Post-holiday "The stupid, it burns," part 1: Jenny McCarthy

I know, I know.

Picking on Jenny McCarthy over her now frequent idiotic statements about autism and her parroting of the myth that vaccines cause autism is like shooting fish in a barrel, boxing a one-armed opponent, playing tennis with a blind man (like the infamous Saturday Night Live sketch from so long ago, in which Stevie Wonder was shown playing tennis), or [insert your favorite metaphor or simile here]. I guess that America really is the land of opportunity, though. After all, where else could such a bubble-head go from being Playboy Playmate of the Year, to a raunchy MTV star who made a "splash" (so to speak) eating her own vomit in a comedy sketch, to starring in a short-lived situation comedy, to appearing in a number of bad movies (in one of which she was portrayed sitting in a pool of her own menstrual blood), to being known as a booster of the über-woo "indigo child" movement (an association that was rapidly shelved, along with her Indigo Moms website, when her latest book came out), to finally morphing into a seemingly serious spokesperson about autism, all just because she had a child with autism and is credulous enough to buy into a lot of dubious autism treatments? Now, suddenly, she's an "expert." Why? Because she (or more likely a ghostwriter) wrote a book about "curing" her son of autism.

I know, I know again. Look at the arguments and data, not the person. Don't be tempted to go for the cheap shot. However, McCarthy makes it really difficult to stay pure on that account. She really does, and it's not just because of her past history. After all, who knows? Maybe the birth of her child transformed her. Maybe she suddenly got serious. Maybe she's acquired some wisdom.


Sadly, in the week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, McCarthy has decided to crank the Stupid-O-Meter up to 11 in two astoundingly annoying interviews. Personally, I think I like the old gross-out Jenny better than this new sanctimonious Jenny selling herself, her ludicrous book, and autism quackery to the nation. At least the old gross-out bimbo Jenny probably did no lasting harm to anyone or anything, even the table onto which she discharged her gastric contents (although those with weak stomachs may have had a momentary bit of discomfort at her antics). In contrast, the new, reborn, "serious" Jenny has the potential to lead many parents of autistic children down the same antivaccination, "biomedical" road that she's gone down. Their children may not be as lucky as her son Evan was.

First, there's an interview during a publicity appearance in Madison, WI. Before the inevitable deconstruction, let me just say that I will give McCarthy credit for raising a lot of money for the UCLA autism program and for fighting to decrease the waiting list for newly diagnosed autistic children to gain access to services. That's good. I wish she'd stick to doing that sort of thing; she could use her celebrity status to bring some real benefits to autistic children and their parents that way. Unfortunately, she can't help but go around spouting stuff like this to credulous audiences:

People don't think that the diet is helpful. But I say, "It's just food." Nothing is dangerous about food unless you have allergies. So when I say get a food allergy test, that could be extremely helpful to a child who is sensitive.

It blows my mind that the medical community has a hard time believing that nutrition equals feeling better. The backlash doesn't upset me. You know the "Are you going to listen to the celebrity diet or are you going to listen to your doctor?" Well, if the celebrity diet is making the kids feel better, so be it.

"If the celebrity diet is making the kids feel better"? How does she know that her "celebrity diet" does one whit of good? She doesn't. Hers is an anecdote, and I hope I don't have to go into it too much more as to why anecdotal evidence in medicine, particularly if it does not even rise to the level of a case report, which requires detailed objective documentation, is usually useless. Indeed, often, thanks to the human tendency to confuse correlation with causation, anecdotes are worse than useless. It's the tendency that led McCarthy (and many other parents) to mistakenly blame vaccines for their children's autism, and it's the same tendency that's led her to believe that her interventions of diet led to her son's "improvement," even though he underwent a number of other interventions as well that could confound. Also, McCarthy clearly does not seem to understand that autism is a condition of developmental delay, not developmental stasis; autistic children do develop, unlike the stereotype that seems to be so common among those pushing "biomedical" interventions. Chances are that, with the same attention otherwise and without the "biomedical interventions," McCarthy's son would be just where he is now, about which she says in other interviews as well as the one above:

"Does your son have autism?" actress Jenny McCarthy is regularly asked.

She smiles. "No. Not anymore," McCarthy replies.

