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Was Mark Roithmayr pushed out of Autism Speaks over vaccines?

1 Mar

Last June Autism Speaks suddenly announced that their president, Mark Roithmayr, was leaving and being replaced by Liz Feld. (Mr. Roithmayr is now Chief Development Officer at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society) There was little information about why Mr. Roithmayr left. The suddenness and the lack of information given out for the departure of an executive pointed to there being much more going on behind the scenes. Things going on which Autism Speaks would prefer did not become public.

In reading up on the group Focus Autism, I found a past webpage of emails from the founder, Barry Segal. One of those is copied below:

Barry Segal’s email to Bob Wright June 21, 2012

Bob,

Good work on Mark. On June 1st, I sent an email to you as well as Peter Bell that stated, “I feel Mark Roithmayr is not an asset to Autism Speaks.” In three weeks he was gone. You acted faster than Warren Buffet. When I wrote him that his top three men at JM knew nothing about roofing, it took him 90 days to replace them.

Here’s the problem. The gist of it is that the government was not going to do the necessary environmental and vaccine research due to political restrictions of public money, but that did not mean that private sector organizations, like Autism Speaks, had to follow those restrictions, per Kevin Barry.

It doesn’t matter whether you have Liz Feld, Donald Trump or Alex Rodriguez on the board. Unless Bernie relents and lets Autism Speaks go after the vaccine involvement, nothing will be gained.

Barry

It appears clear to me from this email that Mr. Roithmayr was pushed out. If we take the email above at face value, Barry Segal (a large donor to Autism Speaks) wrote to Bob Wright (Founder of Autism Speaks) and Peter Bell (executive vice president for Autism Speaks), pushing for Mr. Roitmayr’s ouster. Mr. Segal has elsewhere indicated that both Bob Wright and Peter Bell want more work done on vaccines and autism.

Given the next two paragraphs of the email, it appears that Mr. Segal’s complaint about Mr. Roithmayr was, indeed, his stance on vaccines:

It doesn’t matter whether you have Liz Feld, Donald Trump or Alex Rodriguez on the board. Unless Bernie relents and lets Autism Speaks go after the vaccine involvement, nothing will be gained.

I read this to say that while pushing Mr. Roithmayr out was a step forward (in Mr. Segal’s view), that Bernie (I assume Marcus, of the Marcus Autism Center and Autism Speaks) is still in the way of the wish to push Autism Speaks further into pursuing vaccines.

Kevin Barry, on the other hand, is a former president of Generation Rescue (an organization which especially then was very vocal about vaccine causation) who went to work as a consultant for Autism Speaks in 2006. While at Autism Speaks, Mr. Barry was apparently using others to post his messages to discussion boards. In this case, a call was sent out on the “Evidence of Harm” board for people to give input to Autism Speaks on the “epimdemic ‘debate’ “:

Hi Heidi, Confidential. I am not allowed to comment on the Boards. Would you post this to the EOH board as if you can upon it yourself? It is a page where people can comment on the epidemic “debate”. It would not hurt if Autism Speaks heard more feedback from EOH parents. Thanks, Kevin

In 2009 Autism Speaks lost Eric London (founder of NAAR and member of the Autism Speaks Scientific Affairs Committee) largely due to difference over vaccines. Earlier in 2009, Autism Speaks’ executive vice president of communications and awareness, Alison Tepper Singer, resigned prior to an IACC meeting in which a vote was to take place on vaccine related research. “Knowing she might cast a vote with which Autism Speaks might disagree, she resigned from Autism Speaks prior to the meeting.” In the press release following her departure, Ms. Singer wrote:

“However, for some time I have had concerns about Autism Speaks’ policy on vaccine research. Dozens of credible scientific studies have exonerated vaccines as a cause of autism. I believe we must devote limited funding to more promising areas of autism research.”

