The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

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2011: The year in autism

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As we enter the holiday season, I want to thank all my new readers who discovered the site this year, causing an exponential growth in traffic, even as my posting schedule was more sporadic than 2010.

2011 was a considerable year for television exposure. In April, Holly Robinson Peete hosted a weekly series on CBS daytime program The Talk. Although her contract wasn’t renewed for this season, throwing a cloud of doubt in future features on that show, Peete highlighted a few groups often ignored in mainstream media coverage.

Syfy joined the foray this summer with the drama series Alphas, featuring a group of people with superhuman abilities. One of the main characters is autistic man Gary Bell, portrayed by British actor Ryan Cartwright. Cartwright and the production staff took several steps to ensure accuracy in depicting the condition, and both will get more chances to display the disability as the show was renewed for a 2nd season in 2012.

A lot of articles I discussed this year focused on brain research, including theories on unique brain maps of autistic children and the possibility of heavier brains caused by an overflow of neurons. Of course, such studies need to be flushed more thoroughly before they are accepted as widespread fact, but research will never cease.

You can read more autism notables by clicking here. With my new position as autism bear writer for Examiner, I will be transferring some content to that site, including reviews of television or movies that feature some glimpse of autism, subtle or blatant. I will still dissect articles on this site, but will link them to Examiner for stories with relevant material.

I have at least one more story to analyze before the calendar year is out, but it was a fun year watching my audience grow right before me. May that rise continue in 2012.

Written by TheSportsBrain

December 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

The Onion returns to continue layering autism

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Courtesy of The Onion

Intrigued by why my site received a spike in search traffic, I discovered The Onion brought back a well-known fictional character in the autism community: Michael Falk. Actor John Cariani returns for more lampooning for the fictitious Onion News Network, which airs Tuesday nights on IFC.

In Falk’s latest “story,” he profiles a convicted felon who details the changes in lifestyle from a 40,000 square foot mansion to a tiny prison cell. However, the prisoner is dumbfounded when Falk is spellbound by a strict adherence to routine inmates must live by during their incarceration. The more details the criminal reveals, the more interest Falk has in a living condition with little to no room for ad-lib.

The prisoner attempts to quell such interest to no avail as Falk declares his desire to join his subject in prison, oblivious to the warnings of emotional turmoil experienced by inmates who regret the crimes they commit as he fantasizes about the crates his guest has to stack on a daily basis. Falk even shrugs off embezzlement and fraud as taking too long to land in prison.

(Un)fortunately, a myriad of ways exist to land in prison for a criminal charge. I shall not disclose those methods on the rare chance some crazed psychopath reads this blog post and draws inspiration to commit morally reprehensible behavior (and I have no intent on violating laws today, tomorrow, or yesterday). However, I can offer additional insights as The Onion was clearly not affected by the smattering of blog posts criticizing Cariani’s previous performances as mocking members of the autism spectrum.

I received a recent comment on my first post on the Falk character. While some autistic people take offense to The Onion‘s portrayal, others in the blog world find Michael Falk amusing. Some even suggest Falk’s stories are a tongue-in-cheek parody where others who fail to grasp the condition serve as comic foils. An argument could be made watching all three stories featuring Falk, as all of his interview subjects are either left confused or offended by his blunt approach to communication. Mainstream media previously made such frustrations a focal point in their content, with the premise of Rain Man being Charlie Babbitt’s (Tom Cruise) struggle to adapt and accept the distinctive qualities of his autistic brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Autism Speaks’ controversial Autism Every Day profiled the feelings of hopelessness from parents of autistic children, and even traces of such concerns can be found in the Syfy series Alphas.