It's a question actress McCarthy is eager to answer. It is clear she has been asked and answered the same questions dozens, if not hundreds of times, in the past few months.

Whatever that means. Once again, as Prometheus has pointed out, autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis, and it is not that uncommon for autistic children, especially mildly autistic children (as McCarthy's son appears to be) to "move off the autistic spectrum" before their 7th birthday; in other words, to appear to be "cured" spontaneously. There's no way to be sure if an intervention is doing anything to promote such an outcome without careful randomized, double-blind, controlled trials that take into account this minority of autistic children. Once again, a single anecdote means little, and the plural of "anecdotes" is not "data." It also leads her to say spectacularly stupid things like this in a recent interview in Atlanta:

CFI: What do you consider recovered?

Jenny: Recovered is when the state comes over and says "Sorry, you're no longer eligible for services."

By that criteria, it has been said, the poor and minority autistic children must be "cured" at a pretty high rate.

It's probably not that stupid that McCarthy seems to believe that she's "cured" her son. People much more intelligent and educated than she still sometimes have a hard time comprehending just how easy it is to confuse correlation with causation. It is, however, pretty idiotic that McCarthy goes around saying things like (to paraphrase liberally): "I don't need no steeenkin' science; my son is my science" to Oprah. What is worse (and unbelievably dumb) is that she is going around saying that, if she has another child, she will not vaccinate. (Let's hope she doesn't have another child, then.) She blames mercury in vaccines for her son's autism, even though he was born in 2002, just after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. Indeed, in the very same interview, she complains about being called "antivaccine" and then retorts:

What I really am is "anti-toxins" in the vaccines. I do believe that there is a correlation between vaccinations and autism. I don't think it's the sole cause, but I think they're triggering--it's triggering--autism in these kids. A really great example, sometimes obesity can trigger diabetes. I do believe that vaccines can trigger autism...It's so much more than just mercury. That is one ingredient in the recipe of autism. And, after my press tour, CNN had Gupta on saying, "Thimerosal, there is no connection," and I wanted to say I did not mention thimerosal once in any of my programs. I'm talking about all of them. I'm calling for cleaning out the toxins. People don't realize that there is aluminum, ether, antifreeze, still mercury, in the shots...People are afraid of secondhand smoke, but they're OK with injecting the second worst neurotoxin on the planet in newborns.

From that quote alone, the stupid really does burn, but perhaps Gupta was mistaken in just mentioning thimerosal. So I'll say it right here: There's no good evidence that vaccines cause, promote, or contribute to the development of autism. (Perhaps the Stupid-O-Meter goes up past 11, to 12 or even 13 to accommodate McCarthy.) Also, note how Jenny proclaims that she "isn't antivaccination," but then continues to mindlessly parrot talking points right off of the worst antivaccination websites, all while piously telling the CDC to "stop poisoning our kids" and to "clean out the toxins from vaccines." But, really, she still tells us, you must believe her when she says she isn't "antivaccine."

Sure, Jen. Anything you say. You moron. Think I'm being unfair in characterizing her this way? Think again. Who else but a moron could would say something like this:

You know, I could in two months turn Evan completely autistic again. I could do it completely through diet. And maybe getting some vaccine boosters. Through diet, I could load him up again with all the things that will aggravate the damage that was done. Right now, what happened now was that I healed him to the point where he got everything back to this baseline level and it stays there like this. But I mess with it at all--boom!

What arrogance! McCarthy seems to think that somehow she has the power over whether Evan is autistic or not. You know, coupled with her previous statement that Evan "is my science," McCarthy's attitude makes me wonder how she views her son. She seems to view him as a laboratory rat, upon whom she can tinker as needed until he behaves to her satisfaction as though he is "cured." What's she going to think if Evan changes and goes "back on the spectrum" again?

Listen to the rest of the interview if you dare. It's hard to stomach, as she goes on about fungus, "toxins," and all the shots that babies get, saying that she "wouldn't vaccinate at all, never, ever," after which she goes on and on about "immune problems" and how she would have done "heavy chelation" if her son had had more serious problems associated with autism. Perhaps most galling is her sanctimonious emphasis on how mothers should "accept their child the way he is." That actually is good advice. Too bad McCarthy doesn't follow it, though. After all, given the number of dubious, scientifically unproven "therapies" McCarthy has put her son through in order to "cure" him of his autism, it's mind-numbingly obvious that she wasn't willing to accept her own son the way he was.