The same day, Autism Speaks published a press release, Autism Speaks Withdraws Support for Strategic Plan for Autism Research, Decries Unexpected Change in Final Approval Process. Yes, Autism Speaks pulled it’s support for the Strategic Plan because it didn’t include vaccines. The press release included this statement from Bob Wright:

“We are angered and disappointed by this last-minute deviation in the painstaking process of approving the Strategic Plan. Members of the autism community have worked tirelessly during the last two years to develop a plan that would set the stage for significant progress and discoveries for autism research over the next five years,” said Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks. “In a matter of minutes, the Federal Members of the IACC destroyed much of the good will that had been established during the course of this process. Because of this surprise tactic, we now have a plan that is tainted and cannot be supported by the autism community.”

It appears that even though Autism Speaks has not made such strong statements about vaccine causation in the past few years, the sentiments remain strong within the organization. Strong enough apparently to push the president out.

If it is true that Mr. Roithmayr was pushed out over vaccines, this would mean that the fears of many are validated: that Autism Speaks has a public face adhering to the science of today, while inside they still have a strong faction, including the founders and executives, pushing for a focus on vaccines. And that there is no room for someone with an opposing view.


By Matt Carey

Is there a split in the autism-vaccine groups?

1 Mar

For people who watch the public discussion of autism and vaccines, organizations like Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, the National Autism Association and TACA (and others) come to mind. One less public organization is Focus Autism. Focus Autism is a private foundation. In other words, they don’t accept donations from people outside the foundation. Here are tax forms submitted by Focus Autism in 2010 and 2011:

2010 tax form 990
2011 tax form 990

In 2011, Focus Autism pulled in $1.7M, which makes it as big or bigger than most of the other groups named above. If you peruse their website, it is clear that they have promote the vaccine-epidemic idea. Their “about” statement is:

FOCUS AUTISM is dedicated to finding answers about autism causation, no matter how inconvenient it might be. We believe in accountability, transparency and above all, a sense of urgency.

Childhood vaccine policies must be carefully administered. We demand strict avoidance of neonatal vaccination and vaccination of vulnerable children.

We must hold leaders of government, corporations, and the medical establishment accountable for failures that have led to the autism epidemic.

Leaders in the field agree there is a subset of vulnerable children who are predisposed to vaccine-related injury. We want those children identified, so that we do not needlessly harm innocent children.

Millions of dollars have been funnelled into genetic research in a frantic search for the single gene or a small number of genes responsible for the autism epidemic. Emerging consensus rejects a purely genetic cause. Most experts now agree that the primary causes must be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

They have funded a mix of projects and groups. In 2010, most projects were not vaccine-focused. In 2011 they funded: Autism Speaks ($51,000), the Marcus Autism Center ($50,000), projects in Africa and many other non-vaccine focused projects. In 2011, Focus Autism funded vaccine-oriented groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center ($37,500), SafeMinds ($70,000), Generation Rescue ($40,000).

In 2011, Focus Autism added to its board Louise Kuo Habakis and Katie Wright, both vocal proponents of the vaccine-causation idea. The board currently includes Brian Hooker, who is also a vocal proponent of the idea. There has been some discussion lately about Mr. Hooker’s involvement with the autism hearing held by the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform last year. The idea being presented that Mr. Hooker, lone citizen, made contact with members of congress and got the hearing moving.

Consider that Focus Autism was founded and is apparently run by Barry Segal. Mr. Segal’s family foundation has over $50M in assets, and seems to be doing a great deal of good work, especially in sub-saharan Africa. Mr. Segal’s company sold for an undisclosed amount, but had sales of $1.7B (yes B) in 2006.

Here is a picture from Facebook showing Mr. Hooker in the audience of the congressional hearing from Focus Autism’s facebook page. Sitting next to him is Mr. Segal’s wife, then Mr. Segal.

Hooker-Segal 2

I consider it possible he had a bit more support in his efforts than, say, I might have.

Focus Autism includes in its list of partners: Age of Autism, EBCALA, the National Vaccine Information Center, the Canary Party and the Dwoskin Family Foundation. All groups promoting the idea that vaccines cause autism.