Whatever the intent, The Onion is making its audience more aware of the disability by playing off common characteristics found in those diagnosed with autism. If the synopsis or video is not enough clarification, Onion News Network parodied the fixation on routines and repetitive tasks which autistic people often find enjoyable, sometimes at the cost of environmental surroundings (Falk doesn’t understand that going to prison is an event that should be avoided). Since the fake news organization has a mission statement of satirizing the follies of mainstream media and its subjects, interpreting Cariani’s latest performance beyond a comical look at an often-repeated symptom on traditional news outlets is difficult to theorize. For anyone concerned about an autistic person seeing this and taking the video too literally, recent news reports highlight programs and efforts to employ autistic people in favorable conditions, which include repetitive work details.

You don’t have to find this or any other video funny, but it appears Falk will continue to appear as a recurring Onion News Network character. While a precedent has been set for expected emotional reactions to the fake stories, there are learning opportunities in a comedic format enjoyed by many consumers as opposed to the dry, heavy-handed presentations found elsewhere.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Alpha and Omega

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Photo by Justin Stephens, Syfy

Before I analyze my next story, I want to inform you that this blog is a finalist for Twin Cities CBS affiliate WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition in the health/fitness/medical category. Click here to view all the entries in the category. Voters can select their favorite blog in each category once per day. The winner receives a $50 Amazon gift card.

Speaking of value, Jean Winegardner of The Washington Times explores the usefulness of an autistic character on Syfy’s new series, Alphas. The series focuses on people whose neurological anomalies give them special powers while simultaneously dealing deficits and difficulties brought on by their differences. One of the five main characters, Gary Bell, is a high-functioning autistic adult who can read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals.

Actor Ryan Cartwright, who portrays Bell, enjoys the complexity of the character that he believes extends beyond the autism diagnosis. Naturally, Gary makes little eye contact, his speech patterns are stilted and echolalic, he relies on rules learned by rote and carries a strict adherence to routines. All are common traits of autism spectrum disorder. However, the kicker is Gary’s sense of humor, giving him an extra personality to challenge mainstream notions that autistic people are humorless (an idea promoted in the days of Rain Man).

Much detail and care was included in the science portion of the science fiction show. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member of UCLA’s neuroscience program, is a consultant for Alphas who reviewed each script for the show’s inaugural season while offering on advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Cartwright’s research included consulting with people who work with autistic individuals, reading books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet along with blog sites created by autistic people (I wonder if he came across this one :-p) and watching documentaries on the subject. Cartwright credits this research for helping him understand the reasoning behind the attributes and difficulties of autistic people to create and not imitate the physicality of Gary. Cartwright’s biggest goal? Playing the person and not the disorder

With the story part reporting and part editorial, Winegarden expresses approval for the show introducing a complex character with autism as opposed to stereotypical characters that permeated mainstream media in the early days of autism exposure. Bookheimer concurs, as the show seeks to examine themes of neurodiversity as the topic itself becomes more embroiled in public dissemination.

Science fiction itself has always opened doors to addressing ideas and topics among current events that could never be extrapolated by media set in the present because of raw, impulsive emotional responses from segments of the viewing audience. Star Trek and its spin-offs before the 2009 reboot contained many allegories among its episodes and races, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with a 23rd century version of Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union. Alphas may not be as futuristic, but the science fiction elements of neurological conditions leading to superhuman powers does communicate to viewers that disabled people aren’t so simplistic in real life. Several examples of autism in mainstream media used to place autistic individuals as “out there,” separated from the public domain. Recent portrayals, including a young boy with Asperger’s on the second version of NBC’s Parenthood and now Alphas, approach the condition with a mission to deconstruct what the public erected years ago about the condition.

Credit must also be given for Winegardner’s approach to the story. There are few indications of the article presenting itself as a column until the end of the story, when Winegardner analyzes the character of Gary Bell and the effort from Cartwright and the show’s production staff. While I doubt anyone would be critical of a column praising a television show for avoiding stereotypes, columns and editorials can sometimes fall into traps created by the writers (or pundits on television shows), where the writer eschews fact and reasoning for an egotistical nature. Winegardner’s structure is very similar to what a straight-up reporter would write, and prefaces her sense of encouragement with a behind-the-scenes look for a rookie series seeking to establish itself in the Syfy lineup, using both the actor and a consultant whose expertise is the science of the brain as sources for her analysis.

