The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Interior Secretary reveals interior autism battle

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Mireya Salazar is embraced by her grandmother and foster parent, Hope. Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz

Political junkies may recognize Ken Salazar’s name, as he was named Interior Secretary when President Obama officially entered his first term. Autism followers may soon recognize him as well; he is the grandfather and foster parent of Mireya Salazar, a three-year-old girl diagnosed with autism last year. Ken and his wife, Hope, assumed primary custody before any symptoms were displayed when their daughter, Andrea and Mireya’s father, Nelson Rodriguez, could not care for her themselves. The goal of the arrangement was to allow Andrea to continue her collegiate studies while making Mireya eligible for Ken’s health insurance.

Eric Gorski of The Denver Post covers Mireya and the journey she only begun last year, reporting a story whose length and style rival most magazine features. His reporting includes the usual tales of an autistic child (every door in the house must be closed, refusing to eat non-white pasta, fascinated with “blank space” more often than Ken). Although Ken provides recognition to the Salazar name, Hope is the primary caregiver, transporting Mireya to and from school and taking her to visits with her father’s family. Embedding himself in the Salazar’s lives, Gorski shares an exchange between Hope and a local priest following a Sunday mass, where Hope affirms her love for Mireya will never extinguish no matter what lies ahead.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Gorski then pulls back to Mireya’s childhood through the article’s publication, explaining how her name was chosen (a baby-name website said the name meant “miracle”) and a quick glimpse on the path that led her mother, Andrea, to allow her parents to care for Mireya. We learn Andrea’s choice was based on what she believed would be best to support her daughter, which was obtaining a college degree. Although she and Rodriguez are no longer partners, both families stress Mireya’s well-being holds priority. In particular, Rodriguez has learned patience as Mireya doesn’t follow expected emotional responses.

The next segment, Mireya’s display of symptoms that led to a diagnosis, and while the story is familiar for those who follow autism in the news or are part of its community, although we do learn Mireya’s diagnosis was made earlier than usual. The Centers for Disease Control report the median age of a child diagnosis ranges from 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 years. Mireya was two years and one month, and that was after two doctor’s visits following the Salazar’s rejection of a hearing impairment caused by fluid buildup when Mireya began regressing.

Rather than worry about potential causes, the Salazars decided to deal with the reality of their autistic family member and the women moved to Denver after treatment options in Washington were lacking. While the move meant leaving Ken, it also meant Mireya could take part in the Early Start Denver Model, which builds interactive lessons into play and the normal flow of the day versus more traditional techniques where children work on lessons in front of a table. Unfortunately for the Salazars, Denver Public Schools rejected a request for tuition reimbursement for Mireya’s therapy at Firefly Autism, whose lessons are similar to the Early Start Denver Model. Their insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, is also contending it doesn’t have to comply with a recent state mandate requiring some private health-insurance policies to cover autism treatments. The Salazars pay $40,000 annually for Mireya’s treatments, and such price tags are common because of a low student-teacher ratio, worker’s compensation, and occasional safety hazards with autistic children who suffer violent, emotional outbursts.

The premise is familiar, but Gorski knew exactly what stood out in this story and utilized his advantage without abusing his resource; the grandfather and foster parent of Mireya is a sitting U.S. Cabinet member whose name and job title have little influence with Mireya’s care. Gorski balances the star power of his story by supplanting himself within the Salazar family (the time is undisclosed, but the number of anecdotes in the story suggest he engaged his sources for an extended period). Readers learn more about Hope and her background versus the former U.S. Senator’s, even if it’s only a byproduct of the distance between Hope and Ken’s job location. Tales of the quest to address Mireya’s autism are paused by highlighting a rarity among autistic caregivers: signing away custody rights. Obviously, Gorski spells out the collection of decisions leading to Mireya’s birth, but his tidbits on Andrea give readers the opportunity to avoid falling for an old theory blaming the cold and distant parenting of “refrigerator mothers” for causing autism in children. Readers may still accuse Andrea of poor decision-making, but Gorski’s reporting will at least shield her from charges of bad parenting.

Almost each section in Gorski’s story begins with the narration resembling fictional novels. The customary past-tense verbs are replaced with the more active present-tense when the setting allows, a technique generally seen in broadcast news but also employed in magazine-style stories and longer features. Gorski’s choice of grammar makes sense given his primary subject’s lack of experience; most three-year-olds are still developing their self-awareness and memory skills, regardless of what label is applied to them. In addition, Mireya’s course settings are still being plotted; Hope hasn’t stopped being her primary caregiver, Mireya’s therapy is ongoing, and the Salazars remain hopeful that insurance will eventually cover her treatments. The active style of present-tense verbs presents a more engaging storyline for readers than the passive illumination of past-tense verbs. The structure fits with the active pursuits of the Salazar family, where the focus on Mireya isn’t why, but how.

On the surface, Gorski’s presentation of the Salazar family communicates the idea that White House employees face the same realities as private employees, even when it comes to insurance and intervention strategies. Digging deeper, we see themes of the unknown boiling to the surface, from the questions Ken has about Mireya’s future, to the myriad of intervention strategies with no clear consensus, to the struggles of finding insurers who include autism in their coverage plans. Readers may not agree with the political views of Ken Salazar, but Gorski shows them he is no less fallible than his audience, and his granddaughter is no less autistic.


One Response

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  1. With faith, hope and love perhaps the insurance industries will realize that we all live and breathe on the same planet. By really helping others we are helping ourselves. They may even find a gift they didn’t realize was there. (I cherish my gift every day!)

    Carol Peden

    April 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

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