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Yellow—the color of sunshine and butter and chicks and daffodils.

Yellow—the color of jaundice, danger signs, cowardice and lemons.

Yellow is a two-faced hue. It can signify hope, happiness and cheer. Or it can signal decay, neglect and weakness.

The term yellow journalism was coined in the 1890s to describe news stories that employ salacious headlines, exaggeration, scandal- and fear-mongering to sell more newspapers.   It’s still alive and robust in newspapers today, and its newest victims are our kids with autism. Lest this kind of press muscle aside legitimate reporting, to our lengthy list of duties as autism parents and advocates we now must add media watch.

On a spring morning last year, yellow was the color of a school bus that set the scene for a sensationalistic story that put a child with autism on trial in the court of uninformed public opinion. “Autistic Child Bites Driver” ran the headline. The headline of itself was relatively factual—a child with autism bit a school bus driver.  A factual telling of the incident might have gone something like this: a child with no prior history of aggressive behavior bit a school bus driver. The driver was treated for bites and scratches at a local hospital and released in good condition. The child had autism, and parents and school personnel were examining all possible factors that might have triggered the behavior, including sensory, communication, emotional or biomedical issues.

Nice factual account, except that it wasn’t reported that way, and after “good condition,” it didn’t happen that way. From the very first sentence, blinding yellow journalism saturated the profoundly one-sided telling of the story.

The paper chose the deliberately incendiary characterization of the facts as a “bloody assault” and an “attack” on an adult who “suffered” injuries—thereby condemning a child without exhibiting any curiosity or investigation of what might have prompted his unprecedented  behavior.

This is what happens when adults assume what they don’t actually know. Look at the bumper crop of unfounded assumptions in this reporting:

  • that the child’s behavior was malicious and pre-meditated
  • that the behavior had no understandable, justifiable, logical or preventable trigger
  • that the child had other self-regulation skills he should have employed
  • that the child consciously chose a behavior knowing that it was “bad”

In any situation, an assumption made without factual backup is no better than a guess.

To assume that the child’s behavior was willful and malicious inflicts a level of adult intent of which the child is almost certainly not capable. It demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of how autism can affect a child’s thinking and behavior. And it bypasses one of  autism’s most pervasive characteristics: impaired ability to communicate. A child’s behavior is often the communication tactic of last resort when they have not been able to make their needs known through so-called appropriate channels, and such behavior always has a trigger, usually in sensory or emotional overload. To ignore the importance of identifying and addressing the root cause of the behavior is to denounce the fact that the brain with autism processes language and social thinking differently. The article skipped over these facts and proceeded directly to reporting that “school district guidelines call for students who commit a first instance of assault to face consequences ranging from parental involvement to suspension or expulsion.”  Such discussion of disciplinary actions and consequences is grossly premature and misguided until vital questions about the antecedent of the behavior have been answered and self-management strategies calmly and patiently taught to the child, in a problem-solving rather than punitive manner, over time.

Nowhere in the piece did the reader get a single word, or even hint that

  • the adults responsible were looking for a trigger as anything other than a means to calibrate consequences
  • upon identifying the trigger, they would take steps to prevent its recurrence and would work to teach the child self-regulation skills he can use should the trigger occur again.
  • adult behavior might have played a role in the child’s behavior, whether or not intentionally.

Dozens of questions leapt to my mind: what did the bus driver do (or not do) preceding the incident? What happened in the child’s home that morning? Was there a blip in the routine, food, expectations for the day? A new medication, or normal medication skipped? Bus running late, new driver, different route, child assigned to a different seat? Did the other child on the bus trigger the behavior, perhaps unintentionally—perhaps not? Did the child with autism attempt to communicate what was troubling him; did he even have a functional, meaningful means of communication?

I can just hear the reprimands from that uninformed jury of public opinion—don’t go blaming others! The child must learn to take responsibility for his behavior!

It isn’t “blaming” others to insist on establishing facts, the cause in cause-and-effect. In adult court, considerable weight is given to determining motive. A child deserves no less. Exhibiting no curiosity about the source of the behavior, leaping directly to consequence and punishment, is in a word, unjust.

My letter of protest to the newspaper urged the reportorial staff to read my book or any other literature that would give them a baseline understanding of what our children with autism live with. “Without it,” I wrote, “you will probably continue to write articles like this one, vilifying a child without questioning the role of our own adult assumptions, responsibilities and behavior, and making the already difficult life of a child with autism yet harder.” I received no response. Shall I assume  (in the absence of facts) that my message fell on deaf ears, or that some editor maliciously and intentionally squashed it? Don’t know. The optimist in me hopes there was some silent shame for victimizing a child and some self-reflection, that perhaps I fed even one mind food for thought that might mean that the next story gets written differently, promoting understanding rather than retribution.

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all yellow journalism needs to thrive is for people of good conscience to remain silent. I speak now up as a lifelong lover of newspapers. My morning routine isn’t right without one. I believe that the First Amendment fosters more good than bad. But it requires the vigilance and the voice of all of us to remain so.

 

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