April 1 marks the first day of Autism Awareness Month, and the media are ablaze with story after story after OpEd after story about autism's mysteries, controversies and neurological underpinnings. CNN has been particularly active, launching a series this month entitled Autism: Unraveling the Mystery. And there's a lot to unravel, with no assurance that you will end up with anything more than a crushing headache and a big pile of yarn in your lap.
As someone who writes about autism almost daily, I am struck by the themes that emerge when you look at the news coverage as a whole. CNN, who clearly made an editorial commitment to cover autism in depth this month, is taking an all-encompassing viewpoint, spanning the medical, scientific, cultural, familial and social implications of the disorder, with commentary, links and video in addition to straight news reporting. It's cogent and thorough.
It's also a fascinating time capsule into the current state of our cultural attitudes and assumptions about autism. Take a look at the top stories:
What does this tell us?
That autism is still a mystery, albeit one that many live with: some painfully, some happily and productively, with many in the middle. That many people with autism are talented and successful, despite stereotypes to the contrary. That there are new treatments and services for people with autism that can help them communicate and thrive, but that figuring out which is most appropriate to a given person is still very challenging. That the vaccine controversy is not going away any time soon. That early screening is key.
And finally, what I am dubbing "Etlinger's Law," in honor of Godwin's Law:
"As any discussion of autism grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning Jenny McCarthy approaches one."
So here's what I want to know: what will this list look like next year? What will we learn? What will we debunk? I'd love your thoughts.