The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘documentary’ Category

PBS vaccinates public with information

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PBS always find itself in the middle of controversies. Not of their own doing of course, but thanks to their flagship documentary program, Frontline, they often explore contemporary issues that aren’t ethically compromised since they’re not run by a for-profit conglomerate compared to most networks.

A few weeks ago, the network that coined “Viewers Like You” broadcast a Frontline episode titled “The Vaccine War.” Autism followers are already aware of the emotionally charged debate that started when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his now discredited study that proposed a link between MMR vaccines and autism. But even autistics must share. While the autism debate gets about half of the allotted time for the show, PBS also examined the broader issue of alternative medicine. The core controversy Frontline discovered surrounding the vaccine debate mirror other forms of contemporary politics: A parent’s right to decide what’s best for his or her child versus doing what’s best for the community. Medical experts featured on the show explained that an irony may have sparked the debate: Vaccines were so effective at ridding the country of serious diseases (pertussis, chicken pox, polio) that younger parents and adults haven’t seen or heard about these diseases for years (If anyone’s doubting chicken pox, I still have scars from my infection as a kid). Much like the core issue of autism, when people don’t get firsthand exposure or information, the atmosphere is ripe for doubt or skepticism about the existence of such diseases. The result? A potential for a return of diseases once believed to be eradicated from the United States, such as a measles outbreak in San Diego that was quelled before it swelled.

When Frontline examined autism’s role in the vaccine controversy, they reported information that I already knew either through articles or previous blog posts here. For the sake of the community, they had to. The documentary did provide more detailed reports on the major studies that refuted a vaccine-autism link and looked into why the anti-vaccine movement is gaining steam. The conclusion? New media, which includes the very site I’m using to analyze the program, has created a vast amount of hype and misinformation that counters the dry, factual presentation of professional sites all too well. Personal anecdotes presented at rallies are often more emotionally charged, and are more likely to connect with the public than facts are. Jenny McCarthy is featured in this program, mixed with clips of a speech she gave at a rally protesting the high amount of vaccines given to children at a young age. The problem is compounded when you factor general polls that continue to highlight the public’s lack of trust with government and the increasing fragmentation of media that allows people to align themselves with outlets that match their own beliefs.

You know an issue is serious when the controversy is given the Frontline treatment. Although PBS doesn’t show up on the Nielsen ratings with the other networks, Frontline remains a solid barometer of what is affecting us in the present. Ironically, the new media that fragments our population also gives PBS a way to include extended interviews and reports on the topics discussed during an episode. The show may not be influential enough to completely shift current debates about autism regarding vaccines, but it presents us with an explanation of why the current environment exists. Sometimes understanding why is all that’s needed to move forward.

This marks the first time that Frontline has explored any facet of autism, and “The Vaccine War” could easily be a springboard that takes a closer look at the disability should PBS and WGBH decide to pursue it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the primary segments of the audience who should watch this program actually will. PBS doesn’t take sides, but anti-vaccine groups may believe the documentary throws a few punches at their opinions while touting the importance of stopping preventable diseases. The pro-vaccine side also stands to benefit since web pages aren’t enough anymore to provide information. Facts are nice, but if they’re not presented in an engaging form, web surfers will find another place to navigate. Frontline usually mixes factual and personal stories well, and the vaccine episode may provide a base for future researchers, reporters and documentary makers to find the next phase of autism and other issues where immunizations are involved.

Mixed race and autism go hand in hand again

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Happy Independence Day for all you American readers out there!mcclogo A

I began the holiday weekend by going on the mic. The Mixed Chicks Chat podcast had an opening yesterday and I had approached them about appearing to talk about my mixed race documentary that was released in February. We set up the chat earlier in the week and the show went without a hitch.

Fortunately, I also went without a major hitch. I never ask anyone to submit their questions to me ahead of time because it runs the risk of coming off as fake or rehearsed, but my hunch about what I would get asked was right. Most of the episode focused on my documentary, including what got me interested in the subject and why I feel so strongly about sharing the stories of the mixed race community. This was the first show where I really didn’t pay much attention to the chat window, in part because I would have been distracted trying to talk and read what others were saying simultaneously (which probably cut the chat conversation in half; I’m one of their chattier listeners).

The other subject I expected to talk about came somewhat unexpectedly. I had mentioned my exploits with autism before on the show, but didn’t know how much the hosts really got into it. About midway through the show, they hinted me on what they wanted to get out of me, which meant I shared my autism diagnosis with listeners. We didn’t talk about it for too long, but as I’ve discussed before, autism is one reason why I feel a connection with other aspects of social justice. Even though I’m not mixed and didn’t understand multiracial identity well until college, both of our communities share the struggle of feeling exploited at times because we have a characteristic that easily separates us from others. I can’t speak for them, but after attending a social justice retreat a couple years ago, I found myself exploring social justic topics more often to hopefully get past surface questions. Whether it’s “What Are You?” for multiracial people or “What do you think?” for autistics, you can only get so far by asking the obvious questions. It helps to have hosts know exactly what you’re going through.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I developed a good repertoire with the hosts and listeners. Some people love to hate journalists like me because we occasionally do things to make others uncomfortable (otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs), but they liked that I tackled the topic of mixed race and autism before that without any personal agenda attached. It’s hard to learn much if you don’t let your subjects tell the story. I think my interview also gave the hosts and listeners who I’ve connected with a chance to learn about me. I’d definitely go on again if I get the chance.

If you haven’t listened to Mixed Chicks Chat before, I’d recommend doing so. Fanshen and Heidi are fluid hosts who love what they do for social justice and aren’t afraid to listen to anyone who’s willing to listen back. I can’t guarantee they’ll make you look good if that’s your cup of tea, but if you want to learn something, listen to their podcasts.

