Chili’s canceled fundraisers for over 1200 restaurants nationwide for a group that says that autism can be triggered by vaccinations, a position widely discredited by the medical community.
To honor National Autism Awareness month, the restaurant chain had planned on donating a portion of its sales on Monday to the National Autism Association. The group, based in Attleboro Falls, Mass., says its focus is on safety issues for the autistic community. But a section of its website also states that it believes vaccinations can "trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children."
In another section of its site, the group says that "informed consent is critical and each parent should have the freedom and information necessary to make the best decision for their child."
The belief that the battery of vaccinations given to infants could lead to autism was spurred by a British study that has since been retracted. Repeated studies have discredited the link, but the issue has remained a point of contention in some circles. Seth Mnookin, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote "The Panic Virus" about the fears triggered by the now debunked study, noted that the National Autism Association has a lengthy history of connecting vaccines with autism.
Ashley Johnson, a spokeswoman for Chili's parent company Brinker International, said the decision to cancel the fundraiser was made Sunday afternoon based on customer feedback.
Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, said in a phone interview that she was "shocked" by the backlash and "this group of individuals that is trying to pigeonhole us as anti-vaccine."
Fournier noted that the National Autism Association's doesn't have any programs related to vaccines.
"We haven't even looked at that page — it's been up there for years," she said of the section on the group's site that says vaccines can trigger autism.
"There has always been a lot of debate," Fournier said. "It hasn't been answered whether or not vaccines can cause autism."
For now, she said no changes would be made to the site because that might be criticized as well.
On Saturday, Chili's had earmarked money raised from the event to go specifically toward the group's "Big Red Safety Box" program. The boxes are intended to help autistic individuals who are prone to wandering off and include an identity tag, a safety alert wrist band and door and window alarms.
The majority of Chili's more than 1,200 U.S. restaurants, including locations in the Philadelphia area, were slated to participate in the fundraiser. Customers had to either mention the fundraiser or show a flyer for it to have 10 percent of their checks donated to the drive.
Johnson of Brinker International did not have examples of how much similar events have raised in the past.
Brinker International, based in Dallas, said it would find another way to support families affected by autism.