Has PETA’s provocative autism campaign gone too far?

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PETA Autism ad

PETA faced criticism for their 2008 campaign linking dairy consumption to worsened autism symptoms, and their undated article on the topic is enjoying a revival of media attention. It’s easy to see how this happened. The current debate on whether vaccinations have any effect on autism invites deep research on the subject, and the ubiquitous “gluten-free” craze is another hot topic these days (gluten has also been thought to exacerbate symptoms of autism). Delving far enough down the rabbit hole, you’ll find this “retro” writeup.

Let’s face it: PETA has a pretty obvious agenda, and it’s clear that their campaign’s aim is to promote a vegan lifestyle. Any sincere compassion for people with autism is tangential to their main focus. In 2008, this campaign parodied the played-out “Got Milk?” slogan with a provocative billboard asking, “Got Autism?” The advertising company hosting the billboard soon pulled it from its Newark, NJ location, but the image is still available on the PETA website.

peta autism billboard

News outlets and popular blogs such as Forbes, io9 and The Telegraph are mocking PETA’s claims and dismissing them as the scaremongers they admittedly are. PETA does cite peer-reviewed research, but these studies were cherry picked from many that found no link between consumption of cow’s milk and/or gluten and worsened autism symptoms. One study had a small sample size, while the other is nearly 20 years old. PETA also shares a mother’s testimonial:

Then I realized that Miles’ ear infections had begun when he was 11 months old, just after we had switched him from soy formula to cow’s milk. He’d been on soy formula because my family was prone to allergies, and I’d read that soy might be better for him. I had breast-fed until he was 3 months old, but he didn’t tolerate breast milk very well—possibly because I was drinking lots of milk. 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.”

This mother’s testimonial reminds me of something I witnessed in a college “practicum in autism” course, where I met a child on a dairy-free, gluten-free diet, way before it was “cool.” This was before the PETA campaign, too, so for people in certain psychology circles, their propaganda is not unprecedented. The mother of this child found that his behavior improved on the special diet; his symptoms were less severe. The link goes back at least as far as 1979, when Dr. Jaak Panksepp observed that autistic individuals digested wheat and dairy inefficiently. In 1991, Dr. Kalle Reichelt took this research further, finding that autistic children’s urine contained peptides suspected to result from improper breakdown of dairy and gluten. Scientists believed these peptides could cross the brain-blood barrier of already-autistic individuals, causing an opioid effect.

We don’t always turn to peer-reviewed research when seeking health advice. Much of what we learn about treating illness comes from word of mouth, and we still trust some of the folk remedies we learned from family and friends, even if science doesn’t back it up. If trying a special diet works for some people, what is there to lose? PETA is an easy target for ridicule, but they’re not just making stuff up. The research in line with PETA’s agenda might be weak, but it hints that there might be something to the theory, at least enough to give it a try (with a doctor’s approval).