Autistic community concerned about Robert MacNeil’s upcoming PBS special “Autism Today”

13 Apr

The PBS NewsHour has a series airing soon on autism. I’ve discussed this, including some reservations I have about the program, here on LeftBrainRightBrain. The Autsitic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has put out a press release about the upcoming program “PBS NewsHour Special “Autism Today” Leaves Out Key Stakeholders, Relies on Old Stereotypes

PBS NewsHour Special “Autism Today” 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 – titled “Autism Today” – 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, 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.

34 Responses to “Autistic community concerned about Robert MacNeil’s upcoming PBS special “Autism Today””

  1. Staci April 13, 2011 at 17:06 #

    It also appears that the show will completely ignore how students with autism are educated in public schools… an issue that the media and organizations everywhere are ignoring.

  2. daedalus2u April 13, 2011 at 19:06 #

    That is quite unfortunate that PBS seems to be doing such a shallow and nonprofessional analysis of an important subject.

    It is especially unfortunate that MacNeil has based his analysis on his non-professional feelings and not science and not even direct observation. The idea that autistic people 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.”

    is simply wrong. Autistic people can look into the eyes of NTs and feel a part of what is going on in that NT person’s mind. The problem is that many NTs can’t look into the eyes of someone with autism and figure out what is going on in the autistic person’s mind. When NTs can’t understand someone, many of them project their lack of understanding onto the other person and impute that the other person can’t understand them.

    This is what I discuss in my write-up on xenophobia. It is the inability of many NTs to understand ASDs that leads to the imputation of a lack of understanding on the ASDs part and to the default to xenophobia on the part of the NTs.

    Of course when humans don’t understand someone they impute the possibility of violence and injury. That is why humans have the instinct of xenophobia as a default. When you don’t understand someone, you don’t know that they won’t do you harm, so humans evolved to default to xenophobia. Xenophobia is a feeling that says something about the person having the feeling. It has nothing to do with the object of that xenophobia.

  3. Marc April 13, 2011 at 21:19 #

    The problem is that autism has become too big of a tent. Who should be considered autistic? You have high functioning highly articulate individuals like those quoted above from ASAN, who sit on government advisory boards, make cogent arguments, go to college and will hold well paying jobs. Then on the other end of things you have individuals who are severely challenged and detached from their environment.

    In between there are countless steps of disability. My son is very empathetic, has a kooky sense of humor, looks you in the eye but has sensory, language and social deficits. PDD-NOS, all sorts of splinter skills. I would give my right arm if he could be as articulate as the ASAN members, go to college or run a self-advocacy organization. His future is a group home with daily life management supports. And, I am certain that there are parents who have lower functioning children who would give their right arm to trade places with me.

    Both the ASAN members and my son are diagnosed as autistic and that just may be the problem. Are individuals with Asperger’s really autistic? Maybe it is time to reconsider what constitutes a diagnosis of autism?

    I am sorry that ASAN is so angry but they have to realize that their anger is doing a disservice to the rest of the autism community.

    • Sullivan April 13, 2011 at 21:45 #


      “You have high functioning highly articulate individuals like those quoted above from ASAN, who sit on government advisory boards, make cogent arguments, go to college and will hold well paying jobs. ”

      You left out: spent time in a segregated special education program in the description above.

      Then on the other end of things you have individuals who are severely challenged and detached from their environment.

      You had me going right up to “detached from their environment”. Very few people are “detached from their environment”. Very, very, few. We are talking about autistics, not people in a coma.

      “Are individuals with Asperger’s really autistic? ” Yes.

  4. Dicty April 13, 2011 at 21:42 #


    So if Ari Ne’eman couldn’t speak, spent his days strapped to a wheelchair in an institution and wore Depends, then would it be okay for him to call out PBS for giving some asshole journalist a platform from which to call disabled people subhuman?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. Marc April 13, 2011 at 22:05 #

    Dicty: Subhuman? What PBS journalist said that? Can you provide the quote and a source?

