The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘intervention’ 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.

Policing the integration of autistics

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Courtesy Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun

Our latest story is part reporting, part editorial hailing from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Michele Mandel covers an incident at the Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre where Toronto Police are under fire from autism advocacy groups for their July 28th handling of a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be physically restrained after throwing a tantrum. Police handcuffed the boy for five minutes before the mobile crisis intervention team arrived and calmed him down. While autism groups protest that less drastic restraint measures could have been employed, police say the boy was a danger to himself and waiting for the crisis team could have posed a safety hazard.

The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Mandel quoted him saying he holds his mother’s hand whenever he sees a cop car. Naturally, parents of autistic children are furious, at least according to Autism Ontario. The executive director says they offer training for law enforcement on handling people with mental disabilities, but few have taken advantage of the program unlike their colleagues in Ottawa.

I have some question on the date’s accuracy in the published article. If the incident did occur on July 28th, having an article published now would be horrendously ill-timed. There is a possibility the story has a typo and the incident happened on August 28th, which would better justify releasing the story on its publication date (August 30th). With parents as emotionally charged as they are, notwithstanding parents of autistic children, waiting an entire month before expressing outrage over a controversial situation makes little sense.

Regarding the story itself, law enforcement is almost always a hotbed when it comes to controversy. This doesn’t suggest an antagonistic relationship between journalists and police (you need to establish a positive connection if assigned to a crime beat), but material that suggests public service officials aren’t performing their job description makes for saucy news material. Generally, this controversy arises when police are seen abusing their role. In Mandel’s story, the argument is police not considering the well-being of the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be restrained. When pursuing an event as it’s occurring, police have to be prepared for rapid responses to a multitude of situations to protect themselves and/or the people they intervene. The “gray area” illuminates how people who are trained to keep communities safe can adapt to the autism spectrum, as their emotional output doesn’t fall within expected norms. This story may spur Toronto’s law enforcement to seek more training, or lead to further coverage on public readiness to handle a population prone to mental outbursts.

On the story itself, I’m not familiar with the ethical standards of Canadian journalism, but the reporter appears to side with autism organizations and suggesting the response was mishandled. Mandel uses strong words and questions why less forceful measures weren’t used to begin with, creating the impression that Toronto police were the “bad guys” in the case. The discussion shouldn’t be about who’s right or wrong, but instead included for the ultimate concern of how an increasing number of autistic people throughout the world can be approached.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

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.

I was here first!

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Photo by Daniel Bock, The Miami Herald

In another first for The Autistic Journalist, I will be analyzing two reporters covering the same story after a Google News search uncovered another article on Barbara Delgado’s Miami Dance Project summer camp at the New Image Dance Studio. As I mentioned in my last post, Delgado is certified as an autism movement therapist. However, we get a closer examination via Nadege Green of The Miami Herald that NBC Miami couldn’t allocate resources for.

Green’s story is more descriptive, using words in place of action shots in Diana Gonzalez’s version. We learn more about the nine students enrolled in Delgado’s autism therapy dance class and the “curriculum” students take to address their autism spectrum disorder. One student, legally an adult, often leads class in combinations and spends part of her day in another studio with dancers who aren’t autistic.

We learn the students enjoy the classes enough to not notice the “therapy” part. In fact, dancing is only part of the day’s activities in Delgado’s class. Yoga, body strengthening exercises, crafts and activities to improve written and oral skills are also incorporated (two of them can assist in maximizing dancing ability, while the other two help maximize social ability).

Green also shared the origin of Delgado’s journey from certification to starting an autism dance class: Delgado offered a free autism movement therapy dance class on Sundays before starting the summer program, citing a desire to create a space where autistic kids feel no different from their neurotypical counterparts. Hugs and high-fives are shared frequently to help foster a supportive environment. Ultimately, her goal is to start a professional dance company for autistic dancers.

