Media Representations of People with Autism Changing to Reflect New Attitudes, Study Finds
Media representations of autism may be changing to reflect shifts in the public perception of the condition. A new study, published this month in the online edition of Disability and Society, found that the Washington Post’s depiction of autism has shifted over the years from searching for a cure to acceptance and accommodation. The study was co-authored by Noa Lewin, a 2018 graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Nameera Akhtar, a professor of psychology at UCSC.
According to a report by News-Medical.net, Akhtar and Lewin based their study on the Washington Post’s coverage of autism starting in 2007, before the link between the MMR vaccine and autism had been debunked, and ending 10 years later, when the neurodiversity movement began promoting awareness of differences in the ways that brains function. Lewin and Akhtar found that over time, the Post’s articles began discussing neurodiversity more often, acknowledging the strengths of people with autism, and even featuring the voices of people with autism themselves. Lewin, who is himself on the autism spectrum, noted a Washington Post article quoting a member of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, ASAN, an organization of individuals with autism promoting equal rights and opportunities for people on the spectrum.
"We tend to think of a disability as a medical tragedy, and we don't think about how attitudes, systemic ableism, and barriers contribute to that,” Lewin was quoted as saying in News-Medical.net’s report.
Unfortunately, Lewin and Akhtar found that, while the Post’s autism coverage gradually shifted towards recognizing the strengths of people with autism, the paper continued to use negative terms to describe people on the spectrum. These included “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” (autism advocates generally prefer more specific terms), and “speaking” and “non-speaking.”
As Lewin put it, “The Post's coverage reflected a widespread belief that having a disability is okay if you're able to fit into a neurotypical world or if it offers a special talent or skill with social value, like being really good with computers.”
Akhtar, for her part, said she was pleased to see media representations of people with autism shifting in a positive direction.
“Autistic people should be involved in research about autism," she said. "I was happy to work with Noa and to gain this insider's perspective. I learned a lot. You learn to broaden your way of thinking by interacting with people with different experiences."