  6. Ian MacGregor April 13, 2011 at 23:18 #

    I think its probably rare for someone to remain detached from the environment over time. I’m not so certain that it is so rare during the condition’s development. My daughter was quite detached. Although she remains much lower functioning than the children I read about here, She has made great improvements in her awareness of her surroundings.

    I’m not sure if I believe someone who refers to people such as my daughter as a bad stereotype, has any empathy for people like her.

    I would never consider my daughter violent, however she does commit acts of violence everyday. Mainly against herself. She violently bites one of her hands. She’s also prone to bop my wife and I on our heads, or may bruise us through pinching and through giving “indian” burns.

    She does not have the strength to do us any grievous bodily harm, and thank the Lord she no longer bites. However if she were bigger and stronger her acts could indeed endanger someone. I could understand someone referring to her as violent. The frequency of violent acts against herself has lessened over the years, and toward her parents greatly so.

  7. Marc April 13, 2011 at 23:26 #

    Ian, Sullivan: I apologize for the my poor choice of words.

  8. Autism and Oughtisms April 14, 2011 at 02:39 #

    Very interesting comments.

    When someone says “autism”, I think there is a huge range of primary images that pop into people’s minds. Some people straight away think of a non-verbal, self and other harming child, others think of a highly talented savant wowing the world, or an ordinary adult with hidden challenges. To present any of those as the “correct” sterotype, does the others a disservice. The message that needs to get out amongst the public is the enormous variety of people who are (quite legitimately) given the diagnosis of autism. I don’t think it helps anyone here to say Aspergers isn’t autism; if the issue is with how the higher-functioning autistic people are presenting autism to the world, then that issue needs to be dealt with directly, not via attacking their diagnosis.

  9. sharon April 14, 2011 at 05:27 #

    I’d like to second the comments above about Aspergers. My son is currently dx pdd-nos, but there is a suspicion that will change to Aspergers once he hits 3. To say that his difficulty in communicating, his need for control over his environment, his anxiety, his meltdowns, his sensory issues, his day to day frustrations, his constant attempts to run off are somehow less traumatic to live with because he is verbal and intelligent enough to warrant that dx is unfair. An Aspergers dx does not suddenly remove all those challenges. Because of his functioning status he will go to a mainstream school, where is at high risk of bullying, where he will struggle to make and maintain friendhsips, where he will be overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds and sights, where he will meltdown each time the teacher tries to mix up their daily routine. Where he will be reminded each day of how different he is. If his anxiety now is a problem imagine how it will affect him in a schoolyard situation where he cant makes sense of the in-jokes.
    Lets not dismiss the struggles of parents with high functioning ASD children, and the challenges that those with Aspergers have to negotiate each day. Is it Autism? Hell yeah.

    Personally it makes sense to me that the most articulate members of the spectrum will be the ones who advocate for all who live with Autism. Do some take it too far? Of course. There are always those who sit at the extreme ends of any movement. A noisy minority who dont reflect the essential intention of consciousness raising and a call for a fair go.

  10. Nightstorm April 14, 2011 at 07:28 #

    Awww maaan what happened to my post :<

  11. julia April 14, 2011 at 21:19 #

    Another source of autistic stereotyping is from a recent article on “evil, lack of empathy”, and autism research by Simon Baron-Cohen. I will post the whole thing here because not everyone has a subscription.

    Simon Baron-Cohen: I want to banish evil

    13 April 2011 by Liz Else
    Magazine issue 2807. Subscribe and save
    For similar stories, visit the Interviews and The Human Brain Topic Guides
    Read full articleContinue reading page |1 |2
    The autism researcher explains why labelling people “evil” is unhelpful – and argues for a more objective measure of people’s capacity for cruelty

    What got you interested in the idea of understanding evil and cruelty?
    As a child growing up in a Jewish family, my father told me that the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades, and about what had happened to the mother of one of his former girlfriends. When my father met Mrs Goldblatt he was shocked to see that her hands were reversed. The Nazis had severed her hands and reattached them so that if she put her hands out palm down, her thumbs were on the outside and her little fingers on the inside. So for someone who is Jewish, there is a major puzzle as to how the Holocaust happened, and how in Nazi Germany it could ever have been acceptable to turn people into objects.

