The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘relationships’ Category

Holly Robinson Peete shares her odds-beating strategy

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Holly Robinson-Peete, co-host of The Talk

I’ve discussed the fissure autism can bring to families in previous posts, with the divorce rate among parents of autistic children significantly higher than the national average. Holly Robinson Peete of 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper fame and current co-host of CBS’ The Talk, has a clear sense of those odds based on an interview she conducted with CBS 21, a local network affiliate in Pennsylvania. In the profile piece, she highlighted how an autism diagnosis of her now-teenage son RJ nearly caused a divorce between Holly and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. Rodney denied the diagnosis when RJ first received it at age 3, and Holly quoted how she and Rodney shouldn’t be married on paper.

Fortunately, their marriage is still alive on paper and Holly talked about how their family approach supports the HollyRod foundation, which the two started to help other families struggling with autism. Holly is using her Twitter account to promote bracelets she’s selling to benefit people affected by autism. Earlier this month, she appeared on CBS’ daytime juggernaut, The Price is Right, to cross-promote The Talk and present a showcase of prizes she selected that can help families of autistic children, which included a set of iPads. Holly also co-wrote a book with her daughter, Ryan, about their experience growing up with RJ.

The story itself was likely not too difficult to set up, as interviewing personalities of the national network a local station is affiliated with is a common practice. That’s not to say Holly and other notables from ABC, NBC and FOX won’t appear on stations not affiliated with their respective networks, but local stations won’t be afraid to vet what’s on their timeslots. This interview also doesn’t surprise me because April is Autism Awareness Month, and Holly has used the calendar to bring RJ and Rodney on the set of The Talk, where the hosts share a roundtable discussion about autism on Fridays through the month of April. With the need to constantly fill time slots, CBS 21 decided reaching out to their national “cousin” would promote many things while killing a couple minutes on the newscast’s timeline. The story is more a byproduct of the relationship that unfolds when a local station is picked up by a for-profit national affiliate than a case of lazy reporting. CBS 21 also used this story to highlight a visit Holly and Rodney will make in August within their coverage area, as they will speak at a Greater Harrisburg Area Autism Society event this August.

Although the bottom-line is always omni-present, CBS 21’s profile of Holly’s promotional efforts does provide a glimpse of celebrities struggling through the same obstacles as less famous parents of autistic children, helping those without national profiles relate. Will it draw millions of viewers to The Talk? Not necessarily, but families affected by autism are always looking for role models.

Autistics can pursue relationships like anyone else

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I had a long chat with a friend and colleague who’s currently overseas, and we discussed blogging for some time during our three-hour online conversation. Along the way, she mentioned coming across a magazine article about an autistic couple, but couldn’t remember the name.

Here’s where the journalist inside me kicked in. I did some quick research, and discovered the magazine was Glamour and the article was published in February 2009. The story was picked up by ABC’s Good Morning America, briefly summarizing the detailed descriptions from Lynn Harris, the reporter who wrote Glamour‘s story. Usually, I don’t come across magazine articles, but their style of journalism differs from television and the newspapers. Magazine reporters are no less skilled than their “daily” cousins, but their storytelling more closely resembles fictional novels. That doesn’t mean their stories are no less real.

Just like fiction, Harris gives us a beginning, middle and end to the relationship between David Hamrick and Lindsey Nebeker, profiling how they manage to stay together when many write off autistics seeking relationships as impossible. Both require separate bedrooms and rarely speak to each other at home or on the phone, as neither are comfortable with “small talk.” Although mass media and conventional wisdom describe autistics as loners, Harris reports many autistic adults aware of their shortcoming know what they’re missing out on and hope to find love. However, many prefer to seek out partners electronically, generally through social networking websites. David and Lindsey met in person via an autism conference, and Harris uses their meeting to transition from their tumultuous childhoods to adapting their needs while living together. To avoid sensory overload, they discussed every last detail to make living as roommates successful, even down to light bulb preference.

