The State Of Autism

Missouri's Blue Ribbon Panel addresses issues of autism awareness

(click for larger version)
August 01, 2008
Local parents, teachers and child advocates are expressing outrage over comments by national radio shock jock Michael Savage who recently attacked autistic kids as "spoiled brats" needing discipline.

Savage, whose show airs on 97.1, KFTK-FM, said "99 percent of cases" of autism are caused by permissive or poor parenting. He said in most every case, autism is about a child "who hasn't been told to cut the act out."

Jeanne Andorff said she and her husband found Savage's remarks to be beneath contempt. The Webster Groves couple has two boys with autism and she said the condition involves brain functioning problems that have nothing to do with lax parenting or permissiveness.

"I understand Savage is a shock jock who has to be offensive, but it is disgusting that he is attacking kids who really can't defend themselves," said Andorff. "I don't understand why a St. Louis radio station feels a need to air this kind of nonsense.

"It's pretty pathetic," said Andorff. "He is perpetuating ignorance. And I am less concerned about Savage than his listeners who will take him seriously. Savage needs to spend an afternoon with my family and maybe he'd get a little knowledge of what autism is all about."

Savage competes for conservative ears with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who are the only right-wing radio talk show hosts with larger audiences. On his broadcast earlier this month, Savage said autism has no definitive medical diagnosis and usually involves children without fathers to tell them: "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life."

Rebecca Fehlig, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of Autism Speaks, said Savage's comments perpetuate the kind of ignorance that was prevalent decades ago. She said she hopes "his nonsense" will end up making people more aware of what autism is actually all about.

Gay Tompkins, a former Affton schools superintendent who now devotes a lot of her time to the cause of addressing autism issues, said the radio show comments display a pitiful lack of understanding for someone syndicated on more than 300 stations.

"I don't have a reaction to it – it is just ignorance," said Tompkins. "Any family that has an autistic child knows the real anguish and the long journey that is required to cope with it. The condition taxes a family because of social issues and education issues, and it can be as basic as finding a way to communicate with a child who is found to be autistic."

“Any family that has an autistic child knows the real anguish and the long journey that is required to cope with it.” - Gay Tompkins Former Superintendent Affton School District (click for larger version)
Blue Ribbon Panel

Savage's views aside, Tompkins said she sees progress nationally and in Missouri on autism awareness. She had high praise for state legislators who commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel on Autism. Instrumental in putting the panel together were Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood; Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles; and Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

The panel's study noted that autism is a profound mental and biological disorder linked to specific brain abnormalities. It shows up under many guises and can involve behavioral problems ranging from extreme introversion to disturbing, angry, violent outbursts.

Some of the recommendations of the panel received attention in this past session of the statehouse.

"We know that early diagnosis and early intervention can make a big difference in everyone's lives," said Tompkins. "One of the great things legislators passed was establishing an Office of Autism in the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

"Another thing I am excited about is that Bill and Nancy Thompson, who did so much for Affton schools, have established an $8.5 million Autism Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. It puts Missouri in the forefront of diagnosis and research. There is so much to know."

Tompkins said autism appears now in one of every 150 children. She said she would call it an epidemic, and added that the effects are present for a lifetime in varying degrees.

"I think we are getting closer to understanding its origins," said Tompkins. "I would not venture an opinion on the link some make to inoculations. I do think autism will be found to have a combination of environmental and genetic causes.

"It seems that no case of autism is exactly the same as others," added Tompkins. "Some children with autism are extremely talented, but socially awkward. Some manifest basic function difficulties."

Testifying On Autism

"I testified before the Blue Ribbon Panel," said Webster's Andorff, who has used the services of the Judevine Center for Autism in St. Louis for almost a decade. "I always worry that it will all be a bunch of talk, but I think our legislators are showing a great awareness of the problem."

Andorff relies on the Judevine Center, once headquartered in Sunset Hills and now in Olivette, to help her with "awareness activities." She said her boys' peer students in Webster Groves schools seem more accepting and understanding than many parents when it comes to autism.

"Webster schools are great when it comes to teaching tolerance and acceptance," said Andorff. "Every year they allow me to put up an autism awareness bulletin board at the high school. One thing I highlight is the number of very successful, talented people who have coped with autism."

Fehlig, head of the St. Louis chapter of Autism Speaks, said the group's next activity for autism awareness is an Aug. 16 luncheon to recognize local heroes and to plan fundraising events such as "Walk Now For Autism."

She said last year's walk in St. Louis raised more than $900,000, but she noted the treatment and therapy costs for dealing with autism can be astronomical.

"I am encouraged by what is happening in Missouri," said Fehlig. "We can always do better, but we now have some great institutions studying autism now at Washington University and the University of Missouri."

The knowledge about autism and sophistication is increasing, despite what might be heard on the radio, according to Fehlig. Webster's Andorff agrees that progress is being made and parents can get help.

"If you don't know what you are dealing with, this can tear a family apart," said Andorff. "It's a strain on siblings. It's a strain on spouses. I remember when Judevine provided a parents' night out, it had been so long since we went out, Dave and I didn't know quite what to do — it had been so long since we had a break."

  1. report reply print email
    Sanctions against Savage
    August 08, 2008 | 05:32 AM

    I read about this in the National Association of Special Education Teachers journal online. Is it possible to write to someone to try and get him off the air, or at least reprimanded? Don Imus was punished for racism and Savage displays the same type of behavior toward the disabled.

    Dr. Melissa Morgan
    Casselberry, Fl
  2. report reply print email
    Autism is no joke.
    August 09, 2008 | 10:16 AM

    I have a son who is autistic. Shame on this guy. Until you walk in the other person's shoes, you have no right to comment.
    He should have to take care of an autistic person
    for a month, and then let him comment on what he thinks.

    Kathy Reardon
    Des Peres, Missouri
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