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Why Isn't the Media Really Listening During Autism "Awareness" Month?

Posted Apr 13 2010 12:00am

Not listening By Anne Dachel
By now we're all familiar with April 2nd being World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) and the whole month of April being dedicated to autism awareness.  On this the third annual WAAD, I looked at how it's being covered by the media.  Hundreds of news sources reported on it; both newspaper and TV coverage focused on autism.  Lots of communities gave attention to autism with special events. 
So what exactly are we supposed to be aware of?
After looking through dozens of news reports, I came to several conclusions:  Even though the subject is autism awareness, there's very little of substance in the stories.  This is scary because while we're getting used to hearing the word autism, we really don't have a clue about what happening to our children. 
I looked especially close at the TV coverage.  Many stations carried brief reports about autism's impact on their local area.  We heard the definition of autism generalized into "a lack of communication skills and an inability at social interaction."  Most of the stories that showed us actual autistic children, showed happy kids, looking pretty typical, at play or in a classroom.  There was little specific information given about any particular child shown on the video report.  Most often, the story started out by telling us that one in 110 kids have autism and that it's the fastest growing developmental disability. 
The Today Show on MSNBC presented the story, Peete family tackles autism.
Matt Lauer began the segment by announcing, "April is National Autism Awareness Month.  More than 650,000 American children have some form of that disorder."  

Lauer interviewed Rodney and Holly Robinson Peete about their son RJ.  The Peetes described the regression RJ went through and Lauer made an interesting comment
"RJ was doing fine.  Everything, all the milestones.  You were bonding.  He was talking.  And then it changes suddenly.  I wonder if that's not even harder than at birth you're told there's a problem." 

Lauer then noted that the cost to treat autism is out-of-sight and that the Peetes spent more than $150,000 a year.  Holly Robinson Peet brought up adults.  "What's going to happen?  We were told our son was never going to live on his own."  She told Lauer, "You mentioned 650,000 kids.  They're going to become adults. They're going to need friends, a future and jobs and homes." 
Next Lauer commented on how serious the divorce rate is for couples dealing with autism.  "I heard a crazy statistic that the divorce rate among parents who have children living with autism is ridiculously high because of the pressure it puts on a marriage." 
He ended by saying, "It's really important that you're sharing this story in two new books..."
And although they didn't get to talk about it during the Today Show interview, on the MSNBC website, is an excerpt from chapter 2 of Rodney Peete's book.  It's a detailed description of how their son was vaccinated and how he then regressed into autism.

Local news stations around the country featured autism too,  
Texoma, OK  
KXII-TV told us that 130 sites around the U.S. were lighted in blue for autism awareness.  We heard from someone from the OK government urging public awareness.  He praised the parents of autistic children, yet we didn't get to see a single autistic child.
Wausau, WI
WSAW-TV showed a number of autistic children doing various activities, looking like typical kids having fun.  There was no interviewing of any children.
Lynchburg, VA
ABC13-TV gave us a close-up view of a nine year old autistic girl who we were told "can't speak."  We were informed that 'ignorance and fear prevents us from understanding the condition."  We were told that "in recent years major progress has been made," followed by a very young looking teacher saying, "Several years ago some of these children wouldn't have been in school and the fact [is] that they are not only allowed in schools now but they are being embraced not only by teachers but also by
the students."
Cleveland, OH
WKYC-TV titled their coverage of WAAD, ”Cleveland celebrates World Autism Day.”

Los Angeles, CA  
CBS2-TV introduced their piece by telling viewers that one in every 110 children is "born with autism."  Dr. Gary Erkfritz, owner and operator of the Brain Balance Development Center was interviewed and he calmly announced, "It can be anywhere from one in 110 children to actually one in 65 children.  These are different statistics.  In California, I've heard the statistic that one in 38 boys is affected.  It's mainly a boy condition." 
When asked why, Erkfritz answered, "Boys seem to be particularly fragile.  Women are built to go and survive." 
While showing no concern over the cause, Erkfritz advised the audience, "The earlier the intervention in autism, the much better the result.  That's really critical."
An autism mom was featured saying that a GFCF diet has helped her son but nothing more was said about it. 
Providence RI
FOX PROVIDENCE presented two doctors who work with autistic children.  One of the doctors said that in 1976 when they started their program, the rate was
four in 10,000, now, it's one in 110. 
The interviewer responded by saying, "Wow, it's really a lot more common than people realize."
The doctor then added, "People are calling it an epidemic." 
After that the two doctors spent several minutes talking about intervention.

