The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Autism safety not “in the bag”

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To those who celebrated, I hope your Christmas was a blessed one. I also wish the same for a nine-year-old autistic boy at the center of a Louisville, Kent. school controversy when word got out that staff members at Mercer County Intermediate School stuffed Christopher Baker inside a duffel bag for allegedly acting out on Dec. 14. Chris is enrolled in a special needs program there.

The Kentucky Department of Education has no laws regarding restraint or seclusion, although an autistic Georgetown University student started a petition calling to fire the school employees responsible. The online petition had over 700 signatures at the publication date.

Thankfully, I can say I was never placed in a duffel bag when I was in school, or I’d probably be at the center of a lawsuit. However, controversies over how the education system handles autistic children still appear in mainstream news cycles periodically. With no uniform system in place for training on autistic students, coupled with varying levels of intervention behaviors chosen by education specialists, such actions are theoretically possible if educators are unprepared.

The biggest difficulty with the lack of a streamlined system are public school employees who do not understand the symptoms of autism. This does not suggest that all of them will choose actions that compromise the safety of students, but if their patience is low, they will be more likely to exhibit an impulsive emotional response.

Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press published the story, which was then syndicated on Huffington Post. The story is largely a reaction piece that interviews Christopher’s mother (the school cited confidentiality laws and refused to comment on the incident specifically), the Georgetown student who started the petition to fire school employees, and a former teacher who blogs about autism issues.

Generally, controversial stories revolve around what two parties are thinking, as reporters either on deadline or lacking journalistic intuition consider getting both sides of a story satisfactory. Schreiner goes one step deeper, researching the larger public’s response to the incident. While more sources may not change the tone of a “he-said she-said” story, but just as surveys decrease their margin of error when their sample size increases, quoting subjects not involved in the center of an altercation provides a better consensus of the situation’s brevity. As a result, readers will more likely get the idea that what the school did to Chris would violate rules or laws in other states.

Obtaining outside sources also develops a well-rounded story. When facing controversial topics, the “defendant” is often hesitant to speak either in an attempt to hide guilt or to control damage. Reporters shouldn’t be “out to get them,” but having a neutral go-to source to spell out an event’s significance will offer analysis or details that will likely be skipped by both the accuser and defender.

Odds suggest a follow-up story will be found on Huffington Post or the Associated Press if Mercer County School reaches a decision, but until then, the story highlights what all of us could add when taking the effort to expand the source pool.

Advantage – autism

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I’m aware of my most recent hiatus, which was partly due to Minnesota Lynx playoff coverage and Minnesota state high school tournament coverage, but now I’ve returned with a new story to share.

Unfortunately, my blog was not selected a winner in WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition, but I appreciate those of you who still paid visits in my absence. While I continue to research a renewed fascination in the blogosphere and social media regarding Jason McElwain, the health page from NBC’s daytime program Today published a story about a Canadian researcher who argues scientists need to stop viewing autistic traits as flaws that need correction. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal, reflects on recent data and personal experience in his assessment of the disability.

Mottron said researchers who notice activation in unusual regions of the brain compared to the average human, they report such activity as a deficit than an alternative brain organization. He nor most researchers will minimize the concerning outlook facing autistic people, but he advocates they can succeed in a favorable environment, including the field of research. Mottron has several autistic people working in his lab, where they can utilize their exceptional memories. Mottron believes intellectual problem may be over-estimated among autistic people because of inappropriate testing, saying how there is little hesitation to remove audible components for people with hearing impairments. In general, the research field has adapted a broader and deeper view of the disorder, although autism still presents many obstacles.

Rachael Rettner is the woman behind this story, and she reports on another changing trend in the approach to autism by science and mainstream media. While stories of struggle and the future will continue to permeate Google news feeds, the public has been exposed to potential benefits of the condition as far back as Rain Man, released in 1988. Rettner’s story isn’t groundbreaking either, as this blog does have a history of procuring articles on success stories in the autism community. However, with much fear about what autistic children and adults will be able to do, the story is part of a larger paradigm over the exact response about the enlarging base of autistic people. Many are quick to see action in order to address major problems, while others are concerned about an over-bearing assumption that autistic people need intervention in order to conform to expected values of mainstream society. Gauging where the discussion is tilting is difficult to evaluate given the unpredictable and inconsistent effects of autism, but researchers like Mottron see a vastly under-tapped potential that could benefit the community if utilized properly.