    Do you think you have any new clues?
    My latest theory is all to do with empathy – something I have effectively been studying for years through my research into psychiatric conditions such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome. In my new book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, I wanted to address the question, does low empathy necessarily lead to acts of cruelty? My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the term “evil” with the more scientific one of “lack of empathy”.

    What exactly do you mean by empathy?
    I see empathy as an umbrella term. I don’t think it’s a single process; it covers a multitude of components. At the very least, you can break it down into cognitive empathy and affective empathy: the cognitive bit deals with understanding other people’s states of mind, and the affective component is your emotional reaction to somebody else’s state of mind. I think that empathy covers a spectrum, like a bell curve of individual differences, and we can look at how it correlates with brain activity. There is a consensus in neuroscience that it is not the whole brain that is involved but at least 10 interconnected regions, forming what I call an “empathy circuit”.

    Why do you think we should talk of a total lack of empathy rather than evil?
    I want people not to be satisfied with the term evil. When we look at examples of people doing horrible things to others, we need to go beyond accounts like “he did it because he was evil” and look instead at behaviour as an expression of individual differences in empathy. Empathy is more explanatory, not just because you can trace it to particular brain regions, but because you can look at what influences how much empathy a person has, so it’s measurable in a way that evil isn’t.

    You can also look at what modulates brain activity in the empathy circuit and identify the risk factors that influence whether someone might have more or less activity in those regions – either environmental risk factors or genetic ones. Using empathy takes things out of the religious framework and puts them squarely in a scientific one.

    Yet the US edition of your book is called The Science of Evil?
    That was the American publishers’ choice, and it will be interesting to see what the reaction is. On the one hand, Americans seem to be more wedded to the use of the word evil than people in the UK, but on the other hand, once they open the cover of the book, they will see that I’m arguing it’s time to drop that word. There might be some value in challenging them.

    In the book, you relabel some old psychiatric conditions as “zero positives” and “zero negatives”. What do these labels mean?
    People who are at zero degrees of empathy score very low on different tests of empathy, and without intervention, that tends to be where they stay. The psychiatric categories I call “zero negatives” have absolutely nothing to recommend them – hence the name. There are at least three well-defined routes to this end-point: the person with borderline personality disorder, the narcissist, and the psychopath. But the label is not necessarily fixed in the sense that these conditions are untreatable: people with borderline personality disorder, for example, can respond to psychological interventions.

    What about those you label as zero positives?
    I call people with autism zero positive. In their case, although they have very low empathy it is often accompanied by areas of strength or talent. And, crucially, there is a lack of intent to cause harm to another human or animal. So I wouldn’t want to say that, for example, a child with autism who punches another child to stop them from screaming was being cruel – the child was simply trying to bring about a different environmental outcome.

    Is this new way of thinking about empathy challenging us intellectually and societally?
    I think so. I’m expecting some reaction to a number of things. Take genes. In the book, I talk about how we have been testing genes associated with empathy, and I imagine some readers might misrepresent my position as saying that empathy is all down to genes, it’s all biology. I study genes and hormones, particularly testosterone in the womb, but I also emphasise that the environment is just as important as some of the biological factors. I spell out that I’m not advocating an extreme form of biological determinism, but it may not stop people from misreading the thesis. This may say more about how we like to read these things, to have it in rather stale black-and-white terms. And the science is saying that there are gene-environment interactions, and that’s a messier story.

    How do we raise empathic children?
    The aim is to produce children who trust that the world is a safe place, not children who grow up unable to trust adults because they have been beaten or because there is no predictability about when they are next going to see their parent. Those children who experience lack of safety and lack of routine in their early environment are the ones who may end up with life-long issues around trust in relationships, and an inability to get close to other people. Some of them will end up zero negative, damaged and potentially dangerous.

