A decision by an autism conference in Edmonton to include alternative medicine spokesperson Deepak Chopra as one of its keynote speakers has drawn the ire of concerned community members, including one Edmonton resident whose petition has so far drawn over 800 signatures.
The three-day conference organized by the Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton, set for late January, 2017, will be headlined by a number of speakers including early childhood education specialists, individuals who themselves have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Chopra, who will be speaking on “the Future of Well-Being.”
Perhaps the most widely known progenitor of alternative medicine, Chopra has been both revered and criticized for his messages which often speak of the healing powers of the human spirit in contraposition to the limited nature of the scientific perspective, particularly with reference to chronic diseases like cancer.
Critics say that Chopra’s appearance at the conference will give credence to the idea that autism itself might be something that can be “cured” through alternative practices such as mindfulness and meditation. Timothy Caulfield, University of Alberta law professor, says that families touched by autism need to be provided evidence- and science-based guidance rather than tempted by false hopes of a cure. “This is a community — the autism community — which is often subjected to treatments that don’t have science behind them, that are portrayed as if they are scientific,” says Caulfield in conversation with the CBC. “This is a community that is struggling with a profound issue, so I would I like to see a more scientifically informed person in that place.”
According to Children’s Autism Services Executive Director, Terri Duncan, the decision to include Chopra on the speaker’s list came from a desire to start a conversation around personal well-being. “Deepak offers a unique perspective, a mix of traditional and alternative views, which some may disagree with,” says Duncan in a statement to the CBC. “But there is no question it will raise awareness of wellness, and kick-start a conversation. We choose special event speakers who bring a variety of views on a variety of issues. In this case, our goal was to raise awareness of issues surrounding wellness.”
The online petition states that Chopra’s inclusion would amount to selling “false hope” to families with Autism Spectrum Disorder-affected children. “[Chopra’s] most destructive views could be those that holds regarding Autism, which he believes can be treated by “helping a client to return to wholeness (to) assist the overall functioning of the body through its own soul,” reads the petition.
Chopra has in the past come out in defence of Oprah Winfrey, who was criticized for her support of alleged purveyors of pseudoscience and pseudo-medicine, saying that by giving tv time to people like Jenny McCarthy, known to contend a link between vaccines and autism, Winfrey is acting from her personal intention to “improve the lives of women on all fronts.”
Speaking regularly to crowds of thousands about the power of mindfulness and meditation, Chopra has recently been in the news for his comments on U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump, who according to Chopra is “incapable of moving beyond the emotional development of a three-year-old” and is “stuck in his first chakra.” Assessing Trump, Chopra has stated that, “I see resentment, grievances, fear, hostility, guilt, shame, even depression and very poor self-esteem.”