Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Savage Disregard

NOTE: I also posted this on Four Freedoms, a progressive blog community I frequent.


A little over four years ago, my wife woke me up at 5 in the morning to tell me her water had broken, and it was time for our baby to be born. I got a few things together in a travel bag and we rushed to the hospital in our little town in Virginia. After 18 hours of labor, our son Ian made his debut in the world, and he was the most beautiful sight we had ever seen.

As our son grew, my wife and I suspected there was something different about him. Though he was developmentally ahead of other children his age in many areas, his speech and social skills seemed to fall farther and farther behind. He would have bursts of anger that would come from nowhere, and seemingly innocuous social interactions seemed to result in biting or hitting. We sought the help of our pediatrician, who advised us that in his opinion Ian had high-functioning autism. My wife and I were a bit stunned by the news, but made arrangements through the county to get him the help he (and we) needed through the school system.

Just as we were beginning this program, my wife got a job in Georgia, and we moved, finding we had to begin the certification/diagnosis process all over again. We went round and round with our school district over the best course of development for Ian, how much special education he needed, how he should be categorized, etc. The struggle has been long and frustrating, and although we parents, the school system, and our son have made some progress, there is still a long way to go before we all reach a satisfactory resolution.

In the meantime, we have met other people in our community, in our church, and in Ian’s daycare center who are doing what they can to make him feel more at ease with others and to have some sense of normalcy in his life. There are those around us who I feel don’t quite understand his condition, and who may even believe that his actions are actually the result of “bad parenting”, but they have at least had the decorum to not try and call us out.

Is this about to change, though? Late last week Michael Savage, on his radio show, said the following about autistics and their parents (courtesy Media Matters):

“Now, you want me to tell you my opinion on autism, since I'm not talking about autism? A fraud, a racket. For a long while, we were hearing that every minority child had asthma. Why did they sudden -- why was there an asthma epidemic amongst minority children? Because I'll tell you why: The children got extra welfare if they were disabled, and they got extra help in school. It was a money racket. Everyone went in and was told [fake cough], "When the nurse looks at you, you go [fake cough], 'I don't know, the dust got me.' " See, everyone had asthma from the minority community. That was number one.

Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.

What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."
Autism -- everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, "Don't behave like a fool." The worst thing he said -- "Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry." That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men. That's why we have the politicians we have.”

So many inflammatory statements, so little time. Where do I begin? Well, let’s go paragraph by paragraph. First, there is the comparison of the increase in diagnosed autism to the supposed increase in asthma cases in minority schoolchildren, which he describes as a “racket” to secure extra welfare and scholastic help. The asthma claim is an amazing one in and of itself. When one reads this article from the American Women’s Medical Association, however, one sees that asthma is a result of being on the public dole, rather than some far-fetched impetus. According to the conclusion:

Children's asthma is associated with reduced parental employment among single parents and increased welfare receipt among single- and 2-parent families. These associations with children's asthma may have implications for policy makers interested in increasing employment and decreasing welfare use.

Moving on to the next paragraph, we find Savage’s claim that an amazing 99% of autism cases are more behavioral than medical. Notice the choice of number. It basically allows Savage an out from his accusations and rhetoric. If a parent of an autistic were to personally confront him on the 99% figure, he could simply say, “Well, I didn’t mean it about your kid. I just meant the other 297,000 children; they’re all a bunch of brats.” He tried to worm his way out of his comments, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

I have to take the last 2 ½ paragraphs as a whole. As the father of a high-functioning autistic, I have a little bit of experience in trying to deal with my son’s outbursts and inability to function in public, and I can tell you that shouting at an autistic child does not work. Again, we are dealing with a medical condition and NOT a behavior problem.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of telling your four-year old that he shouldn’t hit someone who enters his personal space over and over again, only to get a report from daycare that he has hit and/or bitten another child. To Ian’s credit, he has improved in this area in recent months, but it came as a result of constant work on our part as well as on the school system and the teachers at his daycare.

As to the implication that sensitivity to your child’s feelings somehow leads to “a nation of losers and beaten men”, let me just say that I know from personal experience that severe verbal and physical punishments are far more of a hindrance than a help. If Savage feels that his own father’s abusiveness was instrumental in making him the man that he is, then that’s his prerogative; however, I do not think it is an appropriate measure for children in general, autistic or not.

As you might imagine, Savage’s remarks got a bit of play on the internet, and several autism advocacy groups immediately took exception to his diagnosis and recommendation for “curing” autism. To that end, Michael Savage did the only thing he believed he should do. He attacked the messenger. He claimed that his remarks were taken out of context, but he stood by his remarks, that he wasn’t talking about all or even any autistics. He deigned to appear on CNN to be interviewed about the controversy by (of all people) Glenn Beck. There was even a defense of Savage on Renew America by columnist Selwyn Duke, with a screed entitled "Judgementally impared should get off Michael Savage's back". Thus the bully, his nose bloodied for his actions, now runs through the streets crying his victimhood.

I will say this. I don’t hate Michael Savage. I try not to “hate” anyone; it’s just my nature. In looking at those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, I have made it a point to find at least one good thing about them (which I may explore in another column, someday). With Savage it is this. I have actually found myself enjoying listening to him on the increasingly rare moments when he reminisces on his childhood and youth. In those moments, I wish that he would ditch the “Savage Nation” shtick and reinvent himself as a storyteller. I also give him grudging credit for breaking the story of the Dubai port deal of 2006; it may be the only time that most liberals found themselves in agreement with Savage on any position.

That said, I must say that his remarks on the 16th filled me with such contempt that I wished I could have faced him down to dare him to say those words to my face. Additionally, I can’t pretend that I don’t feel some sense of schadenfreude at the news that Savage has lost AFLAC as a national sponsor of his show, or that he has been thrown off the air on a number of Mississippi radio stations.

I believe in free speech, and I don’t believe that Michael Savage should be completely thrown off the air. BUT, I also believe that his right to flail at autistic children, and the parents who are doing everything they can to get treatment for those children, should not be met with silence and complacency. I especially do not believe that he should be paid for the purpose of attacking children. Is there a possibility of overdiagnosis? Maybe, but I tend to believe that the increase in autism cases is a result of pediatricians being better trained and equipped to diagnose the symptoms and seek treatment for the affected. I hope and pray that his words don’t make it a harder climb for my family, or the family of any other child with autism.

Savage, like so many of his conservative media brethren, labors under the assumption that they can act with immunity to the rules of civility. It is the right and duty of the general public to let Savage and his ilk know when they have crossed the line. Read up on autism, find out what real experts have to say about the spectrum of disorders, and let your local Savage affiliate know what's being said on their airwaves during "his" hours on the air.

Autism Speaks

Autism United

Autism Society of America

National Autism Association