Sometime next week I think I'm going to have to address the whole issue of "toxins" in vaccines. It's such a favorite antivax canard, and now McCarthy is spreading it to a new and larger audience. As I pointed out two years ago, for people like Jenny McCarthy, no matter how much they claim otherwise, it's all about the vaccines, and if they can't blame mercury in vaccines for autism, they'll find other ingredients to blame. McCarthy would have fit right in on the bulletin boards where I found that out. It's a shame that she's using her star power (as D-list as it might be) to push a message that could lead parents to eschew vaccination. If there's a decline in vaccination rates leading to a resurgence in morbidity and mortality from vaccine-preventable disease, she will never admit that she played a role, even if small, in bringing such harm to pass.

You know, it occurs to me that this latest incarnation of Jenny McCarthy is not all that far removed from the gross-out incarnation from a decade ago. She's basically doing the same thing, only in a different context. Then, she barfed all over a table. Now she's barfing all over science and then eating it up. Only this time she's expecting you to join her in her little feast.

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Can't forget, of course, that in McCarthy's world there are no autistic adults. "It's all now" she says, repeatedly, interview after interview. Is this because we can't fill out the forms to get services, and beaurocratic impairment is just totally off her radar? gah. (And yes, she has met autistic adults. At least four, including her hero Bernard Rimland's son).

This really makes one wonder how on earth she'd know an autistic 5 year old who's doing really well from a neurotypical 5 year old anyway, really, does it not? And the stupid re: toxins she ingested throughout her pregnancy doesn't just burn, it PEELS AWAY THE SKIN. Evan got FIRSTHAND smoke prenatally, and heavens know what else.

Sometimes the easy target IS the best one.

Dunno if you've seen this yet, but Arstechnica has picked up (via Engadget) on a press release claiming a link between WiFi and autism. Ars has certainly done their research, and their article is something you'll find quite refreshing to read, but I'd love to see you dismember the so-called "research."

Did I mention that Ars found that one of the authors of the paper touting this "finding" is a chelationist? ;)

By G Barnett (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Hmm, I should clarify: by "so-called research" I mean the original paper making this claim, not the digging that Ars did....

By G Barnett (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Excerpted from the CotNE page:

...I knew immediately that changing education in schools was my global life mission...

Sooo, We seem to have shifted the goalpost, and/or found a New mission? Or is this better being called as a move to Abandon Ship!

I haven't heard one review of the book or post publication interviews mentioning that she was still out to change education. It all seems to be about diet, woo/alt/anti shammery. Perhaps even a few dollars to repay those loans I heard mention of to pay for woo treatments?

/shakes head in doubt

So McCarthy says there is "still mercury" in shots (alongside anti-freeze.. which makes me wonder how long before car oil and windshield wiping fluid gets added to the list). More importantly, is that "still" as opposed to "fizzy" mercury?

For G Barnett : Dr Steven Novella has an excellent article on the Wi-Fi Woo at

I picked up on the story the day it came out, and it set the old BS detector into failsafe.

Re: Jenny McCarthy and Autism Stupidity. I would estimate Her insipid yammering to be about a -10 Ph. As such, it deserves a biohazard warning. TSIB.

"Once again, as Prometheus has pointed out, autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis, and it is not that uncommon for autistic children, especially mildly autistic children (as McCarthy's son appears to be) to 'move off the autistic spectrum' before their 7th birthday; in other words, to appear to be 'cured' spontaneously."

Dear Orac:

Why do you accept Jenny McC-cup's assertion that her child is "autistic"? Along with other information about her and her career, you note that her child was born in 2002. As I recall, she asserts that the "autism" diagnosis was made by 2005 - or, maybe earlier, if one counts "crystal" and "indigo" among diagnoses covered by DSM-IV. What doesn't receive any elaboration - here or apparently elsewhere - is who made the diagnosis, that person's qualifications, and using what criteria or screening?

