Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fox News Asks, Can Autism Be Prevented?

Emily Willingham

It’s happened again at Fox News. After taking down a story last year that was packed with misinformation about genetically modified foods -- headlined “What you need to know“ -- Fox has now offered up another similarly underevidenced article, this time headlined “Can autism be prevented?”

Short answer: No, not usually.

In spite of that, the article goes longer and turns to one ‘Rober’ (sic) Melillo, who practices something called “chiropractic neurology.” The unbylined article says about autism:
"The statistic rates used to be one in 150 -- so how did we get these new numbers?  Dr. Rober Melillo, co-founder of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers, spoke with Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor for, about the science behind autism, as well the facts and myths surrounding the condition."
Melillo, in fact, does neither. Instead, he exhibits a rather basic grasp of genetics, blames the autism “epidemic” completely on environmental factors, and then, the article says, blames genetic “predisposition” and environmental factors together. If you’re confused and need some clarity, well guess what? Melillo’s got a book to sell you. The article says:
"Fortunately, Melillo identified numerous preventative measures parents can take to better ensure their child will not be born with autism. All of these measures are included in his book, Autism: The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder -- and What Parents Can Do Now."
Natch. Most of the “measures” remain hidden in the pages of this book -- which you can purchase! -- but the one the article cites? Prenatal vitamins. Raise your hand if you took prenatal horsepills before, during, and after pregnancy and still had a child with autism. Melillo seems to be referencing this paper but misinterpreting the odds ratio data. The authors note the limitations of their study here in the full text of the article, which included that it relied on maternal recall of vitamin intake around pregnancy, several years after the pregnancy. They also did not collect information on diet. So, sure, take your prenatal vitamin, but don’t do it because you think it’ll prevent autism.

Melillo then helpfully offers that autism is “essentially an imbalance in the brain.” That’s likely useful for him to say because, as you might have noted above, he’s the co-founder of the Brain Balance Centers, offering a proprietary program and franchises scattered around the country. Their operating basis is this “imbalance in the brain.” I once wrote a critique of what I found on the Brain Balance Centers website (warning: critique’s a snarkorama), which brought not only a whole lot of very similar comments in favor of the centers but also a series of emails from various center administrators. It was … interesting. In spite of my comments on and exploration of the irrelevant references the Brain Balance Center cites here, these unhelpful citations still remain on their page called “The Truth.”

After offering in the FoxNews article the further cutting-edge observation that research into the mechanisms of autism is “going towards understanding what is really happening,” Melillo suggests that most allergies and food sensitivities and immune problems “really start in the brain.” That’s such a huge, general statement that I’ll just generally respond, No, they generally don’t. Blame your bones or the thymus or T cells or B cells, but don’t blame the brain.

Obviously, Melillo has every right to peddle his book in high-value venues and to set up centers that trumpet ‘cures’ for autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette’s. What baffles me is why the “senior managing health editor” at FoxNews thought that it was OK to let Melillo do this bit of unscientific PR-related marketing on his watch, particularly given the abundance of genuine autism experts who could have been asked instead.

Previously published at