The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

They call them “the wanderers”

with 3 comments

My journey to find a news story that would cover the perils of wandering drew parallels with the 1961 Dion hit of the same name. Unfortunately for parents, autistic kids who go “around, around, around” aren’t doing so to impress females. A study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, using a national survey of 856 parents of autistic children, revealed around half of them wandered off at least once, sometimes gone long enough to cause alarm. Two-thirds of surveyors said their children had a “close call” with traffic while one-third said a child nearly drowned. A 58 percent majority cited wandering as the most stressful behavior displayed by an autistic child.

Delthia Ricks of Indiana newspaper The Republic interviewed a doctor who wasn’t involved with the survey but has communicated with families whose autistic kids elope. The study listed no primary reason for eloping as that wasn’t the study’s focus, but the story mentions “wanderlust,” avoidance or a specific destination as theories for taking off. Wandering can continue through adulthood, although the odds drop as children age. The biggest concern with autistics eloping is their lack of social awareness, including stranger-danger, increasing their vulnerability to harmful elements.

I detailed such a case of wandering in my third autism documentary, but the mystery was solved long before a major panic ensued. Most stories on studies hash out the numbers while adding quotes from a source on a press release or in a separately-conducted interview before validating those numbers in a follow-up story should a journalist take that action. For an autism community member, these findings may allow them to cite scientific evidence instead of anecdotal references, but the story is hardly surprising since wandering is a publicly-known issue. The focus of an autistic child is sometimes intense, to the point where they close off other forms of stimuli until the child’s task is complete. Drama can exponentially rise if a wandering child is non-verbal, reducing the likelihood of responding to audible signals.

The news environment itself adds a dramatic dash, with their preference to hype stories of danger, despair and fear of an unknown future to boost ratings and theatrics. The last two paragraphs of Ricks’ story fit with the overall theme without fabricating autism’s hazards, but when parents are exposed to this story, combined with other risks of childhood (which include eloping from non-autistic kids), the chances of buying the media’s perspective of the world is higher, even though stranger-danger is statistically less of a risk than harm from a known acquaintance. Autism can nullify the odds, but this story is a worthwhile lesson to absorb content presented to us without reacting impulsively.

Knowledge of autistic people eloping is common among the community, the wild card may be people who aren’t exposed to autism regularly. Don’t be surprised if Ricks or another reporter spells out the numbers through a story of experience with a family or caregiver watching an autistic child. Monitoring “child-proofing” stories for an expose on preventing autistic children from bolting may also prove fruitful in the short-term, as child safety is a frequently covered topic in news.

The information was public for some time through Google searches, but until The Republic picked up the story, all I could find were press releases. While PR does contain journalistic elements, they generally don’t follow the same format as professional journalists, and the purpose of this blog is detailing and dissecting mainstream news coverage of autism. Occasionally, I’ll post coverage outside of traditional newspapers and TV stations, but my theme will not bend from analyzing how mainstream media presents news and information on the topic of autism, which is why some time elapse before I got to this story.

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3 Responses

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  1. There are media outlets which actively write against media fear.

    Take Frank Furedi’s sp!ked for instance.

    You made three documentaries? The third one is about awareness in local communities.

    And I liked the bit about impressing females.

    Adelaide Dupont

    April 25, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    • What you said is why I don’t call myself an “expert” for the sake of doing so, as I hadn’t heard of [i]sp!ked[/i] until now.

      Just tying in the song’s lyrics with my post 🙂

      TheSportsBrain

      April 25, 2011 at 9:55 pm

      • Different people have different expertise pools.

        I’ll tell you a bit more of the story of Sp!ked-Online.

        It is a UK online magazine which has been around for more than 10 years now.

        I have known about it for about 8 or 9 of those ten years, starting when Furedi and others would syndicalise their articles in The Australian.

        Has a lot of interesting internships and opportunities for students and others who want a critical media.

        Michael Fitzgerald is the one who covers autism spectrum conditions.

        Good on you for being humble. You might like to make a list of “10 media outlets I’ve never heard of” or “10 media outlets my readers tell me about”.

        Adelaide Dupont

        April 26, 2011 at 12:38 am


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