Asking questions is not an ‘Inquisition’

When Michael Fitzpatrick criticised the Autism File he was branded a ‘backwoods doctor’ who should shut up. Why?

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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Responses to my open letter to Gordon Brown about the Polly Tommey campaign provide powerful vindication for my warnings that Mrs Tommey is not representative of families affected by autism (1).

Within hours of the publication of my open letter, spiked received a letter from Oliver Jones, a ‘business and property professional and investor’ who is a fellow trustee of the Autism Trust (2). Mr Jones followed up his letter with repeated phone calls to my surgery, culminating in threats of litigation. It turns out that it was the Autism Trust that sponsored the ‘Dear Gordon’ billboard poster campaign inviting the prime minister to phone Polly Tommey for advice on how to curtail government spending on autism. As neither the names of the Autism Trust nor of Mr Jones appears on the poster, I made no reference to them in my open letter. Instead my letter focused, like the posters, on Mrs Tommey.


The cover of the Autism File

The name of Polly Tommey is the most prominent feature of the billboard poster and she has achieved a high profile as editor of the Autism File. The front cover of the current issue, featuring Mrs Tommey and a handful of supporters, looking – according to the Mail on Sunday – ‘glamorous, confident and successful’, has also been widely publicised (3). My letter concentrates on the Autism File’s major campaigns over the past decade – supporting Andrew Wakefield’s discredited claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and promoting unvalidated tests and untested treatments (together with unsubstantiated claims that these can effect ‘cure’ and ‘recovery’ from autism).

It is surprising that Mr Jones should be so outraged at my drawing attention to Mrs Tommey’s campaigns – he claims not to be embarrassed to be associated with these activities. He appears to be aggrieved that neither himself nor the activities of his new trust receive any attention in my open letter. Other commentators have commented on the anachronistic character of the plans for segregated rural institutional provision for adults with autism outlined by the Autism Trust, now that current policy favours supported living schemes enabling people with autism to live in the community (which in Britain usually means in urban areas) (4). They have also pointed out that the Autism Trust plans indicate a prominent place for biomedical treatments, with all the attendant risks. Others might ask why, if children with autism are being ‘cured’ by biomedical treatments, is it necessary to plan for life-long residential care?

Also in response to my open letter, Teri Arranga launched a diatribe entitled ‘Michael Fitzpatrick’s inquisition against the UK’s Autism Trust’ on Age of Autism, the ‘daily web newspaper of the autism epidemic’ in the USA (5). This reprints Mr Jones’ letter in full and accuses me of an ‘ill-informed rant’, of ‘lying’ and of calling for ‘censorship’. Mrs Arranga invites readers to write to me personally and to Gordon Brown (email addresses provided). Mrs Arranga is editor of Medical Veritas, a journal committed to anti-immunisation pseudo-science, and she is also US editor of Mrs Tommey’s Autism File.

As indicated above, far from proposing an ‘inquisition’ into the Autism Trust, my open letter made no mention of it. I did mention the Autism File, but made no call for it to be censored (I am strongly opposed to censorship). Mrs Arranga appealed for letters to me to be ‘polite… as befits our dignified, intelligent and highly educated autism advocacy community’. I have since been forwarded messages which refer to me as a ‘rat’, ‘turd’, ‘wanker’, ‘muppet’, ‘prat’ and, repeatedly, as ‘Fitzpatshit’.

While Mrs Arranga rallied US anti-vaccinationists to Mrs Tommey’s cause, supporters of the Treating Autism campaign in Britain launched a petition to Gordon Brown. This claims that the contention in my open letter that Mrs Tommey ‘does not represent families affected by autism’ is ‘patently untrue’ (6). The fact that this petition has attracted only 500 signatories confirms my point: this number is equivalent to less than three per cent of the 18,000-strong membership of the National Autistic Society (NAS). But representation is not merely a question of numbers. The NAS is a democratic organisation, founded by parents more than 40 years ago. It decides policy at an annual general meeting which all members can attend; members elect regional and national councillors, who in turn elect directors.

By contrast, the Autism File is run by Mrs Tommey and her husband; the Autism Trust is run by Mrs Tommey and Mr Jones. It is regrettable that, because Mrs Tommey has wealthy sponsors and a flair for publicity, she is apparently able to win the ear of the prime minister ahead of genuine representatives of the autism community.

