Next week the antivaccination group AutismOne will be delivering a two day conference at the University of Toronto. “Changing the Course of Autism In Canada” [PDF] has been a hot topic in the blogosphere for past several weeks. Why so controversial? AutismOne propagates fictions about the supposed links between vaccines and autism (there isn’t one) and and advocates pseudoscientific, unproven, and even dangerous biomedical treatments for autism. The conference agenda even includes an apparently serious discussion of how the homeopathy, an elaborate placebo system, can help treat autism.
With content this dubious, you’d expect science-based organizations to stay far, far away. So when the program brochure implied the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T was co-hosting the conference, many people questioned the school’s lack of due diligence. And after being inundated with inquiries, the school quickly clarified that they are not a sponsor of the program. Suddenly, the school’s name disappeared from the program brochure.
Unfortunately, the SickKids Foundation of the Hospital for Sick Children was also listed as a sponsor. And it’s no mistake – they donated $5000 to the organizers. Why would a children’s hospital support a group whose antivaccination stance can only serve to increase communicable disease, putting more children at risk of harm?
Astonishingly, the SickKids foundation takes a “neutral stance” towards autism quackery and other unproven therapies. And the antivaccination stance doesn’t seem to bother them. Here’s the Foundation’s response that went out to anyone that contacted them:
“Thank you for your email concerning the conference: Changing the Course of Autism in Canada, organized by Autism Canada Foundation in collaboration with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health University of Toronto and Autism One.
The goal of this conference is to provide a respectful forum for parents, therapists, doctors, researchers and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder to share, learn and work collaboratively to expand knowledge of treatment interventions for Autism. There will be a cross section of speakers.
As part of SickKids Foundation’s National Grants Program, support is offered for conferences, workshops or symposia which are relevant to the health of Canada’s children. The purpose of the conference grants program is to support events which are organized by and/or for families with children with health challenges.
The review process is competitive and funding is limited, with a maximum of $5,000 per grant. Each conference grant application is assessed in terms of its relevance to the health of Canadian children up to 18 years of age, as well as for its fit with the conference grants program goals.
The Foundation sees value on information sharing between medical staff, community organizations, and families. It is important for families to have opportunities for open dialogue with health professionals in order to get an understanding of current research and practices.
The Foundation takes a neutral stance on complementary and alternative health care. We actually have a history of funding research on complementary and alternative health care for paediatrics. The use of complementary and alternative health care products and therapies are on the rise across Canada and there is little research on the safety and efficacy of many of these treatments and products for children and youth, as well as the effects of the interactions between natural health products and conventional medicine. For this reason, the Foundation has taken a first step to build research capacity on which to base practice and policy in these areas.
To this end SickKids Foundation funded Autism Canada in the amount of $5,000 to support their conference: Changing the Course of Autism in Canada.”
It was an appalling response. No comment about AutismOne’s antivaccination stance, and apparently no concerns with supporting speakers touting ridiculous, implausible treatments like homeopathy.
Most importantly, why would the Foundation take a “neutral” stance on complementary and alternative health care? The Hospital for Sick Children is one of the world’s finest children’s hospitals. It has a 2000-person research wing with a budget of $145 million per year. Couldn’t the Foundation ask one of the hospital’s own autism researchers about AutismOne and the evidence to justify “biomedical” treatments for autism? I don’t think they care. A bit of digging revealed the SickKids Foundation has a long history of funding pseudoscience for children’s illnesses, including research into homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and acupuncture.
Despite the lack of university sponsorship, the conference is still being held on the University of Toronto campus. Why? They organizers have rented space in the university’s Medical Sciences building: a deliberate, clever choice by AutismOne to give the conference a veneer of science and medicine.
When universities and other credible groups facilitate the propagation of pseudoscience, it’s not just their name that suffers. Anyone that attends this course, believing it to be legitimate science will suffer too. And when conferences propagate bad medicine and antivaccination nonsense, we’re all at risk.