Autism in the News: A Comparison of Information Dissemination, Stereotype Spreading, and Confusion in the U.S. and Abroad

Though “autism speaks” quite loudly in the U.S, I have never read an article about an African child with autism.

And although autism is oft discussed in American news, is the U.S. media steering the conversation in the right direction? How does domestic coverage of autism compare to international?

Autism: As American as Apple Pie?

With as many as one in every 88 children born with autism, the topic gains interest daily. But as autism cases soar at home, the public must maneuver through a maze of misconceptions. A flurry of news coverage has transformed the worldwide issue of autism into a quintessentially American affliction.

With no known cause and no known cure, autism isn’t a neat, tidy story ready for the press to dress up. It doesn’t come wrapped nicely, packaged pretty, or with a bow on top. It’s mysterious, enigmatic, even heartbreaking. The majority of Americans could not tell you that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in America. An epidemic of a disease, autism is a “spectrum disorder,” making it hard to characterize and even harder to explain.

Rain Man and other non-news media portrayals of autistic characters often only encourage the biased news cycle.

Entertainment portrayals of autistic characters encourage stereotyping.

The U.S. media pigeonholes autism. The unwritten tenet of autism coverage? An autism article must fall into one of two categories: 1) a news update about a possible cause or cure or 2) a puff-piece about triumph over adversity.

This feel-good feature about an autistic musical-composing savant is a key example of pigeonholed story-telling.

A music-composing autistic savant is an example of skewed storytelling.

As a whole, the U.S. media paints autism as a social impairment either to be “cured” or “overcome.” Most autism articles are feel-good and leave readers either hopeful for a cure or proud of the latest autistic savant. So sad he has difficulty communicating and functioning in a neuro-typical society, but look at him reel off pi to 22,500 decimal places really, really, really fast!

The news misrepresents the depth, breadth, and concentration of current autism research. Most articles suggest that scientists predominantly research how environmental factors, like childhood vaccines, contribute to incidence rates. In actuality, scientists mainly concentrate in brain and behavioral research.

A 2007 study by Stanford University School of Medicine explores the disconnect between the scientific community and mainstream media. While 41 percent of published papers on autism deal with brain and behavioral research, only 11 percent of newspaper stories (in the US, UK, and Canada) report these issues. On the other hand, the media dedicates some 48 percent of coverage to possible environmental causes, despite only 13 percent of relevant published research.

Why the chasm between research explored and research reported?

The American media tends to report research that can lead to action on the part of its readers, the study said. The current focus on brain and behavioral research doesn’t lend itself to this sort of “public service announcement” style.

Coverage of environmental triggers is skewed toward public interest. After a disputed 1998 paper suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, the public responded with a deafening outpour of outrage and cry for greater environmental cause coverage. Although most scientists call the vaccine theory malarkey, there hasn’t been a shift in the public discourse in the same way that there has been in the scientific community.

Because news outlets need to retain readers and advertisers, they cover environmental causes to keep reader’s eyes tuned. In 2005, for example, the networks of NBC News featured a series of segments about autism. In response, thousands of viewers contacted the news stations and suggested a segment addressing the potential connection between autism and childhood vaccines. NBC gave the viewers what they asked for, producing a segment called “Debate rages over vaccines’ role.”

Although the segment included the scientific opinion, it’s a clear example of past coverage spurring future coverage.

Although the segment included the scientific opinion, it’s a clear example of past coverage spurring future coverage.

More recently, CBS posted an article on November 27 reporting that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may increase the likelihood a child will develop autism. An accompanying editorial in the same journal says that research like this merely suggests the urgent need for further research on brain development and genetics, not environmental factors.

Autism researchers and journalists have long regarded biased coverage as part of an unbreakable, spiraling cycle of misinformation and miscommunication.

But now many scientists hope that new models of information – such as citizen journalism – will allow a greater range of perspectives to be heard without relying on the media as an intermediary.

Autism Internationally: Perspectives Change, Portrayals Change

Despite misconceptions, autism is not a disorder of industrialized, technology-advanced societies. Autism’s grip goes far beyond our nation’s borders. Lack of information and, consequently, underreporting of autism in the international community leads to worldwide ignorance.

In terms of international autism coverage, no news is bad news.

In Africa, villagers confuse and label autism as child-witchcraft, leading to witch-hunts, beatings, and murders. Autism awareness is not only low in the general African population but also in the medical community. In a survey that asked Nigerian nurses who specialize in psychiatry or pediatrics about the causes of autism, some 40 percent blamed paranormal causes, like ancestral spirits, enemy curses, or the devil. Most autism coverage in Africa attempts to inform the locals of signs of autism so that symptoms – like ritualistic play or preferred solitude – are not misconstrued as witchery.

In the same way that the supernatural is embedded in Africa’s national consciousness, Chinese culture values normalcy. In China, the social stigma associated with autism, known there as the “lonely illness,” leaves families in ruins. Autistic children are a mark of shame upon their families in China, and possible ties to genetics leave many parents blaming themselves for genetic “inferiority.”

The efforts made to integrate autistic children in the U.S. are but a dream in China. Because China’s collectivist culture leaves no tolerance for the abnormal, most Chinese schools refuse to admit autistic children. Parents even threaten to have teachers fired if autistic children are allowed to remain in their classrooms. A teacher beat an autistic 4-year old into a coma at a Chinese kindergarten, and, despite YouTube’s ban in China, the YouTube video of the news report has over 188,000 hits.

In China, a 4-year old girl with autism was beaten by her kindergarden teacher not following directions.

In China, a kindergarten teacher beat a 4-year old girl with autism for not following directions.

Much like in Africa and China, the majority of India’s coverage works to strip social stigma. Instead of combating views that autism is witchery or genetic inferiority, in India, the media stresses a public distinction between autism and mental retardation. Within the past two decades, the government of India shifted and began to recognize autism as a disability different from mental retardation. The media has pushed to publicize the disorder and ways to identify it.

Perhaps because of its goal to garner empathy for the autistic, Indian coverage is similar to American. It routinely pigeonholes autism articles into sensationalized “cause/cure” or “success” stories. For example, the Indian press picked up the same story reported by CNN about pollution and ran it as “Living near busy road may double risk of autism.”

Still, in comparison to America, where advocates are often at odds with the media, the majority of international autism coverage finds advocates and journalists working together.