    There has been much research into how easy it is to manipulate humans. Where does that leave empathy – does it make it a fragile thing?
    I think it is very fragile. There are situational factors that can affect whether your empathy is reduced. For example, you can describe the other group as the enemy and that changes the way you treat them. One of the benefits of British people now thinking of themselves as Europeans is that rather than seeing group divisions we see commonalities. So changes in beliefs can affect empathy, and they are reversible. A genetic predisposition to low empathy, however, is much harder to reverse.

    If you had a society where there were many highly empathic people, would it be tricky for the gear to be thrown in the other direction?
    If an individual starts off low in empathy, it might not take much to push them even lower. But if you start off with high levels of empathy, even if your society is sanctioning certain kinds of behaviour, it might mean you are less prone to committing acts of cruelty.

    Yet you cite horror stories of the Austrian paedophile Josef Fritzl, of a Kenyan woman mutilated for her wedding ring, of Armenians “ethnically cleansed” in Turkey. Why?
    These are global examples of what I call “empathy erosion”. I include them in the book to help eliminate one absurd view, namely that the Nazis were uniquely cruel. They weren’t. We need reminding of that. /end quote

  12. Jackie April 15, 2011 at 05:45 #

    Say what? This guy is just nuts! People on the Autism Spectrum are unfeelng monsters according to Simon, but Nazis A-Ok?

  13. julia April 15, 2011 at 09:55 #

    The impression i got was that he thinks autistic people have a lower level of evil because they do not mean to hurt people with their low empathy. The problem is that there is more to empathy than “cognitive empathy and affective empathy” or knowing and feeling with people, there is also th expression of empathy that may be blocked. This Simone Baron-Cohen is guilty of precisely what daedalus2u says, “The problem is that many NTs can’t look into the eyes of someone with autism and figure out what is going on in the autistic person’s mind. ” SBC cannot seem to understand that an autistic person may be overwhelmed with either emotion or confusion and thus cannot EXPRESS the empathy at times. However , someone looking too quickly thru this interview may think SBC is saying evil=low empathy and all autistics have low empathy thus autistics are evil. Either way SBC is shallow here; too bad.

  14. daedalus2u April 15, 2011 at 15:09 #

    I have met SBC, and did send him my write up on “theory of mind vs theory of reality” and he replied and said he was going to read it. (this was when I first wrote it)

    When I saw a blurb on his new book on evil, I sent him my write up on xenophobia, he replied back saying he was looking forward to reading it.

    I think he wants to understand, but because he is NT, it is difficult for him.

    I think he is absolutely right to focus on intent. Everyone who bullies does so because they have the intent to harm their victim. Eliminating bullying would go a very long way in reducing the level of evil that people do, both as children and as adults.

    Bullying is a form of communication. The bully is communicating with violence his/her antipathy toward his/her victim. If you are unable to communicate, you are unable to bully.

    I was at a talk on autism yesterday and there was a chart of the interplay between intended harm and incidental harm and how those tended to be interpreted by NTs and ASDs. According to the graph, ASDs tended to focus on the harm and NTs tended to focus on the intent. I started thinking about the anti-vax crowd and how they perceive vaccines to have caused harm, and are now imputing intent to harm on the part of the vaccine makers. In some ways the anti-vax crowd is exhibiting more of an ASD-type reaction, focusing on the perceived harmful outcome (the misperception that vaccines cause autism) rather than the beneficent intent (vaccines will prevent disease and death).

    That anti-vax parents are exhibiting more of an ASD-type response suggests that they do have the broader ASD phenotype. They do have an inability to perceive the beneficent intent of vaccines on the part of vaccine providers.

    I think this implies that anti-vax parents were sufficiently maltreated in the past that they have developed the default of imputing negative intent. If you don’t have the ability to perceive actual intent, you have to either stay neutral until you get enough data to make the perception or you have to impute a positive or a negative intent without enough information. If you default to imputing a negative intent too soon, and respond to your imputation of negative intent, then negative action and reaction will escalate. This is what Gandhi meant when he said “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

  15. Nightstorm April 15, 2011 at 20:26 #

    April 15th, 2011

    I have met SBC, and did send him my write up on “theory of mind vs theory of reality” and he replied and said he was going to read it. (this was when I first wrote it)

    When I saw a blurb on his new book on evil, I sent him my write up on xenophobia, he replied back saying he was looking forward to reading it.

