On a recent Sunday, New York Times put out the story, Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.
which focused on a 22 year old young man with autism named Justin Canha who's struggling to find a place as an independent adult. It written was by Amy Harmon, a Times reporter who's written a lot on autism over the years. Reading about autism in the New York Times always gives us the same message: THE CAUSE IS UNKNOWN, BUT RELAX, AUTISM'S NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.
I looked back on some of the stories I've written about the NYT and autism/autism and vaccines. The message is always the same:
Vaccines don't cause autism. There's a genetic link. We don't know if there's been a real increase. Autism is this mysterious condition no one has figured out yet. I continue to wonder why there's no embarrassment that after years having no answers, they still have nothing worthwhile to say.
NYT: "Public health officials are involved in a continuing struggle with anti-vaccine activists who contend that the shots given to children trigger autism, seizures or other serious side effects." (Featuring Paul Offit slamming non-vaxing parents)
Here I wrote about an article by Robert Kennedy Jr in SPECTRUM, a magazine for families and individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. In it Kennedy described a meeting that was supposed to include Kennedy and the editor of the New York Times to discuss Kennedy's editorial submission on vaccines and autism.
The meeting wasn't what Kennedy planned for. He described it like this:
"I expected a discussion with the editor of the Times, but when I went in to meet, they had assembled a group of science editors that were so hostile and antagonistic, it was like talking to a brick wall." As far as the Times was concerned, the issue was closed. Kennedy said, "They were absolutely determined that there would be no public discussion in their paper about mercury and neurological disorders."
This was a striking example of the malaise when the subject is autism.
In this piece I wrote about how the NYT was out to convince everyone that having a one percent autism rate in the U.S. was normal and acceptable. In the story I covered, the NYT told us how 40 percent of ASD kids "grew out of" their diagnosis.
"Prevalence estimates for these disorders have increased so sharply in recent years - to 1 in 150 in 2007, from 1 in 300 in the early 2000s - that scientists have debated whether in fact the disorder is more common, or diagnosed more often as a result of higher awareness.
"The new estimate is about the same as one from a study published in October, which found a rate of slightly more than 1 in 100 children who received a diagnosis. Yet that study, based on a phone survey of 78,000 households, also found that almost 40 percent of the children who had received an autism spectrum diagnosis grew out of it or no longer had the diagnosis."
Here I covered Roy Grinker's op ed piece in the NYT. Grinker claimed that there's been no real increase in autism, vaccines aren't a factor, and we shouldn't worry about autism. From the sound of his op ed article, we should just embrace autism.
The main message from Grinker in the Times is that it's a great idea to include Asperger's Syndrome in the definition of autism in the official DSM. According to Grinker, his daughter's experience with Asperger's has been rewarding. He's happy about the one big autism family they're about to create.
"If this revision is adopted, the condition will be folded into the category of 'autism spectrum disorder,' which will no longer contain any categories for distinct subtypes of autism like Asperger's and 'pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified' (a category for children with some traits of autism but not enough to warrant a diagnosis)."
Grinker called the piece, Disorder out of Chaos, and he devoted most of the writing to telling us how all levels of autism are alike.
David Bornstein of the NYT sounded like a concerned advocate for the disabled. All we need to do is make jobs autism-friendly. However he was talking about an approaching disaster and he was totally unconcerned about where all these young adults with autism are coming from and he showed no interest in why no one knows how many autistic adults there are currently. The simple question, Why can't young adults with autism go where young autistic adults have always gone?-didn't occur to him.
Here I focused on what Perry Klass, MD wrote in the NYT. After two decades of pediatricians taking credit for the better diagnosing of autism and claiming that it was a genetic disorder that's always been around, the latest research on twins has given us stunning evidence that autism is more likely determined by factors in the environment. Now the big questions are: What's causing so many children to be disabled and how can we prevent more kids from ending up on the spectrum?
Are doctors demanding research? Are they scrambling for answers? Are they scared the numbers could get worse than the current rate of one percent?
Evidently Dr. Klass isn't too worked up over all the autism no official can explain. Her biggest problem is that parents keep asking her questions and she has no answers.
Gardiner Harris at the NYT has been hammering at parents that vaccines don't cause autism. Any critique of the Times would be incomplete without mentioning him. He loves the studies and keeps using them to disprove any problem from the ever-expanding vaccine schedule. He just can't understand why parents don't just get over it.
