The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Q&A…what am I thinking?

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AOL Health posted a Q&A session a couple weeks ago with Jeanette O’Donnell. For the rest of the world, she runs a Blogspot site called What Are They Thinking? (a link to that site can be found in the article I linked here). The title relates to her family: Five of her six children are autistic, but O’Donnell will be the first to blog about how all her kids have improved with adapting to the “neurotypical” environment since they all received their diagnosis.

Q&A’s are a quick way to tell a story without have to interpret what the sources say. Most interviews use this format before they’re edited for print or broadcast. They’re a good way for beginning journalists to develop their skills before having them prune their quotes later on, but they can be effective, especially with sensitive topics like autism. The article’s writer develops a better shield against claims of bias since all they write on their end are the questions, perhaps trimming some of the answers before publication.

In regards to the article, the interview strikes an unusual tone. O’Donnell mentions some controversies she’s dealt with in autism circles because of her approach to the disorder. Her strategy definitely isn’t within the confines of conventional wisdom: She doesn’t believe in chelation (a procedure that removes heavy metals from the body, a hot topic now with the unsubstantiated belief of mercury causing autism), special diets or any other remedy that is popular with parents but unproven in science. O’Donnell believes media coverage plays a role (when in doubt, blame the media…wait a minute, what am I thinking? 😛 ), making autism appear desperate and something that must be eliminated to sustain order in the mental health world.

That’s not to say O’Donnell just sits there. She did employ the classic strategy of occupational/speech therapy, a pursuit with far more documented success. Another point O’Donnell makes was ensuring her kids knew they would have to adapt by society’s rules, regardless of how well society accepts them.

O’Donnell’s last point could create a dichotomy with an earlier question she answered about her critics. Some call her a media whore, yet the interview ends with her asking the reporter why she hasn’t asked what the reason was for having more kids after their first child was diagnosed with autism. O’Donnell may have been looking to get a specific point out, or the reporter may not have thought about it based on the direction the interview was going. Still, when a source mentions questions that aren’t asked, don’t be afraid to ask it. You’ll find out why they want that point in quotes or on the air and how genuine the reasons are.

O’Donnell does use that question to make a genuine point, from my perspective: She challenges any of her critics to meet her autistic children and tell her which one doesn’t belong.

I’ve noted several times about the emotional, reactive response from parents looking to find a solution and the risk of negative consequences by buying into the first thing that supposedly works but has no scientific backing. Of course, in my childhood days, there was no talk about diets, chelation or other odd treatments. Therapy was king. The Internet changed the treatment game in a hurry, and credit must be given to O’Donnell for refusing to fall in the emotional “trap” of doing something without applying some logic to the situation. She also refuses to take credit for her children’s success. To her, they were the masterminds.

The article’s tone itself is a rarity for anyone who isn’t named Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin. Even five years ago, coverage of autism painted a gloomy picture that could pose a problem to all of us. Even now, news outlets have quoted people talking about the autism “epidemic” as the diagnosis rate increases. Most articles assume some tone of how to keep autism from “destroying” us, ignoring the fact that most of us would acknowledge overcoming some flaw in our own lives, documented or not. The positives of autism may be the next phase introduced in autism coverage, and judging the articles I’ve discussed for the last year on this blog, more are sorely needed to give parents a breather and a reason to consider that autism will not be the culprit of our destruction.

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