    I think he wants to understand, but because he is NT, it is difficult for him.

    Did he actually read them Dedalaus? Did he send any response back?

    I think Dr. Baron-Cohen is a good example of “good intentions=road to hell” he’s honestly blinded by NT privilege couple with his objective thinking it comes off as rather…degrading. I am sick of the “Lack of Empathy” horseshit. Guess what NTs you don’t have empathy either! Considering all the jargon I hear from politicians about cutting funds for social services for people that need them. It’s schismic. Baron-Cohen see autistic people the same way a biologist sees a rare species of frog. We’re fascinating animals to him. Something to study and poke and go “Wow look how fucking brilliant I am! Where is my noble prize?”

    Yeah yeah I am just a little bitter

  16. daedalus2u April 16, 2011 at 03:54 #

    He did not send any response back, other than the one that said he got it and was looking forward to reading it. They are an easy read, it would take 15 minutes or so.

    It takes time for neurodevelopment to change the neuroanatomy such that people can understand things. That is what learning is, allowing your neuroanatomy to change so you can instantiate new ideas in it.

    If you read his early work there has been a progression. He is not the worst of the autism researchers. He is a senior autism researcher who is trying to do the right thing. He is trying to understand things as they actually are and having met him, I don’t think he will stop until he does. He knows he doesn’t understand the mindset that could allow people to do what the Nazis did. He knows that autistic people don’t have that mindset. I think he is trying to understand things that his brain is as yet incapable of instantiating.

    I don’t disagree with you, and “NT privilege” is an excellent way to put it. It does exactly derive from the same mentality that all other “privilege” derives from, from “othering” those who are different.

    In any case, “good intentions gone to hell” is a lot better than “bad intentions gone to hell”. With good intentions there is at least the possibility of a not bad outcome.

  17. McD April 16, 2011 at 04:01 #

    That is one book I intend having a look at. But I totally disagree with statements about autistics not feeling empathy at all. In many cases there is too much empathy, it is too painful and too hard to disengage, so the empathic contact is avoided in the first place.

    In much the same way I feeling like slapping people who say things like “X said so-and-so, X has Aspergher’s and Aspergers people never lie, so so-and-so must be true” (usually in regards to some AS getting into trouble with the law).

    As a kid I couldn’t lie, because I assumed that other people knew what I was feeling. It would be ‘written on my face’ as my mother said (I didn’t know what my face was supposed to be doing). Eventually I managed social white lies by imagining myself to be my sister (I got through a number of social situations that way, pretending to be her – not really the best choice though, a long story for another time)

    Empathy-wise it was very stressful to feel what other people were feeling, especially as a child. To start off with I was probably wrong a lot of the time, but when I ‘put myself in someones’ shoes’ (this was quite a literal process of imagining myself as them), It was too overwhelming. And still is. I ended up as the soft touch – the person hit-up for money, favors, and always put-out. I never put myself first, because I was thinking from the other person’s point of view all the time.

    Just recently, after the Japanese tsunami, I found myself unable to disengage from the plight of the workers at the nuclear power-plant and their families. I wasted days, not getting any work done, and found myself bursting into tears at odd times (I DON’T cry).

    Empathy can be crippling, and like other dodgy autistic wiring it only seems to have two settings for me – ‘full on’, or ‘off’. Although I have to say the default setting as a child was to have empathy turned ‘off’, and it took a conscious effort to put myself in someone’s place. But without a default setting of ‘off’ I would have been a quivering wreak.

  18. RAJ April 16, 2011 at 14:44 #

    Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of autism can be summed up with the simple catch-phrase “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’

    Tell us something new SBC.

