The Autistic Journalist

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Archive for the ‘CBS’ Category

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.

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Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

After review, the ruling on the field is…

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I did a little research after blogging about Monday night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory about Sheldon Cooper and his connections with autism spectrum disorder. This should make things more clear, but as we’ve seen several times this season, there’s always room for overlap.

Last summer, creator Bill Prady went on the record saying Sheldon doesn’t have Asperger’s in the face of unscientific polls suggesting the contrary. Prady told TV Squad’s Allison Waldman that he never had Asperger Syndrome or any form of autism in mind when writing for Sheldon, writing the character as the character.

The A.V. Club discovered in an interview with Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, that Parsons himself asked the writers if he had Asperger’s. Parsons hasn’t approached them on the topic since, but he read Look Me in the Eye by John Robison after Big Bang co-star Johnny Galecki recommended the book, noting the comparisons to Sheldon. Parsons notes the intellectual nature of Sheldon’s character makes it easier for viewers to leap into the autism realm; he often wonders what elements of the autism spectrum are included in scripts despite the character not being on the spectrum.

Waldman’s analysis mirrors my conclusion on why the writers refuse to make the leap, but she presents the argument in vocabulary that would not rival Spock (I consider him to bear the closest resemblance to me of any fictional character, read my Star Trek post to find out why): If Sheldon did have a diagnosis, his friends could no longer mock him and would be constrained by the nature of the spectrum (implying an ironically interpersonal quality for a condition known to create introverts).

There is a precedent: an episode of House featured an autistic child and suggests a possibility that Gregory House’s personality is a result of Asperger Syndrome, a hypothesis that was later refuted by his colleague, Wilson, as an excuse for his behaviors.

After reading these articles, fans will have to carry on with Sheldon not having an official diagnosis in the same way multiracial people carry on with their lives even with the current President not officially recognizing his multiracial status. Given my examinations this week, perhaps we’re looking for a label to please ourselves than the actual parties involved. Sheldon is quite hilarious on his own as fans wait to see what nerdy exploits he pursues, what ways he’ll insult Penny, and how he’ll annoy his friends to no end. What more could be requested for a show that bases its comedy on intellectualism, a rarity among the prime-time lineup?

I’m sure I’ll find another show this season and in years to come that highlights Sheldon’s “trips” to the autism spectrum while not staying there permanently.

Bazinga!

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Sheldon, right, taunts Leonard as Leonard attempts to remove Sheldon from a ball pit

This blog marks the first time I’ve analyzed CBS’ hit show The Big Bang Theory this season. After watching this week’s episode, “The Einstein Approximation,” I saw several examples of the writers avoiding any attempt to link Sheldon Cooper with the autism spectrum, but certainly toying with those traits whether they intend to or not.

My most popular blog last year was an overall critique of Sheldon, portrayed by Jim Parsons, and how he and the production staff of Big Bang handled inquiries regarding Sheldon’s mental state. The creators summarized his behaviors as “Sheldony,” but even without an official label, I’ve often cited the show as a great illustrator for autism and how others respond to the bohemian characteristics of Sheldon.

In Monday’s episode, Sheldon attempts to solve a physics problem and devotes all his effort to solving the problem, using anything nearby as a prop. Unfortunately, his quest for knowledge usually comes at the expense of his friends. One scene combines two trends of autistic people and employs them for comedic effect. The first represents an obliviousness to the surrounding environment because Sheldon is focused solely on his mission. Since Sheldon can’t sleep while he’s solving a problem, he leaves his apartment in the middle of the night and enters a ball pit inside a kids play area (rigging a tumbler and alarm system to get inside). A security guard then calls Leonard, and Leonard arrives to bring Sheldon home.

Before Leonard meets Sheldon, the security guard tells Leonard that he once worked a party with a “special” kid, special a clear reference to a mentally disabled child. Leonard replies that Sheldon is “extra special.” Again, the writers don’t consider Sheldon an autistic, but Leonard’s reply reinforces the audience that Sheldon’s thought process is vastly different from his academic and social peers and could be easily interpreted that Sheldon, at the very least, definitely has traits that match with autism spectrum disorder.

Of course, Sheldon refuses to leave because he’s still working on his problem, using balls to represent the parts of a carbon atom. The stubborn behavior reflects the intense focus autistic people put into their projects, refusing to let anything distract them, which often leads to ignoring other people’s requests. Leonard threatens to forcibly remove Sheldon and enters the ball pit to do so (pictured), but Sheldon’s superior knowledge of the structure allows him to outfox Leonard, appearing every few seconds to taunt him with “Bazinga!”

While fans familiar with autism still relate Sheldon’s behavior to that of an autistic friend or relative, I haven’t read any articles or noticed a recurring pattern on the show that suggests a direct link in the Big Bang timeline. Seeing almost every episode since season 2, I’m convinced that making Sheldon an official autistic would remove most of his comedic value. We understand much more than we did when Rain Man was released, but after seeing the domino effect that occurred after Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between vaccines and autism, the precedent exists to suggest that fans, TV critics, and casual mainstream viewers could blindly assume that anyone with autism would interact the same way as Sheldon. That assumption would certainly complicate the education process and perhaps kill the momentum The Big Bang Theory is riding.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy the comedic follies of contemporary television’s favorite nerds while I watch for more “hidden” signs of autism that find their way into the show’s script.

A little “Sheldony?”

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Leonard, left, and Sheldon discuss a matter on CBS' hit The Big Bang Theory

Leonard, left, and Sheldon discuss a matter on CBS' hit The Big Bang Theory

I mentioned in my last post that my co-worker told me I was exactly like Sheldon Cooper from the CBS show The Big Bang Theory, and an argument can be made. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion going on about the character played by Jim Parsons and if he is indeed on the spectrum. One of the creators considers it coincidental and Parsons himself said his character isn’t on the spectrum as far as he knows, but Sheldon may display more facets of the disorder in future seasons (the show was picked up for two more seasons on CBS and will now follow its sister show, Two and a Half Men).

I talked about this revelation in an interview I did for the next installment of my autism documentary series. My neighbor and I discussed the potential for a flagship character autistic people can identify with on primetime television. While Sheldon’s behavior continues to show signs of Asperger Syndrome (his intelligence is high, but his social skills are non-existent), creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady ultimately may not make the distinction official in the show’s canon. Although the show doesn’t make baffoons out of the nerdy nature of Sheldon and his highly intellectual friends, my neighbor and I thought there’s a chance that if the writers did decide he was on the spectrum, some members of the autism community could interpret such a development as making fun of autistic people. As the show enters its third season in the fall, I think more people will get a glimpse of what an autistic person might process in his or her mind.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the creative team does explore the autistic realm with Sheldon as more people question the creators and Parsons about Sheldon’s presumably autistic behavior. As the fanbase and ratings continue to increase, I haven’t seen any backlash from viewers about the behavioral patterns of any character. Anecdotally speaking, fans I’ve talked to say Sheldon helps make the show what it is, suggesting that people aren’t taking this as mocking autistic people. Spock and Data may get some competition as icons of the autism spectrum before long.

Written by TheSportsBrain

June 1, 2009 at 10:53 am