As to the split mentioned in the title of this article, consider this short blog post on the Focus Autism website: The Fragmented Autism Community:

The so called autism community is represented by:

#1 Autism Speaks, which because of Bernie-Julie thing refuses to meaningfully go after environmental issues, especially vaccines.

#2 Safe Minds, another disaster and I don’t know (or care) what their agenda is.

The rest of the community is fragmented, acts like our congress, accomplishes nothing and has an approval rating similar to congress. In both cases we need to change.

“Bernie” is most likely Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and founder of the Marcus Autism Center. I’m not sure who “Julie” refers to. SafeMinds, well that reference is clear. It is also interesting in that Focus Autism donated money to both the Marcus Autism Center and SafeMinds in 2011. Somewhere in the past couple of years, there seems to have been a falling out.

Given some of the current discussion about the way the congressional hearing was put together, specifically Mr. Hooker’s and SafeMinds’ roles (see here, here and here), it is interesting to see the organization he works with taking such a harsh stance on SafeMinds.

The name Barry Segal was familiar to me, and it took me a few days to recall where I saw it before. It was on a discussion at the Forbes website. I usually avoid bringing discussions held on other sites to this blog, but I think these statements show the possibility of further rifts, both between autism organizations and within organizations. Here are the statements made by Mr. Segal (or someone using his name, but I have no reason otherwise) at Forbes:

First this one (actually two, it was repeated):

I guess you are aware that in 1960, 3 years before the measles shot, 100 people died of measles. In 2012 over 80,000 of the babies born that year will end up on the spectrum. Bob Wright knows certain children are vulnerable to vaccines but Bernie Marcus won’t let him go there. Do you really give your child or grandchildren a Hep b shot at birth, or do you have them practice safe sex till they are 6 years old. (That is when the shot wears off)

Indicating his opinion that Bob Wright (founder of Autism Speaks) wants more vaccine research but that Bernie Marcus (Marcus Autism Center and Autism Speaks) is blocking it.

Mr. Segal went on:

I won’t discuss Hepatitis B with you except that the following five countries, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany and Japan only give the Hepatitis B vaccination to children whose mothers test positive.

As far as Bob Wright, I have met with him and he shared with me, the following thoughts:
1.That there needs to be more vaccine research
2.That there should be no more thimerosal in any vaccines or medicines

I had dinner with Bernie Marcus in Florida. Towards dessert, I mentioned what Bob Wright had said and he told me, “There is no thimerosal in this country today,” to which I replied, “ You’ve got to be kidding me, you can go to your local drug store and get a shot of thimerosal in your flu injection.” He is clueless and after starting the Marcus Autism Center and hearing Bob Wright had an autistic grandchild, he reached out to Bob Wright to form Autism Speaks with the intent that they do not address the vaccine issue. Peter Bell and Holly Peete both have vaccine injured children and will not vaccinate their subsequent children as mandated.

And this:

I had breakfast with Peter Bell on 12/8/11. He explained to me that the increase in the vaccinations alters the immune system. When he lived in CA, he didn’t have to vaccinate his children (philosophical exemption is available in CA) but when he came to NJ, he slowed it down as much as possible. Peter suggested Tylenol could be part of the problem.

Rodney Peete said in his book, “NOT MY BOY!” co-authored by Danelle Morton:

“At home that night, R.J. had a terrible fever and started shaking violently, just short of something like a seizure. Holly called the pediatrician to ask him what could have caused this. Should we take R.J. to the hospital? The doctor was unruffled and told us it was not a reaction to the shots. He recommended that we give R.J. some Tylenol to help him with the fever and he promised that R.J. would be fine. R.J. had a terrible reaction to the Tylenol and we rushed him to the emergency room late that night. We believe he went into some kind of toxic overload shock. After that, we didn’t hear the words “Mommy” or “No” for about four years.”

