By Nicole Phillips
Media representations of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have come a long way since Dustin Hoffman portrayed a card-counting savant in the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man. A significant increase in the
prevalence of ASD over the last decade has lead to wider media coverage of the autistic community. Yet, despite changing public perceptions of autism and a growing awareness of the condition, media representations of ASD espouse a prevailing view of ‘autism as problem’ (Jones and Harwood 2009). Many media portrayals of autism conger a dual stereotype, positioning readers to view people with autism as either ‘burden’ or ‘victim’.The majority of hard news reporting in the aftermath of the murder/suicide of a family of four, including two autistic children, propagates a negative evaluation of autism. Many reports offered a one-dimensional characterisation of the autistic participants in the story, discerned solely by their disabilities. The focus on facts about the children’s’ disabilities in media coverage implicitly speculates that their difficult behaviour was a motive for their parents’ actions. In order to recognise this representation as a wider trend, this article will consider both articles about the Davidson deaths, as well as a broad range of media coverage on people with autism. For a holistic approach, it will look at a range of headlines, news journalism articles, lifestyle articles and a current affairs report.
Before analysing mainstream media portrayals of autism, it is important to first understand the physiological features of this condition. Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterised by deficits in social interactions and communication skills, sensitivity to external environments and repetitive behaviours (autism.net.au). The term ‘spectrum’ encompasses the broad range and severity of symptoms that may affect people on the autism spectrum (Prochnow, 2014). Accordingly, autism forms a diverse community of people with different interests and identities. However, an analysis of communicative patterns in news journalism coverage of autism tells a very different story.
A quick glance at some of the news headlines published in the aftermath to the Davidson murder/suicide reveals a telling language pattern.
- Tragic mum was ‘broken’ – Courier Mail, 22 October 2016
- Inside the Darkness – Daily Telegraph, 22 October 2016
- A broken mum’s cry for help – com.au, 22 October 2016
- “She felt completely alone”: Tragic details emerge on Davidson family’s day-to-day life – Mamamia, 21 October 2016
- Davidson deaths: Was it all too much for tragic parents? – Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2016
- Stress, despair in care of children with autism – Gippsland Times, 23 October 2016
What becomes immediately apparent is the focus that each article places on the profound struggles of a mother with two autistic children. Firstly, the headlines’ negative evaluations of the autistic community are implicitly communicated through the use of highly emotive language. An accumulation of negative Affect (Martin and White 2005) in the words “tragic”, “broken”, “cry” and “darkness” positions the reader to sympathise with the difficult plight of the Manrique parents, perhaps to the effect of justifying the act of filicide.
The hyperbolic phrasing “completely alone” and “all too much” invoke an assessment of the autistic children as causing an unmanageable burden to their parents. The connotation of loneliness implicitly denies the value of the autistic children’s’ lives. The rhetorical question posed in headline 5 frames the parents as ‘victims’ of their children’s’ disabilities, while the negative connotation of “stress” and “despair” in headline 6 deflects blame from the parents. These difficult emotions are linked to the ‘care of the children’, reinforcing the stereotype of autism as problem.
The repetitive labelling of Maria Manrique as ‘mum’ in the headlines offers a sensitive, maternal image of an alleged accessory to murder. This is reinforced through the accompanying images of Maria happily embracing her two children. Readers are thus positioned to view the mother as an object of pity, therefore portraying autism as a misfortune.
Perhaps this trend in headlines is simply a reflection of the peculiar circumstances of the Davidson tragedy? Yet, cast your attention to a wider net of news headlines, spanning different events and times, and a similar communicative pattern reveals itself.
