PETA's Latest Shock Campaign Erroneously Suggests That Milk Causes Autism

PETA is exploiting the panic over autism to advance its own agenda, which is revolting, but also deeply illustrative of how much the West fears and hates autism.
Publish date:
June 24, 2014
seriously just stop talking now, disabilities, PETA, autism

Stop me if you've heard this one before: PETA is saying ridiculous things again.

In this case, the extremist animal rights group is claiming that milk causes autism, which is a brilliant exploitation of the autism scare, and yet another iteration of the organization's new approach to trying to get people to stop consuming animal products. Instead of hosting thought-provoking conversations (like those that originally made me a PETA member), PETA has reduced itself to sexist, racist, fat-phobic, flashy campaigns preying on social fears (which would be why I resigned my membership).

PETA's decided, on the basis of a very small study examining nutrition and symptoms of intellectual and cognitive disabilities, that milk "causes" autism. Their "Got Autism?" campaign mockingly mirrors the iconic "Got Milk?" campaign, except it has some serious problems.

First of all, the study involved a tiny sample size, which is never a good sign. Secondly, the study actually examined how dietary sensitivities affect the severity of symptoms -- not whether casein (a milk protein) and gluten actually cause autism. Trying to induce autism in study subjects would be, unsurprisingly, unethical, so this study, along with other dietary studies, instead looked at ways to help patients manage their autism more effectively.

Dietary studies are important, because early emerging evidence is showing that in some cases, dietary restrictions can make a difference. (Sorry, everyone who likes to mock parents with children on restrictive diets.) Some people with certain cognitive and intellectual impairments experience better outcomes after eliminating certain proteins from their diets, and casein can be one of those protein targets. Others, of course, do not. The brain and body are highly individual things that react to the same dietary inputs quite differently from person to person.

PETA, however, ignored the nuances of the study and the larger framework of scientific discussion about childhood nutrition, instead going for the soft, easy shot: This one study in one publication showed that patients eating a restricted diet experienced a better outcome than those who did not after a year of observation. Ergo, milk causes autism!

Well, one, science doesn't work that way. Cherrypicking studies to find the ones that reinforce your views isn't really an impressive demonstration of critical thinking, and PETA could have chosen from a range of studies on the subject to discuss the interaction of autism and diet. Given the Western explosion of concern over autism, there have been numerous studies on the subject and there are more in the works, including studies aimed at helping patients control their symptoms, address specific issues like food sensitivities, and more.

And two, PETA is exploiting the panic over autism to advance its own agenda, which is revolting, but also deeply illustrative of how much the West fears and hates autism. The approach to the autism spectrum is one of eliminationism, with autism cast as a terrible disease that needs to be eradicated. Autistic people are "sufferers" who need to be "cured" and their parents are "burdened" by having to deal with the hardship of having a disabled child.

Having autistic children is, under this framework, like having a ball and chain attached to you, freezing you in a state of being unable to move forward because you're saddled with the responsibility of dealing with your cold, voiceless, alien children.

Such is the rhetoric of eliminationist groups like Autism Speaks, which has been heavily criticized for the way it talks about autism. This group, and others like it, approach autism as a terrible problem that needs a solution, rather than a natural variation of humanity and an expression of neurodiversity. By contrast, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network promotes a different view of autism, one in which autistics are empowered and taking an active role in their own lives, rather than being viewed as passive objects of fear and hatred.

We know that false linkages between autism and diet, medical treatments, and other things have real consequences. Panic over claims that vaccines cause autism has caused multiple outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease, some of which have led to deaths. Autistics, meanwhile, have been tortured with "treatments" like chelation and hyperbaric chambers, with parents convinced that these interventions will cure their children -- or at least reduce the severity of their symptoms.

PETA's decision to enter the autism fray is perhaps not surprising, as is its misinterpretation of a study on autism and diet to accomplish its end goal. The group is so focused on eliminating the exploitation of animals that it doesn't care about the human harm it inflicts along the way; the human victims of PETA are simply collateral damage, not as important as "the greater good." Yet, how much good has PETA done? These days, the group seems more focused on shock value than anything else, and, like Greenpeace, it may be facing organizational failure because it can't stay focused on accomplishing goals and creating functional alliances.

In the continual search for a cause for autism, organizations and individuals miss the more important point: Autistic people, including children and adults, are here, present, right now, with thoughts on autism, life as an autistic person, and how to improve the treatment of autism in society. Rather than viewing autism as something that needs to be eliminated, many view it as just the opposite -- but are still fighting for equal rights, a seat at the table, and fair treatment.

Perhaps someday ad campaigns like this one and groups like Autism Speaks will be looked back upon with disgust and horror, and will be a topic of discussion in conversations about how not to advocate. That day, however, is not going to happen without a substantial shift in public attitudes about autism, and that requires actually talking to autistic people, not over or about autistics.