As far as vaccine safety, the problem is much more than just thimerosol. Today, the autism incidence rate is 1 in 88 and this is for children born in 2000. If we apply a more conservative 8% growth rate to this rate, we’re looking at over 80,000 children born this year being on the spectrum!

In these two suggesting that Peter Bell (Autism Speaks), Holly Robinson Peete and her husband Rodney Peete (HollyRod foundation, Autism Speaks) are also proponents of the vaccine-causation idea.

All this again indicating tensions between and within autism orgs over the topic.

For anyone who thinks the vaccine-autism-epidemic idea is going away from the public discouse any time soon, keep in mind that this is not a grass roots movement. There are millions of dollars being spent by these groups every year. Much of it from wealthy donors.

Mr. Segal had some very interesting things to say about the departure from Autism Speaks of their previous president. That is discussed in Was Mark Roithmayr pushed out of Autism Speaks over vaccines?


By Matt Carey

Autism Speaks: Statement on Newtown, Connecticut

15 Dec

Autism Speaks has issued the following statement on the Coonecticut school shooting yesterday:

Statement on Newtown, Connecticut

Statement on Newtown, Connecticut

Our hearts go out to the families and town of Newtown, Connecticut in the wake of this heartbreaking event. Several media outlets are reporting that the shooter might have had an autism spectrum disorder. Some have also inaccurately reported that there is a linkage between autism and planned violence. We ask that blame not be placed on people with disabilities or disorders in the midst of these types of tragedies and that everyone keep the families of Newtown in their prayers.

Elizabeth Feld
President, Autism Speaks

Edit to add: I posted this statement in full without asking permission of Autism Speaks. It is short enough to make it difficult to pull sections out for a discussion. I greatly appreciate Autism Speaks making this statement. I am not associated with Autism Speaks (or any autism organization).

Mr. Wright, is autism an epidemic or not? Why not give real examples of how to make a financial impact?

30 Nov

Bob Wright co-founded Autism Speaks and was their representative to the congressional hearing held yesterday. As part of that hearing, he called autism an “epidemic”, stating:

More than seven years have passed since my wife, Suzanne, and I founded Autism Speaks. During that time, we have seen the prevalence of autism in America nearly double – from 1 in 166 children in 2005 to 1 in 88 today, including 1 of every 54 boys. The prevalence of autism has increased by 1,000 percent over the last 40 years.

Mr. Wright’s testimony also included the statement: “The annual cost of autism in the United States is now estimated at $137 billion – a
figure that exceeds the gross domestic product of 139 countries.”

I tried to work out how Mr. Wright arrived at that figure and couldn’t easily get there. Why, you might ask? It’s nice to cross check: do figures someone assumes match the statements they are making. Luckily a recent interview makes it clearer how he came to these figures:

According to Wright, autism creates costs of $137 billion a year for the U.S., breaking down to $60,000 per year for family. Most of these costs are borne by the parents of the autistic child. Wright told Mitchell he’s “optimistic” after Thursday’s testimony but Congress needs “to have a plan” and “a will to execute it.”

Aside, more burden language. In my family, most of the difficulties with autism are lived by my kid, but I’ll move on. Partly because most of the “costs” in these estimates are incurred by adults.

A bit of quick math to see what autism prevalence Mr. Wright is assuming for autism in his calculation.

$137,000,000,000 cost total divided by 60,000 cost per family is 2,283,333 families. The US Population is currently estimated at 311,591,917. Combining these: 2,283,333 is 0.73% of 311,519,917. That would be an average of 0.73%, across all age groups. 1 in 136. Not so far from the 1 in 88 of the current autism prevalence estimate in the US for eight year olds.

But, wait, he didn’t say it that way. He didn’t say that it was $60,0000 per individual. He said “families”. Let’s take “households” as the estimate of how many families there are in the US: 114,235,996. 2,283,333 is 2% of 114,235,996. Average, across age groups. 2% of families/households have an autistic in them? It’s really the same figure as above (about 0.73%), but in another format. (in the original version of this article, I didn’t catch that fact).

