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Parents of "autism brats" fight back

July 21, 2008 |  6:07 pm

When Michael Savage, radio talk show host, said July 16 that 99% of children with autism were "brats" who should be told to "cut the act out," one could only wonder if he somehow got his childhood "A" disease diagnoses mixed up. Maybe he was thinking of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. ADHD affects 2 million children and can be treated with behavior modification or drugs, but for many decades, children with the disorder were considered to be just bad kids who misbehaved, and poor parenting was pointed to as the cause.

But autism? Does anyone doubt that it's a significant developmental disorder? It's characterized by poor social interaction, problems with communication -- both verbal and nonverbal -- repetitive activities and hand flapping. Those are problems a 2- or 3-year-old, the age at which the disorder is often diagnosed, would have trouble thinking up.

But when the New York Times gave Savage a chance to explain himself, he said that while his estimate that nine out of 10 kids are faking it might have been a little high, he said he was proud to have prodded a discussion. He stuck by his comments.

Meanwhile, as protesters from Autism United, a coalition of advocacy organizations, gathered today outside the New York City WOR radio studio, which employs Savage, parents such as Martin Schwartzman, whose 15-year-old son Robbie has autism, are up in arms. "I couldn't understand why someone could be so heartless and so insensitive, and also so ignorant for a national talk show host," Schwartzman said on WCBS-TV.

Savage says he's giving over his three-hour broadcast on Monday to a discussion of autism. Meanwhile, Aflac, the insurance company, has withdrawn advertising from the show.

Areva Martin, Los Angeles autism activist and co-founder with Donna Ross-Jones of Special Needs Network, a group whose mission is to educate parents of the rights their children have to an appropriate education, has a lot to say about Savage's comments:

"It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Savage's statements as the antics of a radical, ratings-seeking talk show host. However, Mr. Savage has over 8 million listeners, many of whom rely on his show for reliable information. His insidious and baseless statements give credence to the type of pervasive ignorance that families face on a daily basis. Such statements foster discrimination against not only the disabled, but also against people of color. To suggest that minority families feign a diagnosis of autism to receive welfare benefits is absurd and reflective of the entrenched racism that continues to rear its ugly head.

"If good old-fashioned discipline was a cure for autism, families across this nation would pull out their switches and get to work. Unfortunately, autism is real and there is no cure -- yelling, screaming, hitting and even the most archaic forms of discipline cannot cure what renowned scientists from around the world recognize as a complex disorder that now impacts one in every 150 children, that lasts a lifetime and impacts every aspect of an individual's development. As a parent of a child with autism, a children's rights activist and attorney, I know both personally and professionally that no one would feign autism for the sake of collecting some amorphous government benefit -- it simply isn't worth it. Thousands of hours of therapy, lifelong care, isolation, grief and isolation are too high a price to pay.

"The rapid response of the autism community hopefully will send a loud and clear message that issues of autism impact people of all socioeconomic groups and that issues involving the disabled are matters of human rights."

-- Susan Brink