The chain restaurant Chili’s has unknowingly ignited a social media shit storm and landed right in the middle of the great autism/vaccine connection debate. It began with a sweet story of a considerate server catering to the needs of an autistic young patron and ended with people on both sides calling for a baby back rib boycott. And in the end, autistic children and their families lose.
Our story begins with this sweet little girl and her broken cheeseburger. Just more than a year ago, a seven-year-old girl, Arianna, ordered a cheeseburger at a Chili’s, but when it arrived cut in half, she sadly explained that she couldn’t eat it because it was broken. Often children with autism require things to be in a certain order, certain condition, etc. So while you may be able to tell your child to just eat the burger and ensure them that it’s fine, in the case of a child like Arianna, you can expect a hunger strike, or a meltdown at the very least. The server and manager were apologetic to Arianna, explained that they’ll bring her a fixed burger as quickly as possible. Arianna was thrilled and kissed her burger when it arrived. Her older sister posted the story on Chili’s Facebook page, it went viral, all was good. Sweet story.
As April is Autism Awareness Month, Chili’s decided to feature the National Autism Association (NAA) in their “Give Back” event and donate 10 percent of qualifying guest checks on April 7th to the organization. According to their mission statement, the non-profit organization provides “research funding, advocacy, support and education for the autism community with the goal of helping all affected by the neurodevelopmental disorder reach their full potential.”
So, what could be possibly wrong with that? Unfortunately, the NAA buys into the erroneous notion that vaccines are a huge cause of autism and choosing not to vaccinate your child is a viable option in preventing autism or at least reducing the risk.
The biggest issue with NAA’s stance is that, well, vaccines simply do not cause autism. There is absolutely no scientific evidence or proof that supports the connection that they do. Recommending that parents choose not to vaccinate their children to prevent an autism diagnosis is, at the very least, bad advice.
The NAA doesn’t cite scientific evidence to support their claims (because there is none), but they do cite “parent reports”. This is a particularly sad and generally bad method of evidence. After receiving an autism diagnosis, parents of course want to know why their child is autistic and they are given no real answers. So they desperately look for possible causes, likely for their own peace of mind and also to help other children.
To a parent, the MMR vaccine could seem like a possible trigger and the reasons why are very simple…
- Babies are given the MMR vaccine around 15 months of age
- Signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show up around 18-24 months
Many children with ASD seem to develop normally until 18-24 months when they stop gaining new skills or begin to lose the skills they once had. Imagine your 15-month-old is developing normally, he says mama and dada, he smiles, waves and is generally very social and happy. At 18 months, he’s no longer speaking, prefers to be alone and avoids eye contact. It probably seems like something happened that caused this behavior and the MMR shot is a memorable milestone, so it seems like a likely culprit due to the time of immunization. But it’s not.
New evidence [note: actual evidence from the New England Journal of Medicine, not an anti-“big pharma” blog] suggests autism actually begins before birth, while still in the womb. So, autism does not pop up at 18 months of age, the signs and symptoms do. The child has always been autistic.
According to the NAA–
“Based on parent reports – including parents representing the National Autism Association – sharp regression occurred in their children directly following immunizations. While many parents can provide detailed accounts of regression in their children following vaccination, other parents have reported autism in their unvaccinated children.”
This means nothing in terms of a connection to the MMR vaccine and autism. There is no actual evidence and the second sentence seems to even address what a chapshoot idea this is. According to the NAA, some autistic kids were vaccinated and some were not. But you should probably avoid vaccines anyway. This would be a fine suggestion if it weren’t for, you know, the whole aspect of vaccines preventing serious illness and disease.
When Chili’s announced they were donating to NAA, the pro-vaxxers were outraged that Chili’s planned to essentially donate to anti-vax efforts and express their discontent. A lot. The anti-vaxxers applauded Chili’s decision and encouraged them not to cave to the “medical mafia”.
But the backlash continued and Chili’s decided to cancel the event.
The whole thing is just a damn shame. It’s a shame Chili’s picked a organization without thoroughly researching or considering the negatively implications. It’s a shame all the good the NAA does is overshadowed by their bad advice. And it’s really a shame that autistic people and families were the real losers in this scenario.
There are plenty of great organizations that directly help autistic people and in my humble opinion, are worthy of Chili’s or anyone’s donations. They’re financially responsible, have representation from those with autism on their boards and in leadership positions and don’t promote incorrect information about vaccines, fear mongering, negative stigmas, etc. I hope Chili’s decides to have another “Give Back” event and donate the proceeds to one of these organizations. If not, I hope people on both sides take the opportunity to donate to the organization of their choosing.
If you’d like to donate the $2-3 Chili’s would have on your behalf or are looking for resources or information about autism, I recommend:
- FEAT, Families for Early Autism Treatment
- ASAN, Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
- ANI, Autism Network International
- Autism Society of America
Autism awareness is a noble cause, but promoting false information and encouraging parents to avoid potentially life-saving measures based on that false information is harmful to all children and only hinders the cause. Let’s promote autism awareness, help autistic children and families, but let’s stick to the facts.