The representation of autism in British online newspapers
Abstract: According to previous research, mainstream media coverage of autism and disability in general has mainly revolved around sensationalist, stereotypical and medicalised representations of disability. However, conceptions of disability have evolved within the field of Disability Studies, and autistic individuals and the wider community of disabled people are increasingly discovering new ways of voicing their opinions via the online spaces of social media. In light of such recent developments, the present study seeks to discover how autism is currently depicted in the more “traditional” context of British online newspapers. Approaching the subject by utilising theories derived from Disability Studies and social constructionism, the study also addresses the ways in which different models of disability are reflected in the newspaper coverage as well as the relevance of the coverage to the daily lives of autistic people. A nuanced view of autism is promoted, acknowledging both the advantages and difficulties associated with autism. Critical discourse analysis, with its focus on power relations, functions as the primary method of analysis, and it is complemented by an initial thematic analysis of the material. The findings of the study suggest that traditional descriptions of autistic people as disordered, deviant, and dependent on others co-occur with more empowering depictions highlighting autistic agency and describing autistic individuals as active, skilled and opinionated. Discourses become intertwined in many cases, which also results in the co-occurrence of different models of disability as well as individual and social perspectives. While unequal power relations are reinforced in many cases, the relevance of the newspaper representations to the lives of autistic people is increased in cases where inclusion and diversity are highlighted and the voices of autistic individuals are allowed expression.
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