The Evolution Of Media Coverage on Autism

According to the National Autistic Society, there are around 700,000 autistic people living in the UK today. This would mean about 1 in 100 people are autistic. This number is much larger that it was thought to have been in previous years – in the United States the current rate is 1 in 59, while only in 90s this figure was 1 in 2500. If this trend is to continue, it can only be expected that the amount of autistic people in the UK will continue to increase year on year. Being autistic myself, I thought it would be rather interesting to take a look at the media coverage of autism over the years and how it’s changed and progressed with society. It is particularly important to look at this as the media plays a huge impact in societies perceptions, both in influencing it and reflecting it.

First of all, I wanted to look at how much autism is covered by news networks. As the prevalence of autistic people within the population has continued to grow, as does the coverage of stories about autism by news outlets. In the table below we can see that between 1990 and 1997, only 54 stories on autism were ran by 4 of the biggest US News networks. However, this figure grows substantially in later years, as we can also see that between 2005 and 2010 this number increases to 351. It would be safe to assume that as the number of people diagnosed with autism continues to grow, as does the coverage given to the topic.

However, something I found rather strange and somewhat surprising, is how the source of this coverage has changed. In the same study, it is shown that in the 90’s, 32.8% of the sources for news on autism were autistic people themselves, while in later years this has been cut in half, with autistic people only making up 16.3%. The two most common sources in the later year bracket are family and doctors, making up 27.8% and 32.5% respectively.

Having established that news coverage of autism has increased with time, I thought it would also be worth looking into the topics of the news coverage and whether there’s been much change in it as well. Fortunately, I was able to find an interesting article looking into the portrayal of autism in media by the University of California, Santa Cruz. The study analysed 315 different news articles on autism, dated from 2007 to 2017. The study found out that in the earlier years of the study, the main focus of the news articles were more on focused on ‘cause and cure’ for autism.

The subject of the cause of autism and whether or not there should be a cure for it has been a controversial topic for quite some time now. Of course I’m sure we are all quite familiar with the notorious theory that the MMR vaccine caused autism, which not only was a potential health risk as it may have made some parents refuse to let their children receive the vaccine, but was also harmful towards the autistic community as well due to the negativity in which it displayed the disorder under.

This continues to more than just the MMR vaccine. In 2007 animals rights organisation PETA received a lot of backlash from the autism community when they published their ad ‘Got Autism?’, a play on words of the popular ‘Got milk?’ phrase. In this campaign PETA sought to try to dissuade people from buying dairy based milk and turn to alternatives instead, claiming that there was a link between cows milk and autism. This received major backlash from both the autistic community and the scientific community. PETA was blasted for the lack of scientific evidence in support of their claim, with people saying it was dangerous misinformation. The backlash was strong from the autistic community, with the autism rights group Autistic Self Advocacy Network successfully campaigning to have a billboard from the campaign brought down.

I find that this case study represents the findings of the study we looked at earlier particularly well. In the study, the researchers found that the news articles progressed from mainly focusing on ’cause and cure’, to eventually a more positive and accepting portrayal of autism. The co-author, Noa Lewin, stated that “There’s less focus on cause and a bigger focus on accommodation,”. They cite the reason for this being the autism and disability rights movements, saying that they’re helping change the publics attitudes of autism to more of an accepting and accommodating one, that doesn’t view autism as a disease needing cured as it once was.

Having looked at the trends we can see how the media has changed it’s coverage so greatly in appearance in just the span of a few decades, both in volume and tone. Autism is a subject that a lot of the general public may not be to aware of, and a lot of the views they have on it are most likely from what they were informed on by the media. If the trend that’s immerged in the past few decades continues, then it is safe to say that the perception towards autism will continue to grow as a positive one.

Lucas Fitzsimmons is in Final Year for BSc Communication Management and Public Relations at Ulster University. He can be found on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn

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