A 60 Minutes story about 12-year-old Max, a boy with severe non-verbal autism and an undiagnosed intellectual disability, has attracted criticism from Amaze, the peak body for people with autism spectrum disorder.
Max Whelan, who lives with his family at Mt Martha on the Mornington Peninsula, was shown on the program during one of his violent outbursts, as his family explained that their home can often feel like a ‘war zone’.
Max’s siblings described him as “scary” and “crazy,” with Max’s father Sean adding, “home should be a safe place, and it’s not at the moment”.
“We love him,” Max’s mother Liz told reporter Liz Hayes. “There’s no conditions on our love for him. But there’s conditions on our safety.”
The family’s extremely difficult situation became public earlier this year when a GoFundMe page was set up by Australian actress Nicky Whelan – Max’s aunt, and the sister of Liz Whelan. The page aimed to help the family with their finances, as they say there are currently no government options available to them to support Max’s needs on a permanent basis.
Liz and Sean Whelan discuss life with 12-year-old Max. Post continues after video.
They are aiming to turn the family home into a care facility for Max, while the rest of the family move to another property to establish some semblance of “safety, peace of mind and normality”.
“Max is desperately loved by his family and they do not want to have to relinquish him for the safety of their other children,” Nicky explained on the page.
“This family is in crisis,” she added. “The consequences dire. If they are unable to set up their own facility for Max as well as providing a safe home for their other children, they have no choice but to consider relinquishing Max to the State, an absolutely heart-wrenching thought for any parent to ever have to contemplate.”
The GoFundMe page had reached its goal of $80,000 before Sunday night’s episode of 60 Minutes, but raised another $10,000 after it aired.
Advocates for people with autism, however, are concerned about the program’s depiction of Max in a “negative light”. On their Facebook page, Amaze wrote that while they “strongly believe that we need to hear the stories of autistic people with high and complex support needs… this should not be done by showing the autistic person in an undignified manner.”
"The media need to have greater respect for autistic peoples dignity when reporting about autism, and also not perpetuate common myths about autism," they wrote.
The statement started a heated debate on Facebook, with some members of the community arguing that this severe end of the autism spectrum needs to be more regularly represented. "These are the real struggles," one woman wrote. "Some of us live this way."
Others, however, shared their concerns for Max, who "hasn't the ability to consent to being shown in his most vulnerable moments". The show was dramatised, some said, using foreboding music fitting for a horror movie, rather than a story about a vulnerable young boy with complex needs.
In a statement to The Age, Asperger Services Australia agreed with the sentiment shared by Amaze, saying they intend to "always advocate for people on the autism spectrum and their families and support them to achieve their potential".