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TIME TO RAIN ON THE MEDIA PARADE

ParadeBy Dan Olmsted

The sad state of American journalism's coverage of the autism epidemic is on display today in tens of millions of Sunday newspapers, probably including yours. Parade magazine's cover story is titled: "With Children Struggling, Parents Ask: Is There Hope for Autism?"

Looking out from the cover is a child identified as "Nick Furth, 9, (who) attends a school for autistic children in New Jersey." When I saw that, my jaw dropped all the way to Beijing. This is the same Nick Furth who in May 2006 was on the cover for Time magazine's “New Insights Into the Hidden World of Autism” (caption: "Nick Furth, 8, of Mine Hill, N.J.").

Timeautism_2Good heavenly days, as my mother might have put it. Out of thousands and thousands of children with autism, you're telling me Parade couldn't find one other child suitable for its cover? There's a technical term for this in my journalism dictionary. It's spelled l-a-z-y.

In the interest of full disclosure -- and also to make my point -- I need to say that I used to work for Parade's main Sunday supplement competitor, USA Weekend. Coming from this small universe, I can tell you these mega-circulation magazines have all the time and money they need to find and photograph anyone they want.

Both these photos were taken by the same photographer -- are they even new? I wonder. But here's what really sucks: After putting young Nick on the cover, both Parade and Time drop him like a hot potato. There's no mention of Nick, his family, his challenges and triumphs, that special school he attends and whether it helps, why his parents think he has autism, whether living in New Jersey, the state with the highest autism rate in the world, might conceivably have anything to do with it -- nothing. Two national magazine covers, and he's still a cipher. 

This is the commoditization of children with autism.

I'm sure Nick's parents are proud of their photogenic son’s second appearance on a major magazine cover, and nothing I have to say detracts from that. But if you're going to put Nick  -- or any other sentient being beyond a fashion model – on the cover, you need to tell us something about that person for one simple reason: He is a person. What is the implicit message if you do not?

The cover story itself is not offensive, merely insipid. But inoffensive insipidity in the mainstream media is our besetting problem. Everything from the cover line to the last sub-head is a non-committal question with no useful answer in sight. "What Do We Know About Autism? ... Is Autism an Epidemic? ... What is the Best Treatment? ... Do Vaccines Cause Autism? ... Is There Hope?"

Then there's "Does It Work?", a sidebar on alternative treatments, with this cagey wording about chelation: "No rigorous scientific studies have shown any benefit to chelation therapy." Maybe because there are no such studies at all despite parents' clamoring for years? (Last I heard the National Institutes of Health was planning one, but something went awry. Something always go awry -- it's frightfully complicated, don't you know?)

I'll quit picking on poor pitiful Parade in a second, but first I've got to highlight this assertion: "Until the 1940s, there was no autism -- in the sense it was an unrecognized condition." No! There was no autism in the sense there was no autism. This is one of the fundamental questions that lead inexorably to the heart of the matter, one I've written about endlessly and will keep writing about. You can dispute that by offering actual evidence of earlier U.S. cases (good luck), but to dismiss it in this cavalier and circular way is, well, cavalier and circular.

Why does this matter? Because if autism is relatively recent in origin, that suggests the rise of an environmental illness -- coming from the outside in -- rather than the recognition of a genetic disorder. And that would be a whole new ballgame, one that we have a lot better chance of winning.

Which brings us back to Nick Furth. As I mentioned, Time gave his hometown as Mine Hill, N.J.  I looked up Mine Hill back in 2006 and discussed it in my talk at the Autism One conference in Chicago that May. The Powerpoint presentation is HERE.

By now, many readers know that I am alert (critics would say hypervigilant) for possible environmental associations in autism. Here's what Wikipedia said about Mine Hill: "Mine Hill was once a thriving mining center, with the first mining occurring in the early 1700s. The Dickerson Mine supplied much of the iron ore used during the Revolutionary War. The township had some of the richest iron ore mines in the country, until the last mine closed during the late 1960s."

And here's what Medical News Today said about iron in March 2006:  "An MRI study opens new doors to preventing brain iron accumulation associated with risk of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Dementia … This largest-ever study of brain iron demonstrates gender difference in brain iron levels for the first time. Until now, researchers had considered the brain blood barrier as protection against accumulating too much iron from the body. …"

Imagine that: a neurotoxic heavy metal passes with unanticipated ease through the blood brain barrier, leads to chronic brain damage -- and displays a surprising affinity for males. And Nick Furth is literally sitting on top of it.