Supporters of Mrs Tommey have responded to my observation that she does not represent families with the riposte that I am also unrepresentative. But I have never made any claim to represent families: I am happy for the NAS to play that role, which it does with distinction. This does not mean that I agree with all NAS policies. But as a member I am free to have my say (which I have done both at conferences and in the NAS magazine) and I know that my views and the views of others will be heard in an atmosphere of civility and tolerance.

Here is another contrast with the unorthodox biomedical world. I was shocked to find that the organisers of the first Treating Autism conference at Bournemouth in 2007 had hired security guards to police proceedings. When I asked some questions that the speakers found awkward I found myself the target of the chief steward who became so agitated that he had to be restrained by his own goons. The same steward also accosted me at last summer’s London lecture by David Kirby, the American anti-vaccine propagandist (to his credit, Kirby responded courteously to my comments).

The high point of Mrs Arranga’s polemic is to dismiss me as a ‘backwoods doctor’. Like much of her tirade, the meaning is less clear than the intention to be disparaging. I suppose that she is being condescending because I practise in an inner-city area in London with high levels of social deprivation. As a doctor, and as a parent, I know many mothers, who are not particularly glamorous or prosperous, but who have struggled for years to secure appropriate social and educational provision for their children (some now adults) with autism and learning disabilities.

Mrs Tommey’s supporters have also been keen to circulate information about my past political commitments (apparently in the belief that this compensates for their incapacity to engage with current issues). I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but I was indeed much engaged in anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist activities from the time I left school in the late 1960s until the effective collapse of the left and the labour movement. My efforts in that regard are well known to readers of spiked as I have often referred to them in articles here. I am flattered, too, that other people remember the contributions that I made, but I have to confess that they are of limited relevance to current controversies. Times have changed and so have my interests and activities – as is readily apparent from my writings over the past 20 years.

There is, however, one noise from my experience in the old left that echoes loudly in the current debate. It is the sound of opponents resorting to personal abuse and smears. This was, and is, a sure sign that the other side have just lost the argument and it still puts a spring in one’s step.

It is encouraging that, after some equivocation over MMR in the past, the world of autism is moving to distance itself from the unorthodox biomedical approach promoted by Mrs Tommey and her friends. When it became known that three prominent unorthodox biomedical practitioners – who featured in the recent Bournemouth conference – had been invited to speak at a mainstream autism conference in London in July, leading autism specialists indicated that they would not share the same platform. The fact that the invitations to all three were briskly withdrawn and the agenda reorganised indicates the refusal of serious scientists and clinicians to give any recognition or legitimacy to the unorthodox biomedical approach.

‘How dare you?’ is the common cry of outrage from Oliver Jones and Teri Arranga at my exposure of Mrs Tommey’s agenda. They seem to believe that, because they consider themselves important people, I should ask their permission before criticising their activities. But there is no protocol governing comment on matters of public interest in Britain: the principle of free speech is another democratic right of which biomedical campaigners have little understanding.

If I’m forthright in my views, it is because I am concerned:

  • that autistic children are being subjected to dubious and possibly dangerous tests and treatments;
  • that parents are being exploited by private clinics, laboratories and suppliers;
  • that parent campaigns have been seduced by unorthodox biomedical pseudoscience and alternative practitioners and clinics;
  • that people with autism are depicted in dehumanising and disparaging terms, as victims of a toxic disease process and as a burden on their families and on society.

If Gordon Brown wants to advance the interests of families affected by autism he should reject the approaches of Mrs Tommey (and Mr Jones) and talk to the real representatives of the autism community.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said the ‘war on autism’ is dehumanising people with the condition. In an open letter to Gordon Brown, he urged the prime minister not to take campaigner Polly Tommey’s advice. He felt the US ‘vaccine court’ had finally slain anti-MMR junk science. Elsewhere, he revealed how the anti-MMR gravy train had been derailed, took a look at autism-lit and called for a halt to the witch-hunting of Dr Andrew Wakefield. Or read more at spiked issue MMR and autism.

(1) See Dr Fitzpatrick’s Open letter to Gordon Brown here.

(2) Autism Trust

(3) Autism File, No 31, 2009; ‘Mothers unite for World Autism Day’, Mail on Sunday, 3 April 2009

(4) See the Autism Blog here.

(5) Michael Fitzpatrick’s Inquisition Against UK’s Autism Trust, Age of Autism, 14 April 2009

(6) See the petition against Dr Fitzpatrick here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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