Friday, January 14, 2011

Autism Scams

Yet another autism scam is currently in the news. It's the autism/MMR vaccine scam. Some news commentators are reporting this as a "vaccine scam", but of course it is also one another example in a long tradition of autism scams, where those peddling a false science, a fraudulent science, some pie-in-the-sky "fix-it", and/or a pseudo-science, play on the hopes and fears of those who have autism and on their families, loved ones, and those who support them, and others they encounter in their lives, and mislead them for various reasons, maybe for profit, maybe just to build their own career and to gain some of the publicity for themselves.
I place the pseudo-scientific fringe activity of diagnosing celebrities as "autistic", firmly amongst the scams. The celebrities who are so sanctified by the labelling with an autism spectrum disorder, are usually done so by exercising an appeal to the vaguest of stereotypes both about autism itself, characterising it as merely a set of quirky and geeky personality characteristics that almost anybody who is slightly 'different" can identify with; and also by sketching a cartoon caricature of the persona of the celebrity: a checklist of incomplete and unreliable information gathered often enough by watching films the actor appeared in, and mistaking the fictional character they play with the actor themself, or reading and believing the garbage peddled by gossip rags, or by imagining that dramatic Hollywood biopics might present a diagnosable portrait of a historical figure). The fullness and the complexity both of the celebrity and of the realities of life with an autism spectrum disorder are glossed over. Counter evidence is ignored or actively, and often with hostility, challenged and denied.
How dies this aggressive co-opting and redefining of the targeted celebrity help anyone with a real autism spectrum disorder? How does it increase funding for teacher aids in schools? How does it help parents to receive relief help at home? How does it educate a community in awareness and acceptance of people with autism? If all people with autism are successful, brilliant, world-famous, and independent original thinkers, unafraid to swim upstream against the current, then why should anyone else care about them and their families?

Link to David Cohen article 'Autistic Licence' in the NZ Listener.

Link to article about stereotypes of the autism spectrum (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2009)

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