Monday, January 15, 2007

Media Pick Up "Unstrange Minds" As Hook to Debunk Cries of "Autism Epidemic"

Both Time and the online magazine Slate have picked up the main thesis in Roy Richard Grinker's new book, "Unstrange Minds," which as Slate's writer puts it, "makes the case that the rise in autism diagnosis is nothing more than an epidemic of discovery."

It's important to note these articles, along with a U.S. News and World Report piece highlighted here last week, because as more media outlets focus on this book, Grinker's well-regarded work will become grist for arguments in the policy debates over funding for research, and questions about services in schools and other facilities, that eventually affect people with autism and their families. (You can find today's Slate piece, "The Autism Numbers, Why there's no epidemic" here. The Time article, "What Autism Epidemic?" is available here.) This is the kind of media attention that threatens to take the public's focus away from pursuing results -- What causes autism? What can we do about it? -- and instead shines a light on semantics and debates about definitions: What is an epidemic, anyway? Do we need to worry about something that is not "an epidemic"?

The Slate piece, by Arthur Allen, who has a new book about the history of vaccines coming out this month, says people such as quarterback Doug Flutie, Rep. Dan Burton and NBC Chairman Bob Wright (a founder of Autism Speaks) have cried "autism epidemic" as a way to get more research funds. The point the writer makes is that people respond to hyped up language; they rally for funds, pass laws, demand services, boycott immunizations, and so on. The problem, he says, is that Grinker's research shows that there is no evidence of an epidemic. Time's article, by Claudia Wallis, is more succinct in bullet-pointing Grinker's research on why there are more autism cases in the U.S.: broader medical definitions, increased special-education reporting requirements, less social stigma associated with the diagnosis, "financial incentives" to get Medicaid without financial need, and the "relabeling" of kids once called mentally retarded or learning disabled as autistic.

There's nothing wrong with these discussions, of course, unless you buy into the underlying assumption that the Slate and Time writers make: that without a popular belief that the rising incidence of autism cases represent an "epidemic" there would be less urgency about the issue. There would be fewer efforts to raise money, fund research, pass legislation, increase supports for people on the autism spectrum and efforts to help their families. There would be less advocacy for all these things. Maybe there would be no Combating Autism Act.

I look forward to reading "Unstrange Minds" to gain more understanding about the history of autism diagnoses and how different cultures treat their children. (You can find out more about the book, and read an excerpt, by visiting the author's site here.) I also want to understand better the context in which reports like these from Time and Slate pick up Grinker's work as newsworthy. Because I would expect more of these reports to be published.


Anonymous said...

You raise really interesting, important questions here. Thank you for this reminder to think critically about something that looks like it's going to get lots of attention in coming months. Here are some more questions: Why does something have to be "an epidemic" for people (policymakers, funders, leaders, etc.) to care about it? And why do the media seem to continually create/inflate "epidemics" one year and then tear them down the next?

Anonymous said...

i agree that it does not have to be an epidemic for poeple to care.