You can listen to my interview in full here and learn more about Mixed Chicks Chat here.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 4, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Mixed race with a dash of autism

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I unfortunately cannot attend because I’ll be working heavily this weekend, but a condensed version of my multiracial documentary will be screened at the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival on Friday in downtown Los Angeles. You can check out the festivities at or sign up and head there yourself if you’re in the area.

The focus will obviously be on the mixed race population, but depending on the turnout, I hope people are interested enough where they’ll watch the full-length version and maybe even watch my autism stories. Interestingly enough, one family of an autistic child I interviewed during the series has a multiracial background. Their kids are a little young to share their story for now, but perhaps fate set me up to mix the two communities together.

It will be hard to know how my documentary is received, but I hope people learn a thing or two about mixed race in Minnesota. I may live in flyover country, but we’re not immune to social issues often relegated to the big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Written by TheSportsBrain

June 10, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Posted in documentary, mixed race

Interviewed again…WHAT?!?

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I waautism-ribbon-copys on the mic again, except this time I’ll have a little more control over how my story is told. Like last week, I spoke for about an hour, much longer than I thought. However, it will help fill up my half-hour of time as I don’t plan on making any more appearances for a while. I haven’t looked at the tape yet, but I’m curious to find out how I’ve changed with presentation and articulation since the last time I was on camera speaking about autism.

I’ve learned a lot since I began the series two years ago. The first is that I could do this forever if I wanted; new sources and angles appear frequently for the reporting :-). I’ve learned a lot about autism itself too. The most noticeable observation I’ve made is a sense of optimism among parents. Granted, two pairs I interviewed may have been influenced by watching my earlier shows, but there isn’t this aura of doom that often accompanies families affected by autism (which may play a role in higher divorce rates with parents affectd by autism in their immediate family). On the research side, I was fascinated with alternative communication methods designed to help autistic children communicate such as signs and symbols. I remember being fascinated with them as a child and I still am to an extent as I have an astute memory for logos of sports teams, some colleges and other brand names.

Seeing autism exist in different forms outside of my own was an eye-opening experience. People with autism can do things like the rest of the world can, and while they may not publicly announce how successful they are, in some ways, I feel that isn’t necessary. To be regarded as just another group like people of color and the GLBT community, sometimes the best thing we can do is just be ourselves. If others aren’t willing to accept that, it’s their loss, not yours.

The series won’t be over, but I feel taking a different direction will educate myself and others about different facets of the autism spectrum. After all, I’m not alone.

Written by TheSportsBrain

February 23, 2009 at 12:18 am

Posted in autism, documentary

My turn to be interviewed

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I was interviewed by a member of the U of M’s Disabled Student Cultural Center last week. He happens to have bipolar disorder and I notice his communication skills are different from mine. I’m pretty lax about some little things, so I haven’t said anything yet. If I do get bothered, then I’ll provide suggestions.

Our interview lasted for nearly an hour as we went back and forth sharing stories; his about bipolar disorder and OCD and mine about living with autism spectrum disorder. I was amazed with some of his questions because he didn’t bring a note pad or any form of guideline with him. The only downside is he’ll have to scrub through the entire file (he used a voice recorder). He appears to be more concerned than I am about how the story will turn out. I told him not to worry. Since I don’t get interviewed too often by others (except for my documentaries), I’m curious to see how my story will be told.

I’m actually surprised that I’ve made a documentary series for two years, got an award, yet still manage to go unnoticed with the public. I’m not too egocentric; it took me 57 seconds to notice a camera operator was on me while I called a game, but it’s a fun characteristic of YouTube. People around the world can watch you online, but you can blend in with the public in the outside world. I did get featured on NBC Twin Cities affiliate KARE 11 once, but that’s it in terms of media exposure. Even then, no one stopped me to say I was on TV. In fact, the only time I get stopped at all is if I’m wearing T-shirts from the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. The lesson here is no matter how famous you are, life continues to go its way.

I’m being interviewed one more time for the fifth part of my autism series, designed to be a self-reflection episode. I haven’t scouted the other interviews since I taped them last year, but it will be one of my last full screen holdovers. Switching to widescreen after YouTube did the same isn’t very difficult. Look for part 5 to come out sometime in spring.

Written by TheSportsBrain

February 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Posted in autism, documentary

An impromptu presentation

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The luncheon event hosted by the DSCC turned out well. For having no idea or guidelines on how the event would work, I’m surprised that I pulled off an impromptu 15-minute speech on my experiences with autism and what my documentary series has done to help others. The DSCC then played my first autism show and it was the first time in a long time where I got anxious over watching myself.

I aired the first documentary two years ago, so it’s a little odd to see myself in the present and absorb what’s happened since then. I never heard from the teacher I interviewed in the documentary and I hardly speak to my friend who was featured; she’s now attending college at Tulane. Even though the “cliques” from high school die off in college, I could still call myself a “floater” or a Lego brick; I can attach or detach myself from any set at any time and not think much of it. It’s the nature of friendships.

About 20 people showed up and more checked out the program as it played. According to the organizers, they said my appearance had the largest turnout for a lunch and learn event. I’m not sure what the future will hold, but if I could draw that many people on a Friday afternoon, I wonder what kinds of people I’ll attract down the line. I even managed to set up additional interviews; one with the DSCC and one to complete the fifth episode in my autism series. I wish I knew how far the documentaries will go, but I enjoy giving people information that proves beneficial to them.

The autistic community is a niche audience, although that could grow soon. Whatever happens, I’m happy to offer assistance.

Written by TheSportsBrain

February 9, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Posted in autism, documentary