Polly Tommey was due to see Prime Minister Gordon Brown today after a successful billboard campaign, costing a reported £500,000, that invited Gordon Brown to meet with her if he wanted to save £508 million pounds. Ms. Tommey’s son is autistic and she is concerned that there is a terrible fall off in provision and support when you transition from school to adult services. She wants the government to invest in autistic people and her message is that appropriate support will save the government money by lifting autistic people out of benefits and into paid employment. As she says in her press release:
“We want better support, we want politicians to engage with us and we want the acknowledgement and support that our children deserve as fully contributing members of society.”
This is all very admirable. But Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has written An Open Letter to Gordon Brown in which he questions how she expects to achieve her aim.
In her campaign posters, Mrs Tommey, whose 12-year-old son Billy is autistic, offers to save the UK government £500 million a year by helping people with autism to get jobs. But it is not clear from the posters how she thinks this can be achieved. However, The Autism File, the magazine she edits, focuses on two issues: supporting the campaign led by the former Royal Free Hospital researcher Andrew Wakefield against the MMR vaccine and promoting ‘unorthodox biomedical’ treatments for children with autism.
The main point that Dr Fitzpatrick makes is that if her message to the prime minister is the same as the one she promotes in The Autism File she would be well advised to think again. He ends thus:
If she wants better provision of diagnostic, supportive and educational services, she might consider adding her energies to the long-running campaigns of the National Autistic Society and others, currently focused on the Autism Bill.
Ms Tommey’s supporters have been quick to respond. At The Age of Autism, Teri Arranga accuses Dr Fitzpatrick of carrying out an inquisition against the Autism Trust and quotes Trust Chairman. Oliver Jones who responded to Dr Fitzpatrick as follows:
I am both shocked and astounded having read your open letter on the Internet this afternoon. How dare you act in such an ill informed manner about a campaign that I and many others have invested significant time and effort in – when you evidently have no idea about what we are actually focused upon.
I find it remarkable that a professional person can take such an aggressive stance as you have done about The Autism Trust’s campaign without having the decency or following proper protocol by making contact with any of the Trustees and specifically myself to determine the objectives and intent of our forthcoming meetings.
The tone of the article is plain. The Autism Trust is trying to improve services and quality of life for autistic people in the UK and Dr Fitzpatrick is misrepresenting their aims and undermining their efforts because he resents Ms Tommey’s support for biomedical interventions. Having read the Autism Trust’s lengthy press release I agree with Dr Fitzpatrick.
“A Personal Campaign”
The press release is clear that this is Ms Tommey’s “personal campaign.” She wishes to speak to Gordon Brown “on behalf of the thousands of mothers of children with autism in the UK.” It repeats that this is “Her campaign” and highlights her role as Editor-in-Chief of The Autism File.
Ms Tommey obviously has a lot of business acumen and is an astute campaigner who is adept at using the media to position herself “as one of the leading figures in autism in the UK.” But, as Dr Fitzpatrick points out, her support for discredited notions about MMR and autism and her promotion of unproven treatments do call her credibility into question. This is underlined by errors in the press release. Ms Tommey claims that:
autism numbers have increased dramatically in the last twenty years from 1 in 10,000 in 1988 to 1 in 100 today.
As long ago as 1966 Lotter established a figure of 4 in 10000 for severely autistic children. When Wing and Gould examined the broader autistic spectrum in 1979 they found 20 in 10000. The present figure of 100 in 10000 includes people without significant cognitive impairments who were only added to the diagnostic criteria in 1994.
But Ms Tommey uses these false figures to argue that we face a fresh challenge as for the first time a significant number of adults enter the system. This is a direct contradiction of the NAS I Exist campaign which has successfully persuaded the government that generations of autistic adults have been ignored. The NAS is continuously engaged in discussions with government ministers and officials to get a commitment to action based on the provisions of the Autism Bill which enjoys unprecedented support amongst MPs.
Centres of Excellence
The Centres of Excellence proposed by the Autism Trust seek to provide residential communities in rural locations that provide a “safe haven” for autistic adults. They hope that such centres will provide support for autistic adults in the community, setting up in business or becoming self employed. But most people live in urban settings so it hard to envisage how they will benefit. And despite Mr Jones’ protests it is clear that the Autism Trust is as committed as Ms Tommey is to nonsense cures and treatments. Each centre of excellence will feature a wellness centre offering all manner of quackery including homeopathy, chelation and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, as well as training centre and a conference centre promoting these “biomedical interventions.”
I think that Mr Jones’ complaints against Dr Fitzpatrick are disingenuous. If anything Dr Fitzpatrick should be taken to task for failing to mention the Autism Trust in his open letter. At a time when service providers are moving away from the model of self contained autism communities in favour of closer integration of services within everyday society the Autism Trust proposes to build a worldwide network of such communities.
They expect local authorities to fund places in their residential homes while they are free to develop profitable spin offs promoting quackery. Or, as they describe it in their financial model:
The capital development and business operating model will depend on the facility mix and local partners – as well as the engagement and support available from local and national government. A mix of charitable status and commercially self-standing models will be explored in each location.
The greatest danger is not that Ms Tommey and the Autism Trust are going to persuade the government to follow their lead. But by muddying the waters with their campaign they may give the government an excuse to back pedal on existing commitments while they consult with this self appointed autism constituency. The best way forward is to get behind the NAS campaign and keep up the pressure for the provisions of the autism bill to become law.