So, Mr. Wright (or whoever in his staff produced these figures) is assuming an autism prevalence somewhere around 1 in 136 (0.73%). Which is pretty close to the current estimate of 1 in 88. Except that Mr. Wright’s figures appear to assume a flat prevalence over age. I.e. no epidemic. So, on the one hand we are told that autism rates are rising to make one scary point, on the other we are told autism costs a lot of money to make another scary point. But both statements are based on polar opposite assumptions. These were political and public relations statements, so it is almost expected that they won’t be self-consistent.

OK, let’s leave behind the “gotcha” phase of the article and re-analyze the statement more closely. He uses the figure of $3.2M as the lifetime cost of autism. That figure comes from this study: The lifetime distribution of the incremental societal costs of autism.

Taking just the results and conclusions of the abstract from that study:

RESULTS:
The lifetime per capita incremental societal cost of autism is $3.2 million. Lost productivity and adult care are the largest components of costs. The distribution of costs over the life span varies by cost category.

CONCLUSIONS:
Although autism is typically thought of as a disorder of childhood, its costs can be felt well into adulthood. The substantial costs resulting from adult care and lost productivity of both individuals with autism and their parents have important implications for those aging members of the baby boom generation approaching retirement, including large financial burdens affecting not only those families but also potentially society in general. These results may imply that physicians and other care professionals should consider recommending that parents of children with autism seek financial counseling to help plan for the transition into adulthood.

If one is going to discuss autism as a “societal cost” issue, one has to focus on where those costs are. The “low hanging fruit” of reducing societal costs are in “Lost productivity and adult care”. Productivity costs were calculated including:

Productivity losses for people with autism were estimated by combining standard average work-life expectancies for all men and women taken from the economics literature (ages 23-57 years for men and 23-53 years for women), 34 with average income and benefits (from Tables 696 and 628 of the Statistical Abstract of the United States36) and estimates of age- and sex-specific labor force participation rates

.

And a similar estimate assuming some amount of un and underemployment for the parents. But, even with the parental lost income assumed, the largest “costs” to society are for adults. Not really surprising as people spend much more of their lives as adults than as children. This begs many questions. I’ll start with: how much of this “cost” to society, right now, is being incurred because our adult autistics are un- and under-employed? Or to put it in a way to entice a member of Congress, how much money could the U.S. be saving, right now, if we did a better job supporting some fraction of the autism population into employment?

About 2/3 of the U.S. population is in the employable age range (18-65). That’s about 208 million Americans. Assume an autism prevalence of 1%. That’s 2.08 million Americans. Assume 1/10 of those are employable but unemployed. That would give about 208,000 Americans. Let’s take $30,000 per year as salary+benefits for these workers. That’s $6,240,000,000 ($6B) that could be realized if we could get this assumed fraction of autistics from unemployed to employed. Not including whatever is being paid out in unemployment or social security to this unemployed population.

One can quibble with the assumptions here, but we are talking big numbers here. The sort that should catch a legislator’s eye. For those who want to quibble with the idea that the autism prevalence is flat: hey, Bob Wright did it. More to the point, it’s probably correct to assume a relatively flat prevalence. And if you have real data to the contrary, you have data that is either unpublished (and I’d love to see it), incorrect or misinterpreted.

One reason to make this sort of calculation, i.e. focusing on autistics who can be employed, is that it is easy and direct. The math is simple. What about autistics who are not so close to employment, or not close at all? Autistics adults who are similar to my kid. How much do we save by investing in them? I would say a great deal. Each step helping a person move from a more restrictive adult support system to a more independent system will save money. Potentially lots of money. If that’s what congress needs to hear to be interested, fine. These are ways to make the financial impacts that should be attractive in Congress.

Rather than focus on the “costs”, I’d rather focus on what can make a person’s life better. Is the reward of a job merely the salary? I don’t think so. For those who experience even greater challenges, giving a person the ability to self-advocate to the point of not being an even bigger target is invaluable. It could stop problems like those discussed here recently.


