PseudoscienceSpecial Needs

UPDATED: When Corporations Attempt “Autism Awareness”

It’s the weekend. You want to go out to eat. You don’t want takeout. You want to sit down and feel fancy, dammit, even if your kids are climbing on you with food smeared on their faces. Maybe you’re thinking about going to Chili’s. If you’re a supporter of science and autistic people, you might want to choose another restaurant.

Chili’s recently announced that on April 7, they’ll be donating 10% of profits to the National Autism Association.

What’s wrong with that? It’s nice to donate to autism organizations.
Yeah, well. Let’s look at the NAA. Here’s their position on vaccines:

National Autism Association FAQ
National Autism Association FAQ –

Is that all? I mean, they don’t say vaccines are bad. 
Right. First of all, there’s no reason to play at a controversy anymore. There is no link between vaccines and autism. This is done. We know this. Continuing to promote that wishy-washy “Parents need to decide for themselves” attitude is disingenuous at best. Second, they link to the National Vaccine Information Center.

So? That sounds reasonable.
If you’ve read Deadly Choices by Dr. Paul Offit, you’ll know why NVIC is not as innocuous as it sounds. If you haven’t read that, here’s an example of the kind of “information” the NVIC provides:

"If the State can tag, track down and force citizens against their will to be injected with biologicals of known and unknown toxicity today, there will be no limit on which individual freedoms the State can take away in the name of the greater good tomorrow." — Barbara Loe Fisher, Co-Founder NVIC
National Vaccine Information Center –
National Vaccine Information Center -
National Vaccine Information Center –

So, back to the NAA itself.

Even if the NAA doesn’t support vaccines, so what? If they’re doing other things to help autistic people, why does it matter if Chili’s donates to them? 
First of all, vaccines do matter. Recent outbreaks of measles in the US in areas with low vaccination rates show us that vaccines are very much still relevant. But aside from that, let’s look at some of the interventions that the National Autism Association recommends:

National Autism Association -
National Autism Association –

According to Jay L. Hoecker, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic, the Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diet has no benefit and could be harmful. There doesn’t appear to be any legitimate source recommending the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for autism, either, and like other restrictive diets, it can cause nutritional deficiencies.

Are you still not convinced? Take a look at this:

Treatment Options May Include
National Autism Association –

They suggest hyperbaric oxygen therapy and chelation as viable treatments for autism. Yes, they have some sneaky CYA-ese a disclaimer at the bottom of the page suggesting that parents consult with a doctor before trying any of these treatments, but it would be just as easy, and infinitely more responsible, to just leave those and the other ineffectual “treatments” off of the page, especially considering the site encourages parents to seek out DAN! doctors, who are more likely to approve of these treatments than a normal, science-based doctor.

But the NAA site gives good advice, too!
Yeah, there are some decent tips and resources given on their web site, but if anything, that makes them more dangerous. If the web site seemed like a hotbed of fringe theories, the average person wouldn’t pay much attention. Unfortunately, by mixing in harmful advice with sensible information, the truly horrendous ideas start to look reasonable by association. By supporting this organization, Chili’s is, intentionally or not, promoting those views.

UPDATE: Chili’s is now earmarking their donation for the NAA’s Big Red Safety Box program. This is somewhat of an improvement from donating to the organization in general, but it still indicates approval.

The push for “autism awareness” in general shows a shocking lack of awareness. Autism Speaks, probably the best-known autism-related charity, benefits from chocolate bunnies, light bulbs, and so much more, while ignoring actual autistic people and speaking of autistic children as burdens, or as victims trapped within their own bodies, rather than neurodiverse individuals.

Autism Speaks and the National Autism Association (among many other despicable organizations) aren’t aware of what is actually good for autistic people. Corporations aren’t aware of what they’re supporting when they donate to these organizations. Consumers aren’t aware of what they’re supporting when they purchase from these corporations.

It’s time to turn “autism awareness” around. We’re all aware that autism exists. We’re aware that it can be difficult for autistics and their parents. Now we need to be aware of what we’re supporting, and accept autistic people as they are.

UPDATE 4/6/2014: Chili’s has canceled their donation to the National Autism Association. On the Chili’s blog, they wrote:

Chili’s is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.

We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili’s, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments.

So, if you need a restaurant to host your awards night, it looks like Chili’s might be worth considering, if they learn from this experience and are more careful in choosing the recipients of future donations.

If you would like to donate to an evidence-based autism-related charity, try the Autism Science Foundation, the Golden Hat Foundation, or the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

Featured image by photosteve101 on Flickr



Young mom raising a bilingual child (N) with her boyfriend (B) and trying desperately to avoid all the Woo down in Wooville.

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  1. When I first heard of the Chili’s plan, I thought it was really great. I liked that it was inspired by the server who was so kind and understanding the the autistic girl, that went viral last year. I am the mother of a son with autism, so this appealed to me. Now I will not be supporting Chili’s on this plan!
    I agree that we need to work on autism acceptance, but there is still a need for awareness. Criticism of my parenting, discipline, and validity of the diagnosis (he doesn’t “look autistic”) and general judgemental glares, hostile looks and under the breath comments still happen very often. A lot of people’s autism awareness begins and ends with Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. This needs to change, but the Chilii’s promotion is not the way to do it! Thank you for including links for donations to science based, rational organizations.

    1. I think what we really need is understanding. “Awareness” is so limited. We all know autism exists (okay, except for those people who think anything in the brain is a modern invention or a character flaw rather than a difference in wiring or chemistry, but I don’t think anything will get through to them) but it doesn’t really go beyond that, and I don’t think awareness campaigns are really too concerned about expanding their focus beyond their autism-as-prison narrative.

      It’s encouraging, though, that there’s a growing backlash against these organizations. That’s how the mainstream perspective of autism will change, and it might take a while, but it’s happening.

      (I’d like to clarify that when I say “understanding” I mean understanding what autism is, that it’s real, that it’s not something to get rid of, and that people are different– not the “autism is a puzzle” kind of understanding.)

    1. Thank you! I’m glad to help get the word out, and I’m really happy that the internet made it possible for people to come together and convince Chili’s to change their minds. I hope other corporations are paying attention.

  2. I’m so glad you lumped Autism Speaks in with the “other despicable organizations” since it’s the one I see most frequently on the Facebook pages of friends and neighbors who have children with autism. Whether they’re doing fundraising walks or just advocating, Autism Speaks comes up all the time even though everything about it from how the group leadership is structured to the way they stigmatize people with autism spectrum disorders, to how it allocates its funds is just so. . .so. . .wrong.

    1. Autism Speaks sucks, especially since they have so much influence. They have had such an impact on the perception of autism and autistic people, and not in a positive way. They’ve reminded people that autism exists, but nothing more.

  3. I haven’t heard or seen the absurd vaccine shaken baby association in many years. And just for everyone’s information, shaken many syndrome is caused by, well you know, shaking the baby!! The injuries are force related and are caused by the rapid change of direction in an infant’s head due to the lack or muscle support in the neck. These can in no way be mistaken for some kind of allergic reaction. And IMO to say so is near criminally negligent. Good for Chili’s for backing away a bit, and hopefully they will learn more and disassociate themselves completely from the NAA.

    1. Yeah, when I first heard about the whole “Shaken Baby Syndrome is caused by vaccines!!!” thing, I was shocked. I already knew that the anti-vaccine movement would sink pretty low, but to actually embrace people who abuse their babies because it suits their agenda… that’s a special kind of awful.

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