Newsweek paints pretty picture of autism
This week's Newsweek cover story is a puff piece about autism. Ironically, I read it a few days after taking a trolley ride that happened to have teenagers from a facility for the autistic in half the seats. (I know this because their caretakers handled out pamphlets explaining why their charges behaved so strangely.) The adolescents whimpered, screeched and made faces. At least one had soiled himself and the smell permeated the car. It was difficult for the caretakers to keep some of them in their seats, though standing up without bracing oneself is dangerous on the vehicles. There was much exchanging of glances and moving away from the group among the normal passengers. Several of them muttered remarks about public transit not being a proper way to transport handicapped people who disturbed others. I believe some of them got off before their intended stops. My own reaction was that what I was observing was just another aspect of reality and that it was worthy of the same consideration as any other. Any writer worth his or her salt does not avoid such experiences. No, I didn't like the odor, but I learned something by staying on the trolley until I reached my destination.
A reader would have a hard time recognizing that the Newsweek piece is talking about the same people as those on the trolley ride. Possibly pressured by advocates who object to any press that does not misrepresent autism after its last, more realistic article on the topic, it caved in and decided to paint a pretty picture instead of telling the truth. There is hardly a word about the the severe retardation of most people with autism. Or about the physical handicaps that sometimes accompany the illness. Or about the obsessive and malicious behavior associated with Asperger Syndrome, or that AS is classified as a mental illness. Instead, the story focuses on an unlikely theory that autism is just an extreme example of 'male behavior,' disseminated by Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist shilling his new book. His theory does nothing to explain either the physical or mental symptoms of the illness. It just offers a few male versus female stereotypes that may appeal to the shallow and those running away from the reality of autism. This is the kind of 'research' that will not even be acknowledged five years from now. The editors at Newsweek should have been perceived it as such. Baron-Cohen has intentionally tailored a theory to appeal to people more concerned about putting a 'positive' public relations face on autism than understanding the disease. I suspect he was surprised by the response of some of the people he expected to like what he is saying.
Participants in an on-line conversation, many of them parents of autistic children who are not looking for misleading PR, called Baron-Cohen on his pattern of evading the reality of autism.
I'm concerned that this week's cover story trivializes the impact of autism for most people. The perception that one gets from reading this article is that autism is a condition primarily characterized by "quirkiness" or social awkwardness. My child is severely developmentally delayed because of autism, requires extensive (and expensive) therapies and social supports to survive and likely will never lead an independent life. I feel that it is misleading to present autism as a disorder responsible for creating "math-loving engineering types."
I think your theory is interesting but the Newsweek article discounts the intensive interventions that many families have to deal with and the severe behaviors that many children with autism display and what we as parents have to do to extinguish these behaviors. I do not think my child is just quirky. I think he has a serious autoimmune disorder caused by vaccinations and antibiotics before the age of 2.
Can you discuss the similarities, in terms of both surface details and possible underlying mechanisms, between the deficits associated with autism and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia? I have in mind specifically the deficits in social ability (empathy, facial expression, processing, etc....) and difficulty with abstract reasoning. Thank you.
When challenged, the psychologist beats a hasty retreat.
Simon Baron-Cohen: I am pleased to have the opportunity to fill in the wider picture. You are absolutely right that in classic autism, there is typically a lot more going on than just impaired empathy and an interest in patterns or systems. So, as you mention, there is often general developmental delay, and many children with classic autism also have very serious other problems, such as epilepsy, language delay, self injury, sleep disturbance, gut problems -- and the list goes on. The theory outlined in the Newsweek article was not aimed at a complete list of symptoms that can occur in autism. . . .
However, he can't bring himself to admit he has avoided discussing major symptoms of autism because they don't fit his unethical objective -- dispensing a feel good tonic to the ignorant and the self-deceiving.
I believe that this kind of misrepresentation does a disservice to both the general public and sufferers of autism spectrum disorders. It cheats us by lying to us -- telling us a teenager slobbering on his shirt, soiling his underwear and unable to speak a full sentence is a secret genius, the opposite of the truth. (Yes, there are high-achieving autistics, but they make up a miniscule part of the population.) Since taxpayers end up picking up the tab for services to handicapped children, we have a right to know what the handicap actually is. The pretty picture defrauds the autistics by treating them as if the reality of their lives is so unacceptable, false stories about them need to be made up to mask it. The majority of autistics will no more become software engineers in Silicon Valley than they will spin gold from straw. And, that is okay. We, the people who make up the public, accept that humans are susceptible to many kinds of handicaps. We can accept the truth about autism, too. In the future I hope the reporters at Newsweek will not be deceived by the 'autism is not an illness' lobby and tell us the truth.