- ‘Lost boy with Autism costs child care centre carers $35K’ – The Border Watch, 19 August 2016
- ‘Explosion in autism diagnosis’ – The Australian, 25 July 2015
- ‘Parents of high-functioning autistic children desperate for help’ – Lilydale & Yarra Valley Leader, January 11 2016
- Mother of an autistic boy who died tied to chair in shed ‘never wanted to be mean to him’ – SMH, 17 November 2015
- Mother accused of chaining up autistic son in Blacktown was ‘desperate’ – SMH, November 2015
The structure of headline 1 reinforces the stereotype of ‘autism as problem’. The boy is presented as the ‘active entity’, while the diminished community resources are the ‘affected entity’. Thus, he is negatively depicted as a source of financial strain. The term ‘explosion’ in headline 2 creates an image of autism as an uncontrollable disease or a cause for moral panic. Such terminology perpetuates a stigmatised narrative of ‘autism as problem’ and ostracises the autistic community from the rest of society.
The theme of a mother’s desperation permeates throughout a range of headlines, with a repetition of the words ‘mother’ and ‘desperate’. As discussed in relation to the first collection of headlines, the maternal emphasis positions readers to sympathise with the parent of a child with autism. This technique represents people with autism as wholly problematic.
This stereotypical portrayal is not just confined to headlines. Let’s turn now to a closer analysis of articles that exhibit negative evaluations of autism. The majority of reporting in the aftermath of the Davidson murder/suicide included facts about the severity of the children’s disability and the toll that this caused on their parents. A clear example of this communicative pattern is demonstrated in Rose Brennan’s hard news article ‘Davidson deaths: Was it all too much for tragic parents? This Daily Telegraph article uses multiple appeals to facts and emotion to represent the autistic children as unwanted.
“But some believe the demands of raising two intellectually disabled children may have become too much for Ms Lutz — a dedicated volunteer and fundraiser — and her husband Fernando Manrique, whose children’s severe autism meant they were unable to speak.
By including facts about the demanding nature of the children’s disabilities, the author shows implicit remorse for the parents and denigrates the sense of worth of an autistic child. The ‘belief’ asserted is not directly attributed to a source, but rather phrased as a vague speculation of motive, a notion purported to be held by ‘some’.
A clear polarity of positive and negative language emerges, with word patterns associated with ongoing struggle employed to describe the children, while language of praise and virtue is employed in relation to the mother. The affirmative adjective “dedicated” and the charitable connotations of the label “volunteer” and “fundraiser” elevates the mother to an admirable status. The dichotomous language between the two participants highlights the difficulties posed by the children, representing them as an abnormal social group.
The article continues to quote many neighbours who cite the devastating hardships experienced by the parents.
“She looked after them but I have to say she never looked happy. She always had a very serious look on her face. Thinking back now, she looked like she was in pain.”
“Maria used to tell me how hard it was on her and her husband,” she said. “She said it was a heavy thing on her heart and some days she found it impossible to cope.”
The selection of quotes focuses on the extreme difficulties experienced by the parents, reducing the characterisation of the children to their series of needs. The evocative language choice “pain” and “serious” appeals to emotion, with words like ‘impossible’ construing autism as a failure. This accords with Jones and Harwood’s study of Australian print media representations of autism (the first of its kind), which identified a normative genre of autism as “dangerous, tragic, debilitating and a heartbreaking, irresolvable ‘problem’” (Jones and Harwood, 2009).
Absent from the article are any facts pertaining to the individual identities of the children, such as their interests or idiosyncrasies. By negating to include positive attributes of the children, the writer offers a one-dimensional view of people with autism and prompts generalisations from the disability itself to the whole person (Jones and Harwood, 2009).
More broadly, a strong focus on the negative impact of autism on family members is evinced in a variety of news coverage. The ABC news article ‘Respite centre for children with disabilities opened by Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart’ (23 February 2016) recurrently emphasises the importance of respite for families caring for children with disabilities.
“The centre is purpose-built and the first of its kind in Canberra, allowing parents to have time off from caring for their children.”
“Marymead’s chief executive officer Camilla Rowland said international research had demonstrated just how important respite was the well-being parents, carers and families as a whole.”
The inclusion of facts about the importance of respite infers the stressful conditions of living with a child with autism. The appeal to authority is heightened in credibility through the formally enunciated source descriptor ‘chief executive officer’. As a result, the article foregrounds the difficulty caused by people with autism and differentiates them from normal, functional society.
