Autism – it’s a developmental disorder that has become increasingly prevalent, affecting 1 out of 110 American children. Despite years of study, little is known about its cause and access to treatment varies. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American families hungry for answers struggle to care for the unique needs of children with the disorder. Among them, Robert MacNeil, co-founder of the PBS NewsHour and grandfather of Nick, a 6-year old boy with autism.
“I’ve been a reporter on and off for 50 years, but I’ve never brought my family into a story … until Nick,” MacNeil said, “because he moves me deeply.”
MacNeil and producer Caren Zucker tell the story of Autism Today in a 6-part broadcast series beginning Monday, April 18, 2011 and a robust online component where viewers can join the conversation. Ms. Zucker has produced many stories on autism and is the mother of a 16-year old son with autism.
Monday, April 18 An introduction to Nick and autism as a whole body experience: MacNeil brings viewers along on a visit with his daughter and grandson Nick in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see how autism affects the whole family, including his 10-year-old sister, Neely. Nick experiences autism not just as a disorder in brain development but also as physical ailments affecting the whole body.
Tuesday, April 19 Autism Prevalence: Why are the numbers of children with autism increasing? At the UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento, California, MacNeil sees the wide range of different behaviors that comprise the autism spectrum. Anthropologist Richard Grinker argues that the rising numbers of children with autism is explained because conditions previously given other names, like mental retardation, are now included in the autism spectrum. Scientist Irva Hertz-Picciotto says the wider definition only partly explains the increased prevalence, pointing instead to a variety of environmental factors.
Wednesday, April 20 Autism Causes: The rise in autism numbers has caused a surge in research to find the causes. For the latest thinking, Robert MacNeil speaks with four leading researchers: Dr. Gerald Fischbach of the Simons Foundation, Dr. David Amaral of the MIND Institute, Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard Universityand Dr. Craig Newschaffer of Drexel University.
Thursday, April 21 Autism Treatment: Although children with autism see doctors periodically, they go to school everyday. It is the school system that bears most of the burden of treating children with autism because treatment means education. MacNeil visits two schools in New York – a public school in the Bronx teaching 700 children with autism and a charter school created in Manhattan as a model of possibilities in educating children with autism. With only 30 students, it can use one-on-one teacher/student ratios employing intensive Applied Behavioral Analysis – the gold standard treatment for autism.