The Evolution Of Media Coverage on Autism

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

Autism and PR: The Do’s and Don’ts

Autism and PR: The Do’s and Don’ts

Recently reported quite heavily by the media has been the heavy backlash Sia’s received following the release of the trailer for her new movie, ‘Music’. Following the release of this trailer, the autism community got up-in-arms against Sia. Not only for the way she’s portrayed autism in her movie, but because of her views towards autism in general and the way she’s responded to it. This has resulted in the significant backlash against her, from both the autistic community, but various different allies as well, along with media outlets.

What’s unique about this is that it’s probably one the first major times that a major public figure has been criticised when it comes to autism and is baring the consequences of it quite publicly. Multiple news articles from news groups have been published discussing this at length, only increasing the scrutiny faced by Sia. This got me thinking, there isn’t really a ‘How to’ media guide for people when it comes to addressing autism. This means when somewhere wants to discuss or approach autism, it could potentially result in a PR disaster, as it did for Sia. So as an autistic person myself, I thought I’d just throw my two cents into the ring and briefly discuss what exactly went wrong for Sia, and how it could be avoided in the future.

The Context

First of all, we should look at the movie itself – the route reason for all this controversy. ‘Music’ is written, directed and produced by Sia herself, and follows ‘Music’ (who would’ve thought?’, an autistic, non-verbal girl as the main character. One of the mains reasons for this backlash is not that the movie has an autistic main character, but how she is portrayed. Rather than being played by an autistic actor, she is instead played by Maddie Ziegler, a frequent collaborator with Sia, and unfortunately for both Sia, the movie’s production team, and the autistic community: she isn’t autistic. This brings us to the first point:

Listen to Autistic people

The fact that Sia could’ve casted an autistic actor to play this role quite easily is one of the main talking points when it comes to reasons for the controversy. In fairness to Sia, she has stated she had previously casted an autistic actor in the role, only that she ended up being to stressed out by the production of the movie. However, this attempt at saving face fell only to flat-faces, as many autistic actors stated that they would’ve been ready to play the role at short notice, and brought up how she had a budget of $16 million, which could’ve supplied necessary accommodations for autistic actors anyway. This resulted in Sia coming into conflict with several disability activists and autistic actors on Twitter – rather than listening to their advice she lashed out of them as seen below. It is not a good luck for you if you end up publicly fighting with the same people you’re claiming to be supporting. This didn’t help Sia’s case at all. In order to avoid this, it is crucial that you have autistic people actively involved in your project from the very start: make sure that they’re voices are heard! If it is them you’re really trying to support, show it and listen to what they have to say!

Know your symbols

When asked about what symbol represents autism, most people would immediately think of the iconic puzzle piece used by various autism-related charities. However, the puzzle piece is widely viewed with negative connotations in the autistic community: it is thought to show that we are in complete as humans, and that we “have a piece meaning”, and “suffer from a puzzling condition”, as stated by the creator. Added on to this, the original puzzle piece symbol is depicted with a crying child in front of it, adding further gas to this fire! If you are choosing to have a campaign based around autism, instead of using the puzzle piece, I would highly recommend using the Neurodiversity infinity Symbol instead. This is the symbol most commonly used to represent the autism rights movement, and is the much more positively viewed.

The Neurodiversity Infinity Symbol
The original puzzle piece symbol

Watch Your Language

When it comes to talking about Autism, there’s a couple of ground rules to be aware of when it comes to how to phrase your language, and it can be an easy trap for one to fall into. For starters – identity first language rather than person first is the preferred by the majority of autistic people – well over 60% of autistic people agree on this. This means you should say ‘Autistic person’ rather than ‘person with autism’. The reason for this is because Autism is considered as part of an identity as much as physical appearance would be. Saying ‘person with autism’ is viewed as saying ‘person with tall’.

Functioning Labels are bad

Us autistic people have been going on about this one for years, we don’t like functioning labels! First of all, they cause an unnecessary division between autistic people, between those that would be called “high functioning” and those that would be “low functioning”. Differences between these 2 types are greatly emphasised among people, and are most commonly based off of stereotypes: high functioning autistic people are sociable and appear “more normal”, while low functioning autistic people are commonly thought to be quiet, reserved, and unable to communicate properly. Autistic people argue that these functioning labels are harmful for both sides here. In some of Sia’s tweets, she uses these functioning labels, which leaves a sour taste in our mouths. It leaves us wondering, “Is this really the person who claims she’s done 4 years of research on autism for this movie?”. Surely if she had actually done that, she’d at least have a clue.

Overall, the main advice I would give someone is this: do your research, and listen to the people you are supporting. Rather than going to people who are only connected to autistic people, go to them yourself and listen to what they have to say.

Lucas Fitzsimmons is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.