I frequently search news sites for both local and international stories on autism. I prefer to use New Zealand sites, in order to pick up the local stories that otherwise go unreported from the larger international sources. I decided that it might be interesting to do my own analysis of what these stories are most often about; I had my intuitions and it turns out that my intuitions were largely wrong.
For this analysis I used the New Zealand Herald site – the major national newspaper – and stuff.co.nz which allows you to search among Fairfax’s many regional publications, including the prestigious Dominion Post. I searched as far back as 2007 for the regionals at least, but not that far back in the national because they ran so many more stories per month that it quickly got unwieldy. My search term was quite simply “autism.”
There is nothing terribly scientific about my research and analysis, it was just me and pen and paper and some time to spare. These are the results I got, for what they’re worth:
The most commonly reported stories were stories about charities and fundraising, with 19% of the total 124 stories I investigated. I had expected stories about cures, treatments and causes to come top, but on reflection it’s clear why the charity stories got the most press: Part of their function is to keep autism in the public eye, and they need to fundraise in order to continue their own existence and to help their members. To this end they have to know how to work and access the media, which they clearly do with some success.
The group of stories that came in second were those covering causes, cures and treatments, with the biggest proportion of those coming from stories about causes (11% of the total 124, and 63% of the stories in this grouping). Oddly, the “treatment” or therapy covered the most often, was about how dogs can help people with autism. I can only guess these are attractive stories with wide-appeal; who doesn’t like an uplifting story about animals and disabled children? The dog stories spanned the range of years, showing up in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Crime stories came in third. These were dominated by stories about autistic people being the criminals, rather than being the victims of crime. The crimes most focused on were looting and hacking / cyber crimes. It is not surprising that looting figured so prominently on the local stage, emotions were very high around the Christchurch Earthquake, and Arie’s story caused the whole range of emotions to erupt across the country: From anger and outrage, to pity, and love. His story became one about deeper issues of justice, police brutality, and the rights of the disabled. (Link to my various blog posts on Arie.)
Next came the stories about what it’s like to live with autism. The number of these stories came equal with those about education. Impressively (and surprisingly for me considering what is so often heard from self-advocates who claim the family perspective is always put above the individual’s with autism) the stories were perfectly equally split between those told by or from family members, and those told by or from the individuals themselves. So at least in this forum there appears to be some equality.
Education stories were largely negative, many about the exclusion of those with autism from mainstream schools. There was only one particularly positive education story, about schools celebrating autistic pupils on World Autism Awareness Day.
Looking at what stories trended each year, some clearly stood out from the pack as unusual or momentous. In 2012 it’s been the year of the Marmite shortage (“Marmageddon”), with a remarkable number of children with autism needing regular Marmite intake as part of their restricted diets. (Culminating in the charity Autism New Zealand having too much Marmite donated to them!) On a more serious note, the number of Marmite stories sat alongside the number of stories about the local boy who drowned when he was meant to be in respite care.
2011 was the year of Arie, the Christchurch earthquake looter, who I mentioned already above. It was also a year that autism charities were particularly struggling to stay afloat, and making sure the media took notice of their struggles (which continued into 2012).
2010 was the year of Wakefield’s downfall. Preceded by stories in 2008 and 2009 about studies being unable to replicate Wakefield’s findings, and finding no link more generally between vaccines and autism. Vaccine-autism stories made up over half of the stories about the causes of autism across the total number for all years.
2007 was an interesting mix of a scattering of stories; about the “scary rise” in autism numbers, about the extraordinary talents of an autistic savant, and the controversy over Janet Frame being labeled as autistic (this blog has extensively collected pieces about the Janet Frame/autism claim, including citing my own blog post that referred to related issues more generally, if you’re interested in the detailed background to that story).
All up, I found the task of going through past stories to be interesting and somewhat eye-opening. I was pleasantly surprised at the real variety of stories, and that they weren’t dominated by stories of miracle cures, on-going vaccine fears, and limited stereotypes of autistic people. It’s nice to be surprised by the media sometimes, when so often these days they leave you cynical, skeptical and suspicious when it comes to the reporting of autism stories.