While an opinion is more blatantly expressed, opinion articles sometimes employ the tactics of more neutral stories that make up the front page of newspapers, as such work can carry the same effect in both instances. Thanks to Winegardner’s interviewing, she doesn’t have to rely solely on her own word even in a news environment where someone’s word is sometimes given more credence than traditional reporting. A positive side effect is the illustration of commitment from Alphas to accurate portrayals within its neuroscience surroundings.

As with any art form, television isn’t immune to subjectivity from the viewing audience, critics and advertisers, but even if Alphas joins the long list of “one-and-done” programs, expect future shows that tackle neurodiversity to draw inspiration from the latest work of science fiction.

Insert favorite dance song lyric here

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Diana Gonzalez of NBC Miami offers a profile story of her own, highlighting the Miami Dance Project’s summer camp at New Image Dance Studio. Although studio owner Barbara Delgado has won many trophies and medals in competitions since opening the studio 12 years ago, she says the passion exhibited by autistic students is no less incredible.

Delgado likely understands the passion as she is certified in autism therapy, seeing a need to teach autistic students a creative form of communication. The patterns students learn from dancing correlate with developing other skills away from the floor, with Delgado and a parent of one of her students citing improvement in other facets of communication and development. Although Delgado’s camp ends this Friday, the autism movement therapy program will continue as an after-school program at an elementary school in West Miami-Dade.

The story is short, as most TV news packages are (Gonzalez’s piece was 1 minute, 39 seconds), making the emphasis on maximizing efficiency within a small space. Gonzalez takes care of that by beginning the story with Delgado and what led her to create the summer camp, followed by moving the story’s focus to student participants. While the kids were effortlessly weaved into the story, their transition was possible because of work done ahead of time. Taping the story wouldn’t be possible in the first place without obtaining permission from the dance studio, the parents of the autism therapy movement program, or both. Usually, a written release form must be signed in order to use footage of people under the age of 18, although you’ll never hear of the behind-the-scenes work because those details are considered in extraneous in a thirty-minute news block (or even a 24-hour news block).

Instead, we see a lot of action in shot selection for Gonzalez’s story. The only “static” shots are the images of trophies to illuminate the contrast of winning multiple awards versus using skills to improve the lives of others. Although summarizing six weeks in 100 seconds is impossible, we can gauge from the story that Delgado has her students in a very active dancing routine.

One other element in this story has nothing to do with the dance program itself, nor will this element likely be emphasized in Miami. Factoring the city’s demographics, viewers who may see this story outside of Miami will also see autism’s lack of discrimination with its “targets.” A similar idea was displayed when Holly Robinson Peete promoted autism awareness on her talk show in the month of April. Although Gonzalez’s story is likely not the first to involve autism in the Miami market, the city’s large Hispanic population is no less immune to the condition.

Whether the audience will be armed with knowledge that dancing is an effective therapy for autistic children or of autism’s endless choice of inhabitants, Gonzalez’s story is a classic example of what can happen when you provide a complete feature story in a window of two minutes or less.

Autism service dog leads own experiment

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Wendy Givens brings Madison to school. Photo by Michal Thompson.

FOX affiliate KPTV in Portland recently published a story about an autism service dog who found himself at the center of an experiment. Jordan Givens, a 10-year-old autistic fourth-grader, has started bringing his service dog, a German shepherd named Madison, to Patterson Elementary School in Hillsboro. Although the Hillsboro School District originally disallowed Madison to sit with Jordan in class because they said Jordan was adequately achieving his goals in his individual education plan, they are now allowing Madison in Jordan’s classes to find out if the German shepherd helps Jordan function more effectively in school.

