Thursday, April 21, 2011

PBS NewsHour: Autism Now

This past week I've been watching a special series of reports titled "Autism Now" on PBS NewsHour. NewsHour founder and former anchor, Robert MacNeil, returned for this fascinating six-part series. Mr. MacNeil had a very personal reason for the report, and that is his grandson, Nick, who was diagnosed with autism 4 years ago, at the age of 2. Each part of the series covered a different aspect of the disorder, and shared the latest information available from families, teachers, doctors and scientists that are raising, teaching and treating individuals within the autism spectrum.

Each part of the series is available online and approximately 15 minutes in length (see each link provided below).

Part 1 - Robert MacNeil Shares Grandson Nick's Story: We are introduced to Nick, his parents and sister, and gain a better understanding of how the diagnosis impacts the family dynamic.

Part 2 - Exploring the Phenomenal Increase in US Prevalence: This segment begins with the startling fact that autism now affects more children than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. Interviewed experts note that one of the reasons for the increase in numbers is a wider diagnosis, or widened definition of the disorder. Mr. MacNeil also introduces us to the Henderson brothers, three siblings, all diagnosed with autism, comprising the breadth of the autism spectrum.

Part 3 - Autism's Causes- How Close are we to Solving the Puzzle: Austism affects one American child in every 110. Experts note that while autism is a genetic disorder, there are environmental factors which also play a role, and while no definitive answers have been found, they are sure that there is no one answer to solving autism, but instead multiple causes.

Part 4 - Demand for Educational Resources for Children Outstrips Supply: In NYC schools, there are more than 7,000 students with autism. Mr. MacNeil visits two schools in the Bronx, one a charter school offering one on one teaching, especially for autistic students.

Part 5 - Adults with Autism: Although federal law mandates educational services for children with autism, that mandate ends at the age of 21, and there are hardly any support services available to these same children once they become adults. In this piece, we are introduced to Zach Hamrick and his family, as they start facing - and planning for - these harsh realities as Zach draws closer to soon turning 21.

Part 6 - How Should We Address Deepening 'National Health Emergency'?: In the last segment in the series, Mr. MacNeil explores these issues and possible solutions in a roundtable with four autism researchers and advocates.

I found this series to be extremely informative, not only as to the medical facts of this neurological disorder, but just as important, the ways that it affects families, and our society as a whole. I hope that as individuals become more informed, we'll be more sensitive to the the individuals diagnosed with autism, as well as to the families impacted by it as well.

As noted in the series by Peter Gerdhardt, a nationally known expert on adolescents and adults with autism, the hope is that society will become more comfortable and better prepared to deal with individuals with autism, as they've become more comfortable in making accommodations for the physically handicapped. It wasn't that many years ago, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, when we didn't have handicapped bathroom stalls or parking spaces. Hopefully, society catches up and we can make accommodations for those children with neurological challenges as we did for those physically handicapped, because these children are growing up and we need to do right by them, as we should for all our more vulnerable citizens.