The characterisation of autistic children as a source of familial strain is further evinced in Sharon Kennedy’s article Autistic behaviour is not bad behaviour, more awareness needed, mother says’. In a discussion of the poor mental health of parents of children with disabilities, the article states:
“At home, Raeden is very empathic and is aware that he causes his parents distress.”
Here, the writer has presented the autistic participant as the active agent that causes distress to his parents. While children’s behaviour is commonly a source of stress for parents, the structure adopted by the writer negatively assesses the autistic child’s behaviour as beyond normality. The sentiment is not expressed as a direct quote from the participant, but rather paraphrased so as to mould to the media-promulgated stereotype of autism as a burden.
Even articles covering positive events, such as increased government funding and community support for autism, are framed in such a way that they implicitly outcast the autistic community, thrusting them beyond the scope of ‘normal’ society. Amy Croffrey’s SMH article ‘Young chef with autism lands dream job at top Sydney restaurant Catalina’ covers a hopeful story about the increased integration of people with autism into the job industry. However, the textual arrangement of the article implicitly portrays the autistic participant as an outlier from the rest of the autistic community. The extent to which this event is presented as exceptional is revealed in the lead:
“A young man with autism has landed his dream job in one of Sydney’s top restaurants.”
The writer immediately establishes that the participant has autism, thereby positioning the audience to view his accomplishment as novel. Yet, the calibre of his achievement is soon undermined by the writer’s selective use of facts.
“His main duties include mixing, kneading and baking bread; preparing fruit; making biscuits; mixing marshmallow; washing salads; and plating up.”
The reason for including these otherwise mundane facts is only understood in the context of his disability, with the inference that his autism makes it difficult to undertake simple tasks. Hence, the author conveys a stereotypical representation of people with autism as simple-minded and less capable than others. The article is written from an angle that celebrates the restaurant for its acceptance of staff members with disabilities. The majority of quotes come from the owner of the restaurant.
“We take on first-year apprentices and Jack is every bit as good as them,” restaurateur Michael McMahon told Fairfax Media.
“The staff are wonderful with him and have made him feel very much part of the team. I get so much pleasure out of having him here and it makes you feel good.”
Several conclusions may be drawn from the writer’s decision to include the above quotes. Firstly, the explicit comparison between Jack and first year apprentices draws the readers’ attention to the possibility of him not being as good a candidate. Secondly, the reference to the staff’s inclusion of Jack infers that he would not otherwise be included in most situations. Thirdly, the emphasis on what the restaurant owner gains from the experience positions the reader to view Jack’s employment as an act of charity. Contrastingly, Jack’s voice is not heard in the article, effectively devaluing his perspective.
“Working in the kitchen of award-winning celebrity haunt Catalina in Rose Bay has been a “life-changing” experience for Jack Studholme, 20, from North Ryde.”
What appears to be an integrated quote from Jack is in fact a quote from his mother. This suggests that, despite his achievements in the kitchen, Jack will never be entirely independent of his family, therefore representing the autistic community an encumbrance on others.
The above analysis reveals a clear pattern of representation in hard news journalism. To avoid making sweeping conclusions about portrayals of autism in all media coverage, it is worth considering some more colourful reporting in this examination. A wider media trend of negative evaluations of autism becomes apparent in an article analysis from the Lifestyle section of news websites. Lifestyle journalism blurs the boundaries between stylistic conventions of fiction and objective reporting (Hill and Fenner 2010), and is therefore more saturated with visible evaluative meanings.
Harriet Alexander’s feature article “Stress, despair in care of children with autism” opens with the poignant metaphor:
“They say that the mother of a child with autism experiences a level of stress comparable to that of a combat soldier. Grace Fava certainly did.”
Alexander’s appeal to analogy, in which she compares rearing a child with autism to combat warfare, constructs an immediately negative characterisation of autism. The attribution of this perspective to the indistinct source “they” treats the negative assessment of autistic children as axiomatic. The article adopts a highly negative tone, with appeals to emotion and meditations on the uncertain futures for people with autism.
