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Autistic community concerned about Robert MacNeil’s upcoming PBS special “Autism Today”

Posted Apr 13 2011 2:00am

The PBS NewsHour has a series airing soon on autism. I’ve discussed this , including some reservations I have about the program , here on LeftBrainRightBrain. The Autsitic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has put out a press release about the upcoming program “ PBS NewsHour Special “Autism Today” Leaves Out Key Stakeholders, Relies on Old Stereotypes

PBS NewsHour Special “Autism Today” Leaves Out Key Stakeholders, Relies on Old Stereotypes

WASHINGTON, DC (April 11th, 2011) – In the midst of autism awareness month, early questions are emerging about next week’s PBS NewsHour six-part special about the autism spectrum. The highly promoted series – titled “Autism Today” – is generating controversy from an unexpected source: Autistic people themselves. Today, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) released a statement expressing concern over the failure of NewsHour co-founder and reporter Robert MacNeil to interview representatives of any organizations run by Autistic adults and the presence of concerning stereotypes about Autistic Americans in the promotional material.

“We are very concerned about the upcoming NewsHour special,” said ASAN President Ari Ne’eman, “While we will obviously be judging the final product when it airs, it appears from the promotional material that no Autistic-run organizations were interviewed or consulted during its creation – and that the series may rely on erroneous and offensive tropes claiming that Autistic people are violent, less than human and incapable of empathy.”

Early promotional material from PBS show that while MacNeil interviewed many parents, physicians and educators for the series, no organizations run by Autistic adults themselves were consulted or approached. In fact, no information exists as to whether or not Mr. MacNeil interviewed any Autistic people during his reporting about the autism spectrum.

“As an Autistic young adult, I am concerned about how this upcoming PBS series may misrepresent me and my disability,” said 17-year old Autistic high schooler Lydia Brown of Melrose, Massachusetts. “I want journalism that addresses the systemic problems behind the challenges I and other autistic people face instead of reporting that plays into the popular media’s misleading and harmful stereotypes about Autistic people.”

In an interview about the series on, MacNeil stated his feeling that Autistic Americans lack “the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each others eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them.” Later during the interview, MacNeil made unsupported statements suggesting that Autistic adults are disproportionately and randomly violent as compared to the general population.

“We urge PBS to work with the Autistic community to review the series prior to airtime to correct any errors of fact or ethics,” said Ne’eman, “Furthermore, let me take this opportunity to invite Mr. MacNeil to meet with representatives from the community of Autistic adults. I think he’d find it very educational. It is our sincere hope that PBS does not exclude this perspective in future programming about the autism spectrum.”

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is the nation’s leading advocacy organization run entirely by and for Autistic adults and youth. ASAN’s supporters include Autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, family members, professionals, educators and friends. ASAN was created to provide support and services to individuals on the autism spectrum while working to change public perception and combat misinformation by educating communities about persons on the autism spectrum. The organization’s activities include public policy advocacy, community engagement to encourage inclusion and respect for neurodiversity, quality of life oriented research and the development of Autistic cultural activities and other opportunities for Autistic people to engage with others on the spectrum.

  1. Staci:
    It also appears that the show will completely ignore how students with autism are educated in public schools... an issue that the media and organizations everywhere are ignoring.
  2. PBS News Hour Special “Autism Today” |
    [...] April is “Autism Awareness Month” in the US. Perhaps because it is Autism Awareness month, PBS’ Robert MacNeil is doing a special entitled Autism Today during the MacNeil Newshour. Robert MacNeil, was the long time host of the MacNeil-Leher Newshour and is a Canadian journalist and recipient of the Officer of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given in Canada. It is typical for American television to feature some report on autism in April every year. Typically, this goes without much notice. However, this year, and Mr. MacNeil in particular, has drawn the ire of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Ari Ne’eman. “Early promotional material from PBS show that while MacNeil interviewed many parents, physici... [...]
  3. daedalus2u:
    That is quite unfortunate that PBS seems to be doing such a shallow and nonprofessional analysis of an important subject. It is especially unfortunate that MacNeil has based his analysis on his non-professional feelings and not science and not even direct observation. The idea that autistic people lack “the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each others eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them.” is simply wrong. Autistic people can look into the eyes of NTs and feel a part of what is going on in that NT person's mind. The problem is that many NTs can't look into the eyes of someone with autism and figure out what is going on in the autistic person's mind. When NTs can't understand someone, many of them project their lack of understanding onto the other person and impute that the other person can't understand them. This is what I discuss in my write-up on xenophobia. It is the inability of many NTs to understand ASDs that leads to the imputation of a lack of understanding on the ASDs part and to the default to xenophobia on the part of the NTs. Of course when humans don't understand someone they impute the possibility of violence and injury. That is why humans have the instinct of xenophobia as a default. When you don't understand someone, you don't know that they won't do you harm, so humans evolved to default to xenophobia. Xenophobia is a feeling that says something about the person having the feeling. It has nothing to do with the object of that xenophobia.
  4. Marc:
    The problem is that autism has become too big of a tent. Who should be considered autistic? You have high functioning highly articulate individuals like those quoted above from ASAN, who sit on government advisory boards, make cogent arguments, go to college and will hold well paying jobs. Then on the other end of things you have individuals who are severely challenged and detached from their environment. In between there are countless steps of disability. My son is very empathetic, has a kooky sense of humor, looks you in the eye but has sensory, language and social deficits. PDD-NOS, all sorts of splinter skills. I would give my right arm if he could be as articulate as the ASAN members, go to college or run a self-advocacy organization. His future is a group home with daily life management supports. And, I am certain that there are parents who have lower functioning children who would give their right arm to trade places with me. Both the ASAN members and my son are diagnosed as autistic and that just may be the problem. Are individuals with Asperger's really autistic? Maybe it is time to reconsider what constitutes a diagnosis of autism? I am sorry that ASAN is so angry but they have to realize that their anger is doing a disservice to the rest of the autism community.
  5. Dicty:
    Marc: So if Ari Ne'eman couldn't speak, spent his days strapped to a wheelchair in an institution and wore Depends, then would it be okay for him to call out PBS for giving some asshole journalist a platform from which to call disabled people subhuman? Inquiring minds want to know.

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