Wendy Givens, Jordan’s mother, already believes Madison is a metaphorical portal. She says Madison is trained in behavior disruption, which means he helps Jordan’s bouts with aggressions and calms his senses. The school’s principal says Jordan’s teacher is considering the dog’s effect on other students, adding that his classmates appear prepared to adapt Madison into their routine. The experiment also has the support of the U.S. Attorney in Oregon.

The story points out the continuing efforts to spread autism awareness throughout all communities. Normally, dogs aren’t allowed on school grounds unless there are mitigating circumstances. Usually, such circumstances involve physical disabilities, which autism is not. Recall that the disorder can be difficult to detect with the naked eye, so even if Jordan’s school district is aware of his condition, there’s a possibility the school district may not see what’s wrong with him, and that may have caused the small ordeal about allowing Madison in school.

Madison has served as the Givens’ service dog for three years, although we aren’t told much about the shepherd’s impact with Jordan. The story’s focus was why the dog wasn’t allowed in school, so it’s not surprising that little information about the bond between Madison and Jordan is divulged. TV news stories have short windows for stories, so unless they’re airing a longer feature, broadcast reporters can’t spend much time on topics related to but not about the primary theme.

Depending on who comes across this story, Madison may not be just the center of a local experiment, but a regional or perhaps national one. Approaching autistic students still leaves school officials and parents scratching their heads because of low data for accommodations outside of special education classes. The development between Madison, Jordan and his classmates could provide some insight on the success of additional resources.

Holly Robinson Peete’s autism “talk”

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Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna, Rodney Peete and Holly Robinson Peete host a roundtable during The Talk's weekly series promoting autism awareness

Holly Robinson Peete calls herself an autism supermommy on her Twitter account, and following this month’s insight on autism on The Talk, a CBS show she co-hosts, her followers may envision her with a cape. Peete hosted autism awareness segments for four weeks on Fridays, bringing the audience up to speed on the disability while sharing the stories of her own endeavors and the journeys of others.

You won’t see Peete’s autistic son, RJ, distract her from her hosting duties on The Talk. Based on the segments aired in the month of April, the only interruptions were joyful expressions as she sought to debunk the stereotype of autistic people casting a societal burden. You can watch all of Peete’s autism awareness segments on YouTube or The Talk’s own website. Her clips aren’t placed in a subcategory, but that won’t stop me from critiquing Peete’s voyage into mystery.

Week 1 was clearly targeted for any “cave dwellers” left who never heard of autism or understood its meaning. Since Holly carries a personal connection, the series began with a two-part package on RJ and the implication his diagnosis had for Holly and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney. The package was designed to carry an emotional weight, supplemented by stock music that would change in tone along with the story. Holly’s celebrity status brought no change in outlook with her son following his 2000 diagnosis, with the pediatrician on hand defining RJ’s autism as a roadblock from expected milestone’s in a child’s lifetime. A chat among the hosts followed, where Holly reveals that putting her son on a wheat and dairy-free diet helped his condition (I’ll touch on this later). She then updates the audience on RJ’s condition, where he recites an award speech, and mentions the HollyRod Foundation started by her and her husband.

Holly brought her friend and Autism Speaks member Peter Bell to provide an oversight on autism, its symptoms and the world of confusion a diagnosis often forces its inhabitants to guide through. Bell then promoted Autism Speaks’ “Light it Blue” campaign (a play off their blue puzzle piece logo, itself a nod to the multi-colored puzzle pieces that represent autism).

Jimmie Smith appears on The Talk with his two children

Week 2 shifted the spotlight from Holly to her husband, and by extension, fathers of autistic children. Often the “forgotten” parents in the conquest to understand the spectrum (magnified by the amount of attention to mothers in the very medium Holly used to promote autism awareness), Holly brought her husband and Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna to the set as visual reminders. Rodney shared his transition from denial to advocacy with RJ and the strain his conversion length had on his marriage. Mantegna, father of a now 23-year-old autistic daughter, guided viewers through his search to find a school in Chicago that could adapt with an autistic first-grader in a social environment that didn’t foster openness on differences. Jimme Smith provided the non-celebrity viewpoint, which wasn’t all that different from his more recognizable peers, except he’s divorced and raising both his kids as a single father. Holly awarded Smith an iPad 2, known for helping autistic people communicate more easily, and a vacation to Disney World in recognition of his effort to raise his kids.

