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Robert MacNeil returns to PBS NEWSHOUR to report on Autism

Source: PBS Newshour

6-part series airs during Autism Awareness Month April 18 - 26, 2011

ARLINGTON, VA (March 29, 2011) – 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 University and 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.

Monday, April 25          Adults with Autism: Although federal law mandates educational services for children with autism, there are virtually no services when they become adults.  MacNeil profiles Zachary Hamrick in Mahwah, New Jersey, about to turn 21. As his family contemplates the uncertain future now facing hundreds of thousands of young people like him, his parents ask themselves, "What will happen when we die?"

Tuesday, April 26         Autism Policy: The NewsHour series ends with a discussion of the public policy issues raised in the series, including the enormous discrepancy in the quality and availability  of services  for  children and future adults in what the federal committee that determines research priorities for autism now calls a "national health emergency" with a panel of experts including:  Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Catherine Lord, Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ilene Lainer, Executive Director of the New York Center for Autism – a private advocacy group, and John Shestack, a Hollywood producer and the co-founder of “Cure Autism Now” a former advocacy group.

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