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PBS Gets Earful In Response To Autism Series


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A well-known newsman whose highly publicized PBS NewsHour series this month sparked debate about the portrayal of autism in the media will respond to viewers on the program Tuesday.

Robert MacNeil returned this month to the PBS NewsHour — which he helped create in the 1970s — for the first time in more than 15 years for a six-part series on autism. Segments looked at everything from causation, treatment and prevalence to issues faced by adults with autism and MacNeil’s grandson’s personal experience with the developmental disorder.

Many praised the series for taking such a comprehensive look at autism. But not everyone was pleased with MacNeil’s reporting on the issue. In blog posts, comments and e-mails to PBS, self-advocates are chiding the veteran reporter, saying that their perspective was left out. What’s more, they are criticizing MacNeil for comments they say suggest that those with the disorder lack empathy and can be violent.

“There’s always a problem when you talk about autism and do not include autistic people in the discussion,” says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who suggests that the series featured “dehumanizing rhetoric” and language insinuating that people with autism are “violent and that we’re a burden on society.”

Now MacNeil will respond to questions and concerns raised by viewers during a segment that will air toward the end of Tuesday’s edition of the NewsHour, according to Anne Bell, public relations manager for the show.

In a move that was planned before the series aired, Bell says that a digital correspondent for the NewsHour will pose questions to MacNeil selected from the flood of viewer responses submitted by e-mail, phone and through the show’s website.

Specifically, MacNeil will discuss his comments about the ability of individuals with autism to show empathy.

“There are a lot of issues we addressed in the series and we’re finding that the questions and concerns are just as broad and diverse,” Bell says.

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Comments (13 Responses)

  1. poobird says:

    I am happy that pbs news hour portrayed autistic individuals that weren’t on the high end of the spectrum…as the mother of a moderate to low functioning 10 year old son, I am truly tired of seeing children with near normal speech and skills being represented as autistic…I wish my son were the “kind” of autistic child that Jenny McCarthy’s son is…if the public’s only autism awareness is brough about from what’s portrayed in the media, why would there be any empathy? Who would donate to autism speaks if all they see are these almost typical children?

  2. ARobertiello says:

    @ poobird
    I agree. I do think children, adolescents, and adults with autism having all abilities and challenges should be represented. We cannot generalize autism and create an unrealistic representation of what a autism looks and acts like. Media must be responsible for showing and including the diversity – the spectrum – of autism. People need to see the good and the bad experiences, those that are more independent and those that are not, families that have means to help and those that are struggling.
    How else can we raise understanding, support, and empathy? (PS I am also a mother of a 10 year old son who is low functioning.)

  3. BenefitStudio says:

    @ poobird
    I couldn’t agree more. My wife and I have been disapointed time after time when we see how autistic children are portrayed in the media. I am glad to know there are high functioning autistic children, but that is not the situaltion for our family. It’s not the reallity we live everyday.

  4. codeman38 says:


    That’s actually one of the reasons I had issues with the series: because it generalized autism, but in the *opposite* direction. It’s just as unrepresentative, at least in my opinion, to show mainly the ‘low-functioning’ side as it is to show mainly the ‘high-functioning’.

    If they’d claimed this was a counterbalance to what’s currently out there in the media, it’d be one thing. But they claimed this would be “the most comprehensive look at the disorder” ever aired on TV– and to me, that implies covering more than one side of the spectrum.

  5. violetred says:

    I saw MacNeil interviewed on the CBS a.m. news show and he said that autism robs a person of what makes us most human – the ability to communicate and connect with others. I found that unsettling because it implied that autistic people are less than human. What makes us human is something more deeply spiritual than our abilities or disabilities. At the same time, I heard the pain in his voice as he expressed this opinion. He and his family are still grieving over the diagnosis and probably very fearful about the future. That is why it is important to balance the grimness of autism with the joy, hope, and love that parents feel for their children, regardless of their disabilities…and how this love can be transformative.

  6. codeman38 says:

    And I just watched the clip. MacNeil never did “discuss his comments about the ability of individuals with autism to show empathy.”

  7. couch112 says:


    Higher functioning children are not being represented as autistic, they HAVE autism. It is a spectrum disorder, so yes there will be those that are higher functioning but that doesn’t mean they don’t have autism.

    I understand your frustration, and agree more news stories should cover the whole range of the spectrum than just one end, but showing the higher end has had some very positive impacts. One being that before the year 2000, most people thought people with autism were like the character in the movie Rain Man. Doctors refused to refer children to be tested for autism unless they were screaming, banging their heads, or showing other “typical” autistic behaviors. It is much easier today to get a doctor to listen to a concerned parent rather than the doctor ignoring and belittling parents.

