Autism spectrum disorders in the media
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) or autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) describe a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders in the DSM-5, used by the American Psychiatric Association. As with many neurodivergent people and conditions, the popular image of autistic people and autism itself is often based on inaccurate media representations.
Since the 1970s, fictional portrayals of people with autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASCs have become more frequent. Public perception of autism is often based on these fictional portrayals in novels, biographies, movies, and TV series. These depictions of autism in media today are often made in a way that brings pity to the public and their concern of the topic, because their viewpoint is never actually shown, leaving the public without knowledge of autism and its diagnosis. Portrayals in the media of characters with atypical abilities (for example, the ability to multiply large numbers without a calculator) may be misinterpreted by viewers as accurate portrayals of all autistic people and of autism itself.
Since the 1970s, characters have appeared in film, television, and print that could be qualified as "on the [autism] spectrum." Characters have been presented as being described as openly autistic in canon, or have been designed with one of many ASCs in mind.
- Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake has a university labeled Asperger's U, where almost every student appears to have Asperger's syndrome or autism; people in the university refer to non-autists as neurotypicals and seem to view them as something altogether different to themselves. The novel features an autistic character who uses his atypical reasoning to topple society.
- Children of the Stars (2007) is an award-winning documentary about children with autism in China. The film examines hardships experienced by parents of children with autism and the lack of international resources for these families.
- Autism: The Musical (2007) is a documentary about the lives of autistic children and their families, while the children write and rehearse a stage production. The film won several awards, including two Emmy Awards. The film centers around The Miracle Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on providing a creative outlet for autistic children.
- The Horse Boy (2009) is a book and documentary (both released the same year), which follows the Isaacson family on their journey to Mongolia to help their autistic son.
- Temple Grandin (2010) is a biographical dramatization of the well known autism advocate Temple Grandin.
- X+Y (2014) is a film whose protagonist Nathan Ellis is based on mathematical genius Daniel Lightwing who has Asperger syndrome.
- The Big Short (2015) is film about the 2008 recession which focuses heavily on the hedge fund manager, Michael Burry, who plays a leading role. Burry himself believes himself to be on the autistic spectrum with Asperger syndrome. During the course of the film this is never revealed but rather it is greatly implied.
- Chicos de otro planeta (2013) is a documentary about young adults with Aspergers in Chile. The film is narrated by Chilean actor Grex.
- The Autistic Gardener (2015) is a Channel 4 series.
- Girls with Autism is a documentary following three girls at Limpsfield Grange, a specialized school in the UK.
- In 2017, Sesame Street introduced the Muppet character of Julia, who has autism.
MMR vaccine theory
The MMR vaccine was the subject of controversy resulting from publication of a (now retracted) 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield et al. In 2010, Wakefield's research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest"; the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the BMJ.
A March 2007 article in BMC Public Health postulated that media reports on Wakefield's study had "created the misleading impression that the evidence for the link with autism was as substantial as the evidence against". Earlier papers in Communication in Medicine and British Medical Journal concluded that media reports provided a misleading picture of the level of support for Wakefield's theory.
PRWeek noted that after Wakefield was removed from the general medical register for misconduct in May 2010, 62% of respondents to a poll regarding the MMR controversy stated they did not feel that the media conducted responsible reporting on health issues.
A New England Journal of Medicine article examining the history of antivaccinationists said that opposition to vaccines has existed since the 19th century, but "now the antivaccinationists' media of choice are typically television and the Internet, including its social media outlets, which are used to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence".
The role of the media in the sensationalization of the MMR vaccination issue was discussed by the BMJ:
The original paper has received so much media attention, with such potential to damage public health, that it is hard to find a parallel in the history of medical science. Many other medical frauds have been exposed, but usually more quickly after publication and on less important health issues.
Concerns were also raised about the role of journalists reporting on scientific theories that they "are hardly in a position to question and comprehend. Neil Cameron, a historian who specializes in the history of science, writing for The Montreal Gazette labeled the controversy a "failure of journalism" that resulted in unnecessary deaths, saying that 1) The Lancet should not have published a study based on "statistically meaningless results" from only 12 cases; 2) the anti-vaccination crusade was continued by the satirical Private Eye magazine; and 3) a grapevine of worried parents and "nincompoop" celebrities fueled the widespread fears. The Gazette also reported that
There is no guarantee that debunking the original study is going to sway all parents. Medical experts are going to have to work hard to try to undo the damage inflicted by what is apparently a rogue medical researcher whose work was inadequately vetted by a top-ranked international journal.
Autism diagnoses in notable individuals
Media speculation of historical figures on the autism spectrum is based on reported behavior and anecdotal evidence rather than any clinical observation of the individual. Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center has remarked that "there is unfortunately a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger's". Professor Michael Fitzgerald's research, which portrays many historical figures are autistic, has been heavily criticised, and described by some as "fudged pseudoscience" and "frankly absurd".
Additionally, media speculation of contemporary figures as being on the autism spectrum has become popular in recent times. New York magazine reported some examples, which included that Time magazine suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic, and that a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and "fascination with numbers," has "a vaguely autistic aura." New York Magazine also reported that on Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Asperger's diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official "seemed to concur". Nora Ephron has criticized media diagnoses by portraying them as "a wildly over-diagnosed thing that there used to be other words for." Thomas Sowell has criticized Time's diagnosis of Bill Gates as autistic, saying that the people diagnosing him have not seen him personally. Paul Steinberg has also criticized the literary portrayals of Warren Buffett and Tim Page as autistic, writing these men are able to compensate more completely than a truly autistic child or adult whose language deficiencies and cognitive deficits can often put him at a level of functioning in the mentally retarded range.
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