Image credit: AP
The news: For years, anti-vaccine activists have been using autism as a fearmongering tool. Despite hard science disproving a link between the two, anti-vax spokespeople such as Jenny McCarthy have built a campaign built on pseudoscience, designed to dehumanize people with autism spectrum disorder: since it's such a terrible condition, wouldn't parents want to do anything to avoid it?
Well, it looks like the tactic has caught on. This week, animal rights group PETA brought back an old campaign that pushes a disingenuous connection between dairy milk and — yes, you guessed it — autism.
"More research is needed, but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods," the organization says on its website. "The reason why dairy foods may worsen or even cause autism is being debated. Some suspect that casein harms the brain, while others suggest that the gastrointestinal problems so often caused by dairy products cause distress and thus worsen behavior in autistic children."
To underscore its argument, PETA included a grand total of one testimonial and two studies — one which admits that the results were inconclusive and the other which says one could "hypothesise a relationship between food allergy and infantile autism." The second one was from 20 years ago, because there aren't more recent studies that make this claim.
Image Credit: PETA
The background: "Got autism?" — modeled after the popular "Got milk?" campaign — first started in 2008, when PETA put up a billboard with the message in Newark, New Jersey. Within a week, the advertising company pulled it down due to the negative feedback.
But this week, PETA decided to resurface the failed campaign for some reason — and it has caused quite a ruckus. Since the original write-up was featured on the website, it became one of the top five most popular stories there and has been met with a wave of criticism from science writers.
After the initial response, PETA decided to remove its more offensive language, namely referring to autism as a "disease" that is "marked by anti-social behavior like screaming and obsessive repetition of actions, which takes an enormous emotional toll on sufferers and their families." But it stands by its original stance.
Getting rid of dairy products is "a healthy choice ... and it also spares mother cows from being repeatedly impregnated and forced to produce milk for humans after their calves have been taken away from them so that they will endure the same fate. Cow's milk might be the perfect food for baby cows, but it might also be making kids sick," PETA said in a statement.
Why this is important: Obviously, PETA is using bad science. It's true that children who can't digest casein or gluten will feel better if they don't have them — but that's regardless of whether they have autism or not.
A 2010 overview by the University of Texas at Austin found that among the 15 studies that examined a link between autism and casein, "overall study quality was poor"; a follow-up overview last month similarly concluded that "the evidence on this topic is currently limited and weak," recommending that parents should only eliminate gluten and casein if the child has an intolerance or an allergy.
Still, the most offensive thing about this campaign is not the disingenuous pseudoscience — it's the fact that PETA is using parents' fear of autism as a ploy. "Don't use at least 1% of our population as a fear factor to urge people to your cause. Don't weight the already burdened backs of autistic people by characterizing them as devastating, screaming monsters whose only salvation lies in following your urgings to give up dairy," writes Forbes writer Emily Willingham.
As PETA made clear in its statement, it is concerned about the treatment of cows in milk production. And that's a valid stance for an animal rights group, one that could be argued on its own ethical merit. But by dragging autism into the issue, PETA is using autistic people as unwilling pawns — becoming the latest group to appropriate autism as a catch-all bogeyman to advance its agenda.