    He has a peculiar theories of what he calls ‘Autism Spectrum Conditions’. He is also the co-author of a study that recruited twins taken from the TEDS (Twins Early Developmental Study)twin registry. The article states that around 10% all children in the general population possess ‘extreme autistic traits’.

    Anyone who claims there is a single ’cause’ for autism whether it is vaccines cause autism or high levels of fetal testosterone causes autism is searching for the Arc of the Covenant. He also published a study that examined the outcomes of 238 6-10 year old children who were found to have prenatal ‘high’ fetal testosterone levels whose mothers had undergone amniocentesis.

    Using autism screening tools he found that high levels of fetal tetesterone was associated with high scores on the CAST and his own ASQ screening questionnaires.

    You will have to read the full article before learning that not a single child among the 238 6-10 year old children included in the study had ever been diagnosed with any PDD at any point in their lives.

    He is also published epidemiological studies in the UK that have reported the highest prevelance rates of autism using telephone interviews scored using his ASQ questionnaire.

    My view is that SBD doesn’t have a clue when it comes to distuinguishing common normal personality ‘traits’ and a profoundly handicapping neurological disorder.

    When he states that around 10% of all children in the general population has what he calls ‘extreme autistic traits’ and possess an ‘Autism Spectrum Condition’ you can see in what direction prevelance rates are headed towards, especially in UK epidemiology studies.

  19. daedalus2u April 16, 2011 at 18:11 #

    RAJ, no one does because there aren’t any sharp divisions, there are only different degrees on a very complex multi-dimensional spectrum. All neurological behaviors come in different degrees. Any deviation from what NTs have, either positive or negative, is considered pathology when that deviation reaches a certain level.

    That study was prospective. Autism can’t be diagnosed in utero, they had to wait until the children were old enough. That they can see subclinical deviations in neurologically derived behaviors associated with different testosterone levels in utero is a very important and very significant finding. It was a very small study. The chances of seeing an autistic child in a random cohort of a couple hundred is not that large, and if there was an autistic child it would only be an anecdote, not something with enough statistical power to prove anything. My understanding is that they are doing a much larger study in Denmark where amniotic fluid specimens have been archived for many births.

    All autistic behaviors occur on a spectrum and essentually all of those behaviors are also exhibited by NTs, and also on a spectrum. Understanding the physiology by which that spectrum of behaviors is produced is essential, if one is going to attempt to differentially modulate different aspects of that spectrum of behaviors.

    You can’t understand a spectrum by looking at only a few points on the extremes. If you don’t like the research that SBC is doing, then figure out research you think should be done and then do it.

  20. A Parent April 18, 2011 at 03:12 #

    In fact the ASAN statement seriously distorts what Robert MacNeil said in his interview. He did NOT say 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.” He actually said that autism “delays the most — delays or impairs for life — 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. That is denied — largely denied — to children with autism.”

    The ASAN version suggests that MacNeil said that all autistic people utterly lack empathy, which indeed would be a false stereotype. But what he actually said was much more qualified and accurate: that autism “delays or impairs” the development of empathy, something which is “largely denied” (not ENTIRELY denied) to children with autism. Speech-delayed people are not incapable of speech, and sight-impaired people are not stone blind, but they are (like autistic people) dealing with real handicaps.

    I would urge the readers of this blog to read MacNeil’s interview on the PBS website, rather than rely on inaccurate citations. And I think they should view the series in its entirety before condemning it.

  21. sharon April 18, 2011 at 04:51 #

    @A Parent, I agree that we should wait to see the full series before drawing any definitive conclusions. However I would say, based on Part 1, which can now be seen on line, that MacNeil is pushing a personal perspective, exploiting his position as a journalist to do so. I have to say it is hard to be hopeful that the series will improve based on the first episode. Very disappointing.

  22. McD April 18, 2011 at 09:13 #

    So, hang on a minute, who said this:

    ‘In an interview about the series on, 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.’

    Is ASAN putting words into MacNeil’s mouth?

    The wording of this statement indicates a direct quote.

    Is this a quote or not? is there a link to the transcript around?