Dr. Thomas Sowell, Ph.D., Econ., recently did a couple of articles on the problems of false positive ASD diagnoses. See, Crusades Versus Caution, Nov. 13, 2007,…, and, Crusades Versus Caution: Part II, Nov. 14, 2007,….

I'm not holding him up as an expert in ASD or its diagnosis, nor does he hold himself out as one. But, as an economist, he does understand the use and mis-use of statistics, and GIGO. As you and many others have noted, there are significant problems in determining whether the numbers underlying the alleged ASD "epidemic" are real. Prometheus recently did an excellent review of that issue.

Dr. Sowell is asserting that the methodology used for pre-school aged children is fundamentally flawed, which problem is made worse by "diagnoses" made by people, many of whom are unqualified to do the screenings beyond recording answers to a checklist, who make the diagnoses based on checklists. Dr. Sowell argues that the checklists used in such screenings are deeply flawed, to include as factors supporting an ASD diagnosis, factors that are also consistent with concluding that the pre-school age child has a very high intelligence, or is speech delayed (which can be associated with a lot of other diagnoses, or, not infrequently is simply something that the child out grows - a different type of developmental delay, but not one that should be of major concern if correctly diagnosed). However, once the ASD diagnosis is given, it sticks and is seldom challenged or changed.

Prometheus' article also pointed out many of the problems in relying of autism incidence statistics based on IDEA standards, and the statistics from the Dept of Education or California Dept of Education. One of his tables shows that the "decrease" in MR diagnoses compared to the "increase" in autism diagnoses gives a r-squared of .999+. That, by itself, should cause pause to the autism-epidemic advocates (although, I haven't found any of them who have any idea of the significance of that).

As a research scientist, you know that any screening test carries a risk of false positives. In areas other than autism, a diagnosis that follows the patient isn't based on a screening test. You confirm it, or rule it out with additional tests and information, as part of a differential diagnosis. And, while a screening test may be performed by someone of limited education, training or clinical experience, that isn't sufficient for the later steps of the differential diagnosis process. Since Jenny McC, and many other advocates, don't seem especially concerned with the education, training, credentials or clinical experience of the "experts" they cite, and since, as you note, "it is not that uncommon for autistic children, especially mildly autistic children . . . to appear to be 'cured' spontaneously", in addition to your other points, it appears fair to ask whether her son is, in fact, "autistic"? The "diagnosis" may be nothing than the results of a screening questionnaire, interpreted by someone whose qualifications to give that diagnosis are not adequate to warrant reliance on, but once he received the label, it's stuck and hasn't' been challenged or changed based on what's happened since then. Then again, a book that says something like that isn't likely so sell very many copies.

wfjag wrote "Dr. Thomas Sowell, Ph.D., Econ"...

How does having a PhD in economics make someone an expert in child development?

You also wrote " Since Jenny McC, and many other advocates, don't seem especially concerned with the education, training, credentials or clinical experience of the "experts" they cite,"... if you are citing Thomas Sowell as an expert, then you are very far off.

Sowell is an economist, and one with an agenda. I have been given his writings (back when they were just newspaper columns) by friends thinking my son could benefit. I realized the stuff was bullshit when he touts an Einstein Syndrome... Something based on a myth (Einstein was not a late talker, and could speak in full sentences by the time his sister was born when he was 2 years old... read ).

Unfortunately, my son was not a "late talker", but a child with a severe speech disorder which may or may not be related to a history of seizures. I have decided to listen NOT to some actress who gets her science from Google NOR to an economist, but to a child neurologist, several speech therapist and several special education experts.

I would suggest you ignore Sowell also.

(As to McJenny's son's diagnosis... it may have never been autism. The only information is coming from her with her PhD from Google. The only thing that seems certain is that her son has a seizure disorder, which I do know can cause problems. She has admitted to taking his meds, somehow thinking it would make her understand its actual effects. Which is, again, another reason not to listen to her on how to treat children with developmental disorders or conditions).

Those of you interested in the damage that Thomas Sewell's viewpoint can bring might want to join the yahoo group

There you will find many parents of children who, as described, appear clearly autistic (or severely speech delayed) being told that their child is really a bright, exceptional child, who will normalize someday.