By Matt Carey

Note, I made edits to this piece within the first 30 minutes of it being published.

Witnesses for Congressional hearing on autism announced

28 Nov

Thursday the US House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform will hold a hearing on autism: 1 in 88 Children: A Look Into the Federal Response to Rising Rates of Autism.

The witness list has been made public on the committee’s website:

Alan Guttmacher, M.D.
Director, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
National Institutes of Health

Coleen Boyle, Ph.D.
Director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mr. Bob Wright
Co-Founder
Autism Speaks

Mr. Scott Badesch
President
Autism Society

Mr. Mark Blaxill
Board Members
SafeMinds

Mr. Bradley McGarry
Coordinator of the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst
Mercyhurst University

Mr. Michael John Carley
Executive Director
Global & Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership

Mr. Ari Ne’eman
President
Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Autism Speaks accused of disability discrimination

20 Jul

Michelle Diamond of Disability Scoop has this story: Autism Speaks accused of disability discrimination. The basic story appears to be this:

A single mother, unemployed, applied for a job as a walk director for Autism Speaks. After going through a long interview process she was offered the job. The day before starting she informed Autism Speaks that she needed some accommodation one day a week because of her autistic child– such as a shifted work day or day without pay. Autism Speaks, it is alleged, refused to make an accommodation, so the mother sought and found child care for the day. However, Autism Speaks rescinded the job offer anyway according to the complaint.

Per Disability Scoop:

In her suit, Greggs is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Nonetheless, she said the legal action is not about money but principle for her. Once a supporter of Autism Speaks, Greggs said she is outraged.

“They say one thing and they do another,” the Upper Marlboro, Md. mom said of the nonprofit. “You can’t say that you’re for helping families with children with autism and then you can’t give me an accommodation.”

When I first heard of this I thought of a previous discussion about Autism Speaks where I noted that at one level it isn’t about who works in every job at Autism Speaks, it’s about getting the job done. That may be a good idea in theory, but examples such as this one, if true, would speak to the need to have members of the community (autistics and parents) throughput the organization.

Disability Scoop has a short quote (one can’t expect a detailed response with pending litigation) from Autism Speaks:

“Autism Speaks is committed to employing parents and other family members of people with autism, as well as individuals on the spectrum,” the organization said.

Again, the full story at Disability Scoop.

By Matt Carey

What will Autism Speaks look like now?

20 Jun

Autism Speaks has a new president: Liz Feld. She was previously the Executive Vice President for Strategic Communications. The replaces Mark Roithmayr, the first full time president of Autism Speaks. Mr. Roithmayr resigned suddenly.

Ms. Feld has a great deal of experience in areas of communication and politics. But she appears to be an outsider to the autism communities.

While it is unclear why Mr. Roithmayr left, he was clearly a proponent of the concept of the autism epidemic. Also, under his tenure autism speaks has promoted a negative image of autistics which has drawn a great deal of criticism. The video “I am Autism” being a prime example. Autism Speaks has chosen a very nuanced approach to the question of vaccine causation.

As a relative newcomer to Autism Speaks and an apparent outsider to the autism communities, will Ms. Feld change direction for Autism Speaks? Autism Speaks seems more careful about the negative messages than in the past (one video has apparently been removed from the Autism Speaks website and YouTube channel for example).

The press release is quoted below.

NEW YORK, NY (June 19, 2012) — Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced that Liz Feld, a respected executive with a strong track record of accomplishment in both the public and private sectors, has been named the organization’s new president. The appointment, which is effective immediately, was announced by Autism Speaks Co-founders Bob and Suzanne Wright. Mark Roithmayr has resigned as president after serving in the position since 2005.

Liz Feld
“Liz’s history of strong, results-oriented leadership, together with her clear vision for the future of Autism Speaks, makes her the ideal person to move us forward in our work to improve life for people with autism and their families,” said Bob Wright. “Autism Speaks is poised to accomplish even greater things in our advocacy work, in the scientific research we fund and in services and resources we provide to families. Liz will ensure that we realize our goals and meet our responsibility to those we serve.”

