Autism Researchers, Groups Find Common Ground in Condemning Radio Jock
By DAN CHILDS
ABC News Medical Unit
As autism organizations and medical professionals alike voice their outrage at inflammatory comments made by controversial talk radio host Michael Savage, about most autistic children simply being "brats," the head of the network that employs him appears to be taking measures to pull out of a public relations tailspin.
Savage, who in the past, has taken aim at the legitimacy of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral disorders, called autism a "fraud" and a "racket" during his July 16 broadcast, adding that "[i]n 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out."
In light of strong public reaction to his statements, Savage issued a statement, further explaining his comments.
"My comments about autism were meant to boldly awaken parents and children to the medical community's attempt to label too many children or adults as 'autistic'," the statement read.
"Just as some drug companies have overdiagnosed 'ADD' and 'ADHD' to peddle dangerous speed-like drugs to children as young as 4 years of age, this cartel of doctors and drug companies is now creating a national panic by overdiagnosing 'autism,' for which there is no definitive medical diagnosis!"
In a response to ABC News' request for comment, Mark Masters, the CEO of Talk Radio Network, sent the same statement that had been posted on Savage's Web site.
The statement has done little to blunt reactions to his strong comments, which have forged an unlikely alliance between a number of autism groups that claim doctors are overlooking the true causes of the disorder, and autism researchers in the mainstream medical community.
"I would say it is the lowest form of attention-seeking, and the best response is silence," said Dr. Nancy Minshew, director of the Center for Excellence in Autism Research (CeFAR) at the University of Pittsburgh. "Tune out and his sponsors will turn him off. Declare a day of mourning for those who suffer and a day of prayer for those who care by not calling or responding."
"I think we're seeing a trend within talk radio -- anger toward people with autism," said Kim Stagliano, managing editor of the popular blog Age of Autism. "As we learn more about autism, there seems to be an acceptable level of tolerance within society, but within talk radio, the sympathy has turned into scorn."
And Rebecca Estepp, national manager of the autism advocacy group Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) says Masters has e-mailed her organization and invited them, along with the National Autism Association, to be guests on Savage's show to "make amends with the autism community."
But it is unclear whether the autism community is ready to bury the hatchet.
"Michael Savage is spectacularly uninformed about this major national health crisis," Estepp said. "His comments were beyond insulting and are tantamount to blaming parents for their child's cancer.
"Perhaps 99 percent of his listeners should stop tuning in."
Groups Differ on Appropriate Response
Autism experts say Savage's statements threaten to alter the public's understanding of the disorder.
"It is unfortunate that, just as the public is beginning to be better informed about autism and related disorders, a prominent individual in the media with a wide audience should spread misinformation," said Katherine Loveland, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. "Although it's his right to believe and to say what he wishes, his statements should not go un-challenged by the medical, scientific and advocacy communities."
But, while those in the autism community overwhelmingly disagree with Savage's viewpoint, there is as yet no consensus as to what action, if any, should be taken.
Some say that ignoring the comments is the best approach.
"Mr. Savage is obviously a complete ignoramus, who knows not the first thing about autism," said Deborah Fein, autism researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. "However, I doubt he believes what he said; he is obviously just trying to get media and public attention, which he has succeeded in doing."
"The less attention given to Mr. Savage, the better," agreed Marguerite Kirst Colston, spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America.
But, the nation's other major autism groups have suggested that a stronger response is needed. In a statement issued today, the National Autism Association said that representatives from the organization have agreed to be on a panel on Savage's show to respond.
"We've asked for an apology, a retraction, and a chance to get to our side on this issue," the statement read. "We don't want to respond with an attack, we want to educate him and his listeners."
The advocacy group Autism Speaks urged a response in the interest of further educating the public about the nature of autism.
"One important goal of increasing awareness about autism is to foster a greater level of acceptance and understanding of the very real and significant challenges it poses to individuals with the disorder and their families," read a statement issued today by Autism Speaks. "[T]here are those who are apparently incapable of feeling compassion. They deserve our pity, not our scorn."
Stagliano disagreed: "We don't need to 'pity' Mr. Savage, like Autism Speaks suggests; we need to educate him."