Chili’s Autism Awareness Problem

Posted on Apr 23, 2014 in Autism

Chili's Low Carb

Someone at Chili’s has made a bad decision. In the spirit of Autism Awareness Month–you aware yet?–Chili’s Grill & Bar has evidently decided to support the National Autism Association (NAA) by giving this group 10% of their take at the table on Monday, April 7.

Illustrating precisely why awareness of something is not the same as understanding it well, Chili’s has made a particularly poor choice of entity to support if helping children with autism reach their potential is their goal, as their flyer states. Why is NAA a poor choice? Because of this from their “causes of autism” page:

While mainstream science discounts vaccinations as a cause, members of the National Autism Association feel vaccinations have triggered autism in a subset of children, and that an overly aggressive vaccination schedule coupled with toxic adjuvants in vaccines could affect individuals who have a family history of autoimmune disorders specifically. As with any medication, adverse events do happen, and vaccinations are no exception. Research to investigate, and reduce, adverse events in immunized individuals is currently nonexistent.

I guess no one told the “members of the National Autism Association” that the feels are irrelevant and should carry less weight than a feather when evaluating evidence. Indeed, the scientific process, when it’s working right, is the cure for the wrongs human feelings have wrought in our tendency to pattern seeking and belief in the meaning of coincidence. But for the NAA, it’s not just the feels, it’s the believes, too:

The National Autism Association believes:

  • Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions.
  • Other environmental exposures may trigger, or exacerbate, autism in certain children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions.

Belief also is less than featherweight as evidence. Before method reined in the human tendency to motif-seeking madness, beliefs led us into all kinds of cul de sacs of thinking. Belief has no place in discussing the biological origins of a human condition.

NAA helpfully provides a list of the “environmental exposures” that it says “mainstream” research has identified as “contributing factors” to autism. The thing is, not one has, in fact, been established as contributing to autism. They say “mainstream” science on the page four times (leaving the discerning reader to wonder if the other kind of science is “rivulet science” or “stagnant pond science”). Their list consists of factors that have been correlated with autism risk, not established as causative or contributing, with some more compelling than others. For context, organic food sales should also be on that list, based on the same criterion.

The NAA wraps up by urging folks to engage in a little citizen science, always admirable, and then puts all their limited cards on the table, saying outright that the environment triggers autism onset and that ergo, autism is “preventable and treatable”:

It’s important to do your own research into the various causes that are being investigated. We believe that families should have access to all information including environmental insults, vaccines, and genetics. We also believe that because the onset of autism is triggered by an environmental factor, or combination of factors, autism is preventable and treatable.

As a sort of coup de grâce of the barely sub subtext of their “causes” page, the wrapup line sends readers to the most virulently anti-vaccine group in the nation, the National Vaccine Information Center, which is not national in the federal government sense and doesn’t provide the kind of “information” about vaccines that its name might imply.

Chili’s, by the way, is aware that their decision has not been well received. Their response, via Facebook?

The intent of our 4/7 National Give Back Event is not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism. Our choice to partner with the National Autism Association was based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism. We sincerely appreciate all of the feedback we’ve heard on this topic.

Raise your hand if you think it’s possible to give money to an organization or cause without expressing a viewpoint, particularly when you insist on doing it after becoming aware of the problems with that viewpoint. I can’t say what led Chili’s to choose an organization that clearly promotes a debunked vaccine-related causation of autism, a failed hypothesis that has done untold harm to public health and to autistic people. What they do make abundantly clear with their choice–and their doubling down–is that being aware of autism doesn’t help autistic people at all. And eating at Chili’s on Monday won’t help autistic people, either, although it looks like it’ll help the NAA. And those are two very different outcomes.

UPDATE, 4/6/2014, 2:30 PDT: I have received the following emailed statement from a representative of the parent company of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Brinker International:

Chili’s Grill & Bar 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.

I appreciate their decision.

UPDATE 2, 4/6/2014, 8:10 PDT: NAA has posted comment on their Facebook page. An excerpt:

Though NAA has changed our mission and efforts in recent years to focus on autism safety, namely wandering prevention, controversial views about vaccines remained on our website. Because of guest feedback about these views, Chili’s has opted to cancel tomorrow’s event. We respect their decision and ask everyone to please speak words of love and kindness.