in the autism exploiters faces soon and that it isn't more deaths of children from biomed or vaccine preventable diseases.

Jen said...

It looks like a good week to just stay in bed. The crazy just keeps on getting crazier.

CS said...

Good grief, what an incredibly offensive billboard full of ignorance and fear.

misha_k said...

PETA disgusts me. They've used some of the most offensive and tactless ads I've ever seen. This one is no exception.

Anonymous said...

How do you explain that group in this population who turn out to be "allergic" to cow's milk, wheat, and a host of other items as determined by food allergy panels (blood tests). Go on an "allergen" elimination diet, heal their gut, and then no longer exhibit autistic behavior? Is this the case for the whole population; no, of course not. Since this is the case for some, the billboard screams ask your doctor and get tested for food allergies. Maybe the mainstream medical establishment and its processes simply have not established it as "true," but this does not mean that it is false. It is a true, very real fact for a segment of this population...including my son. Something to think about even if you do not like it or it does not apply to everyone. An Open Minded Mom

Sam said...

Did you find all of the research papers you list on PubMed? If so what search parameters did you use? I have an opportunity to present info about autism to some of my local politicians and I've been all over the web looking for reliable stuff.

Natalie said...

"the billboard screams ask your doctor and get tested for food allergies."

No, it' doesn't. The billboard screams "autism is caused by cow's milk" and their website screams it louder.

Chaoticidealism said...

Yeah, apparently PETA thinks it's cruel to milk cows. Pretty normal for them.

As an autistic person seeing the ad for the first time, my big reaction is an eyeroll and "They're at it again"... I'm kind of used to bad science and PETA sensationalism. I save my outrage for the autistic murder victims and the JRC.

Joseph said...

"How do you explain that group in this population who turn out to be "allergic" to cow's milk, wheat, and a host of other items as determined by food allergy panels (blood tests)."

What is the evidence that autistics have more allergies than non-autistics?

"Go on an "allergen" elimination diet, heal their gut, and then no longer exhibit autistic behavior?"

What is the evidence that allergen elimination diets are better than placebo?

"Maybe the mainstream medical establishment and its processes simply have not established it as "true," but this does not mean that it is false."

So? Many things have not been disproven. Why should we assume any of it is true though?

In the history of autism hypotheses and treatments, pretty much every single one ends up being discredited.

CS said...

Go on an "allergen" elimination diet, heal their gut, and then no longer exhibit autistic behavior? Is this the case for the whole population; no, of course not. Since this is the case for some, the billboard screams ask your doctor and get tested for food allergies. Maybe the mainstream medical establishment and its processes simply have not established it as "true," but this does not mean that it is false. It is a true, very real fact for a segment of this population...including my son.

If your son is no longer showing "autistic behaviors" (autism is a behavior diagnosed "disorder"), then why are you lurking about on blogs discussing autism?

notmercury said...

"the billboard screams ask your doctor and get tested for food allergies."

Really? What sort of blood test would that be, exactly?

Steve D said...

Anonymous -
I am not here to deride you for your belief that the GFCF diet healed your son's gut and eliminated his autistic behavior. It is not at all difficult for me to imagine that abdominal discomfort could manifest itself as "autistic behaviors" (your term), especially in a child (or adult) who has trouble communicating their discomfort. So what you are saying can be attributed to simple simple common sense - if you think your child has abdominal discomfort, consider allergy testing. We did that with our youngest son - as well as an upper GI scan - well before he was ever diagnosed with autism. But we don't actually believe that milk can cause autism.
This billboard is not screaming, as you state, "...ask your doctor and get tested for food allergies." It is implying that drinking cow's milk causes the (sad) condition of autism.
It is wrong, it is exploitative, and it is irresponsible.

Steve D said...

Chaotic -
Thanks for answering my question posed in the blog post about how it might make you feel. And I share your outrage on those other topics.

CS said...

"I save my outrage for the autistic murder victims and the JRC."

Chaotic, don't forget all the children abused in the public school systems, an epidemic if there ever was one and the adults who are denied freedom and choice and are harrassed everyday in every way. Many autistic adults are homeless and this is another outrage. Many school systems segregate autistic children and this is an outrage. The workplace denies employment to autistic people and this is an outrage. Etc etc etc.

jypsy said...

Dear Janet,

Thank you for contacting PETA about our billboard highlighting the link between dairy consumption and the severity of autism symptoms.

