I’ve got beef with PETA on autism and dairy

a cow looks angrily into the distance

The ethical and moral implications of falsely linking autism with dietary choices.

Dear Peta,

It is with great consternation that I discovered the Peta autism billboard advertisement linking Autism with milk is back in the news. Well, social media at least.

On January 4th, this tweet was published.

Screenshot taken January 5th, 2021

You have done this before, in 2014, in the USA. Sense About Science’s archived blog about it explains that history.

The newspaper version of the ad

I used to work with autistic children (indeed, I now have a diagnosis of my own) and their parents are often lacking in support and subject to all kinds of stigma.

Many people believe that Autism is the result of ‘bad parenting’ or ‘refrigerator mothers’. Others falsely believe that vaccines cause Autism. Far too many believe it is the will of god that some children have Autism. Some think that casein, gluten, mercury and leaky gut syndrome causes or worsens it. These are all proven to be incorrect – not just ‘we’re not sure’ – studies show that this is not the case.

It’s difficult to disprove the will of God – once we have evidence that he exists we’ll come back to his supposed powers.

The truth of it is: we don’t really know what causes Autism. It’s complex and it’s bewildering. New research is being conducted every day and it’s looking to be something that starts or has its roots in factors that affect us before we are born.

Parents don’t always immediately care about the science though (which seems abstract and high-level and – at times – complex, contradictory and elitist). They want to hear what worked for other parents. The want quick stuff that they can effect easily, with limited resources. They don’t have time to do all the research. They’re too busy parenting and trying to live their lives.

Surely the Peta Autism Billboard wouldn’t lie to parents?

For its 50th birthday, the National Autistic Society published research stating the following:

—74% of people caring for someone with Autism get no support from their Local Authority and —80% have never had their needs assessed. —64% people caring for someone with Autism suffered from depression and —34% wait 3 years or more for diagnosis. Only 28% say they receive good info where to go to for help and support. Source: National Autistic Survey 50th Birthday report

So you can forgive parents for not having the time to do the research and, instead trusting what societies and agencies and charities say.

The Peta Autism Billboard suggesting that removing milk from your child’s diet (to help with symptoms of Autism) might not seem harmful to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. On the face of it, it’s not. Humans can live without milk and there are plenty of other milk-like substances that work in milk’s place. I can’t speak to their nutritional benefit and I would wholeheartedly agree that breast milk is preferable to cow’s milk, where it can be fed.

However, the problem I see is this: falsely using Autism as a hook to get people off dairy products is wrong. Ethically wrong. If you want to get people to stop consuming it then there are other, better, more convincing ways to do so. Telling people a falsehood to benefit what seems a positive end is more problematic than it might first seem. It ties in with all the other falsehoods, lies and myths that parents of children on the spectrum are bombarded with.

They’re told not to vaccinate their children. They’re falsely told to use chelation to remove mercury (that isn’t there in the first place). The chelation removes necessary vitamins and minerals that they need to grow. Including calcium. Sometimes, chelation can be lethal.

They’re told to use Hyberbaric Oxygen Chambers which can cause terrible nausea, vomiting, convulsions, inflammation & fluid accumulation in the lungs. And has no real benefit to their child’s symptoms.

The more that is thrown at these parents, who are, after all, usually trying to do the best for their children like all good parents are; the more they are confused and bewildered and looking for someone or something to blame.

And now it’s dairy. Dairy products are the evil accelerator of Autistic symptoms. Except they aren’t. Autism, being a spectrum disorder, has ups and downs and ins and outs and no two children on the spectrum have the exact same difficulties. That’s what makes it complex. Children grow up: neurotypical children regress and then grow up again. This is normal for all children and it’s usually impossible to attribute to just one thing.

With treatments given (or foods removed) over weeks and weeks, parents report that their children experience small gains. But then they would – they are growing and their brains are changing. We’d naturally expect any child to change and their skills to improve. We can’t predict the exact course of a neurotypical child’s development (just compare to others) – so how can we expect to know what a child with potentially limited communication skills (in some cases) is experiencing; feeling, knowing? How do we know whether it’s the removal of dairy alone that is causing this?

From the Peta US site:

“There was nothing to lose, so I decided to eliminate all the dairy products from his diet. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. Miles stopped screaming, he didn’t spend as much time repeating actions, and by the end of the first week, he pulled on my hand when he wanted to go downstairs. For the first time in months*, he let his sister hold his hands to sing “Ring Around a Rosy.”

*my emphasis

One child’s story of removing milk from his diet doesn’t address all the other factors that science would attempt to take out of the equation (known as confounding variables). What else is happening in his life? Has he moved school? Is he receiving behavioural treatment? Is he maturing; learning better social skills? What other factors might influence the measurement of what effect the removal of dairy has had? What other things has this parent tried which might be working alongside removing dairy? Have other treatments started or stopped at the same time? Have his parents also moved the a noise source to another room which means he’s getting better sleep? What made him stop letting his sister hold his hands in the first place, if he was eating dairy products before? We can’t know, from the above testimonial, exactly what else has happened to this child.

Maybe it’s simply that his mother felt sure an improvement would be made by removing dairy and so felt less stressed. Her behaviour could then impact on his and his sister’s. We simply can’t know.

What we can do is do studies on whatever theory we have – whether it’s dairy and its implications with Autism or single/no vaccinations and rates of Autism. Randomised, controlled, double-blind trials. That’s the best way we know how at the moment since we can’t look inside brains and determine attitudes, thoughts and feelings. We can just observe behaviour and take conclusions from that in many cases.

But this treatment has to work (above placebo) for a significant amount of people for a significant amount of time and replicated to be valid and reliable and worthy of a public campaign.

If only it were as simple as removing dairy products from the diet. But it isn’t. And I think it is cruel and dangerous to suggest anything to parents that isn’t backed up by science.

Not drinking milk can be an ethical stance. It doesn’t have to come with a litany of falsehoods, myths and scare-mongering coupled with a demonisation of children with autism.

Why cheapen your message with all that?

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