Who Do You Believe?

By Dan Coulter

Who do you believe? It’s an important question for you and your children on the autism spectrum. It’s hard enough to counsel kids about who to trust on a personal level. But how about all the information they have access to through the media and the Internet?

Children can think that because they know more about computers and cell-phone technology than their parents, they automatically know more about the world.

While kids have more access to information than at any other time in history, they also have more access to inaccurate and intentionally misleading information. There have always been people willing to take advantage of others, and con-men (and women) have routinely been at the forefront of using new technologies.

Because many children on the spectrum tend to be literal and logical (okay, sometimes it’s their own, unique logic) it may be helpful to share some historical perspective with them.

It’s interesting to note that being a con-man does not refer to having been a convict, but to “confidence men” (and women) who gain people’s trust in order to take advantage of them. Such people are also called, “con-artists.”

Modern con-artists have taken advantage of trends in the news media to create “news” operations that bear little resemblance to the objective print and broadcast organizations common a few decades ago. This seems to be a golden age for those who misrepresent and mislead for their own gain.

Of course, distorting the news is not, well, new. In the late 1890’s, major U.S. newspaper chains were infamous for exaggerating, sensationalizing and manipulating the news to increase circulation. In the following decades, most newspapers began meeting higher standards. By the 1960s, when I started reading them, mainstream newspapers were generally considered to be among the most reliable sources of information. This did not include tabloid papers which focused on made-up stories about space aliens, celebrities and anything else that would sell papers.

In the early days of radio, some broadcasters took advantage of the new medium to convince listeners to send them money for a variety of reasons, including fraudulent medical cures. Some of these broadcasters got rich and politically powerful. In 1934, the U.S. government passed a law regulating broadcasting and requiring stations to broadcast “in the public interest.” In 1949, the U.S. government introduced “The Fairness Doctrine,” requiring broadcast stations to air information about controversial issues of public interest, and to present both sides of an issue.

In the 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s, radio and television stations and networks ran news operations, in part, to fulfill the government’s public interest requirements. Network news divisions often were not profit centers, but were operated for prestige. On the whole, these operations tried to be objective and accurate. Gradually, attitudes, policies and priorities changed.

Beginning in the 1970s, companies began expecting their broadcast news operations to be profitable. Stations and networks began focusing more on the entertainment aspects of the news. In 1987, the U.S. government eliminated The Fairness Doctrine. In 1996, a new telecommunications act removed many previous regulations.

Today, while there are still many respectable news outlets, some major broadcast and print “news” operations are actually propaganda tools designed to mislead and manipulate the public. With the rise of the Internet, fewer and fewer people are reading traditional newspapers – and just about anyone can spread information online and call it news. Even information that looks authentic and sounds convincing can be wildly inaccurate.

I watched this evolution first hand. In my first job during high school, I read news on a local radio station. After college, I served on a news team as a TV weather reporter. Later, I was a media relations manager for AT&T. My bosses were former newspaper people who insisted that the company’s news releases be accurate and well-written. They’d battle and win with marketing types who wanted to feed hype or exaggerations to the media.

My background helped make me an advocate for seeking out accurate information.

It’s important to help children understand that today, we live in a virtual wild west of information. It can be hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and from the grey guys who may not be hard core evil, but who will happily and skillfully mislead you to separate you from your money or get your vote. This includes politicians who say different things based on what they think different audiences wants to hear, hoping people won’t look up their records. Also, there are plenty of email messages on a wide range of topics circulated with information many people accept as true that’s just false.

Let children know that whenever they get an email with “news” or a story in it and forward it to others, they’re essentially telling the people they forward the message to that they believe it…and are lending their own credibility to it.

Here are some suggestions to share with children about assessing who to believe:

Seek out multiple sources of information. Don’t automatically accept that something is true because you hear or read it. Ask around. Do some checking. It’s good to get news from different outlets, and not just from those who share your political or social views. Hearing different perspectives can help ensure you get all the facts, not just those someone wants you to hear. This will also help you determine over time what news outlets deserve your trust.

You can use the Internet to check out stories and rumors. Legitimate investigative websites such as www.factcheck.org and www.snopes.com are great for getting the facts about new reports, rumors, and urban legends.

Don’t confuse knowledge with wisdom. Knowing how to use computer or cell-phone technology is admirable, but it doesn’t replace advice based on life experience that parents have to offer. Technology changes rapidly, but people haven’t fundamentally changed in thousands of years. Over the years, parents tend to learn what you can expect from people. (You might ask your child if he knows more now than he did a year ago. Does he think he’s going to continue learn more every year as he becomes an adult? If so, doesn’t it make sense that an adult -- like yourself -- knows things he hasn’t learned yet?)

A few final notes:

You can help your children build information-based decision-making skills. It’s easy for parents to assume that children are picking up information and learning lessons that they aren’t. Expose your children to different news sources. Watch television news (or listen to radio news) with your children and ask them to give their perspectives. After they’ve finished speaking, you can share your perspective. Demonstrating a process of analysis and encouraging them to think will help them more than just telling them what to believe.

Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty generalizing: applying what they learn in one situation to a similar situation. The more we explain things and teach them to think things through, the more data and analytical tools they’ll have to draw on when they have to assess who and what to believe on their own.

If we establish a pattern of listening to our children and offering advice based on our experience and verifiable facts, we have a better chance of both understanding their logic and having influence as they start asserting their independence.

It’s largely about relationships. Our young adult children are more likely to listen to and believe us, if we first give them reason to believe IN us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of the book, "Life in the Asperger Lane" and thirteen videos about Asperger Syndrome and autism. You can find more information on his website: coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2013 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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