The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘controversies’ Category

Autism safety not “in the bag”

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To those who celebrated, I hope your Christmas was a blessed one. I also wish the same for a nine-year-old autistic boy at the center of a Louisville, Kent. school controversy when word got out that staff members at Mercer County Intermediate School stuffed Christopher Baker inside a duffel bag for allegedly acting out on Dec. 14. Chris is enrolled in a special needs program there.

The Kentucky Department of Education has no laws regarding restraint or seclusion, although an autistic Georgetown University student started a petition calling to fire the school employees responsible. The online petition had over 700 signatures at the publication date.

Thankfully, I can say I was never placed in a duffel bag when I was in school, or I’d probably be at the center of a lawsuit. However, controversies over how the education system handles autistic children still appear in mainstream news cycles periodically. With no uniform system in place for training on autistic students, coupled with varying levels of intervention behaviors chosen by education specialists, such actions are theoretically possible if educators are unprepared.

The biggest difficulty with the lack of a streamlined system are public school employees who do not understand the symptoms of autism. This does not suggest that all of them will choose actions that compromise the safety of students, but if their patience is low, they will be more likely to exhibit an impulsive emotional response.

Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press published the story, which was then syndicated on Huffington Post. The story is largely a reaction piece that interviews Christopher’s mother (the school cited confidentiality laws and refused to comment on the incident specifically), the Georgetown student who started the petition to fire school employees, and a former teacher who blogs about autism issues.

Generally, controversial stories revolve around what two parties are thinking, as reporters either on deadline or lacking journalistic intuition consider getting both sides of a story satisfactory. Schreiner goes one step deeper, researching the larger public’s response to the incident. While more sources may not change the tone of a “he-said she-said” story, but just as surveys decrease their margin of error when their sample size increases, quoting subjects not involved in the center of an altercation provides a better consensus of the situation’s brevity. As a result, readers will more likely get the idea that what the school did to Chris would violate rules or laws in other states.

Obtaining outside sources also develops a well-rounded story. When facing controversial topics, the “defendant” is often hesitant to speak either in an attempt to hide guilt or to control damage. Reporters shouldn’t be “out to get them,” but having a neutral go-to source to spell out an event’s significance will offer analysis or details that will likely be skipped by both the accuser and defender.

Odds suggest a follow-up story will be found on Huffington Post or the Associated Press if Mercer County School reaches a decision, but until then, the story highlights what all of us could add when taking the effort to expand the source pool.

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Policing the integration of autistics

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Courtesy Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun

Our latest story is part reporting, part editorial hailing from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Michele Mandel covers an incident at the Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre where Toronto Police are under fire from autism advocacy groups for their July 28th handling of a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be physically restrained after throwing a tantrum. Police handcuffed the boy for five minutes before the mobile crisis intervention team arrived and calmed him down. While autism groups protest that less drastic restraint measures could have been employed, police say the boy was a danger to himself and waiting for the crisis team could have posed a safety hazard.

The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Mandel quoted him saying he holds his mother’s hand whenever he sees a cop car. Naturally, parents of autistic children are furious, at least according to Autism Ontario. The executive director says they offer training for law enforcement on handling people with mental disabilities, but few have taken advantage of the program unlike their colleagues in Ottawa.

I have some question on the date’s accuracy in the published article. If the incident did occur on July 28th, having an article published now would be horrendously ill-timed. There is a possibility the story has a typo and the incident happened on August 28th, which would better justify releasing the story on its publication date (August 30th). With parents as emotionally charged as they are, notwithstanding parents of autistic children, waiting an entire month before expressing outrage over a controversial situation makes little sense.

Regarding the story itself, law enforcement is almost always a hotbed when it comes to controversy. This doesn’t suggest an antagonistic relationship between journalists and police (you need to establish a positive connection if assigned to a crime beat), but material that suggests public service officials aren’t performing their job description makes for saucy news material. Generally, this controversy arises when police are seen abusing their role. In Mandel’s story, the argument is police not considering the well-being of the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be restrained. When pursuing an event as it’s occurring, police have to be prepared for rapid responses to a multitude of situations to protect themselves and/or the people they intervene. The “gray area” illuminates how people who are trained to keep communities safe can adapt to the autism spectrum, as their emotional output doesn’t fall within expected norms. This story may spur Toronto’s law enforcement to seek more training, or lead to further coverage on public readiness to handle a population prone to mental outbursts.

