Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Micro-lending blog funds controversial autism treatments

Tori Tuncan didn’t know Logan Rogers or his mom, but she posted their request on her blog:

Logan, 10 years old, is unable to ride his bike because he has “absolutely no muscle tone.” He needs occupational therapy. Insurance will cover it, but his mom needs $250, immediately, to pay for the evaluation up front.

Can you lend his mom the money?

Within eight hours, Tori had raised the funds for Logan’s mom, thanks to five strangers who agreed to the loans. For Tori, it was on to the next kid.

A month ago, Tori quietly launched a very ambitious blog. At, parents of autistic children who seek biomedical treatments — chelation, visits with DAN! doctors, hyperbaric oxygen treatments, and more — can ask for micro-loans from Tori’s readers.

Those biomedical treatments are used by thousands of parents who swear by them, but they’re often difficult to get insurers to pay for because they are not accepted by mainstream doctors as safe, effective treatments for autism. (For more on DAN! treatments, read our primer.)

The first loan took about a month to fulfill — $266 for food sensitivity testing. The second, Logan’s, took just eight hours. The third was posted Tuesday afternoon.

For a community of parents who are already comfortable getting treatment advice, sharing health problems and dishing on their kids’ diets online, this goes a step further: It gives them a chance to be actually invested in another family’s autistic journey.

Tori is a consultant in the Washington, D.C. area. She has a 3-year-old son with a sensory processing disorder (not on the autism spectrum), though she suspects he had autism. Because her son is on a gluten-free/ casein-free diet (a biomedical treatment for autism), she spends a lot of time on message boards with parents dealing with autism. (She also blogs about GF/CF diets, and — really — poop.)

“Everyone (on the message boards) is like, ‘We’re $30,000 in debt, we had to sell our house, our car, we’re living with my parents, insurance doesn’t cover any of this stuff,’” she said in an interview. “Most stuff you do with a DAN! doctor is not covered by insurance. Getting your olive leaf extract is not covered by insurance.”I haven’t read Jenny McCarthy’s next book, but I’m guessing a huge part of what she’s going to talk about is all the stuff moms have to go through to heal their kids. And it takes a major financial toll. But you do what you gotta do because it’s your kid.”

When she got the idea last month — inspired by, which facilitates micro-loans to developing countries — she ran downstairs to tell her husband. She vowed not to launch it until she lost 20 pounds — hoping the excitement of the idea would be the motivation she needed to lose the weight. But she couldn’t wait. She’s still working on the 20 pounds.

Loans are made and and repaid through PayPal, and borrowers sign a written loan agreement. The terms of the loan are set by the borrower. One of the moms is paying it off in a month; another, over the next year. I ask her if they pay interest. “Of course not,” she says.

She admits she rushed into the idea. She requires references, and she checks them out, but she doesn’t know what she’ll do if somebody defaults. “I have a FAQ section I haven’t done yet, and I know that’s one of the questions.”

But she doesn’t think that’ll happen. “I don’t think people will. It’s such a big deal. These moms are excited, like ‘Oh my gosh I can’t believe a bunch of strangers will lend me $10 to help my kid.”

I ask her if, when somebody asks for a loan, she takes their credit card number or something so she has some official leverage.

“No, but thank you. That’s a good idea.”

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