By An old member (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Those of you interested in the damage that Thomas Sowell's viewpoint can bring might want to join the yahoo group

There you will find many parents of children who, as described, appear clearly autistic (or severely speech delayed) being told that their child is really a bright, exceptional child, who will normalize someday.

By An old member (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Taking his meds to see what effect they have to understand him?!?!
If you don't have harmful bacteria, all you will notice when you take antibiotics is they will make you feel slightly unwell (or worse if you're allergic to the prescription). If you don't have a heart condition digitalis is prescribed for... well, it would be a bad idea to try it. WHY --no, not why, the obvious reason is she really is stupid-- take a medicine that's for a condition she doesn't have?

An old member mentioned a Yahoo group that states "This list is for parents of latetalkers , or speech delay , have some or all characteristics of children in Thomas Sowell's book. This is not a list for parents of autistic children but instead is specifically late talking children who are not autistic. Discussions are focused on improving speech with late talkers, obtaining therapy when needed, and schooling late talkers. This is not a list for discussions of vaccinations, special diets, or sensory therapies (with an agenda). "

That is a pretty narrow range. What do they say about speech disordered children? The ones with damage in Broca's area instead of Wernicke's. Those with dyspraxia, dysarthria, cerebral palsy, aphasia and a whole other list of speech/language disorders.

Why don't you tell us what they say, since one has to fill out a form to join. Just summerize what they have to say.

There is a page with reactions from parents several years ago on his book that might be of interest:…

Still, I feel that going to an economist for a child with speech and language problems makes as much sense as going to an optometrist for my son's hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I mean, really... what is the point?


Please read my comment for what it says before criticizing me for something I didn't say.

"I'm not holding him up as an expert in ASD or its diagnosis, nor does he hold himself out as one. But, as an economist, he does understand the use and mis-use of statistics, and GIGO."

As far as Dr. Sowell, Ph.D. (Econ) having an agenda -- everyone has an agenda. His, however, is quite easy to discover since he makes no effort to hide it. While going to an economist for a child with speech and language problems makes no sense, going to one on the use and mis-use of statistics does (since, that's what economists do). It, likewise, makes no sense to rely on a checklist completed by someone without the education or clinical experience to attain or equivalent to a doctorate level degree in childhood psychology or psychiatry for an ASD diagnosis, or any other developmental delay.

She takes her son's anti-seizure medication??? Doesn't she think that maybe her *son* might need that? Any dose she takes is a dose he can't take -- not to mention it's downright stupid (and in some cases, illegal) to take prescription drugs that were not prescribed to you. They're prescription for a reason, and that reason isn't to make the drug companies rich. (A lot of folks think that, but the truth is that OTC drugs can make them a lot more money.)

Dumb. Incredibly dumb.

Re: the possibility that her son was never actually diagnosed autistic, this is a very real possibility, especially given that her "diagnostic criteria" for "autism cure" is no longer being eligible for educational services. My 4-year-old daughter underwent the normal preschool screening in Minnesota to determine whether she required early intervention educational assistance. They did some impressive in-depth work to see if she qualified under ASD criteria. After about seven months (the process spanned the summer vacation), they concluded that she did not qualify, but would qualify for speech assistance. They stressed that they were not giving a diagnosis, but the whole thing was so impressive to a non-mental-health-professional that I have to wonder how many people actually pay attention that disclaimer. It's not the educators' fault; they're doing their best to indicate the limitations of what they are doing (including that they can only provide educational assistance, not other autism assistance). But how many people actually recognize that? How many people come away convinced that their child has autism?

And what does this do to the way these parents are raising their children? Does it improve or degrade their parenting? Do they lower their expectations too low? Does this set the children up for failure? And does this, when combined with frustration at the slow pace of the public ed bureaucracy, lead parents to seek alternative medical assistance for non-existent problems? I find myself wondering how many children cope with bizarre diets, greatly increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and risky and even painful alternative medical therapies -- when they aren't even autistic to begin with?