On the story itself, I’m not familiar with the ethical standards of Canadian journalism, but the reporter appears to side with autism organizations and suggesting the response was mishandled. Mandel uses strong words and questions why less forceful measures weren’t used to begin with, creating the impression that Toronto police were the “bad guys” in the case. The discussion shouldn’t be about who’s right or wrong, but instead included for the ultimate concern of how an increasing number of autistic people throughout the world can be approached.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

In face of ridicule, Wakefield fights for his theory

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Photo by Shaun Curry, Getty Images

The start to the 2011 calendar year was rocky for Andrew Wakefield, whose study was declared false by British journalist Brian Deer, who published several stories in the British Medical Journal highlighting Wakefield’s alleged false claims and unethical practices. Deer compared Wakefield, who lost his medical license after his study linking M.M.R. vaccines to autism was retracted last year from the medical journal Lancet, to a religious leader who occasionally uses the smoke and mirrors technique to goose the faith of his followers.

Deer’s investigation was one of many facets spilled out in an article by Susan Dominus for The New York Times Magazine, a longhand form of the country’s most recognizable newspaper. As with any form of magazine writing, the stories take on the form of novels and are more descriptive, too descriptive for me to summarize in shorthand form. That’s no reason to turn away though, as Dominus provides an insight on Wakefield no American reporter has offered before. Through her journey interviewing and shadowing Wakefield, we learn that Wakefield himself didn’t claim proof that M.M.R. vaccines were causing autism, but that didn’t stop his concerns from spreading worldwide the same way viruses spread through the body until its defense mechanisms can suppress it. If recent media coverage is any indication, Wakefield became one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, receiving blame for starting a panic that led to the resurgence of diseases long squashed by vaccinations.

Despite the wave of damning evidence which has led him to close himself professionally, he still draws followers, as 250 attended a discussion he conducted regarding his work. His supporters view him a hero when nearly everyone else paints him as a villain. Wakefield himself believes public health officials and pharmaceutical companies pay bloggers to post vicious material about him. Throughout the story, Dominus compliments Wakefield’s persuasive skills, even when the audience knows better. Wakefield continues to fight and promote his theory, with Dominus adding that the more he has sacrificed (he resigned from London’s Royal Free Hospital following his publicized concerns and now lives in Austin, Texas), the more he must believe in his theory, or all efforts will be rendered useless. Ironically, medical experts suggest aggressive studying of the M.M.R. vaccine following Wakefield’s 1998 media splash means the vaccine is one factor than can be ruled out in a disability still shrouded by mystery.

Dominus assures the readers that she isn’t necessarily siding in Wakefield’s camp, but she does give him an opportunity to present his case as other reporters who interview Wakefield quickly write him off as a discredited liar. By not falling into the dramatic trap that can detract storytelling from other outlets, readers of this story see why Wakefield continues his battle for reputation with his supporters waiting in the wings to back him up. We even learn a few personal anecdotes about his life before gaining his notorious status in Great Britain and most of the United States.

In order to obtain the behaviors, characteristics and traits Dominus lists regarding Wakefield, interviewing goes well beyond the simple press conference or brief one-on-one interview. Traveling with the source and immersing in the source’s comfort zone is common, and more relationship skills are needed to ensure you get the story requested in your assignment. In the case of Wakefield, encountering Dominus and her approach may have been more comforting since she offered a value other reporters decided to box away, even though she was no less neutral than shorthand writers covering the Wakefield saga. Ultimately, Dominus reveals the basis of Wakefield’s support comes from parents seeking answers who credit him or his associates for trying a possible solution, even if the strategy is cautioned by others (including casein and gluten-free diets, a media craze for a short time).

Magazine-style writing allows writers like Dominus to include more details and examine many subtopics of a story that traditional news articles can’t provide because of space or time constraints. Her observations may not remove Wakefield’s “villainous figure” in the eyes of the medical community, but just as the Marvel Comics movies emphasize human elements within their villains, Dominus’ story leaves Wakefield less clear-cut than previous mainstream glimpses portrayed him.

The Onion peels a few autism layers

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John Cariani as Michael Falk. Courtesy The Onion

Perusing through some autism links through various Google searches, I came across a video with an autistic reporter from The Onion’s fake news program, Onion News Network. ONN episodes can be watched on the Independent Film Channel or its website. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, its roots began in print and has expanded to other forms of media. All of its reporting is false and mostly a satirical look at the way we report and absorb real-life news. While that premise sounds similar to the fellow news satire program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central juggernaut bases its humor on true stories.