“But for other parents, the chances of their children ever coping in mainstream society is remote.”
Here, the connotation of ‘mainstream society’ suggests that people with autism are isolated due to their divergence from the norm. The word ‘coping’ implies that people with autism cannot live meaningful lives.
A similar rhetorical style is employed in Emma Reynolds lifestyle article “Mothers reveal what it’s really like to have a child with autism”. The word ‘really’ in the headline seems to frame ‘autism’ as an unknowable entity. Reynolds’s implicit representation of autism as abnormal becomes apparent from the first par:
“WHEN we think about having children, most of us don’t want to consider that our babies could be born different. For parents whose kids have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that possibility quickly comes into sharp focus.”
The negative connotation of the word ‘different’ distinguishes autistic children from the rest of the ‘normal’ population of babies being born. The broad generalisation elicited in the collective noun-phrase ‘most of us’ suggests that the reader will align with the author’s perspective of autism. This negative evaluation is further demonstrated through appeals to fact.
“More children than ever are being diagnosed with autism, research revealed last month, and families report that these kids have a poorer quality of life and more emotional and behavioural problems than their non-ASD peers.”
The comparison between children with autism and ‘their non-ASD peers’ infers that the only way to live a happy, productive life is for autistic children to be cured of their condition. This representation is further elucidated through Reynolds’s intense appeal to emotion.
“When Talia Tamou found out that her son Jaylen was on the autism spectrum, she cried for three days.”
The inclusion of the above anecdote likens a mother’s discovery that her child has autism to a descent into grief. This media representation is consistent with researchers who assess that having a child diagnosed with a disability will be perceived as a ‘loss’ (Waltz, cited in Jones and Harwood 2009).
Lastly, we shall turn our analysis to a more explicitly attitudinal text type, investigative journalism. Rather than presenting straight news, current affair programs provide ‘analysis and commentary relating to current events’ (Commercial Radio Australian 2010). A Current Affair’s story “Living With Autistic Kids” follows the lives of Kate and Neil, the parents of four autistic children. The program’s negative assessment of autism becomes apparent from the host’s sympathetic assessment, “These are the ones when they say the line: there’s always someone worse off.”
The story evokes emotion from the viewer through sad, non-diegetic piano music that is overlayed with the screams of a child with autism in the midst of a “sensory overload meltdown”. An accumulation of low angle camera shots on the autistic children establishes their inferior status and positions the viewer to take pity on them.
A montage of “meltdowns”, as revealed in this long shot of the child fighting with his mother, perpetuates the stereotype that people with autism are inherently aggressive and violent.
The program is edited to emphasise the tragic conditions of this family, with cuts between an old photo of a superficially happy, ‘normal’ family and footage of the mother struggling to dress her inconsolable child. This is accompanied by the reporter’s emotionally loaded conclusion, “This was not the life they chose but the life they were given,” which expressly characterises autism as a calamitous misfortune on all families.
The media affords an important framework for discourse around social difference. Media representations of autism develop and reinforce the way that people understand the disorder, particularly for individuals encountering their first exposure to the notion of autism. The terminology and textual arrangements adopted by media texts in reporting on the autistic community shapes public perceptions of people with ASD. The above analysis demonstrates the wholly negative representation of people with ASD in the media. A stereotypical portrayal of people with autism as abnormal, burdensome and incapable becomes overwhelmingly apparent across a variety of news media texts. Perhaps we have not come as far as we thought since Tom Cruise was burdened by his onscreen brother’s incessant need for routine and his unreasonable affiliation with Qantas. Almost 30 years on, and we’re still waiting for a media reconfiguration of Rain Man.
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- Jones, S. and Harwood, V. (2009). Representations of autism in Australian print media. Disability & Society, 24(1), pp.5-18.
- Prochnow, A. (2014). An Analysis of Autism Through Media Representation. International Society for General Semantics, pp.133-149.
 NB: I have used the terminology ‘autistic’ and ‘people with autism’ interchangeably in this essay. The politically correct terminology is highly contested in both academic circles and among the autistic community, with no settled option.