It is admirable that the LA Times has made the issue of autism a priority. The autistic community always appreciates publicity. However, the first article talks around the people most central to the story; it is problematic from its opening line.
“Amber Dias couldn’t be sure what was wrong with her little boy.”
Why did the author use “wrong” when less stigmatizing terms are available? Following that up with a quote about “the kid rocking in the corner” perpetuates stereotypes. Some autistic people rock. Others pace, spin, fidget, flap, chew gum incessantly, or feel restless and go for a drive. The popular image of autism is still a child rocking in a corner. It would have been a service to autistics and their loved ones, if the author had challenged these assumptions, shown the spectrum in all its diversity.
It was wise of Zarembo to mention that diagnosis, rather than autism itself, has expanded in recent years. He deals with the double-edged sword of labeling without undue bias. In the twelfth full paragraph, he acknowledges that increased diagnosis keeps kids who might otherwise struggle from falling through the cracks. He also notes the possibility of misdiagnosis and the rise in special education costs, important positive and negative results of more labeled children. However, he misses a major consequence: labeled people are treated differently. Zarembo never mentions the stigma associated with autism, the way that will change the experience of these children, nor weighs it among the pros and cons. As he discusses diagnosis, he ignores those most affected by it.
This trend continues in the second section, titled “No More Monsters.” The implication that obviously autistic people, termed low-functioning, are monsters is unavoidable. While the author never calls them that outright, he quotes Dr. Kanner of ‘refrigerator mother’ fame without acknowledging that many of this early authority’s ideas have been discredited. Zarembo perpetuates the notion that people with involved autism are rabid savages, movie zombies, when growing numbers of nonverbal individuals are using alternative means to communicate their awareness of a world outside their own minds. The author’s apparent sensibilities about the disabled would have been more current in Kanner’s time.
The trend of ignoring the story’s central characters continues in the third section. Parents and the sociological passage of diagnosis come up, but Zarembo never considers that heightened awareness that leads to correct diagnoses could be a good thing. He never considers whether children who take resources from state systems under one diagnosis might take it under another if their differences were not labeled autism. He has not read recent reports on the rarity of disability fraud, nor does he consider the source of such desperate measures if parents are taking them. If this problem exists, it could be solved with a decent public school in every neighborhood
The themes of blaming parents and ignoring autistics continue in “Seeking Services.” There is a brief mention of the capacity of labels to “damage children psychologically” when misapplied. Zarembo continues to ignore the stigma of labels applied correctly. He lets the assumption that “social problems” are small problems, though they are sometimes the reason an autistic job or graduate school candidate is turned away after an interview, complicate encounters with bureaucracy, and have deadly effects in run-ins with police. In “Early Intervention,” Zarembo does something similar, letting his source’s suggestions that only LFA is “real autism” stand uncontested.
Throughout, the implication is that true autism is a child rocking in a corner, not the broad spectrum in all its variations. Zarembo denigrates autistic people and everyone associated with them without asking the individuals what they think of themselves. If this article was about any other minority group, Part 1 of Discovering Autism would not have made it past the editorial staff. A document so riddled with prejudice would have been kept from the eyes of readers. If articles published in a major American newspaper implied the inhumanity of any other group, the public would be outraged.