One of my frequent complaints is with the media tendency to present "feel good" features about autism disorders while ignoring, almost completely, autism's harsher realities. In Autism and the Media at the Huffington Post Neil S. Greenspan, immunologist and clinical pathologist, expresses the same concern. Mr. Greenspan comments specially on a recent NPR broadcast in which Weekend Edition host Scott Simon speculated that a number of historical figures might have had Asperger's including Einstein, Ben Franklin, Napoleon, Lincoln and Harry Truman. To the NPR list could be added the names of Mozart, Van Gogh and .. my all time favorite .... Jesus Christ All have been speculated by media, authors and even academics to have been autistic. Greenspan notes that the feel good emphasis can distort the public's understanding of autism to the possible detriment of those most severely affected by the disorder:
There is a tendency for groups that serve or advocate on behalf of those with disabilities to focus on individual success stories, even if rare, to fend off the prejudice and even hostility that sometimes arise in the general public and are directed towards those with various diagnostic labels. I saw this first hand with elements of the learning disabilities (LD) community that, at least in some instances, were reluctant to acknowledge that some kids with LD are below average in standard measures of intelligence. The upshot was that the most vulnerable members of this population actually had even fewer options than the individuals who could be presented to the broader public as pretty much "regular" kids, with their "learning differences" minimized.
A human interest story about an individual's struggles with a disability that is tied up in a pretty metaphorical bow at the end of the piece will undoubtedly attract more reader/listener/viewer attention than a more demanding discursive, analytical discussion, especially if the conclusions are not upbeat. Perhaps, it would be counterproductive to completely eliminate the uplifting narratives focused on one individual at a time, but if understanding, not just awareness, of autism is to be advanced, a bit more of the sort of journalism focused on conveying information and not just eliciting emotion will be needed.
What really jumps at me in Greenspan's commentary is the refusal by some members of the Learning Disability advocacy community to acknowledge that some children with LD are below average in standard measures of intelligence. This is a serious issue with autism disorders where mere mention of the high numbers of persons with Autistic Disorder and Intellectual Disability can prompt angry responses. Those who refuse to see what is in front of their faces will ignore data and statements from sources such as the ICD, the CDC and the Canadian Psychological Association rather than admit the realites of Autistic Disorder and Intellectual Disabilities.
I agree that constant emphasis on a few success stories trivializes the very real challenges faced by the many who are severely affected by autism disorders. This presents an unrealistic picture of autism disorders to the public and harms autistic children and adults.
The media should tell the full truth about autism disorders including the harsher realities they present. When it comes to autism disorders there is no good reason for the media to deviate from the old maxim .... honesty is the best policy.
I commend Neil Greenspan for injecting some autism reality into the internet discussions of autism disorders. Hopefully the good people at the CNN, CBC, NYT, New Yorker Magazine and other major media outlets that obsess with the feel good autism stories will read Greenspan's commentary and take it to heart.