Talk about adaptation versus conformation will continue assuming many forms and tones. The conversation Rettner highlights is heavy on science and low on emotional output, without bold and temperamental claims that can sometimes fog progress. There is no question people given an autism diagnosis face a task tougher than a 16-seed playing a 1-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and reporters like Rettner will possess responsibility and influence in dictating the direction of the ongoing quest to determine what path, if any, should be laid for those who “think different.”

San Diego police officer protects and serves

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Police officer Brian Herritt and his autistic son

In what was a timely follow-up to my analysis of the Toronto Sun story published earlier this week, Rebecca Woolington of The Oregonian brings us a story profiling a San Diego police officer hosting a four-hour training session for fellow police officers in Oregon’s Washington County. The training is far from standard, as Brian Herritt will be instructing police officers on how to respond to autistic children. The father of an autistic child himself, Herritt’s inspiration began when his son eloped at the age of three and he found himself relying on police to find him. While his son was discovered safely, Herritt noticed police may be unprepared to handle autistic children, his experience as a parent and law enforcement official created a dedication to teaching cops how to recognize signs of autism and deescalate situations. Conversely, he also wants to teach parents the mentality of police officers.

The Autism Society of Oregon is funding the training session, and one likely subject will be the potential of confusing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (people talking to themselves or fixating on objects) with socially awkward behaviors that exhibit signs of drug and alcohol use. Herritt also explains how to best take autistic people into custody, what crimes they are most likely to commit or fall victim to, and to avoid assuming someone isn’t cooperating because they’re not responding to questions or orders (as explained many times on this site, some autistic people don’t communicate verbally).

Autistic people must follow the laws like everyone else, but after the ordeal I dissected in Toronto, Herritt’s mission is the perfect antidote to solve issues surrounding lack of awareness of autism in law enforcement. One training session won’t make police experts, but because Herritt is a fellow officer with an autistic child, his ability to communicate to both parents and cops is more effective. He understands the wishes of parents to accommodate autism spectrum disorder when approached and the rapid responses officers must sometimes make on or off-duty. As I mentioned in the last story, there will be increasing encounters between autistic people and police officers as the autism population grows and ages, which likely means Herritt won’t be the only cop to offer this training in the future.

There’s also a possibility of a follow-up story in The Oregonian as the training session doesn’t take place until next Wednesday, creating a set-up to report the response of attendants. Many are representatives of the sheriff’s office and local police departments in Oregon, so finding ties for the reading audience would not require much effort. Continuing to cover this story could also reveal Herritt’s future plans for these training sessions; the fact he is traveling to Oregon from the San Diego area brings forth the desire to promote a subset of knowledge to a group who most likely will need them on future assignments. Outside the region, other news editors and reporters may find citizens similar to Herritt who share his goal.

Woolington spends the first half of the story explaining Herritt’s background and his drive to educate other officers before switching to local sources for their reaction regarding his Oregon visit. Woolington indirectly highlights why autism training will matter to any kind of safety official in the long-term: parents already in the business are getting a first-hand experience with the disability.

iLove the iPad (and always will)

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Courtesy Tim McCarthy, Asbury Park Press

Alesha Williams Boyd of the Asbury Park Press is the latest reporter to uncover the autism community’s love affair with Apple’s iPad computers. Several New Jersey school districts are purchasing iPads for special needs students for the upcoming 2011-12 school year, with a private school requiring families of students to purchase the mobile computers.

