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Mind

Autistic Children In The Media

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJanuary 15, 2011 8:50 PM

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Emory University's Jennifer Sarrett offers an interesting although sadly brief analysis of the way in which autism is treated in the mass media: Trapped Children.

She examines media depictions of children with autism, first in the 1960s, and then today. In those 40 years, professionals radically changed their minds about autism: in the 60s, a lot of people thought it was caused by emotionally distant refrigerator mothers; nowadays, we think it's a neural wiring disorder caused by deleted genes.

Yet, she says, while theories about the causes have changed, the media's view of what autism is hasn't, and assumptions from the 60s are still around (even amongst professionals). She identifies two enduring themes:

Fragmentation. The child with autism is somehow not a whole person; they are fundamentally "broken". And the family with an autistic child is emotionally shattered, too. In the 60s, the theory was that the broken family caused the autism. Nowadays, it's the other way round: having an autistic child stresses family relationships to breaking-point.

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Imprisonment. The child with autism is at heart "normal", but their autism has them trapped, blocked-off from the world. Bruno Bettelheim, a leading champion of the refrigerator mother theory, called his major book The Empty Fortress. Either professionals, or parents, need to "break through" the autism to contact the "real" child imprisoned by the disorder. Likewise, this real child is eager to get out, but this is very difficult: they are crying out for help. In the 60s, it was psychoanalysis that could free the child. Today, it's anything from Prozac to chelation and other quack "biomedical" cures.

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The problem with these kinds of articles is that you can really make up any themes you want, and find examples to fit. That doesn't mean it's a pointless exercise, it just means that the examples can't prove the analysis right. You need to ask yourself: does this, in general, ring true?

Sarrett's analysis does ring true for me, especially the theme of imprisonment, which is almost never made explicit, but it seems to lurk in the background of a lot of modern thought about autism. The autistic isn't really autistic. Their autism is something external - if only we could reach the normal child underneath! Every attempt to "cure" or "rescue" the autistic child relies on this belief.

I said that this paper is sadly brief. There's so much more to say on this topic; in particular, we need to compare representations of autism to those of other developmental disorders like Down's syndrome, in order to work out what's specific to autism as opposed to just general "disability" or "disorder".

However, I think if you did this, you'd probably end up agreeing with the paper. I can't remember Down's syndrome being portrayed as a kind of self-fragmentation or imprisonment; this article seems quite typical.

Sarrett recommends accounts by authors who have autism themselves for an alternative and more valid view of autism: people like Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet:

autistic voices can promote a much needed faithfulness and tolerance to future representations of autism and those diagnosed with autism.

Although she admits that these authors only speak for a subset of those with "high-functioning" autism or Asperger's, and that

there remains a population of people with autism who are not writing, speaking and reading, making the representations advanced by these narratives subject to questions about generalizability.

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Sarrett JC (2011). Trapped Children: Popular Images of Children with Autism in the 1960s and 2000s. The Journal of medical humanities PMID: 21225325

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