“We are so grateful to Mark for having guided Autism Speaks over the last seven years,” said the Wrights. “His passionate leadership and tireless efforts helped us grow from an emerging charity to the leading autism science and advocacy organization in the world. Mark always displayed an undying commitment to our army of volunteers and the autism community around the globe. We thank him for his tenacity and his dedication to our families.”

Commenting on the appointment of Feld, who joined Autism Speaks in 2012 as executive vice president of strategic communications, Suzanne Wright stated, “I am thrilled that Liz has agreed to step into the role of president of Autism Speaks, and excited by the prospect of what we can accomplish working together under her leadership. Liz believes passionately in our mission and our community. Her proven ability to build consensus and get things done will be a tremendous asset to Autism Speaks and our cause.”

Before joining Autism Speaks, Feld served for four years as the mayor of the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, NY. She was elected mayor on a fiscal reform platform in 2006, after having served as deputy mayor (2003-2006) and trustee (2002-2006). As mayor, Feld secured more than $4 million in federal, state and local grants to support local programs, and restored the village surplus to $2.3 million, resulting in the village’s first AAA credit rating from Moody’s Investor Services.

Feld has devoted much of her career to public policy and strategic communications. She served in the White House from 1984-1987, as public affairs specialist in the White House Office of Management and Budget and press officer for Vice President George H.W. Bush during the Reagan administration. She was director of news information at ABC News and senior vice president for communications for Nickelodeon. Prior to that, she worked at Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery, a strategic communications and public affairs firm.

In September 1999, Feld helped launch the Million Mom March, a national grass-roots organization established to promote sensible gun safety legislation. She is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Feld also serves as a board member of New Yorkers for Growth, a leading New York State fiscal reform group.

Feld holds a B.A. in Government and Political Theory from Georgetown University.

Any hope for a change is tempered by this section of the press release where we are again given the epidemic concept.

About Autism
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 1000 percent increase in the past 40 years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis.

Will there be change? It doesn’t make sense for Autism Speaks to change leadership, especially so suddenly, if not for some change in direction.

What that potential change may be we will have to wait to see. The press release gives little insight into such details.

Autism Speaks names new president

20 Jun

Autism Speaks has chosen a new president. Mark Roithmayr, the former president, has resigned.

From their press release:

Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced that Liz Feld, a respected executive with a strong track record of accomplishment in both the public and private sectors, has been named the organization’s new president. The appointment, which is effective immediately, was announced by Autism Speaks Co-founders Bob and Suzanne Wright. Mark Roithmayr has resigned as president after serving in the position since 2005.

Ms. Feld is fairly new to Autism Speaks, having only joined this year. She was Vice President of Strategic Communications. For those curious as to what a vice president of Executive Communications does, the old Autism Speaks webpage for their leadership listed her as:

Liz Feld – Executive Vice President of Strategic Communications

with these two people listed under her:

Dana Marnane – Vice President — Awareness and Events
Bill Shea – National Director of Creative Services

What direction she will take Autism Speaks in is not immediately clear.

Ms. Feld was previously in the political sphere, having served as Mayor of Larchmont (in New York State) and having tried a run for the New York state senate.

Mr. Roithmayr wrote in response to the new CDC autism numbers Autism Is a National Epidemic That Needs a National Plan.

No clear news on why Bob Roithmayr is leaving. Or whether this is as sudden as it seems from the outside.

Autism Advocacy: Developing New Markets

23 May

Autism Speaks is hiring. You can find their job posts on the Web. Nothing surprising about that. Here is a segment from a recent job post:

Autism Speaks is the world’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatment and cure for autism. We currently have a rewarding (new) career opportunity available for an experienced Area Director – South Florida (Miami, Palm Beach, Broward) to join our growing organization.

