Sunday, April 01, 2007

Invisible Autistics

[Picture of 11 year old Conor Doherty, my buddy. Conor is a low functioning autistic person diagnosed with classic Autism Disorder, assessed as "severely autistic with profound developmental delays"]

The Mainstream Media loves to present feel good stories about autism. With 1 in 150 persons suffering with autism spectrum disorders the mainstream media invariable gravitates towards the higher end of the autism spectrum. Dr. Sanjay Gupta at CNN is a classic example with his interview of an autistic person who writes very sophisticated articles from a keyboard and is a prolific internet blogger. In the US April is autism Awareness month and the heartwarming stories and interviews with high functioning autistic persons will hit the media again.

Katie Couric and NBC's Today Show will feature a charming intelligent and high functioning autistic teen. These are nice stories and they are stories that SHOULD be told. But where are the MSM interviews wih, or visits to meet, low functioning autistic persons? David Suzuki took a realistic look at some persons with more severe autism in a 1996 episode of CBC's "The Nature of Things". But that was Canada (the CBC) 11 years ago. In today's ratings driven "entertainment as news" media world, there are unlikely this April to be any mainstream media visits to mental health facilities or residential care facilities where severely autistic youths and adults might be found; often living minimal custodial existences.

Stories about autistic persons with limited language skills, who engage in self injurious or aggressive behavior, or are sedated by medications, aren't likely to make the Mainstream Media coverage of autism this April. Low functioning autistic persons living in custodial care are not the stuff of feel good stories. They will likely remain hidden away out of sight, unseen in our modern media society.

They are our invisible autistics.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Doherty,
I am going to be very hoenst here and I hope you will allow me to share my perspective.

I became an advocate for autistic civil rights - the type of person you despise - in late 2004. I did not claim to be autistic then - the reason I was an advocate was cause I have a disability (I'm blind) and I felt every disabled person should be valued as a human being with their own individual strenghts and weaknesses. Yet at the same time, I struggled with my own behavioral problems, that included aggression and self-injurious behavior, and I never demanded anyone accept or tolerate that - in fact, I hated the situation definitely wanted to get rid of it. Now I'vew had plenty of chances to star in "feel good" TV shows caus eof my blindness, but I always hated to cause no-one would see the full scale of what I was experiencing. In this sense, I agree with you. Anyway, I was labeled autistic spectrum disorder a while back, so what do I do? I started wondering whether I could still be an autistic advocate, cause I don't believe I have no problems cause of ASD. Worse yet, back in February, I found myself agreeing to some vague treatment/services proposal that I didn't understand, only cause I finally seemed to have ran into a doctor willing ot take my problems seriously. This is definitely not an act of "autistic advocacy". But it was were I found myself: I have a problem and I want to get over it. But do you think Amanda Baggs and all other autistic people you are discrediting, don't have problems that are serious? Have you read Ms. Baggs' article "To the Kit Weintraubs of the world"? This one enlightened my view: the line isn't that hard between not having problemes so you can be an autistic advocate, and having serious problems so you need to be cured. I sitll want to get over some of my difficulties and whether these are due to autism or not, doesn't matter. I agree with you about the "feel good" stories - I hate the "fine fine" lingo used in some media coverage -, but it isn't that black or white.

Unknown said...


I mentioned nothing about despising anyone. And I did not discredit Ms. Baggs either. To he contrary, in my comment I stated clearly in all capital letters that the stories of high functioning autistic persons SHOULD be told. I have also as a lawyer and an autism advocate in NB represented some high functioning autistic persons charged with assault or expelled from schools because of difficulties they encounter.

The point of my comment is that the media simply does not cover at all the very serious realities of life for severely autistic persons. These are very black and white, to use your expression, realities. These are situations that have to be addressed and that is the clear and obvious point of my comment. The problems of low functioning autistic persons, including my son pictured on this site, will not be addressed if society is not aware of the problems they face and society will not be aware of those problems if the mainstream media does not cover them and focuses ONLY and EXCLUSIVELY on the higher functioning persons and ignores the lives of autistic persons lived in institutional care.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Doherty,
For once, we seem to agree - but t his is not simply about autism. People with so-called severe disabilities are extremely invisible in the media - and in society in general. In fact, I was even surprised CNN cared to feature Amanda Baggs, who is more severely autistic than most autistics featured in the media. However, this is a circular process: because the media doesn't care to feature severely disabled people, only those who have somehow gained so much skill that they can get themselves featured, will be shown in the media, and because the media doesn't care about those who have no means of making themselves known that the world understands (or is going to listen to), they will remain excluded from the public's awareness. Amanda Baggs had to be able to type before she could ever appear on CNN. It is a very prevalent situation: if someone doesn't have a means of making themselves known in a way that society accepts - that includes non-verbal autistics, but also those with severe physical disabilities who can't transport themselves - there presence is not acknowledged and society continues to believe they don't have a reality to show. I do thinkt he first step is with the media, cause those with severe disabilities may not have the skills to go up to the media themselves.

John Best said...

Amanda Baggs is not autistic. She admitted that she was diagnosed as schizophrenic before she decided to become autistic. That was sometime after using LSD. Someone keeps sending me information about her sham and you can read about it on my blog if interested.

Anonymous said...

In this day and age i wish we could use person first language. "A child with autism" a child first. not an "autistic child".

Unknown said...

Anon 2:07

Your remark was a silly comment ... sorry a comment with silliness.

Your opinion about the politically correct (in your opinion) way that I and others should exercise our freedom of speech is interesting but irrelevant. And it is a diversion from the topic of the comment "invisible autistics".

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for down to earth articles.
The public all love to hear about the savants and high functioning autistics. There is a whole world of severely autistic folk out there and the world needs to hear about them and their struggles. Thankyou for using your time and talents to speak and fight for them
Your son is very fortunate to have a father like you