Skewed Coverage Leads to Narrow Image of Autism Spectrum Disorders
By Emily Brooks
Just days before April began, the Center for Disease Control announced the latest numbers for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), based on data from eight-year-olds in 2010. 1 in 68 U.S. kids are now diagnosed with ASD. The prevalence, which is higher than 1 in 88 two years ago, has made the media go wild. Unfortunately, autism coverage is often skewed toward the sensational and dramatic.
Take CNN’s photojournalism essay which accompanies their take on the 1 in 68 issue. The eighteen images of three-year-old Michaelynn Sanchez-Gillett, who has autism and is nonverbal, are captivating, but the headline and accompanying text, and even some images, add to the trope of autism-as-sob-story. Most of the photos are authentic artistic snapshots of family life or adorable moments in childhood—Michaelynn staring out a window, jumping on the couch, relaxing upside-down in her colorful fleece romper—but you’d never know it from the dark title: “Girl with Autism Never Says ‘I Love You’”. The caption for the photo in which Michaelynn kisses her mother labels the behavior as “a rare display of affection”, discounting the autistic child’s ability to feel. In another photo, Michaelynn plays with a smartphone on the couch while an autism film plays on the family television set. The still of the movie shows a child’s mouth open wide in emotion, the subtitles “Crying & Screaming”. While meltdowns and frustrations can be a part of ASD, there’s no need for that to be the sole media image of children affected by autism. Yes, it may garner wanted sympathy for parents and caregivers, but it doesn’t gain much empathy for people with autism to overemphasize the sad and difficult parts of the disorder.
CNN’s written blurb accompanying Clay Lomneth’s photography series discounts Michaelynn’s “own way” of showing affection by privileging speech over other types of communication and ending on a negative note. On the idea that Michaelynn can’t say “I love you”, Lomneth reflects, “She’ll show it in certain ways. She’ll come up for a hug. But she has never—and may never—say that out loud, and that really stuck with me.” What are the writer and photographer and parents alluding to—that this mysterious child who cannot speak can’t verbally express love for her parents, so maybe she doesn’t have love? It’s a narrow portrayal of autism because it leads media consumers to believe that disabilities like autism make humans less capable even of feeling the very emotions that we like to think make us human.
The words journalists use around less-visible forms of autism are different, but journalists still perpetuate harmful stereotypes about “mild” ASD. For every mention of severe autism framed around incompetence and lack of ability, there’s a mention of mild autism as not “real” enough to be a disability, nonexistent. The idea that autism is a “spectrum”, some journalists lead readers to believe, is just another gigantic mistake in the psychology community.
In CNN’s recent article on the increased number of autism diagnoses, Miriam Falco writes that autism experts “are concerned that the new CDC report is not describing the same autism that was present and diagnosed 20 years ago.” She quotes Dr. Gary Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute and professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, who explains that two decades back, “we thought of autism with intellectual disability”. But the numbers today show that around 46% of U.S. kids with ASD had average or above-average IQ scores. Instead of seeing this as a new development in autism research—the idea that people with autism may not have cognitive challenges—the finding is seen as contradiction in terms and a concern.
Another CNN expert Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist who diagnoses and treats children with autism. Apparently he’s wary of the 1 in 68 autism rate because the numbers rely on “written reports” of autism diagnoses rather than sending “CDC experts” to “see the child to complete a diagnosis”. In other words, if Wiznitzer or someone he sees as qualified isn’t personally re-evaluating each and every one of the 5,300-plus kids in the latest autism sample, then they probably don’t have all have autism. Witzinter says the report solely shows that 1 in 68 kids assessed “have social differences and a pattern of behaviors that can be represented by ASD” but further cautioned that it might not be autism at all, but rather “due to other conditions that superficially can have similar features, such as social anxiety, ADHD with social immaturity and intelligence problems.”
The Atlantic’s April 11 take on the new numbers is similar, promising at the start of their piece “a look at how doctors are diagnosing autism spectrum disorder in children, and what might be done better.” Enrico Gnaulati’s main argument seems to be that the focus on “milder cases” of ASD is a free hand-out of unneeded autism diagnoses to picky eaters who throw temper tantrums, have speech delays, or are simply “slow-to-mature” children, “thus driving the numbers up”. The author gazes a paranoid pair of eyes on toddlerhood autism detection and early intervention. He even brings gender stereotyping into the mix through a slew of constricted sex difference studies, arguing that autism symptoms are the norms of normal boyhood.
Once again, it comes down to a relative unease with the idea of autism as a spectrum.“Diagnostic conundrums enter the picture when we frame autism as a spectrum disorder,” writes Gnautali, continuing, “What is a doctor to make of a chatty, intellectually advanced, three-year old patient presenting with a hodgepodge of issues, such as: poor eye contact, clumsiness, difficulties transitioning, overactivity or underactivity, tantruming, picky eating, quirky interests, and social awkwardness?”
Autism coverage may be more balanced than it was in the past, but it still has far to go. By claiming that “a pool of slow-to-mature children [are] being falsely diagnosed” with ASD, The Atlantic, CNN, and other media “experts” are delegitimizing the invisible disabilities of thousands of children and adults with harder-to-see autism. And by focusing only on the disability and incapability of those with visible autism, journalists sensationalize and separate humans with autism from the general population.
Let’s change the language around all forms of ASD. Then, maybe the next time the CDC releases autism statistics, society will be accepting of brain differences and disabilities and the articles we read will reflect neurodiversity.
For additional intriguing topics by Emily Brooks check out her blog at Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.
A Note from the Stereotype Guru
There is work being done to help ASD children and those with similar challenges. For example, The Quad Preparatory School is an alternative not-for-profit college preparatory school dedicated to the education of Twice Exceptional Students in grades 6-12. The school’s mission is to allow the gifts and talents of its students to soar. With equal emphasis placed on social emotional and academic learning, Quad students are prepared to make exceptional contributions to our world and lead meaningful adult lives. Dr. Busi, director and founder of the school, began her work providing resources for twice exceptional students when she found out her son was twice exceptional.
Although it’s not typical of The Communicated Stereotype to solicit readers, this issue warrants a timely exception. The Quad Preparatory School fundraiser aptly named Bright Beginnings is just over a week away and takes place on Wednesday May 28th at 6:00 PM in the beautiful Grohe Showroom located at 160 Fifth Avenue on the 4th Floor. Tickets for the event can be purchased here ($125). In addition to the festivities of the event itself, there is also an online auction. The fledgling not-for-profit organization relies on support from donors while it works towards doubling enrollment for its second year. As enrollment grows, Dr. Busi looks forward to continuing to grow the school to offer additional resources and the same quality education for still more students.
Please check out more content by Emily Brooks at her blog Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.