Mobile, AL
FOX10-TV first off presented an eight-year-old boy with autism speaking slowly.  The boys shown on the report looked like really sweet kids.  A woman from the Autism Society of Alabama told us that more children are diagnosed with autism: "Ten years ago it was 1 in 10,000. Today, it is 1 in 110. Thirty-thousand people in Alabama have been diagnosed," but she feels this is all because of "early diagnosis and awareness."   
Then the director of a school for autistic children was shown saying the rapidly rising numbers mean "we've got to find out what is in the environment that is causing so many kids to be diagnosed."  She added, "Because when these children are not served properly, they get into trouble and can't hold down jobs."  The director left us with a warning: "This is something we're all going to deal with. We're going to have someone in our family, or someone we know affected by this and we need to address it or we will address it later in ways we really don't want to."
Idaho Falls, ID  
KIDK-TV reported that "one in every 110 kids are diagnosed with autism making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric aids combined.  In effort to raise understanding of this disease the world celebrates April as Autism Awareness Month."   Then a smiling woman reporter announced that "seventeen percent more are getting diagnosed with the disease every year."  We were shown a family with an affected child and we heard that at age two he "stopped communicating with them."  The mother said that just in her son's class, there are five 4-year-old children with autism and in the neighborhood, there are three children with autism.  
Lexington, KY
WYMT reporter Ashley Reynolds went to a local high school and actually showed us severely autistic kids close-up.  She talked with these students.  She told us there were thirty autistic children in area schools.  
Clinton, IN
WTHI-TV covered WAAD showing us a bowling event to raise awareness for autism.  A mom told about her worries of what will happen when parents are no longer here.  She urged greater awareness and finding a cure.  We got a brief look at one autistic boy sitting with his mother.  The rest of the clip showed scenes of people bowling. 
Birmingham, AL
CBS42 called it an "invisible disease" and presented parents who talked about support groups.  One mom described what autistic behavior is like in a child.  "If you see a child that's misbehaving, if they're on the floor kicking and screaming, that parent is not [allowing] that by choice."  She made the point that autism is a financial struggle because "insurance companies are choosing not to cover the therapies that our kids need."
A dad ended the piece saying, "We want the same thing every parent wants: When we leave this world, we want to leave knowing our children are independent." 
Reno, NV focused on the blue lights being lit in the capital, Carson City, to raise awareness.  Nothing specific was said about autism except that we were told the rate is one in every 110 kids.  No autistic children were shown. 
Bridgeport, WV  
WDTV started off telling us that autism is a brain disorder whose cause is unknown.  The public was shown a mom quietly standing and walking with her autistic son and we're urged to check out the Autism Speaks website.

Portland, ME   
WCSH-TV presented, "In the last 15 years, the prevalence of autism has gone from one in every 10,000 to one in every 110.  This month has been set aside since the 1970s to educate the public about autism.

Parent and federal probation officer noted that police officers aren't trained in autism.  He said this about the rate: "The numbers are exploding to the point that we all need to get on the same page with this." 

"My wife gets all the credit for my son's diagnosis.  I was in denial. ... People with autism are incredibly unique and amazing.  It's the best thing that ever happened to me, having a child with autism." 

From these reports it's clear that autism can't be ignored.  There are just too many affected children and their needs are great.  What's also abundantly clear is that no one can explain what's happening.  It's frightening that the vast majority of TV reports, including the Today Show interview, don't even try.  News reporters calmly told viewers that one in every 110 children has autism.   A once rare disorder is having a devastating impact on children and no one can tell us the reason.  There weren't calls for national action or for addressing this as a health care emergency.  Maybe we’re all just getting conditioned to expect lots and lots of kids to have autism.  That way, if the next increase is to one in every 50 children, or one in 30, we’ll just accept that statistic too.  
I found it interesting that most news reports didn't include a doctor explaining the disorder and what was being done.  Has the medical community just gotten tired of interviews where all they can say is that they have no answers? 
Maybe the only thing that is clear from these stories is that autism is affecting more and more children and no one can say it won't happen to your child too if you’re a new parent.
I have to wonder how WAAD will be covered five and ten years from now.  By that time, reporters won't be saying that autism affects 110 children like all these stories did.  By 2015 and 2020, autism will also be an adult disorder as shown in these recent graphs from Business Week: (HERE)
At that time we won't just be talking about raising awareness because I think we'll all be pretty aware of what a health care disaster autism is and how bankrupting the costs will be for this nation. 
None of the stories I presented said a word about preventing autism but as these kids age into adulthood, we will grow desperate to stop autism from affecting more children because it has the potential to bankrupt our country.  I can't think of another situation in history where a disease or disorder struck a generation of children and they became dependent on the taxpayers for their support and care for life.  The last famous epidemic was polio in the 1950s.  One in 3,000 Americans were affected but most recovered and went on to lead productive lives.  I had an aunt and a cousin who got polio.  Both women got married and held jobs.  The same won't be said about the hundreds of thousands of American children with autism.  I think it's time to change WAAD to SAND...Stop Autism Now Day.

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