Week 3’s focus was teens who defied the common stereotypes of young autistic people. Holly invited Carly Fleischmann, a non-verbal Canadian who uses a computer and voice recognition software to communicate with vocal linguists. While Fleischmann made a live appearance at the set, her interview was pre-taped and edited for time because she can’t control her symptoms as easily as other spectrum members. Fleischmann notes the lack of control and inability to speak as primary factors for harsh judgments, but that hasn’t deterred her fan base of over 12,000 Twitter followers. Winfred Cooper, a verbal autistic, also appeared on the show for his 67-yard touchdown catch on his high school football team. Winfred’s path to higher education after graduating with honors inspired his father to get his teaching degree while serving as Winfred’s college aid.

Week 4 brought back a familiar face: Jason McElwain, who I ironically noted was fading from public attention five years after his 20-point game as a high school senior won the admiration of the country. His interview was taped in advance and edited rather short (with my TV experience, I can spot clear edits as broadcast shows make room for their commercial time), but there was just enough space for him to tell the audience he coaches at Greece Athena High School and the 17U East Coast Fusion AAU team, which he hopes will parlay to a varsity high school or college coaching position. Peter Bell returns to bookend the series, offering tips on helping autistic people adapt with mainstream society.

Overall, the editors who squeeze The Talk‘s raw footage to 38 minutes per broadcast almost served as documentary producers, fishing for what was considered the best material to air on a show still aiming to stand out in the talk show genre. Granted, virtually any topic could be procured beyond the time allotted, but with autism’s complex structure, there’s a plausible argument on the first chapter of the autism awareness series not maximizing its usefulness inside a short time frame. Even in more in-depth profiles, few glimpses were publicized. Mantegna’s story was brief, where only his story on finding a supportive school for his daughter was aired. Winfred Cooper’s package detailed his achievements up to his interview, but we didn’t hear his own thoughts on college and his ascension plans after higher education. McElwain’s mini-window was the biggest surprise since he was autism’s biggest celebrity a few years ago. With no additional material available, ascertaining sound bites edited out of the original broadcast is impossible outside of the show’s production staff. Perhaps nothing of value was said, or new avenues were left unexplored. Unfortunately, such thoughts will remain only a curiosity.

Viewers who watched all four installments may have noticed an element to autism often overlooked by most mainstream press coverage, and that piece of the puzzle starts with Holly. No one featured on the autism awareness segments dramatized this, but Holly’s African-American heritage within her family should serve a sign to other families and reporters about autism’s lack of discrimination. Beyond Holly and Rodney, two African-American families were featured in her exploration. Virtually every mainstream story I have read or watched profiling families living with autism featured Caucasians. Their struggles aren’t lower in difficulty, but autism can manifest in anyone of any lineage. Autism and race are rarely intertwined in public, and I doubt they will as the mixture would overshadow efforts to promote awareness in both categories, but journalists should note that everyone can suffer from the mystifying disability.

Holly’s bucking of mainstream media also extends to a point I’ve repeatedly underlined: fathers. Yes, the divorce rate among parents with autistic children is high (although I have yet to see a number to validate those claims), but as Holly and Rodney prove, stats aren’t necessarily linear with the unpredictability of human emotion and negotiation. Although Rodney battled to ignore RJ’s autism diagnosis, his transformation morphed his battle strategy to advocating autism awareness. Mantegna illustrated his involvement with his emotional reaction when he found a teacher who would get her class to help and support his autistic daughter, and Smith had nothing but respect for single mothers raising autistic children as his single status created an empathy bond.