Our billboard is designed to raise awareness about scientific evidence indicating that milk can worsen behavior associated with autism. Researchers found that when dairy products were removed from autistic children’s diets, their behavior improved significantly. Parents who want to protect their children should steer clear of the dairy aisle and choose healthy alternatives, like soy or rice milks. For more information about the link between dairy and autism, please see and

The link to autism is just one of many reasons to ditch dairy. Research has linked dairy consumption to higher rates of ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes. Dairy products have also been linked to juvenile diabetes, allergies, constipation, and obesity.

Cruelty is inherent in the dairy industry, which exploits animals by cramming them onto filthy factory farms for their entire lives. Like all mammals, cows only produce milk during and after pregnancy, so to be able to constantly milk them, farmers forcefully impregnate cows every nine months. The cows are impregnated year after year, but they are never allowed to nurture their calves. After several years of living in filthy conditions and being forced to produce 10 times more milk than they would naturally, their exhausted bodies are turned into hamburgers or ground up for soup.

Additionally, the veal industry could not survive without the dairy industry. Because male calves can’t produce milk, dairy farmers take them from their mothers immediately after birth and sell them to veal farms. There, they endure 14 to 17 weeks of torment­most calves are chained inside crates so small that they can’t even turn around. To learn more about the lives of cows and calves used for dairy products and veal, please visit

Thanks again for writing and for your interest in this important issue.


The PETA Staff

abfh said...

PETA is made up of bullies and attention whores who delight in offending everyone they possibly can.

If I find those billboards anywhere near my neighborhood, I'm going to throw a few buckets of paint on them when nobody is looking, and give PETA a taste of their own medicine.

Sharon said...

Disgusting ad. I can hardly believe how they have jumped on this whole autism nonsense and misinformation as a way to push their own lies.

Thanks for writing about it.

Club 166 said...


Thanks for highlighting this. Maybe this ad will sour people's opinion on PETA, but i doubt it.

What got people really upset was when PETA suggested Ben and Jerry's use human breast milk in their ice cream.


Navi said...

I'm inclined to think gluten free diets help autistics that are also celiacs and casein free diets help autistics that have milk sensitivities. That's not treating the autism, that's treating a comorbid issue.

anyway, I tried eliminating milk for my son. with proper substitutes. He acted like he felt worse and his diapers were worse. So we, um, like quit that diet. Haven't tried gluten free because his diapers are better with whole grains. and whole grains still have gluten.

On a positive note, colleague was discussing w/ her friends Jenny McCarthy and they felt she was being irresponsible, but they didn't know anyone w/ a child with autism... so... She asked me. and I snickered. and then ranted. ;0)

Navi said...

and honestly I think the people offended by breast milk have issues. ;) (disclaimer: breastfeeding mom)

I am offended by this ad, but not the suggestion of breast milk, other than the fact that I'm a bit more concerned that PETA isn't the least bit concerned about the objectification of human females, and the person who came up with that idea doesn't understand how breastfeeding works (my comment was a bit more graphic but I decided better of it...) But I noticed the opposition wasn't about that, it was about "ew, breastmilk"

Anonymous said...

Wow! PETA just now noticed the articles linking milk to autism!

The only one they list in their website is a 1995 paper that only showed that removing milk improved the behaviors - not that milk caused autism. But I guess that subtle distinction would be lost on an organization like PETA that strives to "win" at any cost.

Curious that they didn't mention that there have also been a number of articles alleging a link between gluten and autism (with exactly the same level of validity). I guess that avoiding grains doesn't advance their "meat is murder" agenda.

Although it still remains possible - even probable - that some autistic people have milk intolerance (as do a large number of non-autistic people), the "opioid peptide" hypothesis has come on hard times.

There have now been two excellent studies refuting the idea that autistic people have "opioid peptides" (from casein, gluten or whatever) circulating in their systems. I covered this in my 'blog:

Too bad that PETA has to place its political agenda ahead of the needs and well-being of a vulnerable segment of society (I refer, of course, to the "desperate" parents of autistic children). As often happens when PETA tries to exploit a new "niche" for its propaganda, more harm than good will come of it.

I'd write them a letter if I thought that it would have any impact. However, PETA has shown over and over that it has little regard for human life and that it would gladly sacrifice thousands of us (but curiously, not one of its own staff) to save a single charismatic animal.


AdonyaWong said...

Fantastic post and very informative!

Adonya Wong
Author | Autism Activist | Blogger