Pop culture and autism

I am amazed at the recent volume of stories about autism in pop culture media. The demand for information and awareness regarding autism is significant; and it is reflected in the volume of pop culture venues that take autism on as a topic of interest.

There was Jenny McCarthy in People magazine, Oprah has dedicated shows to the topic and even Law and Order has included characters with autism in episodes. Popular media can certainly garner significant attention and raise awareness but I worry about some of the information that might be conveyed about autism via this venue.  

By nature, pop culture media includes opinions, personal beliefs and individual stories in both fictional and real contexts. For a parent, filtering all of this information and its applicability to their child must seem daunting.

Jenny McCarthy spoke eloquently about the intervention approaches she chose for her child. As a person with financial means, living in a major metropolis — this is the path she selected. 

On Oprah, families shared their personal experiences. One father even referenced a mainstream movie “my son was not like Rain Man” when he was describing coming to terms with his son’s diagnosis. The movie Rain Man is often cited as a reference point for autism. And indeed, most individuals with autism are “not like Rain Man.” 

Perhaps pop culture can work to raise awareness of autism but families need reputable sources that they can use to educate themselves about autism. Popular media usually tells a compelling personal story — but this story is by nature unique, and it is not applicable to the entire autism community.

Sources such as the Centers for Disease Control’s Autism Information Center and the Autism Society of America look at the big picture of autism. Information on these sites is meant to educate people about autism — not to showcase one compelling story about an individual with autism.

I applaud the efforts of pop culture and their desire to address the topic of autism. I would like to request that these stories include information and content from sources — such as the Autism Society of America and the Autism Information Center — so that parents who read these articles have a reliable source for information.


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