Autism Headlines: How the Media Influences the Way We Look at AutismJoslyn Gray
April is Autism Awareness Month, which means that pretty much every news outlet is running an autism headline every day. Or maybe more than one. This means that every study, no matter how small, will be covered. It means that every time any celebrity utters the word autism, it will be covered. And most of what people read will simply be the headline.
What’s the media covering this week? Does all of it matter?
The thing about these headlines is that they’re all given equal importance. Unless you take the time to read the whole article, and possibly the study itself, how do you know which to take seriously, and which might not be that important?
File Under: Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know
Some Kids With Severe Autism Bloom Out of the Disorder
Okay, this is an important study (covered here by CBS News), which looked at 7,000 kids. But the word “some” is misleading. It’s only 10 percent. The study found that 1 in 10 children improved from “severely affected” to “high functioning” by age 8. Sure that’s some, but it’s not much. The study found that the children who showed that kind of improvement had the most educated and wealthiest parents. This comes as no surprise to me. Parents who access the resources to get an early diagnosis, and aggressively seek out the most treatment, are more likely to see improvements. Early Intervention works.
File Under: Tiny Study Perpetuates Stereotypes and Doesn’t Tell Me Anything Helpful
People With Autism Better at Processing Information
As much as I love to see the unique talents of people with autism highlighted, this is a disappointing study. It looked at the abilities of just 16 volunteers with an autism spectrum disorder, and 16 without. It did not seem to differentiate between people with high-functioning types of autism and people who are more profoundly affected. Also, it only looks at one type of information. This headline bothers me because it perpetuates a stereotype of autistic people having computer-like brains. Of my two kids with ASDs, my son certainly excels at spatial relationships and memorizing things. However, he struggles with processing social information, for example. My daughter struggles immensely with language processing; this kind of communication difficulty is a hallmark of autism.
File Under: Donald Trump Shoots Off Mouth, Irritates Me
The Donald Believes Vaccinations Cause Autism
On Fox & Friends (as covered by Slate), Donald Trump was inexplicably asked his opinion on rise in autism diagnoses. I have no idea why Fox & Friends would think The Donald’s opinion on this subject matters at all, ever, at any point in time, but there you have it. And of course, Mr. Trump has an opinion (and names to drop). He always seems to have an opinion, whether or not he’s familiar with the facts. Mr. Trump announced he has a theory that VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM. When the sharp scientific minds of Fox & Friends pointed out that “most physicians disagree with that, and the studies have shown that there is no link,” Trump responded, “I couldn’t care less.” Thank you, the Donald. Let’s all just ignore that World Health Organization measles alert.
File Under: Actually Important News
Autism Linked to Inherited Genetic Mutations
Despite Mr. Trump’s vaccine theory, the most important autism story this week is the use of gene sequencing to identify mutations related to autism. Three sweeping studies on autism and genetics were published in Nature this week. One study found that the older a father is, the more likely the child is to have autism. (Of course, an older father may be more likely to access evaluation resources.) The other two studies found specific genetic differences between siblings with and without autism, and between affected children and their non-autistic parents. As covered in ABC News:
The studies are the largest to date to use whole-exome sequencing, which decodes the protein in both children and their parents, an arguably more precise method of detecting genetic mutations in multiple genes that may be associated with autism.
I was interviewed for the ABC News story, and I was happy to participate because it is extremely clear that in our family, autism is a genetic issue. (Note: Both ABC News and Babble are owned by Disney.)
I’m thrilled that autism is covered so heavily in April. Autism Awareness Month isn’t about raising awareness for those of us raising children on the spectrum, or for those individuals who are on the spectrum. It’s about raising awareness for the rest of the world. But if the headlines are all people see, they’re not getting a clear picture at all.
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