The selected individual will be responsible for driving revenue through walks and events, strengthening existing markets and identifying and developing new markets. Must be experienced in staff management and volunteer leadership development. This position reports to the Executive Director – South Florida Chapter, which is based in Miami, FL.

Let me highlight the phrase that caught my eye: “…strengthening existing markets and identifying and developing new markets”.

Before people start talking about “big Autism” and all, that’s not really my point. More my own naivety. We’d like to think of Autism Speaks’ walk-a-thons and other fundraising as being organized by the communities. But this is a $50M a year charity. That’s just not going to happen with an all volunteer organization.

Are you happy with what the $50M/year organization does? That is another question.

Autistic Advocacy Group Condemns Presidential Appointment of Anti-Vaccine Activist Peter Bell

12 Jan

Peter Bell of Autism Speaks has been appointed to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. As I read about the appointment I felt that there would be some reaction. Perhaps even a strong reaction. And, as you will see, I was correct. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has issued a press release condemning the appointment.

Here is the press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS CONTACT:
Melody Latimer
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Phone: 202-630-7477
mlatimer@autisticadvocacy.org

AUTISTIC ADVOCACY GROUP CONDEMNS PRESIDENTIAL APPOINTMENT OF ANTI-VACCINE ACTIVIST PETER BELL

Recent appointee Peter Bell has a long history of supporting fringe, anti-vaccine positions widely discredited in the scientific community

Washington, DC – January 12, 2012 – The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the nation’s leading advocacy group run by and for Autistic adults, today expressed concern and disappointment over President Obama’s announcement Tuesday of his intent to appoint anti-vaccine activist Peter H. Bell as a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“Bell’s appointment shows such contrast to the forward motion the Obama administration has shown in the areas of autism and disability as a whole,” said Melody Latimer, ASAN Director of Community Engagement and an autistic parent of autistic children herself.

Bell, Executive Vice President of Programs at Autism Speaks, has a long history of supporting anti-vaccination related causes, dating back to his time as President and CEO of Cure Autism Now, which merged with Autism Speaks in 2007. Despite wide ranging scientific evidence to the contrary, Bell and others in the anti-vaccine movement have long maintained the existence of a link, a position viewed as irresponsible by many public health advocates.

“The link between Autism and vaccines has long been discredited, and so an appointment placing an anti-vaccine leader in a position to influence a greater audience and re-open the issue is disappointing and ill-advised. We respect and appreciate the Obama Administration’s commitment to autism issues, but hope they will vet their appointees more carefully going forward,” Latimer noted.

Autism Speaks, Bell’s employer, has a checkered and controversial history. In 2009, Autism Speaks lashed out at the Department of Health and Human Services for refusing to incorporate research objectives connecting autism to vaccines in the Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee’s Strategic Plan for Autism Research. In response to Autism Speaks’ disconnect from mainstream science on this question, several senior executives resigned from the organization in protest.

Autism Speaks has also been viewed with substantial controversy by Autistic people themselves, in large part due to the organization’s failure to meaningfully include individuals with the disability on their board of directors or in more than token roles in their senior leadership. Other criticisms of the organization include the low percentage of funds Autism Speaks invests in services, abnormally high executive salaries and what many have interpreted as deeply offensive advertising utilizing fear and pity to raise money. In 2009, the organization debuted its much-ridiculed video “I Am Autism” at the United Nations in New York City, presenting autism as an anthropomorphic force aiming to steal children. After widespread protests from Autistic adults across the country and criticisms from other disability organizations, Autism Speaks eventually pulled the promotional film.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is the nation’s leading advocacy organization run entirely by and for Autistic adults and youth. ASAN’s supporters include Autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, family members, professionals, educators and friends. ASAN was created to provide support and services to individuals on the autism spectrum while working to change public perception and combat misinformation by educating communities about persons on the autism spectrum. The organization’s activities include public policy advocacy, community engagement to encourage inclusion and respect for neurodiversity, quality of life oriented research and the development of Autistic cultural activities and other opportunities for Autistic people to engage with others on the spectrum.