    Somebody is seriously mis-representing someone else.

  23. julia April 18, 2011 at 21:41 #

    McNeil does interject “largely denied” in that phrase about “looking into another person’s eyes”. And as far as violence he asks a question: “Is this happening to a lot of young men with autism, who occasionally can lose control of themselves? Those are stories that might be done that we’re not doing.” Before that he names one instance of violence and says the word “occasionally” in reference to it.
    However, it would be easy for someone not paying attention to the exact words in the video to come away with the ideas that autistics are violent and unfeeling. Should we require a disclaimer for the purpose of clarifying these things for those who do not pay attention? I am no expert on messaging to the public, but this seems like a case of “weasel words” like Glen Beck uses when he accuses public figures of some horrid things then says “i’m just asking questions”.

  24. julia April 18, 2011 at 21:48 #

    Edit “I am no expert on messaging to the public, but this seems like a case of “weasel words” like Glen Beck uses when he accuses public figures of some horrid things then says, “I’m just asking questions”. THOUGH, NOT WITH THE SAME INTENTIONS.

  25. julia April 20, 2011 at 18:17 #

    On NPR MacNeil said his grandson has a mitochondrial disorder that the original developmental ped. refused to acknowledge. This is suspicious to me.

  26. julia April 20, 2011 at 18:34 #

    On NPR McNeil said it took going through several pediatricians in order to get the g.i. problems and mitochondrial disorder acknowledged. They are on the Diane Rehm program right now. It looks like McNeil and is trying all the biomedical treatments. Luckily, there is another person on there correcting him somewhat, but he talks about environmental “toxins” too. They are saying that with “regressive autism” a child that has an enlarged amygdala and frontal lobe that they think develops too rapidly. This seems like a preview of the show.

    • Sullivan April 20, 2011 at 18:43 #


      Robert MacNeil’s daughter has tried a wide variety of treatments. In the first segment she shows her log book, with chelators and B12 shots circled, for example.

  27. julia April 20, 2011 at 20:16 #

    At least he acknowledged that vaccines are not the cause of autism and he seemed to know that autism cannot be “cured”, on the radio at least.

  28. sharon April 21, 2011 at 04:25 #

    There has been some improvement as each episode goes to air. The third was a bit questionable, but the forth is lovely, though not exactly groundbreaking.

  29. dennis October 14, 2013 at 15:34 #

    He neither needed to (interview autists), nor did he wish to. What he *did* want to do was what he actually did, namely ‘increase his social dominance levels’ by adding another ‘course of brickwork’ to the walls which construct ‘the autistic mythos’ – and thereby wall
    us off from both life and light.
    Society says by its collective action that we must not exist. Failing mass murder, we are to become invisible to the morally-superior Normals – who, when they DO see us, see us as either ‘small, defective, and stupid children’; as ‘unpleasant animals’ – or, most commonly, as a mixture of the two poles of defective existence.
    Being seen in that way does not merely invite abuse; it MANDATES abuse, and rewards murder – by either gaining social status, or regaining lost social status.
    That is the precise thing most Normals do when they bully: they are increasing their social standing by crushing those ‘things’ that society hates collectively.


  1. PBS News Hour Special “Autism Today” | - April 13, 2011

    […] April is “Autism Awareness Month” in the US. Perhaps because it is Autism Awareness month, PBS’ Robert MacNeil is doing a special entitled Autism Today during the MacNeil Newshour. Robert MacNeil, was the long time host of the MacNeil-Leher Newshour and is a Canadian journalist and recipient of the Officer of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given in Canada. It is typical for American television to feature some report on autism in April every year. Typically, this goes without much notice. However, this year, and Mr. MacNeil in particular, has drawn the ire of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Ari Ne’eman. “Early promotional material from PBS show that while MacNeil interviewed many parents, physici… […]

  2. Autism Now Series: A Viewer’s Guide « Health and Medical News and Resources - April 19, 2011

    […] Autistic community concerned about Robert MacNeil’s upcoming PBS special “Autism Today&#… ( […]

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