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Autistic Community Concerned about Robert MacNeil’s Upcoming PBS Special

PBS NewsHour Special About Autism Leaves Out Key Stakeholders, Relies on Old Stereotypes

WASHINGTON, DC (April 11th, 2011) – In the midst of autism awareness month, early questions are emerging about next week’s PBS NewsHour six-part special about the autism spectrum. The highly promoted series is generating controversy from an unexpected source: Autistic people themselves. Today, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) released a statement expressing concern over the failure of NewsHour co-founder and reporter Robert MacNeil to interview representatives of any organizations run by Autistic adults and the presence of concerning stereotypes about Autistic Americans in the promotional material.

“We are very concerned about the upcoming NewsHour special,” said ASAN President Ari Ne’eman, “While we will obviously be judging the final product when it airs, it appears from the promotional material that no Autistic-run organizations were interviewed or consulted during its creation – and that the series may rely on erroneous and offensive tropes claiming that Autistic people are violent, less than human and incapable of empathy.”

Early promotional material from PBS show that while MacNeil interviewed many parents, physicians and educators for the series, no organizations run by Autistic adults themselves were consulted or approached. In fact, no information exists as to whether or not Mr. MacNeil interviewed any Autistic people during his reporting about the autism spectrum.

“As an Autistic young adult, I am concerned about how this upcoming PBS series may misrepresent me and my disability,” said 17-year old Autistic high schooler Lydia Brown of Melrose, Massachusetts. “I want journalism that addresses the systemic problems behind the challenges I and other autistic people face instead of reporting that plays into the popular media’s misleading and harmful stereotypes about Autistic people.”

In an interview about the series on PBS.org, MacNeil stated his feeling that Autistic Americans lack “the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each others eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them.” Later during the interview, MacNeil made unsupported statements suggesting that Autistic adults are disproportionately and randomly violent as compared to the general population.

“We urge PBS to work with the Autistic community to review the series prior to airtime to correct any errors of fact or ethics,” said Ne’eman, “Furthermore, let me take this opportunity to invite Mr. MacNeil to meet with representatives from the community of Autistic adults. I think he’d find it very educational. It is our sincere hope that PBS does not exclude this perspective in future programming about the autism spectrum.”

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is the nation’s leading advocacy organization run entirely by and for Autistic adults and youth. ASAN’s supporters include Autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, family members, professionals, educators and friends. ASAN was created to provide support and services to individuals on the autism spectrum while working to change public perception and combat misinformation by educating communities about persons on the autism spectrum. The organization’s activities include public policy advocacy, community engagement to encourage inclusion and respect for neurodiversity, quality of life oriented research and the development of Autistic cultural activities and other opportunities for Autistic people to engage with others on the spectrum.

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