Savage Stands by Autism Remarks

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The New York Times

Savage Stands by Autism Remarks

by
Jacques Steinberg

NEW YORK - Michael Savage, the incendiary radio host who last week characterized nearly every child with autism as "a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out," said in a telephone interview on Monday that he stood by his remarks and had no intention of apologizing to those advocates and parents who have called for his firing over the matter.

"My main point remains true," Mr. Savage, whose radio audience ranks in size behind only those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, said in the interview. "It is an overdiagnosed medical condition. In my readings, there is no definitive medical diagnosis for autism."

On the July 16 installment of his program, which is broadcast every weekday, Mr. Savage suggested that "99 percent of the cases" of autism were a result of lax parenting. He told his audience: "They don't have a father around to tell them, 'Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life.' " Among the other admonitions he felt children with autism should be hearing, he said, were: " 'Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot.' "

Asked Monday if he actually believed that 99 out of every 100 cases of autism were misdiagnosed, Mr. Savage conceded that figure was "a little high." He added, "It was hyperbole."

But he said he was proud to have prodded discussion on the subject, and planned to give over his entire show on Monday - broadcast live from Northern California from 3 to 6 p.m., Pacific time - to parents and other callers who wished to disagree with him and to educate him.

While Mr. Savage's program is heard on more than 350 stations nationally, his comments on autism were widely disseminated via e-mail on Friday by Media Matters for America, an advocacy group that dedicates itself, at least in part, to "correcting conservative misinformation in the media."

Some critics were not inclined to wait until Monday's edition of Mr. Savage's show, "The Savage Nation," to register their disagreement with him.

Late Monday afternoon, Aflac, the insurance company, announced it was withdrawing all advertising from Mr. Savage's show. "We understand that radio hosts pick on any number of targets," Laura Kane, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement, before adding that Aflac considered "his recent comments about autistic children to be both inappropriate and insensitive."

In New York City, Autism United, a coalition of organizations that advocate on behalf of children with autism and provide services to them, staged a protest Monday outside the studios of WOR (710 AM), which carries Mr. Savage's program weeknights from 6 to 9 p.m., Eastern time.

"He characterizes children with autism who are very, very ill - disabled children - as essentially bad kids; the only thing wrong with them is they have parents who don't discipline them," said John Gilmore, executive director of Autism United and the father of an 8-year-old with a diagnosis of autism. "That completely misrepresents what is going on with children with autism."

"Basically, what he's doing is parroting what used to be said about autism 40 years ago, back in the heyday of Freudian analysis," Mr. Gilmore added. "It was blamed on bad parenting. There wasn't a shred of evidence to support that."

Paul Siebold, a spokesman for WOR, said in an e-mail statement: "The views expressed by Michael Savage are his views and are not those of WOR Radio. We regret any consternation that his remarks may have caused to our listeners."

Mark Masters, the chief executive of Talk Radio Network, which syndicates Mr. Savage's program and which extended his contract in February, did not respond to several messages left at his office Monday morning.

Catherine Lord, an expert on autism who is a visiting professor in the child study center at New York University, said that beneath Mr. Savage's overheated rhetoric was a kernel of truth: that some children are saddled with an autism diagnosis by default, when they seem to fit in no other category. But far more often, she said, children who have autism are given a misdiagnosis of having something else. And she said she feared that Mr. Savage's ill-informed comments could wind up being harmful.

"Any tendency to blame the children or to think they're just being bratty if they misbehave perpetuates the myth that autism isn't a learning disability," she said. "It's a neurobiological condition, just like epilepsy or another medical condition like diabetes or a heart condition. It would be like blaming the child with a heart condition for not being able to exercise."

© 2008 The New York Times

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