Robbie Woliver

Robbie Woliver is a New York Times best-selling author and an award-winning journalist and editor. He is currently the editor- in-chief of the Long Island Press, where he also helms the newspaper’s award-winning series “Our Children’s Brains”, and is author of the new book Alphabet Kids – From ADD to Zellweger Syndrome: A Guide to Developmental, Neurobiological and Psychological Disorders for Parents and Professionals, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

How did you become interested in Autism Spectrum Conditions?

First and foremost, there are a couple of children in my family who are on different levels of the spectrum, and the spectrum aspect of the disorder has always fascinated me. I’ve seen one high-functioning girl go misdiagnosed, while her cousin, a boy who has more classic autism, make remarkable progress because of very early intervention. Girls on the spectrum is a very interesting topic to me, because they are very often misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

I am the editor of a newspaper in New York and I started a series called “Our Children’s Brains” that included stories on autism, and the series started getting a lot of attention, and I became more involved in the world of autism as I researched ASDs.

What inspired you to write Alphabet Kids?

My daughter. We had several concerns about her development when she was younger, and it became a long, complicated journey for us. We started getting these alphabet-soup diagnoses, and even as I became more expert on the subject, it was still a confusing maze to me. I wanted to write a book to help other parents and those professionals who work with them, that would provide a roadmap that would make their journeys easier. This is really the book I wish I had when I started my research almost two decades ago. My daughter is doing really well now, by the way.

As a journalist how do you feel about the media’s coverage of autism?

I think that the media covers the topic enough; some people, in fact, think it’s become the subject du jour. But I don’t think they are always covering the right aspects of the subject like: what do the prevalence numbers really mean and how were they determined; how do girls manifest the disorder differently than boys; how some symptoms can contradict themselves (e.g., an ASD child can have no eye contact, or can have intense eye contact); the borders of behaviors of high-end and Asperger kids, the comorbidity of other disorders, etc. These are all topics I felt I had to cover in “Alphabet Kids” because the information isn’t really out there. There’s a lot for the media to cover, and it has to move beyond newspapers and magazines into TV and movies–real-life portrayals. While there is always the fear of over-exposing the subject, my feeling is, you can’t write or read about it enough.

What are your hopes for the future?

I think there are a lot of great advocacy groups out there doing amazing work, so I know awareness will not be a problem. But what people are aware of might be a problem. They need the right information. Also, better diagnostic tools must be discovered and employed so that these kids get earlier diagnoses and intervention. Whether vaccines are a cause of ASDs or not is still a raging debate, and no matter what the reality is, conventional doctors have to become more sensitive to the topic. I am not advocating against vaccines, but children should not be bombarded with them, and parents need a compassionate, knowledgeable doctor who will discuss all aspects of the subject. One recurring theme I got from parents whom I interviewed for the book was that doctors HAVE to listen to parents’ concerns and not dismiss them, whether it is about vaccines or just general (or specific) concerns about development. Doctors have to look at these interconnected, concurrent Alphabet Disorders holistically. Another big concern of mine is the educational system. I hope educators become better educated about every single subtlety regarding autism syndrome conditions, and parents need to advocate strongly for their children regarding their child’s individualized programs and plans. These are all subjects I cover in my book to help parents along their way.

Mostly, I hope that we come closer to determining the cause.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am rereading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the book about Abraham Lincoln choosing his former rivals to work with during his presidency. I first read it when it came out a couple of years ago, and it was fascinating then, but now that Barack Obama seems to be using it as his playbook, it gives the book a new resonance. Working with rivals or former enemies is a very interesting concept.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009

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