Aspergers Syndrome and its group representation in the Media

In this essay or ‘artifact’ I will not be discussing what Aspergers Syndrome is, but rather how its cause and social issues are represented in the media.

Ever since Dr. Hans Asperger first conducted experiments/investigations on children with Autistic symptoms in the 1940’s, there has been no end to theories on how it is caused and how or if it should be cured. In the 1950’s there was a theory that Aspergers Syndrome (otherwise known as ‘AS’ or the informal ‘Aspie’) was caused by bad parenting but this was disproved by investigations conducted on pairs of twins in which only one sibling of each pair had Aspergers Syndrome. Indeed I am also a twin with AS where as my brother does not.

There seems to be a three-way division of views in the popular perception of Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. There is the Aspergers community as well as support groups who actively promote more positive public relations to the condition and equal rights, there’s the primarily American Autism charities who spread a negative view of the condition and as a result gains money from parents for a cure. Then there is the view that the condition is totally fictional, used as excuse for people who can’t control their actions or by bad parents. Generally speaking, this view is brought on by the relatively late realisation of the condition and the resulting lack of knowledge in the mainstream media surrounding the condition, causing some to think that it’s a kind of artificial new-age gimmick. This view is also self-perpetuating on the internet by people who know little about the condition and yet use it as an excuse for Tourettes-like behaviour.

In more claims to a “cure” to Autism/Aspergers, childhood vaccines, seafood and other products and environmental chemeicals have been said to be the main cause for Autism/Aspergers by Jenny McCarthy, the ex-playboy model who has since started a campaign and the accompanying range of books urging parents to forgo many vaccines and diets to prevent Autism or “recover” their children from it.

On McCarthy’s website, she states that “There is enormous controversy over whether or not mercury has played a role in the explosion of neurological disorders (NDs) amongst our children. We feel strongly that mercury has played a primary role in the ND epidemic, and that it’s removal from the bodies of our children is a key to recovery.” And that “In ten years the annual costs are projected at 200-400 billion.”

McCarthy, J. (2008) Generation Rescue, http://www.generationrescue.org/isit.html, Date accessed 02/12/09.

McCarthy, J. (2008) Generation Rescue, http://www.generationrescue.org/autism-facts-statistics.html,
Date accessed 02/12/09.

Autism Speaks is a large Autism charity in America and the bane of Autistic Rights groups, producing videos on youtube which demonises the condition. The most controversial of these is ‘I Am Autism’, showing clips of children and teenagers with the audio playing a horror-thriller din with a voiceover saying, among other things, “”I am Autism … I know where you live … I live there too … I work faster than paediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined … And if you are happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails.” The fact that this video is promoted by America’s leading Autism charity without a hint of sarcasm is just one example of the issues that the Autistic community and Autistic Rights groups such as Aspies for Freedom are campaigning against.

As Time Magazine reported: “Some autistic “self advocates” are furious over the tone of the video. “We don’t want to be portrayed as burdens or objects of fear and pity,” insists Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, a 15-chapter group he built while attending college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Apparently, should my parents divorce, it’s all my fault,” says Ne’eman, who received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism, at age 12.”

Alfonso, C. (2009) I am Autism, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDdcDlQVYtM&feature=player_embedded, Date accessed 1/12/09.

Wallis, C. (2009) Time, http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1935959,00.html,
Date accessed 1/12/09.

However, at the right times there can be a need for Autism charities. Parents of children with the most severe, disabling aspects of Autism depend on the charities and other groups for support, and indeed most people on the Autistic Spectrum including myself have benefitted from support in some form or another. But it is very important that a balance is struck, so that support doesn’t turn into patronisation or hegemony, and that awareness doesn’t turn into fear-mongering or mockery.

In June 2008 the American radio talkshow host Michael Savage sparked protests by Autism groups and parents after he devoted one of his broadcasts to ranting about Autism, claiming that “in 99 percent of cases it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out”, Also claiming that the condition is mostly “A fraud, a racket.”

This can be easily dismissed as typical of purposely controversial talkshow hosts where sparking audience reactions is almost literally their job description. But it is views such as this which is partly responsible for creating the public belief that Autism and especially Aspergers Syndorme doesn’t even exist, or is wildly misdiagnosed.

Savage, M. (1999) Media Matters, http://mediamatters.org/research/200807170005
, Date accessed 1/12/09.

The most dominant representation of Autism in the media is the film ‘Rain Man’ (1988), staring Dustin Hoffman as someone with Autism who has an astounding memory, being part of the rare ‘Savant’ variety. However, the film has received criticism for its simplistic, ‘two dimensional’ portrayal of Autism and its disabling effects. More recently, Fox Searchlight released ‘Adam’, a film about someone with Aspergers syndrome, which the plot is heavily centred on. It was not too demeaning to people with AS, with its only criticisms that it was stereotypical in choosing the AS character’s obsessions being science and maths. Preferably it would be good to have a film which has an Autistic character yet doesn’t focus on his/her Autism. This may follow the pattern in which other racial or social groups have gradually found acceptance in the media. Films such as Rain Man and Adam could be seen as Autistic equivalents to ‘blaxploitation’ films and excessively camp homosexuals portrayed the media, where their blackness or sexuality is the focus of their character, rather than being accepted as normality.

Whist closely witnessing the Autistic Rights movement over the last couple years, I was also at City College Norwich, studying a BTec National Diploma in Media Production. Despite being a perfectly ‘normal’ college, City College Norwich is the only college in the UK to have a support department devoted to Aspergers Syndrome and it has since received multiple national awards for this, including The Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. This department was part-lounge part-support centre, and the issue of Autism Speaks and similar Autisic Rights concerns were never talked about, with the exception of employment issues. This was partially because it was a department which was focused on the academic concerns of the college, but it was mainly because the notion of Autism being a problem to society simply wasn’t there. Of course, being a support department, it did help with the disabling effects of the condition, but it also ran programs in which AS students would speak to the wider college and public about the condition to spread awareness. When I interviewed one of the senior staff members for a documentary, they seemed genuinely oblivious to the pro-cure policies of Autism Speaks and similar groups.

It was beautiful, there was little need for Autistic Rights campaigns because there was little or no presence of the Autism Speaks mindset to campaign against. The college-supported speeches and conventions for Aspergers awareness was only targeted at the general ignorance surrounding the condition. I think that this is due to a kind of ‘Atlantic divide’ between British and American attitudes towards Autism and Aspergers. For example, The National Autistic Society (NAS) is Britain’s dominant Autism/Aspergers charity and it publicly condemns the ‘I Am Autism’ video produced by Autism Speaks, saying that “While we understand the huge pressure many families are under, we cannot support a campaign that is so negative in its portrayal of autism. We strongly believe that people with autism make a unique and valuable contribution to society.”

National Autistic Society. (2009) NAS response to “I Am Autism” video, http://www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=2074&a=20503, Date accessed 02/12/09.

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