Friday, January 27, 2006

Asperger syndrome
An open letter to ‘The Dr Phil Show’
Michael Carley of GRASP writes, very well:
Dear President Moonves, Ms. Pennington Stewart, and Dr. McGraw:

We are representatives of eight autism organizations who watched the episode of “Dr. Phil” that co-featured Asperger syndrome (AS) as its topic. The January 17 airing of this CBS daytime talk show shared subject material with another diagnosis, Tourette’s syndrome, that we are unqualified to judge. But from both a medical and ethical view, we found the portrayal of AS to be disturbing. Your show reaches a huge audience. We recognize that in the past, the non-threatening demeanor and natural charm of the host, Dr. Phil himself, has allowed for much relevant change and information to reach an audience that otherwise might not have been influenced. And it is within this context of the show’s proven potential for good, that we are driven to write.

At one point in his remarks to the audience, Dr. Phil mentioned that it was the exception, not the rule, for people diagnosed with AS to display violent behavior. This is quite true. And yet everything else intimated by the show contradictorily depicted otherwise. The episode opened with the tragic Los Angeles incident in which a young man with AS killed two neighbors before killing himself. Camera angles on the episode’s young man in question (Alex) were implemented to suggest psychosis. And the parents’ fears for their safety were given great respect.

What was especially troubling was that at no time in the show was it suggested that Alex’s violent potential might be heavily, even overbearingly caused by having two parents that constantly seemed to be yelling at him. Also, Alex’s mother admitted to having said to her teenage son that she hated him. Teenagers are bound to say they hate their parents every once in a while. Yet parents that say that to their children must be held accountable for the damage they have caused, and not get to blame the problems on their child’s diagnosis.

The parents’ needs were also unmet by Dr. Phil. In a situation where parents have spun so out of control that they can become so abusive to their child, usually the problem is that they are not getting the help they need. A requisite step to this is admitting they need help themselves, and oddly enough, these parents seemed to be doing that. They seemed to be reaching out. But instead of being steered towards the serious counseling and support they clearly need, all the blame was thrown their son’s way for a diagnosis that he was born with. And the son, Alex, by contrast, seemed much more capable of improvement.

The latter is true because AS does not have to be the curse that your show portrayed it as. Not only are individuals with AS able to lead happy, productive, and often amazing lives providing they have the right supports, but also because from a medical standpoint AS is not a “mental illness” or a “disease” as the show implied. Mental illness is different than a neurological condition, and for something to be a disease it has to be something acquired - not something you’re born with. Most of the enlightened world knows that autism is at its root, genetic, and therefore by definition it is not something that can be considered “curable” or a “disease.”

We were also concerned with the highly questionable “Brain Matters, Inc.,” the company represented by Dr. Hixster (sp?) that received airtime in the episode. From our standpoint, these are most certainly not known people in the autism/Asperger world. Now just being known to us obviously does not imply good quality. But contrary to the show’s suggestions, educational and therapy-based interventions are the best hope that people diagnosed on the autism spectrum have for leading happy lives. The after-scan treatments that this company was offering to the family were vaguely presented - perhaps with good reason. Using phrases like “brain-based” and “we go directly to the brain,” Dr. Hixster suggested to that poor family that there was great hope for their outcome. We know of no such therapy that is of any proven worth. Please understand that you are dealing with a very vulnerable parent audience. You might consequently deprive them of appropriate and effective interventions. Ones we can help lead you to.

After the Los Angeles incident last year, there was a great and inspiring effort amongst the world’s media to refrain from using the tragedy to demonize people living with Asperger’s. To say from a journalism standpoint that the aftermath was “responsible” would be an understatement. The burdens of running a daily television show are those we can only imagine, but the January 17 episode of “Dr. Phil” did much to nullify the good work attempted by the majority of media giving airtime to AS and autism-related issues. In the future, we hope you will contact one or all of our signing organizations to help guide you through what can be a very complicated world. We would be more than happy to help as your show is indeed capable of enormous good.
I missed the episode. Did any of you see it?

As I like to say it’s no more a mental illness than being colour-blind or dyslexic, also problems/learning disabilities hard-wired into the brain.

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