Returning to the point of Holly putting RJ on a diet, the New York Times Magazine article I discussed covered the newest craze among autism parents, who claim removing wheat and dairy help alleviate autism symptoms despite no scientific research to support those claims. Her internal strategy influenced the actions she pursued to help RJ, as supportive mothers are more likely to follow instinct no matter how much or little scientific backing there is for a treatment. By no means are they fools, they are simply less apt to strictly follow logic when facing a disability boggling the minds of non-autistic people.

Screen grab of Holly expressing appreciation for audience support of the autistic teens who appeared on The Talk

Holly doesn’t ignore logic though, as she chose to highlight strong minds in the final two weeks of her autism awareness coverage. There will never be a shortage of role models for anyone in anything, but only recently has mainstream coverage on autism followed suit. While McElwain was a big get whose appearance will refresh memory banks, Holly and The Talk imported other success stories beyond usual idols. In that respect, finding new sources to speak on autism may reflect on the work she invests in the HollyRod Foundation. Whether this inspires fellow stations to find new success stories is uncertain, but interviews with Fleischmann and Cooper stress the point a psychologist made in my first documentary on autism that reporters can absorb: anyone afflicted with any disability always has a potential to improve their condition and offer a productive role in societal communication.

Assessing long-term impact from The Talk‘s journey through autism will require time to procure. There’s no telling if we’ll see this feature return next April as that will first depend on CBS’ stance on continuing the show to the 2011-12 season and Holly’s interest in holding her co-host role. What can be said is her contributions for the autism community may benefit reporters assigned to future autism stories, as her segments will either lead reporters to borrow the sources she used or inspire them to reach untouched depths. Either way, Holly could not only champion more knowledge of autism, but fresh ideas for newsrooms.

Adventuring with autistic kids

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The Children’s Museum of La Crosse has found a way to incorporate autistic children, as Eau Claire NBC affiliate WEAU highlights the museum’s new Adventure Packs designed by the museum and The Chileda Institue, a program that assists people with developmental disabilities. While Adventure Packs are available to anyone, families with autistic children receive priority. The backpack includes tools individualized for different exhibits, allowing autistic children to plan their museum visit. Earmuffs are included to combat sound sensitivity. The backpacks are one element Chileda is embracing, as they have plans to train employees on interacting with autistic people. The Children’s Museum of La Crosse has already received a warm response, with other museums requesting similar kits.

Museums with the young in mind can be overwhelming from a sensory perspective. Sounds, colors, images, and even smells can cause sensory inputs to overload. Sometimes, predicting what will cause an overload is no more accurate than a coin flip unless autistic people know what’s coming. The brainstorming of the Children’s Museum of La Crosse and Chileda likely factored autistic children’s preferences for advance notice, as the backpacks offer clues, if not the answers themselves, to what each exhibit projects. I have yet to hear of a similar program with Twin Cities local museums, but since the state borders Wisconsin, seeing the concept exported west is not a stretch to imagine.

The story may not appear as noteworthy compared to others I’ve discussed this week, especially for an accessibility item in a place that generally factors passages for many disabilities. The market size is noticeably smaller than my hometown Twin Cities market, even though the station branches out to Eau Claire residents. With smaller cities and fewer people to cover, notable places with even subtle additional features are more likely to be picked up by local reporters if the resources allow them to pursue such leads. The Adventure Pack story is no less encouraging for the autism community than Holly Robinson Peete’s weekly features on The Talk this month; the target audience just happens to be smaller. Stations in larger markets wouldn’t necessarily ignore such a feature in their coverage area, but the perks of working in larger population zones allow them to be more selective with the stories they report.

However, smaller markets have opportunities for big impacts (an older colleague’s story on SPAM’s 50th anniversary in 1987 was picked up by ABC after originally running on KAAL in the Austin-Albert Lea market). The ability to spread news outside the coverage zone gives reporters in big markets an opportunity to borrow from the little guys. Even if we don’t see a swath of accommodations for autistic visitors of museums and elsewhere, the citizens of La Crosse will know that even autistic minds can grow without hindrance inside their own children’s museum.