The mobility, aesthetics and the ability to install apps to personalize each system are a few reasons why iPads are such a hit for the mentally disabled community. The director of special services at New Jersey’s Marlboro Public School district credits Apple’s product for drawing autistic kids out from themselves. The iPad’s ability to provide a means of communication via screen images for autistic children is well-documented, but thanks to the app market, school districts are also using iPads to encourage autistic people to make eye contact. Even if such applications have a price tag (according to the article, some cost as much as $200), many still consider the iPad a marvel with its $500 list price compared to bulkier, bigger, more complicated devices that can reach four figures.

What about students with other disabilities? Boyd covers that segment in the first few paragraphs, reporting applications allowing students to organize their activities, thoughts and assignments (a boon for autistic children who adhere to routine), and apps that can vocalize text or translate the spoken word into text. Not enough? Settings on some apps can be adjusted to the type of touch students produce, and can also be rigged to challenge students to exercise their motor skills with different forms of touch.

I doubt this will be the last time iPad and autism blend in the same article, but future media coverage could become stagnant if future versions of the iPad aren’t considered revolutionary for the disabled population. Coupled with similar abilities from the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple’s sister products, stories on the benefits of these devices will find difficulty creating new flavors for an audience that follows autism news via the Internet, where geographical boundaries are neutralized. However, the primary reason for future media coverage that could repeat itself is all about the audience. Similar stories to find a place on this blog originated from Houston and the Twin Cities area, so to assume New Jersey residents would know of those stories would be unwise. While this means using a search engine for stories on autism may produce carbon-copies published in different outlets, local organizations aren’t worried about similar coverage outside their market.

However, Boyd does show her readers the iPad’s potential outside of the autism community, where most media coverage in this topic is focused. Truthfully, the advantages of the iPad aren’t any major revelation these days, but Boyd does answer the call for communities who may feel overshadowed by autism coverage. Examining the benefits is useful beyond informing the audience for Apple’s sake. Since Apple releases new editions of their products on an annual basis, viewing its impact across multiple facets may assist them with improvements for future editions through app technology or hardware components.

I had to learn to communicate through more traditional computers since touch-based technology was far from wide use growing up. I can’t say I’m more or less fluent with computers than autistic kids who use iPads are, but I can predict school districts will eventually saturate their special-needs students with iPads when budgets and resources allow for the opportunity, and you can bet I’ll follow the news coverage generated from the implementation.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Autism dashes another victim’s optimism

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Ben Barnhard, courtesy Associated Press

I always stress that autism itself cannot kill its inhabitants directly, but the stress and frustration that builds with raising children on the spectrum can lead caregivers to murder, as was the case with Margaret Jensvold, who killed her 13-year-old autistic son and then herself in a story published by Eric Tucker of the Associated Press and syndicated to Huffington Post. A dark irony in this instance was Jensvold’s occupation of a psychiatrist.

Police found a note along with their bodies earlier this month, with Jensvold saying she couldn’t deal with the Maryland school system and that debt was strangling her. Family members said Jensvold was increasingly strained by financial pressure and fights with the Montgomery County public school system as they refused to cover tuition costs for Ben Barnhard to attend a private school for special-needs students. Jensvold didn’t want to return her son to a public school district where family members said she felt harshly judged and marginalized while Ben had struggled.

The note added that Jensvold killed her son so he wouldn’t experience of the trauma of losing her mother, with Jensvold’s sister noting she wouldn’t believe Barnhard would mentally recover from such an event. Barnhard spent nine months at a weight-loss boarding school after he topped the scales at 275 pounds, and he dropped more than 100 pounds when he finished his time there, gaining new-found optimism about school and being a kid again. The day after Jensvold killed herself and Barnhard, a check came in the mail from her sister’s mother for $10,000 toward tuition at the private school she was hoping to enroll Barnhard in.

This is the third article I have dissected on my blog where an autistic child was killed by his or her parents, and recurring themes are all too similar: parents are unable to handle the challenges of raising children whose development doesn’t align with neurotypical kids, with their emotional stress exacerbated by the feeling of isolation from the community. Unfortunately, this leads parents whose conflict management skills are vulnerable to taking the life of the children they gave birth to. Imagine how Jensvold’s circumstances could have changed had she not become mentally unstable and held out for at least an extra day, where she would have learned that support was coming for her son.