Forget Mine Hill if you want (and forget the vaccine mercury analogy). We all know New Jersey has the highest autism rate in the world, with one in every 60 boys – yes, one in every six-zero boys -- on the spectrum; that it is full of toxic pharmaceutical waste and environmental hot spots where autism numbers spike even higher; and that it is fast becoming the vaccine capital of the world (mercury-containing flu shots for all!). A lot of folks are looking at these numbers and patterns and waking up to the toxic dimensions of autism.

But for Parade and company, it's the same old story -- baffling illness, hopeful parents, helpful doctors. And the same old photo, too.

--
Dan Olmsted is Editor of The Age of Autism

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So when do you intend to publish your interviews you did where most of the Amish research is done in Pennsylvania? According to http://autism-news-beat.com/?p=29 you did not get a hold of them!

That is interesting because this reporter did:
http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/genetics/2005-06-27-amish-genetics_x.htm

Anyone want to describe your kids' "fascinating" condition? From Dr. T's site:

"Dr. Darold Treffert: In search of the rain man within us all."

A psychiatrist Dr. Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist, has been studying Savant Syndrome for nearly 40 years. His book, Extraordinary People, was the first work to comprehensively summarize what is known about this fascinating condition, originally described a century ago, and to introduce the reader to a number of present day prodigious savants such as Leslie, Alonzo and George. Many persons remember these three remarkable persons from the 1980 60 Minutes program about them. Dr. Treffert was also a consultant to the movie Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic savant.

In addition to his work in the area of Savant Syndrome, Dr. Treffert has lectured nationally for a number of years on the topic of "Mellowing". His booklet, Mellowing: Lessons from Listening, has been widely distributed. Another area of writing and speaking has been the rights of the mentally ill with respect to balancing clinical realities with legal rights.

This site features further details about the research, lectures, and works of Dr. Treffert. For the latest updates on Savant Syndrome, please visit Dr. Treffert's Web site maintained through the Wisconsin Medical Society.

I am responding to Darold A. Treffert, M.D.'s comment, "Autism did not begin with Dr. Kanner's description of it; he simply described, for the first time, and named the condition."

Dr. Treffert, please see the quotes below.

“Since 1938, there have come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far that each case merits—and, I hope will eventually receive—a detailed consideration of its fascinating peculiarities....

“These characteristics form a unique “syndrome”, not heretofore reported, which seems to be rare enough, yet is probably more frequent than is indicated by the paucity of observed cases.”

-Leo Kanner, “Autistic disturbances of affective contact”, Nervous Child, 1943

Why didn't even one single medical doctor respond to Dr. Kanner in 1943 that he was wrong? When his work appeared in peer-reviewed publications, why didn't other psychologist or psychiatrists respond that Dr. Kanner was simply providing a new name for something they had already seen? Please provide a citation from a medical doctor from the same era who said that Kanner's observations were nothing new and that it was common to see children with these characteristics. Simple fact of peer-reviewed literature: the medical community would not have let Dr. Kanner claim that the autism syndrome was "unique" and "not heretofore reported" without contrary commentary.

Dan,

Sorry to rain on your parade. But Autism has been with us as long as other developmental disabilities have existed. Dr. J. Langdon Down described a number of cases, then called mental retardation, in 1887. These are indisputable cases of early onset, and late onset autism.
Autism did not begin with Dr. Kanner's description of it; he simply described, for the first time, and named the condition.

That is not to say the incidence and prevelence have not increased. It is only to day that no, autism did not begin in 1943; it has been with us for a long time and we need to somehow weave that reality into our present discussions about causes.

Great article Dan! My dad (78 yr) will be asking me if there's anything new from the internet to read - he'll be real happy to see this...

Theresa

Hi "battered mom" --
I think your story needs to be heard just as loudly as positive stories of recovery and improvement. We need to reflect the full range of experience with autism to counter one-dimensional media stereotypes that reduce the sense of urgency about understanding this disorder and helping everyone as much as possible.
You say "it's just not a pretty picture that nobody wants to know about." Well, we at Age of Autism want to know about it and I think most of our readers do, too. I invite you to write a post for us or, if you're more comfortable, I can interview you for a Q&A. We'd hope you'd want to use your name, but either way, we'd like to hear your story.
Best, Dan

What about the kids that get WORSE with age? The ones who put their entire families in danger? Even after ABA, OT, speech therapy, two special ed schools, several special diets, allergy shots, chelation, seemingly millions of functional behaviors assessments, treatments I'm almost ashamed to admit having tried, and - YES - medication, my son is hell bent on physically harming his brother, his classmates, his teachers and me. It's just not a pretty picture that nobody wants to know about. So why publish such things?