The Times cracks the door on the autism tidal wave
This gets us back to the current NYT piece about young adults with autism transitioning into the work force by Amy Harmon. I feel like Harmon was told that she had to downplay the whole issue of where all these kids are coming from.
She gave us some really bizarre reasons why autistic young adults are here.
Justin, who barely spoke until he was 10, falls roughly in the middle of the spectrum of social impairments that characterize autism, which affects nearly one in 100 American children. He talks to himself in public, has had occasional angry outbursts, avoids eye contact and rarely deviates from his favorite subject, animation. His unabashed expression of emotion and quirky sense of humor endear him to teachers, therapists and relatives. Yet at 20, he had never made a true friend. ...
As the condition's hallmark behaviors became better recognized, many children who were previously designated as mentally retarded or just dismissed as strange were being given an autism diagnosis, a trend that has continued. Some experts also believe that the actual number of people with autism has been climbing.
"Even now, autism's root causes remain unknown; many genetic and environmental factors are believed to contribute to its different forms and degrees of severity.
What in the world is Amy Harmon talking about? She focused her feel-good story on one young man who, despite his limitations, is working to live independently. Justin struggles, as all ASD people do, but he's light years ahead of so many kids I know with autism. Giving us a talented, verbal, intelligent young man like Justin Harmon neatly pushed aside the severely autistic people of the same age. Harmon was good at describing the problem, but she offered us no solutions. She calmly told us Justin barely talked until he was 10 years old with no explanation. Harmon gave us the rate of one in 100 with no alarm. She noted that over 90 percent of autistic adults are unemployed, which is a scary concept considering the epidemic rate of the disorder. Harmon wrote that autistic adults are out there in group homes or "living with parents." Really? I'm still waiting for some reporter to actually back up that pretense by showing us the 40, 60, and 80 year olds living in those "group homes." (And I don't mean someone with eccentric behaviors that could be passed off as autism. I want to see the head-banging, rocking, non-verbal adults who are middle aged and older.) And I want a real journalist to find the autistic adults with a history where people remember that as a toddler they were talking and normally developing and who suddenly and dramatically lost those skills.)
Harmon cited a lifetime care estimate for someone like Justin at $1 million, which is nothing like the $3.2 million price tag Harvard researcher Michael Ganz gave us in 2006. (And many say the actual cost will be between $5 and $10 million each.)
I'm sure Harmon made her editors at the NYT happy by downplaying the cause and the numbers. While she acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, the numbers are increasing, it was hidden amid her claims of better diagnosing, less stigma, and expanded spectrum. Parents have become "emboldened" and are demanding access to services for their children. In the end, Harmon, like everyone else who writes for the NYT, couldn't tell us anything about what the future holds for hundreds of thousands of autistic young people, except that they're coming.
Confusion and mystery, the hallmark of NYT autism coverage.
On Sept 23, 2011, Amy Harmon had a follow-up piece in the Times due to the "hundreds of letters in response" to her earlier article.
Harmon gave us a few of the questions she was asked along with her answers.
Q: Justin was fortunate enough to be able to harness a gift and make his way into a workforce, however haltingly. But what about a nonverbal autistic adult with no special gift? What will happen to him or her?
A: I don't know of research showing specifically what types of employment will or won't work for nonverbal individuals, who represent about one-third of the autistic population. As I describe in the story, there was much debate within Montclair High School about whether Justin, as well as students who are more severely affected by autism than he is, should join the community-based program. Many have remained in a school classroom, because parents, teachers and school officials have decided that is best.
She had nothing to offer to the parent of a severely autistic child and she doesn't see this as a crisis. The other questions she selected didn't raise any real concerns.
So, Amy Harmon, Gardiner Harris, Donald McNeil, Walecia Konrad, David Bornstein, Roy Grinker, Perry Klass, and everyone else who gets to write autism stories for the New York Times, when are you going start taking autism seriously? You've all done an excellent job of downplaying a disaster and convincing us that there's nothing wrong in having one percent of children with a seriously disabling condition no official can explain. I'm so looking forward to the way the NYT covers the next phase of the epidemic: the aging out of the children with autism. What answers are you going to have for readers who ask why we've never had to deal with this situation before? Why can't autistic young adults go where autistic adults have always gone? And what about the unending waves of children with autism who will still be coming? When there are hundreds of thousands more Americans with autism everywhere will autism finally be considered a crisis by the NYT?
The NY Times has long promoted every lie and denial pharma-paid officials have come up with. I'm sure that will continue right up to the time a million young adults with autism are left with nowhere to go.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor of Age of Autism.