A Devastating Cliche
Often it's harmless and funny, as in this list of journalistic clichés. Every once in a while it gets nasty, such as when racial stereotypes find their way into crime stories. But usually it's not devastating—unless the subject happens to be autism.
Why is the word "devastating" so often used to describe autism in news stories and fundraising materials? How did it become an essential part of what Estée Klar-Wolfond calls The Economy of Pity? Well, to start with, a devastating epidemic attracts a lot more attention and donations than a natural genetic variation.
And wherever there's hype about a tragic incurable disorder, you can be sure that a mangy horde of quack cure peddlers must be very close by, adding their yips and yelps to the din of the calamity howlers.
That's where the well-intentioned but careless journalists come in. They blithely lap up the calamity howlers' sensational press releases and reflexively churn out tear-jerking tales of devastated parents struggling to cope with their afflicted children. And the result of such a media onslaught can indeed be devastating to families, as one mother describes:
"The day after I 'accepted' Ben's diagnosis...I grew to hate him, in some ways. Everything that I saw as indicative of his 'autistic tendencies' I attempted to rid him of by superior intellect. I'm not kidding when I say the day before I loved everything about this little buddha. The day of, it's like I went on a religious crusade."
After seeing so many stories of tragedy and despair, some parents begin to respond to interviews about their child's diagnosis by saying that they are "devastated," simply because the word has become so closely associated with autism in the popular consciousness that it's the first word that comes to mind. Other parents see these interviews and react in the same way, and the ugly cycle continues.
It's a classic example of mass hysteria.
Now let's put all this talk of devastating genetic disease in its proper perspective. I recently watched a TV show about a tattoo artist. One of the artist's clients asked her to put a tattoo of his baby girl on his shoulder. The baby had Tay-Sachs disease and was not expected to live much longer. The father wanted her picture on a tattoo so that he would have something to remember her by.