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 25 Nov 2007 #permalink

The NaturalLateTalkers yahoo group is, IMO, a group engage in group denial that their child has delays. It is essentially a group which states that if your kid meets certain criteria - which are very broad,, he is not really language delayed, certainly not on the autism spectrum, but is really a very bright child who will eventually naturally begin to speak without any residual delays. You kid doesn't need official speech therapy, you are better off with just parent-run therapy, and following the child's lead. Autism is a terrible thing, it's insulting to even think you child could be like those awful autistic children doomed to eternal failure. Oh, your child spins things, looks out of the corners of his eyes, tantrums, doesn't have good eye-contact? Well, that's just because he is special/scientifically minded/enjoys unusual perspectives/is so special that he should be excused from having a tantrum/is shy/doesn't like to meet strangers who act so weirdly, suggesting that there might actually be a problem.

They don't admit that there might be organic reasons for a language delay, and if the parent points out that their child has a medical issue, they are escorted immediately out of the group.

By An old member (not verified) on 27 Nov 2007 #permalink

An old member said "The NaturalLateTalkers yahoo group is, IMO, a group engage in group denial that their child has delays."

Thanks. That was the feeling I got from the "Late Talking" webpage well over a decade ago. They sound about as bad as the parents who claim to have "Indigo" or "Crystal" children.

I have two sons. One I guess would have been considered one of those "Late Talking" children. His language delay was noticed by my older son's speech therapist. He did get a year of twice a week therapy by student clinicians at the university, and then two years of once a week therapy from a school therapist. The first quarter of therapy from a student his vocabulary went from the level of a 2-year-old, to age appropriate (just shy of 4-years-old). By the time he 5 years 9 months old he tested out of services at a low-normal level. As a 17 year old high school junior he is an honor student taking AP Calculus.

NOW... for my older son with the seizure disorder he had a speech disorder, not a mere language delay. He has had over 10 years of speech therapy, and is learning disabled. He is taking community college classes with disability services.

I wonder how many of the "NaturalLateTalkers" group have children more like my older son than my younger son. Also, how many of them realize that Sowell's son actually DID have early intervention therapy (as did my now high performing younger son)?

Sorry, wfjag... I have a visceral dislike of Sowell, and anyone else who spouts "Einstein" syndrome (I also suspect Sowell's agenda is to cut special ed. supports in the public school system). When my oldest son was diagnosed (by a qualified speech language pathologist at the local Children's Hospital) I got lots of "helpful" people telling me to "wait and see, Einstein and my third cousin's nephew twice removed didn't talk until he was 3, 4, 27 and he is just fine now". A couple of those people also shoved Sowell's editorials in my face. After well over a decade (oh, yeah I remember it was when we first moved into this house... over 14 years ago) I still get a bad taste in my mouth whenever Sowell is mentioned. You'd be much better off quoting this guy on how autism rates are skewed:

"Einstein and my third cousin's nephew twice removed didn't talk until he was 3, 4, 27 and he is just fine now".

Actually, HCN, that is "one of those stories" told about any famous person (like, e.g., Geo. Washington and the cherry tree) that ain't true. Einstein had quirks, even as a child, but there's no reliable evidence of a speech delay. As a child (he later reported) he'd dream of things like what it would be like to sit on a photon as it raced across the universe at the speed of light and how things would look. There's a bit of difference between speech delay and not being interested in what the other kids around you are saying.

On the subject of early intervention and all the therapy your sons received -- don't count yourself and your spouse out of the picture. All children are individuals, and all innate have strengths and weaknesses ["just like people"]. The children who make the greatest strides are almost always the ones whose parents provided the most parenting. In addition to the therapists and teachers, you and your spouse were also working with your sons, and also encouraging them and requiring them to keep trying. Ain't easy being a parent. But, the rewards are well worth the time and effort.


I am a moderator of the Naturallatetalkers' group. We provide support for parents of children whose language lags behind their peers. Our focus is on kids with solely a language challenge, though parents of kids with other challenges do participate. As we have 2300+members, strictly language challenged kids are more prevalent than some folks might suspect. A big part of our focus is providing ideas for child-friendly, child-led intervention. Our list has the benefit of input from Dr. Stephen Camarata, who has credentials out the wazoo and a lot of clinical experience with late talkers, as well as kids with autism, etc..

I personally am a parent of two children who were late talkers. I'm very surprised at folks who comment as if knowledgeable about our group when they obviously have no first-hand knowledge of it. I'm open to reasonable discussion of this topic. This might require that participants are open and receptive to what another participant offers.

Steve Vasil