The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘autistic’ Category

Sheldon Cooper’s got company

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Before you ask, no one on The Big Bang Theory has said Sheldon Cooper is officially on the autism spectrum. So what other connection could possibly exist? Hardcore fans may recall Sheldon enrolled in college at the age of 11. While the subject profiled in a TV story for MyFOX Atlanta (the local FOX affiliate) has aged another year before doing the same, the future North Georgia College and State University autistic student is no less an intellectual prodigy. George Franco, the reporter assigned to the story, highlights Alex Beach’s fluency in Japanese and Latin, his music composition and his chess skills. For a student who went blind in one eye due to a young childhood disease, calling him a visionary might be an understatement. His mother said Alex could have started college at age 10, but she and her husband decided to hold him until this June to develop Alex’s social skills.

The 12-year-old also takes martial arts training, with his mother serving as his instructor. His mother says the physical and social contact of the sport assist Alex with his autism spectrum disorder, and she will commute with him daily when his college classes start. Alex will be on his own, but the school will be ready to provide assistance. Alex’s mother also told Franco that not allowing his intellect to grow could have adverse side effects, even if he doesn’t act his age socially.

Alex’s intellectual abilities may ring parallels to Sheldon Cooper or Raymond Babbitt’s skills exhibited in Rain Man, but such skills are statistically rare in autistic people. Estimates suggest only 10 percent of the autism population possess above-average IQ in a particular subject, and a documentary produced 10 years ago on Discovery Channel reported that savant skills can deteriorate with the growth of knowledge of other subjects processed in the brain (nothing recent has refuted that theory). This area of autism isn’t linear either; many success stories of autistic people aren’t necessarily due to outperforming most peers in a certain subject, but folks like Alex reinforce the sometimes buried benefits an autism diagnosis grants its inhabitants.

As I’ve mentioned before with TV news, time constraints and the characteristics of the medium don’t often allow in-depth stories. Franco features only Alex and his mother for the story, yet his limits don’t restrict him from spilling out why Alex could most likely kick our butts on Jeopardy!. While unexplored plot points do exist, including where and how Alex caught up with his social skills to assist his adaptation to college (a stage in life some 18-year-olds aren’t always ready for), television is about showing the meat of the story hard and fast. If additional time remains to explain secondary plots, then television journalists will make the exploration. Otherwise, the focus is efficiently informing the audience why they should care about who gets TV time. However, Franco indirectly highlights the positive role of involving autistic children in activities with his fact about Alex’s martial arts training.

There’s a good chance Alex will receive more TV time in the future, as his bright mind will only expand in college. His story is growing riper for a medium increasingly eager to find more “pedestals” in the community, and this journalist can theorize Alex Beach will eventually be categorized in a long list of autistic people who could school us on material we thought was mastered. The key for future stories is displaying those talents while balancing the human element that exists, even inside the autism community.

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Call him many things, except the R-word

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Photo by Bev Horne, Chicago Daily Herald

The R-word, standing for retarded, has recently joined campaigns to end other incorrect uses of words demeaning to certain groups. In the same vain as using “gay” to describe something unfair, “retarded” has gone through a desensitizing process in 21st century culture (did we all forget about “suck?”).

Kristy Kennedy of the Chicago Daily Herald profiled one autistic senior determined to bring us back to the days of “sucks” and “stinks.” Jordan Schubert, who will be graduating from Neuqua Valley High School soon, points his breakthrough moment to 6th grade, when he and his sixth-grade basketball won a Special Olympics gold medal. Schubert’s public speaking skills, not a common trait among autistic people, grant him speaking opportunities with groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the “R-word.” For good measure, Schubert and his Special Olympics co-host from a youth summit last summer created a soccer league that teams up disabled and non-disabled students.

Schubert himself isn’t surprised the word “retarded” is in contemporary vocabulary; his peers in middle school used the word to describe anyone or anything stupid. So he decided to speak to younger kids before they start using “retarded.” Schubert’s also changing perceptions of the autism spectrum with his on-camera poise; he produces stand up reports for the high school sports program and submits stories for the Neuqua Valley’s weekly news program. Fluent in Spanish and college-bound, his dream is becoming a foreign language teacher for students with special needs.

Quite a track record for a sports enthusiast. Schubert’s interests and ability to integrate with the mainstream may, ironically, explain why he’ll hear “retarded” being used among his peers. He’s quick to point out the negative connotation behind the word, and his campaign has won support from fellow students. The big issue with demeaning words that are incorrectly used in sentences is simply a numbers problem. Although there are no exact figures for the GLBT or disabled population, by percentage, their representation is small. With low odds of constant communication with either of these groups, using “gay” or “retarded” usually carries the same repercussion experienced when YouTube users post hateful comments on videos: little or none. Schubert’s peers understand what’s going on because they interact with him on a daily basis, likely allowing them to relate on the feelings he and other disabled people experience when the word “retarded” is uttered. Without that exposure, incentive to educate the self drops, increasing the likelihood of grammatically incorrect sentences.

