[This post has become long, so I’ve decided to break it into two parts, to avoid losing readers halfway. The second part will appear tomorrow.]
Several readers now have asked my opinion on a recent Chicago Tribune article about Dr. Anju Usman.
I have an opinion.
Let me start by saying that, although I know her work by reputation and from speaking with parents whose children recovered under her care, I have never met Dr. Usman. She is not Martin’s excellent Track Two doctor. I lack any particular expertise for interpreting this story. I derive my understanding of the facts from the Tribune (what there is written, and what thence is missing), and have formed my opinion from own experience.
Here is the Tribune saga, based on what I’ve read: Almost two years ago, as part of a series called Dubious Medicine, the newspaper conducted biomedical ASD interventions and published its findings under the title “Risky alternative therapies for autism have little basis in science.” The article highlighted its conclusion up front, namely, that “many of these treatments amount to uncontrolled experiments on vulnerable children. . . . And though some parents fervently believe their children have benefited, the Tribune found a trail of disappointing results from the few clinical trials to evaluate the treatments objectively.”
The role of human-interest centerpiece in the Tribune’s initial story was played by a then-seven-year-old Chicago boy, a years-long patient of Dr. Usman and of Melbourne, Florida’s Dr. Daniel Rossignol. The article begins with the boy’s father, who opposes biomedical intervention, bemoaning his son’s ability to swallow six pills at once. Near the end, however, after its indictment of autism recovery science, the article takes a befuddling turn. The boy at age seven is described as “playful, funny[,] and outgoing”—which to me sounds a lot like “recovered.” The boy’s unnamed mother, according to the Tribune, “declined to be interviewed but  said in court documents that she believes the boy’s many alternative therapies benefited him [and] argued that her son’s treatment must continue on a regular basis.” The father, by contrast, “said he [thought] his son . . . would have progressed developmentally without any medical treatments” and filed complaints with the state medical boards against Dr. Usman and Dr. Rossignol. He told the Tribune, “I worry very much. There may be latent physical harm. We don’t know.”
Fast-forward to last month. The Tribune ran back-to-back articles on Dr. Usman. The first, “Illinois regulators seek to discipline autism doctor,” reported that this father’s grievances had led to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation charging Dr. Usman with “unprofessional, unethical and/or dishonorable conduct” and seeking suspension or revocation of her medical license. It noted as well that the father had in fact sued Drs. Usman and Rossignol, a case that apparently is pending in the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The second article, “Illinois medical board files complaint against star autism doctor,” was similar to the first, with some more detail on that complaint. More interestingly, from my perspective, it included this detail:
The treatments that [the father]’s son received were also the subject of a bitter divorce and custody battle between [the father], who vehemently opposed the therapies, and his wife. She had been a proponent of the therapies for the boy, according to divorce court records. [The father] and his wife divorced. [The father] was awarded residential custody.
If any of the feared “latent physical harm” had evinced itself in the boy, the Tribune makes no mention thereof.
The Tribune articles supply much potential fodder for this blog—like the science underlying autism recovery, and laboratory studies versus field work; how prosecution of heterodoxy curtails the ability to pursue alternative treatments; reporters’ influence on the way we interpret the world. (The also supply much fodder less appropriate for the blog—like the validity of a medical-malpractice lawsuit absent any manifested harm, or the ways a divorcing couple can entrap third-parties into their own anger.) I’m not going to pursue any of those topics.
Instead, tomorrow, I will address the effect that stories like the Tribune’s have on me and, I would guess, others in the thick of a biomedical recovery journey.