Even my DH rolled his eyes when he saw the cover of parade this a.m. Ugh...what a mess of an article. I loved the sidebar where they panned chelation and secretin. Good thing I didn't read that b4 I treated my autistic son or he may not be where he is today...!

Dan, YOU bring us hope for autism! thanks!

Mine Hill is in Morris County; Brick is in Ocean County, "down the shore."

How can there be any hope? The press has given us the same old empty lines about autism for years.
The media dutifully reports the autism rate with no sense of alarm.
Reporters tell us genes cause autism, yet they ignore the fact that genetics alone could never explain why a once rare disorder is now
so common that everyone knows someone with an autistic child.
The press promotes the myth that all the kids everywhere with autism are there because suddenly doctors somehow got smarter at recognizing autism at the same time they report that the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for doctors to do a better job looking for autism at well baby checks.

Universally, doctors, agencies, politicians, and organizations aren't worried about the epidemic autism rate. No one is demanding to know where all these disabled kids suddenly cam from. Even more alarming is that fact that no one is worried about how this country will provide for a generation of children with autism when they become the generation of adults dependent on the taxpayers for their support and care.

Anne Dachel
Media Editor

Dan,

I absolutely LOVE the way you “tell a story” – it totally cracks me up. (I almost spewed out my coffee while reading it!)

Oh….and didn’t you mean to say:

“But for BM (Parade and company), it's the same old story…”

"There's no mention of Nick, his family, his challenges and triumphs, that special school he attends and whether it helps, why his parents think he has autism, whether living in New Jersey, the state with the highest autism rate in the world, might conceivably have anything to do with it -- nothing. Two national magazine covers, and he's still a cipher.

This is the commoditization of children with autism."

It seems to me that fear of autism is the biggest hurdle that is staring in the face of the media. It is fraught with controversy - firstly, vaccines. You mention vaccines, the big dangerous entity will come after you. You don't mention vaccines, the autism "bio-medical" community will come after you. Then there's the actual disease itself. It isn't too hard to buy a DAN treatment textbook from Amazon these days, there are 2 or 3 out there. What is stopping anyone from buying these, not understanding them, and then interviewing the DAN doctors? It's not such a mystery after all. But you see, if you do read the textbooks and God forbid speak to the DAN doctors, then you are going to open this can of worms and you are going to stir a hornets' nest. There will be anger, there will be a furor, people will get to listen to these "other" i.e., DAN doctors as to THIS can happen to you if you get too many vaccines.

Nobody, but nobody, wants to go there because living with autism is a very ugly truth. If you start talking to the doctors and the parents then you will have to start listening to the horror of it and nobody likes horror very much at all. You see horror is reserved only for Halloween and then you have Christmas soon after, much joy, much happiness, much promises of something better in life. No, it is much much easier to pretend that this is not such a bad thing after all and all is well. Yes, yes, nobody knows what causes this because all is well and vaccines were the greatest invention of modern medicine, and to even suggest anything to the contrary would be outright blasphemy. It all ultimately boils down to the "too much of a good thing" analogy.

Hear hear. I'm a published writer too and it's definitely LAZY. God forbid they put any effort into getting the facts straight. I used to be a stringer for a Pittsburgh newspaper and I can tell you from past experience that these folks just skim the information enough to get a so-so understanding of the subject and plunk it out on their keyboard in about an hour and move on to the next story. There is no in-depth understanding of the subject, they only scratch the surface -- enough to get by. Maybe that should be their motto: Good Enough.

Good article, Dan, but I fear the media has been bought, sold, and bought and sold again by the pharmaceutical industry. Nobody is going to write what you want to see written. God forbid they piss off their advertisers. If I see the upside down turtle for Chantix one more time I'm going to the nearest place that sells turtle soup. Drugs to stop addiction from...... a drug? Interesting. It's not just Parade doing this -- it's every major media outlet in the country. They only scratch the surface, they don't do any research, and they present it in the same old same old. But man, they sure do have a lot of drug ads in those publications, don't they? Hrm.

So how far away from Mine Hills, NJ is Brick, NJ?

Cindy W.
AutismLink

Great article once again Dan. The Parade piece had me steaming when I read it. It's full of generalizations and messed up facts.

There is SOOO much hope in various autism treatments, some children are even recovered. They need to put a picture of recovered kids on the cover. THAT would get some attention.

My eight year old with autism is currently on a special diet and getting IV chelation. He is still delayed, but doing things I never thought I would see. A kid who barely talked in preschool, he now talks about going to college. There IS hope for autism, but my biggest hope is that parents DON'T read Parade Magazine.

-Christine

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