The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘sensory input’ Category

Broadway experiment? Hakuna Matata

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Returning to our dear friends at the Associated Press, their articles aren’t always found syndicated on other news sites. Take this story from AP drama writer Mark Kennedy, who reported on Broadway participating in an experiment, with children on the autism spectrum as test subjects. Specifically, the Theatre Development Fund announced it will present an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, a highly successful Broadway adaptation of the 1994 Disney film of the same name. Organizers are gauging if this move should be replicated elsewhere.

To accommodate the increased sensitivity of the audience who will watch the October 2nd show at Minskoff Theatre, experts identified scenes where lights or sounds needed to be toned down, although no decrease was higher than 30 percent of levels in regular performances. Seven changes were made in all, and three quiet areas with beanbags and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, will be available to children whose sensory inputs are overwhelmed. A 16-page downloadable guide at the fund’s website informs children what to expect and options anticipating potential moments of sensory overload. An autism advocate and author is quoted saying even if this experiment fails, either this group or another organization can apply the effects of this event to make adjustments for a future autism outreach event.

Last year, I discussed two articles on movie theaters offering autism-friendly screenings, so to hear of Broadway taking part in the outreach effort is little surprise to me. The only serious question for autism-friendly events is a matter of when they will happen, versus 10 years ago where the question centered around if. I’m not sure we’ll see “autism-friendly” sporting events (which may have kept my head from ringing covering a Minnesota Lynx game in Chicago, where Allstate Arena’s acoustics amplify sound far greater than Target Center) given the size of sports stadiums, even with a rapid increase of autistics in the population. However, the Theatre Development Fund’s experiment does reinforce the course change regarding autistic people as experts and caregivers alike search for ways to integrate a population segment that prefers to isolate themselves. Personally, I can’t recall any moments where I fell victim to sensory overload at movie theaters or theatrical production. I even braved the stage myself in high school when I donned the character of Ali Hakim for the musical Oklahoma! However, I am only one man and an oddity myself among the autism community, rendering my ability to represent the group useless in this capacity.

For those wondering why I haven’t dissected the article, the reason is the format of Associated Press stories. When your organization is behind the stylebook bought and used by aspiring college journalists and professionals seeking to maintain high standards, there isn’t much to discuss with Kennedy’s format of the story, although Kennedy shows some playfulness with the lead given Broadway’s venture in unproven territory. He uses a variety of sources related to the show and autism spectrum, speaking with a member of the Theatre Development Fund, the author I previously referenced, and an Autism Speaks representative. Exploring the changes to the specifically tailored performance was expected in this story, but readers also discover the speed of dissemination as most seats for the matinee performance have been snatched up.

If any of you fear about entertainment options for autistic people, whether or not this show succeeds, you may find yourself saying “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase meaning “There are no worries.” Oh, it’s also a song title from a popular Disney movie.

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Autism on the brain

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In a study published in the journal Nature and subsequently reported by Robert Langreth of Bloomberg News, Stanford University researchers found that stimulating brain cells with light in mice caused autism-like symptoms.

Scientists implanted light-sensitive proteins into parts of the brain linked with social behavior, then activated them with blue lasers that were routed using fiber-optic cables. The mice subsequently didn’t socialize with other animals. When using a laser to activate cells inhibiting brain activity, the social behavior was partly restored.

The findings provide evidence to the theory that autism and other brain disorders may be caused by brain circuits oversensitive to stimulation, as the balance between neurons that spur signaling when excited and calming down activity when excited may be disrupted. The vice president of translational research at Autism Speaks predicted the laser method in this study could be revolutionary in detecting brain disorders on a molecular basis, but possible therapies based on lasers are far off for now.

Langreth’s word choice could spark an uproar among the autism community, as he refers to autism as a disease in the opening paragraph. Many involved in the autism community can be testy when others equate autism to a disease, a mindset that forms the foundation of criticism for groups like Autism Speaks (and subsequently explain the optimism expressed by the Autism Speaks member quoted in the story). The reason for such animosity is the belief that linking autism as a disease suggests the condition can and should be cured, when several on the spectrum have no qualms sharing their quirk.  For the rest of the story, Langreth uses the word disorders to term autism and other mental conditions believed to be associated with the brain. That doesn’t mean he instantly recognized how word selection could generate controversy, but he believed the two were synonymous for the story. Reporters will often employ synonyms when their articles primarily emphasize one subject, as too much repetition can lose the attention of readers or suggest that a journalist’s vocabulary isn’t strong.

The study itself provides another avenue of exploration to find the cause of autism, with researchers suggesting the findings could lead to development of drugs or devices that calm or shield parts of the brain. Despite the similarities of brain configuration in animals, humans do have larger, more complex brains than mice do, and testing the study on humans is no less than necessary to validate the findings discovered by testing mice. While no repercussions were listed, the potential for side effects exists as the study explored the impact of altering brain activity. Don’t worry, this isn’t a secret plot to control life forms for world domination, but it’s more reasonable to believe this study is only a start far from its endpoint.

Because more work is needed to examine this theory, there were few sources quoted for the article, as Langreth interviewed a senior author by telephone and the Autism Speaks representative. Most stories on studies will either conduct an interview or transplant a press release by a head researcher, as other participants would likely give similar responses, creating redundancy in the story. Although no outcry exists over the study or word choice in the story, journalists may need to exercise caution with approaching autism, or even give a story on concerns over imagery associated with autism. The population is a fraction of the United States total, but the community is certainly keeping watch.

They call them “the wanderers”

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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.

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.