Leadership

Vaccine Controversy Sinks Fundraiser for Autism Group

The restaurant chain Chili's Grill & Bar was set to host a fundraiser on Monday to benefit the National Autism Association. The event was canceled over what critics believed was the organization's stance against vaccines. It's a story about how strong views and mixed messages can derail an attempted good deed.

The restaurant chain Chili’s Grill & Bar was set to host a fundraiser on Monday to benefit the National Autism Association. The event was canceled over what critics believed was the organization’s stance against vaccines. It’s a story about how strong views and mixed messages can derail an attempted good deed.

It started with a Facebook post. And it ended with another one.

What happened in between created a headache for an association whose goals have shifted in recent years.

The National Autism Association (NAA), a group focused on safety for people with autism,was to have been the beneficiary of a nationwide fundraiser sponsored by the Chili’s Grill & Bar chain Monday night, with the company pledging to donate 10 percent of qualifying checks at participating restaurants. The event had been prompted by a customer’s Facebook post praising the treatment of a child with autism in a Chili’s restaurant. But the company ultimately canceled the event amid controversy and confusion over NAA’s stance on an alleged connection between vaccines and autism.

Although NAA says its mission has shifted to to focus on autism safety, it found itself having to defend statements that remain on its website that appear to support the view that vaccines cause autism. This view, espoused most famously by actress and activist Jenny McCarthy, has increasingly come under fire from scientists and public officials who say it has no basis in fact. (A 1998 Lancet study that first surfaced these claims was retracted in 2010, and another British medical journal called the study an “elaborate fraud” in 2011.)

When the science blog io9 spotted a promotion for the Chili’s “Give Back Event” that would have benefited NAA, the blog raised the profile of some of the group’s more controversial views. While the association does not specifically recommend that parents not vaccinate their children, it does note on its “Causes of Autism” page that “vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children.” (The website emphasizes, however, that this is not a mainstream scientific view.)

io9‘s Robert T. Gonzalez suggested that that NAA appears to promote views from the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccination group, and is listed as a sponsor of the online publication Age of Autism, which includes the phrase “yes, vaccines cause autism” in its header.

The blowback from the io9 post, as well as from a Business Insider post, grew until Chili’s canceled the event:

“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,” the company stated.

After Chili’s announcement, NAA posted a statement to its Facebook page acknowledging that while its mission has changed in recent years, “controversial views about vaccines remained on our website.”

“We respect their decision and ask everyone to please speak words of love and kindness. NAA has evolved as our children’s needs have evolved,” the association said in the post.

NAA said it would continue to provide safety resources—including its Big Red Safety Box Program—to assist parents of autistic children who wander off.

(Brian Gautreau/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!


Comments