Once you peel the top layer, exploring its inside reveals a fake story released in January where Michael Falk (played by actor John Cariani), the autistic reporter for ONN’s FactZone, is assigned to cover a gathering of crying people (better known as a funeral). The link I provided has an advertisement you must watch before seeing the story.

Falk is insensitive to the feelings of others who are mourning the death of a Washington, D.C. woman, asking her mother how she feels about her daughter’s death despite the imagery and emotional display suggesting a tearful atmosphere (a play on lack of empathy, a common characteristic of autistics). Falk then provides statistics that would be irrelevant in an actual story as The Onion continues its attempt at comic relief. They include the color and number of buttons on the mother’s shirt, followed by rattling off Detroit homicide numbers to a city councilman, even though the story is taking place in Washington. Of course, Falk rarely establishes eye contact in his one-on-one interviews, another symptom associated with autism spectrum disorder.

This was Falk’s first of two appearances so far on IFC’s Onion News Network show. Unfortunately, The Onion has not provided a link to his second story, where he fails to grasp the weight of a man run over by a train trying to save a woman’s purse. A YouTube copy of the video exists, which I linked here, but I can’t guarantee that clip will remain on YouTube. Mainstream press reaction was rather muted, but a few members of the blogosphere officially countered the assumption that autistics are emotionless. Landon Bryce of thAutcast.com accuses The Onion and IFC of bigotry in both video clips, and questions what exactly The Onion is satirizing when Falk returns for his train accident story. His concern is people who watch those stories will assume autistic people don’t place value on human life as other humans do, while fellow autistics who find this story amusing could be buying into the stereotypes.

Falk’s stories ring a parallel to what I mentioned last year in a news aggregate research of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, who many believe is autistic and led to the creators publicly refuting the idea in interviews. Because Falk has a stated condition before he presents his stories, The Onion may have removed the comedic value it was trying to provide by lampooning the social ineptitude we generally think of when we hear about an autistic person. Instead, they left the door open for criticism because they’re mocking a mental disability, rather than peculiar behaviors as Sheldon exhibits on CBS’ hit program. However, since The Onion is completely satirical, that may have shielded them from larger media exposure we would have seen had a more traditional news organization been accused of mocking autistic people.

Mental disabilities have always been easy to poke fun of by comedians and comedic organizations because the symptoms stand out significantly compared to other human characteristics. The same reasoning can be applied for the increased likelihood of bullying against the mentally disabled, and that feeling could be behind the negative reaction to the Michael Falk character from some bloggers. I do have to credit The Onion for its accuracy in depicting the condition, but perhaps more thought was needed on why an autistic reporter character was included for their Onion News Network show. Bryce interpreted the videos as showing autistic people are incompetent of any task outside of what was exhibited in Rain Man, and his concern is valid with the low employment of autistic people in this country.

You could simply rebuff all this by saying “It’s only a joke.” While the stories don’t display actual beliefs on what autism is, they do highlight the slippery slope of sensitivity that will arrive with the continuing saturation of autism in our country. The Onion would likely not satirize autism at all if they didn’t sense there was enough familiarity with the condition, and they may unintentionally provide the first lesson on how autism will be approached from a comedic point of view.

The Wakefield saga continues…with Minnesota in sight

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January 2011 is quickly going down as “Wakefield month” for autism followers. I’ll get to the new bombshell about an investigation turning up evidence suggesting Wakefield’s motives behind his debunked study were ethically compromised on my next post, but a move he made before then didn’t score brownie points with some experts in Minnesota. FOX 9, the Twin Cities’ FOX affiliate, reported Wakefield visiting Minnesota to recruit Somali parents for a research study that he is financing, but not conducting. Wakefield believes a cure could be found within the Somali community, believing a vitamin D deficiency from Minnesota’s dark winters could explain the rapid growth of autism among children of Somali descent. Other medical experts are concerned that Wakefield’s seeking to exploit a population still adapting to a culture they never knew existed before moving from the Horn of Africa. With Somalia in turmoil for the last 20 years, many immigrants call autism an “American disease,” with virtually no discussion of the disability in their native land. You can probably guess why if you know the country’s had no working government since 1991.