Green can share a lot more and employ some novel storytelling techniques because she had a larger space to report her story than Gonzalez. Unless assigned column space is quite small, written articles will generally have more detail than television stories when covering the same topic. In particular, print journalism is primarily about word choice; feature stories seek to give readers a sense of visualization by observing details about the subject being covered. Photos can supplement this form of storytelling, especially on the Internet where limits are lifted. However, the story’s effectiveness solely rests on the writer, and Green handles the task well by profiling multiple students involved from start to finish. Whether the students speak themselves or parents speak for the less verbal participants, the quotes published in the story suggest Green asked the students why the joined the program and what they like about it, reinforcing the summer camp’s idea of not pointing out the supplementary mission plans of the dance class.

While Gonzalez’s electronic version highlights the “non-traditional” form of autism intervention on its own, Green’s story spells out how the program does more to assist autistic children beyond improving their dance skills. Readers considering joining the program themselves may now understand other forms of therapy are not sacrificed with the class.

A curious element to the story itself is when Green began reporting on Delgado’s dance class. The Miami Herald story was published the same day as NBC Miami’s was, although NBC Miami posted their version online a few hours before The Miami Herald, suggesting the paper either submitted the story for publication in its traditional form either Monday or Tuesday of this week. Given the time frame, it’s very unlikely that either journalist picked up the story by getting hold of the other’s beforehand, and there’s usually no rivalry between a print and television news outlet. How the class was discovered may not be known, but with two reporters discussing the same class, the reporters could have picked up the story through a press release or a mutual contact that happened to know both Gonzalez and Green or their superiors.

Green’s advantages in reporting for The Miami Herald certainly doesn’t mean written articles are superior to television stories. The two stories only illustrate the differences between the two media. I wouldn’t expect additional stories on Delgado’s autism movement therapy sessions with the summer class wrapping up on Friday, but other reporters in Miami and beyond may draw inspiration to find “new” forms of autistic intervention to dissect for the audience. Dancing may not be the magic solution, but Delgado’s contributions may redefine how to treat autistic children.

Insert favorite dance song lyric here

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Diana Gonzalez of NBC Miami offers a profile story of her own, highlighting the Miami Dance Project’s summer camp at New Image Dance Studio. Although studio owner Barbara Delgado has won many trophies and medals in competitions since opening the studio 12 years ago, she says the passion exhibited by autistic students is no less incredible.

Delgado likely understands the passion as she is certified in autism therapy, seeing a need to teach autistic students a creative form of communication. The patterns students learn from dancing correlate with developing other skills away from the floor, with Delgado and a parent of one of her students citing improvement in other facets of communication and development. Although Delgado’s camp ends this Friday, the autism movement therapy program will continue as an after-school program at an elementary school in West Miami-Dade.

The story is short, as most TV news packages are (Gonzalez’s piece was 1 minute, 39 seconds), making the emphasis on maximizing efficiency within a small space. Gonzalez takes care of that by beginning the story with Delgado and what led her to create the summer camp, followed by moving the story’s focus to student participants. While the kids were effortlessly weaved into the story, their transition was possible because of work done ahead of time. Taping the story wouldn’t be possible in the first place without obtaining permission from the dance studio, the parents of the autism therapy movement program, or both. Usually, a written release form must be signed in order to use footage of people under the age of 18, although you’ll never hear of the behind-the-scenes work because those details are considered in extraneous in a thirty-minute news block (or even a 24-hour news block).

Instead, we see a lot of action in shot selection for Gonzalez’s story. The only “static” shots are the images of trophies to illuminate the contrast of winning multiple awards versus using skills to improve the lives of others. Although summarizing six weeks in 100 seconds is impossible, we can gauge from the story that Delgado has her students in a very active dancing routine.

One other element in this story has nothing to do with the dance program itself, nor will this element likely be emphasized in Miami. Factoring the city’s demographics, viewers who may see this story outside of Miami will also see autism’s lack of discrimination with its “targets.” A similar idea was displayed when Holly Robinson Peete promoted autism awareness on her talk show in the month of April. Although Gonzalez’s story is likely not the first to involve autism in the Miami market, the city’s large Hispanic population is no less immune to the condition.

Whether the audience will be armed with knowledge that dancing is an effective therapy for autistic children or of autism’s endless choice of inhabitants, Gonzalez’s story is a classic example of what can happen when you provide a complete feature story in a window of two minutes or less.

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.