MacNeil returns to PBS to tell story of autism

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / April 16, 2011

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BOSTON—It's been 16 years since Robert MacNeil sat behind an anchor's desk and a decade since half of PBS's famous MacNeil/Lehrer news team did any street reporting.

It took a 6-year-old autistic boy named Nick to persuade MacNeil to work in front of the camera again.

Nick is MacNeil's grandson, and he's featured in the first segment of a six-part series on autism that the 80-year-old MacNeil reported for the PBS NewsHour, which airs starting Monday.

In the segment, MacNeil explores his family's sacrifices raising an autistic child and reveals the pain experienced by his daughter, 10-year-old granddaughter, even himself. He begins the segment: "It's not easy connecting with Nick."

In 50 years of reporting, MacNeil has never brought his family into a story. He said he has no idea how viewers will react, but he noticed a difference as a journalist.

"We've all done stories where you're present at the tragedy in someone's life, and you feel enormous compassion for them, and then at the end you say, `Thank you, I hope we haven't intruded too much,' and then you go away," he said in an interview. "When it's a member of your own family, you can't leave the story."

MacNeil's daughter, Alison, said her father's return sends a message to viewers beyond what they'll see and hear.

"It says, 'I think this is so important, I'm coming back to the air to do it,'" she said.

Nick, who lives with his parents and sister in a Cambridge apartment, was diagnosed with autism when he was 1 1/2. MacNeil's daughter said she soon realized she had to do whatever she could to promote independent research on autism, and she began pushing her father in around 2007 to do the series.

"He's going to listen to me, he cared deeply for my child and he could hear the pain. I mean, autism has been devastating for my family," she said. "If we could get something on the mainstream media that would show some balanced coverage on autism, I felt we would be doing something important."

MacNeil, who runs a production company with longtime co-anchor Jim Lehrer, said he never intended to do that kind of reporting again and felt self-conscious about a return after being away so long. But he soon began to feel it was "imperative" to tell about the disorder, in part through the experience of his own family.

"All your children move you, and your grandchildren move you, of course," MacNeil said. "But it's particularly poignant when you know there's a condition that you can't go to a hospital and come back cured from."

The series, called Autism Now, covers various aspects of the disorder including its causes, prevalence and treatment. Nick's and his family's last name are withheld in their segment, but they don't hold back much else.

Alison tells her father she hired a baby sitter after Nick was diagnosed so she could go cry in her car.

Her daughter, Neely, talks with moving honesty about how she resents that her brother's autism consumes the family's emotions and resources. When MacNeil asks her about the future, Neely says: "I hope that he doesn't have to stay with me, kind of, and I hope that he gets healed soon."

Autism is the world's fastest growing developmental disability, currently affecting about one in 110 children.

The segment highlights improvements in Nick's health and autism since the family began getting treatment for illnesses often accepted as just part of autism, such as severe diarrhea.

The love the family shares with Nick comes through, particularly when MacNeil accompanies Nick and his father, David, for the daily ride after work on bus number 72 -- Nick insists it has to be 72.

"I'm lost in admiration for the patience and courage Alison and Dave bring to his constant care," MacNeil narrates.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, but Alison said more awareness is not what she's after.

"I couldn't be more sick of the word awareness. If I were any more aware of autism, I'd be dead," she said. "I think we've moved beyond the point where awareness is necessary. I think it's time we moved to action."