While Wakefield will attract attention almost anywhere with the developments since the start of 2011, the Somali angle is far more limited as their community has only recently migrated to the United States. Minnesota has the largest Somali population, much like the haven Hmong immigrants saw when they departed from Laos following the Vietnam War. Just like Hmong immigrants needed time to absorb an environment vastly different than their own, Somali immigrants will also need time to adjust. Complicating the process are elements impossible to anticipate, and for Minnesota’s Somali community, autism happens to represent one of those elements. Having no knowledge of autism before, they parallel parents and activists who are more fiercely engaged as they struggle for answers, making them more susceptible to people with new approaches.

Does that mean Minnesota Somalis are fools? Absolutely not. Despite the geographical difference, many parents will fight to the death for their children, and will not rest as they seek answers for potential issues. As Somalis continue their integration with the United States, they’ll continue adapting, learning and discovering things other citizens take for granted. Those reasons at least theorize why so few articles about autism’s impact in Minnesota’s Somali demographic have been published up to this point. Predicting the frequency or accessibility of the Somali community is virtually impossible since emotional responses cannot be simulated, but this does reinforce the fact that autism can affect anyone.

FOX 9 simply took notice of national news and found a local tie that is still relatively new in regards to press coverage. How Minnesota’s Somali community responds to autism will certainly get the attention of Twin Cities journalists. How journalists report stories about my home state’s newest immigrant bloc is the bigger question.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 13, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Wakefield remains firm about “fraudulent” study

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Photo by Steve Parsons, PA Wire

The discovery of “doctored information” on Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study linking vaccinations to autism has generated a lot of publicity and fuel for news outlets, and little time was wasted in pursuing the major angles involving this week’s development.

Although evidence refuting a link continues to grow, support for Wakefield and his study in question has yet to shrink. An independent survey reported 58.3% of respondents dissatisfied with research investigating a relationship conducted and/or funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which may stem from a general distrust in government, as Congress has had dismal approval ratings for years while conspiracy theories remain abundant). 90% of those surveyed want to see studies comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated people to see if there’s a difference (Frontline addressed this issue with The Vaccine War last year). Wakefield still supports his study, first published in 1998.

Jenny McCarthy’s organization, Generation Rescue, claimed the media was mischaracterizing Wakefield’s work. McCarthy was quoted on The Vaccine War saying she’d rather risk her child getting mumps than autism and is a strong supporter of reducing the number of vaccinations a child receives.

Most who follow and/or studied media will tell you that media’s a popular target when news is reported that contradicts an argument for a sensitive topic. Media’s fluidity and the rapid pace news spreads certainly contribute in the present, but “blaming the media” existed as far back as Senator Joe McCarthy’s “witch hunt” of the 1950s, when he accused Edward R. Murrow of supporting Communists after Murrow published several reports with CBS on McCarthy’s activities.

Jenny, while not related to the late U.S. Senator, isn’t any more immune to blowback than Joe was. The Generation Rescue statement has Twitter users taking a swipe at Jenny for a perceived lack in parenting skills. And we’re only through the first week of 2011. Imagine what the next 51 could bring to this debate.

While the developments are new, the story itself hasn’t changed. In effect, AOL News considered Deer’s research that led to his suggestion of Wakefield’s study being fraudulent represented one side of the argument; that his research is invalid because of “tainted evidence.” While I doubt any reporter would be accused of bias simply for running that story, AOL News deemed interviewing the flip side of the debate, where belief that vaccinations are responsible for causing autism, worthwhile. Deborah Huso’s article effectively illustrates what I explained yesterday about two sides of an argument always attempting to one-up each other, resulting in a never-ending debate. The other factor, of course, remains the lack of a concrete detection method. Until that day comes, the cycle of latching on to a theory that appears to make sense will continue.

The most intriguing element in the vaccine debate’s latest chapter is the response toward Wakefield’s supporters. While a continuously present stream of thoughts exist on Twitter due to its nature, this is the first time I’ve seen social media used in a news story related to Deer’s investigation. While it’s technically impossible to gauge why McCarthy is taking a Twitter assault, consumers are known to grow weary over denials in the face of indisputable evidence or even an association to the contrary. Although it’s illogical to judge parenting skills based on one element of being a parent, that won’t stop opinions from being expressed online, and that in itself could indicate public perception of a controversial topic.

Deer’s discovery and reaction won’t be the last chapter in the vaccine debate. In fact, the recent news has already made a local impact in the Twin Cities area (my “home base”), and I’ll examine how they approached the fraudulent data claim in my next post. Until then, expect the patterns I’ve detailed in this post to persist when a future development is published about the refuted link between autisms and immunizations.