Autism is a newsworthy disorder because it afflicts so many children and disrupts their family life so profoundly. Nevertheless the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control was a thin reed on which to base grand coverage. Both ABC and CBS led with the accurate, but misleading, headline that the incidence of autism among children nationwide was higher than previously believed. In the scheme of things, the hike in the estimate, from 500K to 560K, was marginal--but autism was the Story of the Day anyway.

NBC's Tom Costello and ABC's John McKenzie (subscription required) took a news-oriented angle, examining the CDC's public health statistics. McKenzie called the new numbers, based on projections from a 14-state survey, "more alarming than the government ever recognized." While genetics may play a role, "this study did not attempt to find a cause," Costello told us. Part of the increased incidence is a function of the expansion of the neuro-developmental definition over the years. Boys are more likely to be afflicted than girls; children in New Jersey more than in Alabama or West Virginia, Costello added.

CBS led with a feature-style approach from its in-house physician Jon LaPook. The disorder "includes a range of symptoms, from subtle to severe, speech and behavior disabilities." He profiled an expensive specialist school in New York City with a long waiting list that helps children while they are still toddlers: "A huge problem is that children are being diagnosed too late." ABC also consulted its in-house physician Timothy Johnson (no link). He pointed out that the survey counts children: "What happens when they become adults and they are no longer serviced by the school system?"


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