Word choice matters when reporting on autism treatments

A new drug could be a breakthrough in treating symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. But Balkan media outlets have misled the public by saying the drug is a "cure for autism."

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
Word choice matters when reporting on autism treatments - NewsMavens

Why this story matters:

Public discourse on autism is packed with manipulations and misconceptions. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is often falsely described as an illness caused by vaccines or a reaction to non-existent "parasites," untraceable to modern medicine.

Parents of children with ASD sometimes fall prey to advertisements of unethical, unsafe and untested practices, presented to them as medicine.

These irrational narratives are frequently supported by media, including those in the Balkans. Spectacular fairy tales of "regular moms who defeated autism in their children" contribute to the stigmatization of people with ASD and the spread of dangerous practices.

In an online environment crawling with charlatans, the media's choice of words to translate "autism drug" could feed dangerous misconceptions. A drug is not the same as the cure, nor is "treatment of symptoms" equal to "curing" a neurological disorder.


Details from the story:

  • Pharmaceutical company Roche recently announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  granted a "breakthrough therapy designation" for a new drug they are developing.
  • The designation recognizes the drug's potential, shows intent to cooperate with the manufacturer in the testing process, and takes the drug to market if clinical trials are successful.
  • Early tests show the drug, called Balovaptan, may reduce core symptoms of ASD, specifically difficulties in social interaction and communication. 
  • Balkan media outlets presented news about Balovaptan in a misleading way, such as it was already approved by the FDA and that it could "cure autism."
  • The words "drug" and "cure" are interchangeable in local language, and "breakthrough therapy designation" is difficult to translate, so some media outlets used "approval" in their headlines.

Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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