Covering a story like this is not much easier than it was for the sources to speak about what happened (Jensvold’s sister and Barnhard’s father were interviewed). Since Tucker is an Associated Press employee, his story follows a specific format that’s about as hard-core as you can get with journalism. Opinions from authors of AP articles are non-existent, and since AP stories are often distributed throughout news outlets across the country, their writers will craft the story for a national audience as they cannot predict where and when their stories will appear online or in print.

Even with the guidelines, there still is room for some creative flow in AP stories, as Tucker leads with Ben’s achievement at the weight-loss boarding school he attended after enduring years of taunting from classmates. Similar to the mission plan of the Syfy series Alphas, Tucker sought to communicate qualities to the audience that highlight how Ben’s previous weight problems and autism spectrum disorder had little effect on his interests or capacity for autism. Midway through the story, he does the same for his mother. While it won’t change the fact that Ben’s mother ultimately killed him, Tucker does his part to humanize the story’s subjects to increase audience accessibility.

Instances of parents killing autistic children are rare, but the emotional weight of murder often means such deaths will likely find their way to online media. Autistic children shouldn’t live in fear of being killed by their parents, but Tucker explains through his reporting why murder/suicide is a poor solution. Tucker and the Associated Press won’t make a call to action themselves, but perhaps readers who know of parents traveling through an environment similar to Jensvold’s will pick up the cue.

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.

Autism doesn’t graduate

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Yes, I’m back again after another hiatus, but I see some of you are still reading my site.

I’ll be exploring some articles I had stored up to discuss, including a lengthy article by John Richardson of the Kennebec Journal in Maine. The story is among a growing number of journalistic investigations reporting the response to the increasing autistic population. Maine is not immune to the effects, with 680 adults with autism or other disabilities waiting to get MaineCare funding for some level of services, a figure reaching $282 million this year. That’s a few zeros, but even with 180 on that list considered in critical need for health or safety concerns, the state can only move seven to 10 people per month when funding frees up, usually when older adults die. Even just four years ago, a high school student with autism could smoothly transition to adult services if the condition warranted such care. Now, residents in Maine and other states find themselves on waiting lists that can last for years. Complicating things is the lack of affordability for services, with day programs costing $20 to $25 per hour and full-time residential care running at least a $70,000 price tag.

Richardson’s story isn’t new, as the high cost of services is a repeated point of discussion in autism articles (recently explored in the Denver Post with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s granddaughter). Given the current economic and political climate, foreseeing a growth of these stories published can only be expected. Autism’s strain on families is another element making a return appearance in Richardson’s story, citing a 2010 story where a father and full-time caretaker of his autistic son killed both his son and himself. Naturally, we also see statistical evidence that autism is rising in Maine, with Richardson using data from the state’s public schools. Granted, those in Maine who spend most of their news consumption within state boundaries may not be aware of similar articles in the news timeline, but that doesn’t change the increasing occurrence of reports detailing how the public may potentially deal with autistic adults unable to function independently.

The story isn’t part of an elaborate scheme to rehash the same material in order to demand more autism funding from various sources. Instead, stories with parallel themes are usually the result of considering the outlet’s audience. A similar story in the West Coast may not have the same impact because of geographical distance. There’s also a chance reporters themselves are still developing fluency; autism carries a complex nature, but its penetration may not be high enough for its own beat coverage that reporters give to topics such as politics, crime, education and sports.

Richardson is effective at spelling out the issue for readers of Kennebec Journal, balancing the recurring elements of concerned parents, data, and challenges as a result of said data. However, autism news readers likely understand by now that autism doesn’t suppress itself upon graduation. The community may ask for something deeper than localizing a previously reported story, but with the varying severity of autism combined with the uncertainty of progress offered by treatments, the adaptation of autistic adults could be one story where reporters won’t have an easy time digging further in the present.