Actress and comedian Jenny McCarthy was working on her latest book one Sunday when her 4-year-old son wanted to talk. He was so chatty -- and distracting -- that McCarthy finally said, "Evan, can you please just stop talking for a whole five minutes today?"
Then she covered her mouth with her hand. "Wow. Flash back in time and think about how I had wished and prayed to say that to my kid," she wrote in her best-selling memoir, Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism. "I got down on my knees and said, 'No, Evan, Mamma made a mistake. You can talk and talk and talk and talk as much as you want, OK?'"
It's a moment most parents of children with autism only dream about. But McCarthy's current mission in life is to use her famously big mouth to spread an unusual message: There is hope. Autistic children can recover.
"It's kind of like trying to shift the planet without causing a frenzy," said McCarthy, who is a national spokeswoman for Talk About Curing Autism. "I'm really coming out on my own and saying things that no one has been able to say: Autism is treatable."
Not everyone agrees, which is part of what makes McCarthy's media blitz so controversial. But Evan, who was diagnosed with autism after a series of seizures at age 3, is now a typical and communicative 5-year-old.
Though he's not completely "cured," McCarthy credits much of his turnaround to alternative "biomedical" interventions that include nutritional changes, detoxification therapies, gastrointestinal treatments and dietary supplements on top of intense behavioral and speech therapy.
When McCarthy removed wheat gluten and casein (found in dairy) from Evan's diet, she said he doubled his language and regained eye contact within two weeks. After treating his yeast overgrowth using anti-fungal medication, "his social development was back on," she said.
Although these treatments don't produce changes in every child, they're considered normal protocol by the Defeat Autism Now! project, which brings together researchers and parents for biannual conferences.
But biological interventions aren't recommended by mainstream pediatricians.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes the use of nutritional approaches to treat autism-spectrum disorders in a new clinical report to be released next week, it won't support or refute them until more scientific evidence is available.
After writing her book, McCarthy was floored by the number of parents who shared her experience.
"Jenny's story is my story, almost word for word," said Jill Konczak of Aurora, Ill., whose 6-year-old son, Kurt, is on the autistic spectrum, yet doctors never suggested removing milk from his diet. "[My] poor little boy literally went through the same withdrawal a crack addict would go through," she said. But "we reached huge milestones with that simple change."
McCarthy's impact on the autism community, meanwhile, has been so dramatic that some are referring to this period as "After Jenny."
"I want to be these women's voices," she said. "When I was 20, I had a feeling I'd be an activist, but I always thought, 'Please, God, don't let it be breast cancer.' Now I can't tell you how much I wish it was breast cancer."
Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.