    So before it was the media was focused on the more severe end of the spectrum and now they have shifted to the other extreme. Hopefully through advocates, we can get the media to show the whole spectrum.

  8. msamericanpatriot says:

    Lacking empathy, prone to violence and a drain to society. Man that is heartless considering this so called journalist has someone in his family who is autistic. He sounds very Fabian Socialist to me. Drain to society one has me angry. Look at James Dubin on America Idol. He is autistic and has a family. He told producers of the show he didn’t have money for diapers for his kid. That journalist needs to look at that guy or the one on the Amazing Race who is competing for a SECOND time because he lost his passport on the first attempt. What a piece of trash journalism? The again what do you expect from a liberal media outlet. We adults with autism would LOVE to have a job. I know I would. According to stats from the Autism Society unemployment rates for people like me are a whopping 70%. How can we get jobs when employers would rather hire the illegal immigrant than make reasonable accommodations for someone like me. We can be the most loyal employees around. We would be the one you would have to tell to go take lunch because we want to work so badly and prove it. I hate living like a virtual prisoner in my parents house because of society’s attitudes towards people like me. In the Deceleration of Independence it says that ALL men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator most of which is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Did they say that individual had to be of sound mind and body? No they did not.

  9. codeman38 says:


    That’s actually why I wasn’t diagnosed till I was in my late teens. People knew I was ‘weird’, but I was able to speak and was an early reader… and because high-functioning autism was largely unheard of at that time, they didn’t consider any sort of autism spectrum disorder at all.

    And it doesn’t mean I don’t have difficulties. I have weird sensory quirks that make me unable to drive a car safely or understand many people’s speech over the phone. I still misinterpret what people say quite frequently, or say things with the completely wrong tone. And the less said about things like job interviews, the better.

    But of course, I can’t get the services that would actually be useful to me. Because I’m over 21. Because I can speak. And because I actually attended college.

    So yeah. I’m a little irritated that they didn’t give a view of the whole spectrum in this series, and gave especially short shrift to adults on the spectrum.

  10. tracymwhdesign says:

    I am suprised of the negitivity of people dealing with autism. I understand that it did not discuss everything we would like to be discussed but there is not enough time to touch on every aspect. I want people to understand what I am going through but how can you, children on the spectrum are all different. When asked I give my prospective and can try to give yours but could never really understand without being you. I am just beginning to understand Autism and hope people don’t complain so much that the people who has no idea would not take the time to watch that. If it helps one person to understand the ergency in responding to this issue it has done its job.
    As for me it did make me feel validated on a few observations I have noted in my child. One being the that when my son experienced a high fever recently he was so clear in his speech and seem to undertand us much better. I had thought he had made a breakthrough and was disappointed when it seem to leave with his fever. It made me feel better to know I was not alone and hope they are researching that aspect of autism.
    Side Note – We need to see more about the TEEACH. I was disappointed it was not mentions and that the UNC programs were not discussed. so I will make it my task to try and inform people as well.

  11. Miilanna says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the “experts” learn how to empathize with those about whom they pretend to be the experts?

  12. msamericanpatriot says:

    @tracymwhdesign That is where I got my diagnosis of autism at age 39 so I know of the program you are talking about. I know about TEEACH.

  13. ARobertiello says:

    @ violetred
    “What makes us human is something more deeply spiritual than our abilities or disabilities.” …well said.

    I have had the pleasure of working on a grant initiative for Children’s Specialized Hospital, funded By Kohl’s Department Stores. It’s called Friends Like You. Friends Like Me. The whole focus is about making friends with people – looking at similarities, not differences… seeing a person’s abilities, not disabilities. We all have both. Every person has something to share, something to give, something to be valued for. But so often people are looking at those things that are wrong with a person… the things that make them “less perfect.” Who among us is perfect? Individuals with autism (or any other disorder or disability) are human beings with the same desire to be loved and appreciated. It is so important to breakdown peoples fears of people who have “invisible” disabilities like autism and to change negative perceptions. One of the messages I convey in my presentations to the children is ” If you know a person who has autism, get to know him or her. At first, you may be afraid. But once you spend time with each other, your fear will go away. After a while, you’ll forget thoughts about autism and the fear, too. You’ll see all the ways you are the same and begin to enjoy each other’s company.”
    Recently I went to a conference about ‘Community Building, Friendships, and Social Relationships.” It conveyed authentic ways that mutual friendships – real friendships – can occur, between people of all abilities (including those with severe and profound challenges). It was heartwarming and inspiring to me. That’s what I’d like to see more of. Ways to help people see the similarities, the connections. How can we increase understanding of people with autism (despite what level of the spectrum) and their families, to encourage authentic friendships and to let everyone live in a meaningful and purposeful way.

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