Turning Autism Into Entertainment

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By Patrick Appel

In response to Savage, a post by Autism News Beat:

This was not the first time that Savage, who holds master’s degrees in medical botany and medical anthropology, and a PhD in “nutritional ethnomedicine”, has shown his ignorance of autism. Last month, Dr. Savage, née Michael Weiner, said “In my day if a kid shot his mouth off in class we wasn’t called autistic, he was called a pain in the neck.” Autism, said Savage, is a racket for poor families to collect disability payments from the government. In Savage’s sad little world, there is no ASD or ADD: “To me, there is only one disease they all have - S.T.U.P.I.D.” The ignorance is not confined to autism - he once said that 99 percent of all depression “is rage turned inside.”

Either Savage skipped class the days his professors talked about “medicine”, or he’s an entertainer who doesn’t care who he hurts. I vote for the latter.

Chances are, Savage knows that autism is a real disorder, with a strong genetic component, and that changes in diagnostic criteria have led to a spike in diagnoses over the last 20 years. But how boring is that? How many of his eight million listeners would sit through 15 minutes of their hero going all Dr. Phil, telling us that autistic children need understanding and accommodation? So much more entertaining to joke about smacking the handicapped.

The need to entertain first, then inform, has long been a favorite subject of media watchdogs and scholars. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, published 20 years ago, Neil Postman showed us how mass media, primarily television, convert otherwise serious conversations into entertainment. Treating autism as entertainment, whether it’s calling the disorder a scam, or peeking into alternative medical clinics to see what some parents do to their kids, preempts serious discussion. Shocking, unverified anecdotes are elevated over dry scientific consensus. Preposterous medical claims are presented for their shock value, with little effort given to refutation. Over time, the public loses its appreciation for serious issues, as once serious issues morph into entertainment.

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