Kennedy quotes many sources to tell the story of one, a technique not often seen in profiles of autistic people (and sometimes other people), but had she not sought insight from his peers, coaches and instructors, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have learned all of Schubert’s pursuits. She seeks to balance the leadership skills Schubert beams to his equals with his personal interests to remind the audience he’s still a teen. For an added touch, Kennedy ties in Schubert’s quest with legislative action in Illinois, where the state Senate passed a bill that would replace “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state statutes. Although such a story will have autism communities beaming themselves, Kennedy’s story communicates that Schubert isn’t all that different, even if he carries a more specific label.

His developmental key is also no different than most others who find professional success: they discover their passions early. Schubert’s was sports, playing baseball, basketball and football. You’ll also find him cheering on NASCAR, the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Bears. As long as there’s a supportive environment, kids will latch on and build off their interests. For parents of autistic children, their strategy should be no different.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schubert become a vocalist for the disabled community with the contributions he’s already provided. Journalists can take note of this story as well, as Kennedy points out autism, as with other disabilities, doesn’t necessarily define character or ability.

ESPN, the worldwide leader in autism?

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50 Tyson photo courtesy of Hudson Records

If you’ve never heard of ESPN before, congratulations on escaping your cave. The network that launched SportsCenter and grew from its small Bristol, Conn. roots in 1979 to a cultural phenomenon can now claim they covered the first publicly-known autistic rapper: Minnesota native 50 Tyson.

You might say “What does 50 Tyson have to do with sports?” Although 50 Tyson, whose real name is Antonio Henderson-Davis, did play high school football for Minneapolis Edison High School, ESPN usually sticks with professional and NCAA Division I sports. That’s where Antonio’s record label comes in; his owner is former NBA player Troy Hudson, whose most productive years were with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Freelancer Kalani Simpson contributed a profile for ESPN’s page 2, a site for sports figures in the news but not necessarily for athletics. Because the article is geared toward a national audience, Simpson gives us a quick glance at how 50 Tyson landed a record deal, an accomplishment not all musicians get early in their lifetime (Antonio turned 18 recently). Hudson watched YouTube videos posted by Henderson-Davis when the rapper sneaked his sister’s camera and spit off a few freestyle rhymes in his bathroom. Now, Henderson-Davis has released his first album to coincide with Autism Awareness Month, aptly titled “50 Tyson Presents the Rhythm of Autism Vol. 1.” Simpson, who writes a weekly column for FoxSports.com, would have posted this story sooner, but his interview with Hudson and Henderson-Davis was delayed as both sought out a tuxedo for Henderson-Davis’ school prom.

Although concern lingers with how an autistic music artist will handle show business, Hudson believes the biggest name on his label will change the world, with Hudson still learning about what he calls his most important project he’s ever done. 50 Tyson has no trouble embracing his autistic roots; he headlined a concert during the Autism Society of Minnesota’s annual fundraising event.

In terms of young autistic celebrities, 50 Tyson has the most staying power. Jason McElwain flooded the airwaves five years ago with his famous 20-point performance in his first and only high school basketball game, but attention has faded. The owner and writer of this blog has morphed into an adult but is still looking for a big break in a profession with less glamor than music, although no less fulfilling. Meanwhile, 50 Tyson has grown to be a darling of the locals for the same reason McElwain and this writer developed followings of our own, regardless of the magnitude, we found a talent of some sort and that trait has captured the hearts of a public still investigating autism itself. 50 Tyson’s mainstream exposure has permeated for some time now, gaining fans who are notable names themselves and last fall’s Star Tribune profile piece that introduced the Twin Cities rapping sensation to his hometown media market. Even one of my friends paid a visit to get a photo with him following a recent Timberwolves game we attended. We have yet to hear of any fallout with 50 Tyson and his label, or with anyone else, which is a positive sign in the fast-paced business of music.

As I mentioned in my first discussion of 50 Tyson’s mainstream coverage, the community still holds genuine curiosity about his activity because he’s in a position no known autistic person has assumed before. It’s an interest that may not fade for years as 50 Tyson grows in age, wisdom, ability and possibly name recognition. Even though ESPN placed Simpson’s story on Page 2, the network owned by Disney isn’t shy to promote stories of this nature when there’s a sports tie-in, as Troy Hudson has with his NBA career.

Speaking of the story, Simpson’s may sound redundant if you’ve followed 50 Tyson to this point, but when you’re writing for a national audience about a personality who isn’t too famous outside of Minnesota, you have to consider the number of first-time readers when writing the story. Simpson also had to factor an audience whose source of news doesn’t explore autism as deeply as general news outlets. Considering those elements, Simpson was effective at briefly explaining Antonio’s differences compared to his peers because he also included a storyline to keep Antonio human. For parents who worry about their children ever going to a prom, seeing a rapper getting ready for one is a welcome line of reading.

With Antonio approaching high school graduation, watching his career evolution will reveal more to an inquiring public on how autism can adapt to the entertainment industry. You can follow 50 Tyson’s career path as well by visiting his website