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.And of course the most recent study, which accentuates the risk of the assumed-to-be-harmless GFCF diet:
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)."
J Autism Dev Disord. 2008 May;38(5):848-56.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:
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.
"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.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.
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."
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.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.
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."
Or is it?
You see, it is really quite clear what PETA is doing, and there is a word for it - EXPLOIT:
ex·ploit /ɪkˈsplɔɪt/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[ik-sploit]
1. to utilize, esp. for profit; turn to practical account: to exploit a business opportunity.
2. to use selfishly for one's own ends: employers who exploit their workers.
3. to advance or further through exploitation; promote
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.