The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘progress’ Category

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.”

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

Broadway experiment? Hakuna Matata

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Returning to our dear friends at the Associated Press, their articles aren’t always found syndicated on other news sites. Take this story from AP drama writer Mark Kennedy, who reported on Broadway participating in an experiment, with children on the autism spectrum as test subjects. Specifically, the Theatre Development Fund announced it will present an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, a highly successful Broadway adaptation of the 1994 Disney film of the same name. Organizers are gauging if this move should be replicated elsewhere.

To accommodate the increased sensitivity of the audience who will watch the October 2nd show at Minskoff Theatre, experts identified scenes where lights or sounds needed to be toned down, although no decrease was higher than 30 percent of levels in regular performances. Seven changes were made in all, and three quiet areas with beanbags and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, will be available to children whose sensory inputs are overwhelmed. A 16-page downloadable guide at the fund’s website informs children what to expect and options anticipating potential moments of sensory overload. An autism advocate and author is quoted saying even if this experiment fails, either this group or another organization can apply the effects of this event to make adjustments for a future autism outreach event.

Last year, I discussed two articles on movie theaters offering autism-friendly screenings, so to hear of Broadway taking part in the outreach effort is little surprise to me. The only serious question for autism-friendly events is a matter of when they will happen, versus 10 years ago where the question centered around if. I’m not sure we’ll see “autism-friendly” sporting events (which may have kept my head from ringing covering a Minnesota Lynx game in Chicago, where Allstate Arena’s acoustics amplify sound far greater than Target Center) given the size of sports stadiums, even with a rapid increase of autistics in the population. However, the Theatre Development Fund’s experiment does reinforce the course change regarding autistic people as experts and caregivers alike search for ways to integrate a population segment that prefers to isolate themselves. Personally, I can’t recall any moments where I fell victim to sensory overload at movie theaters or theatrical production. I even braved the stage myself in high school when I donned the character of Ali Hakim for the musical Oklahoma! However, I am only one man and an oddity myself among the autism community, rendering my ability to represent the group useless in this capacity.

For those wondering why I haven’t dissected the article, the reason is the format of Associated Press stories. When your organization is behind the stylebook bought and used by aspiring college journalists and professionals seeking to maintain high standards, there isn’t much to discuss with Kennedy’s format of the story, although Kennedy shows some playfulness with the lead given Broadway’s venture in unproven territory. He uses a variety of sources related to the show and autism spectrum, speaking with a member of the Theatre Development Fund, the author I previously referenced, and an Autism Speaks representative. Exploring the changes to the specifically tailored performance was expected in this story, but readers also discover the speed of dissemination as most seats for the matinee performance have been snatched up.

If any of you fear about entertainment options for autistic people, whether or not this show succeeds, you may find yourself saying “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase meaning “There are no worries.” Oh, it’s also a song title from a popular Disney movie.

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.

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.

Autistic people are not alone in growing

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Checking off the May archives with this post, we return to our backyard with a story from WCCO Radio’s Edgar Linares on a store that sells products designed to help children and adults on the autism spectrum develop (Coincidentally, WCCO is also hosting a Most Valuable Blogger competition, which you can learn more about here).

Simply called The Autism Shop, owners Cherri and David Saltzman recently located their facility to the Sundial Center in Minnetonka because they couldn’t showcase all their products at their old location in Hopkins. Naturally, their inspiration originated with their daughter, diagnosed with autism at age 2 and now a full adult. Their quick action helped their daughter’s condition improve, but the Saltzmans wanted to continue supporting the autism community, which led to The Autism Shop, now in its 16th year of operation. Over 1,200 items are available to shoppers either in person or online, including books that help autistic children handle emotions and a line of CD’s created by a Minnesota speech pathologist. The Autism Shop is a non-profit business, with proceeds benefiting autism research and support.

Linares profiles what the store is all about, because even with 16 years of existence, knowledge of The Autism Shop in the Twin Cities media market is likely rather low given its sole location. His highlights of the store’s features play off the backbone of The Autism Shop moving to a bigger home. Although the move is reportedly done out of desire to showcase more products and generate more foot traffic, and no sales figures are given, it’s reasonable to deduce the shop is a hit with patrons who visit the store.

While organizations focused on autism, including the Autism Society of Minnesota, are likely to have resources for people involved with those groups, The Autism Shop is the first time I’ve heard of a Twin Cities location offering such resources in a public manner. Linares takes people unfamiliar with the store into consideration with his reporting by offering a quick history of the store and its owners, and in doing so, he effectively communicates that the Saltzmans are eager to help through the products they offer and the proceeds they donate. As the autistic population grows, so does the demand for material to help adapt to the population, which would etch dollar signs in the minds of some entrepreneurs. Instead, the Saltzmans go with the old adage of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

Profile stories have a lower difficulty level of reporting than other subjects, as the goal is simply featuring a noun to an audience that may not know what makes the noun special. Thanks to Linares’ storytelling, residents in Stillwater or Woodbury need not tremble over trekking a long distance to a western Twin Cities suburb, and citizens close by can browse through all 1,200 products in person. The only missing element that would have supplemented the story was getting testimonials from customers who could vouch for what the Saltzmans were saying. However, just like its television counterpart, the journalists in WCCO’s radio division are also on a short time limit when it comes to story length.