While planning every step of joining their lives in one place sounds like material written for the character of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon has Leonard sign a roommate agreement which lists every possible situation the two could face as scientific living mates), David and Lindsey formed a bond and defied standard expectations of autistic people. In fact, a speech-language pathologist who knows the couple said other adults could learn a page from their playbook: both speak their minds clearly and directly, with no expectation of mind reading.

As a fellow ponderer about my chances at a relationship (if you’re curious, I’m straight, but this applies to anyone on the spectrum and should not be disregarded because of orientation), reading this two-year-old story left me thinking why this sub-topic of the autism spectrum is generally ignored by other forms of journalism. A newspaper or television reporter thrives at their ability to tell a complete story in a small amount of space and would scoff at the excuse of relationships being too complex for an audience with the attention span of a goldfish. While I could theorize for eternity, the profile story provides insights to answer the many fears parents have about the future of their autistic children.

Harris doesn’t waste time explaining the supposed deficiencies of autistic people, she details how both of her subjects lived with the disability and what impact it had on their history of relationships. Harris indirectly tells worriers to set aside their concerns, and perhaps a few tips for others on the spectrum eager to break down what is perhaps the largest communication barrier for autism. She also points out a few advantages of having a couple not feeling compelled to follow the conventional rituals of love. Harris fulfills her role as a journalist by giving her audience ideas they likely would not have thought of had the story never been published.

I could not find a follow-up or update on the couple in my research, but regardless of their fate, Harris’ role as reporter and storyteller highlights how much mentally disabled people have in common with the rest of the world, even if their behaviors place them on the “outside.” With the number of autistic adults increasing (1.5 million adults expected by 2016), Harris’ article will likely be the first of several autistic relationship stories as the uncomprehending public tries to understand what the deal is with their autistic peers.

Visualizing a singular identity

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Perhaps the most in-depth article I’ve read on autism since I began the blog. An article from the New York Times performs an extended look into the possibility of removing Asperger Syndrome and replacing it with simply autism spectrum disorder. A panel of 13 experts are evaluating autism and other neurological disorders for the new psychiatric diagnostic manual due in 2012. Their argument is that Asperger as a label is confusing and not very useful as psychiatrists shift from a “black and white” view of neurological disorders to a continuum with many levels of severity. Potential controversies are also discussed, as insurers, schools and researches all account for Asperger Syndrome. Australian psychologist Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin, America’s best-known autistic, also suggest keeping the term. Attwood’s concern is that removing Asperger Syndrome as a medical label may inhibit people on the spectrum from being assessed, due to the negative connotations of autism versus Asperger Syndrome.

This article highlights the controversies surrounding autism, from accounting for social setbacks and skills possessed by few others to constantly changing labels and the myriad of other health problems that often accompany autism (if only receding hair lines were included :-p ).

This is the first article to use percentages to explain how many kids have autism based on federal data. This is also the first article in some time that doesn’t provide the textbook definition of autism or Asperger Syndrome, but summarizes the disability in a way the mainstream can understand. I discussed the significance of both findings in a post I made in October reporting the government studies, suggesting the diagnosis rate was climbing. The New York Times may be considering the increase of awareness from the increase in autism stories and their reporters are electing not to define autism in the classic sense. The public is starting to catch on.

What this article also does is underscore the individuality within autism itself, an angle seldom seen in popular press. Most stories told through electronic media often group all autistic people together, not accounting for the abilities that astonish adults and bore playmates to tears. Autism Speaks’ Autism Every Day, released three years ago, is an example of lumping everyone to a single unit. With the proposed changes and almost certain debate forthcoming, we get to look into…GASP…differing opinions within the autism community. Some prefer keeping the Asperger name while others have lived comfortably with the autism label. Instead of a two-sided debate with a for and against side, the Times turns the story into a multi-perspective discussion with the scholarly medical side blending with the real-life side, a useful approach since the autism debate nearly matches autism itself in complexity.

On the surface, the article reports a very detailed discussion and debate over a possible exchange in terminology when diagnosing autism in kids and adults. Beyond that could be the beginning of the next stage of social discussions surrounding autism: self-identification. Detailed in modern media including True Blood and X-Men 3: The Last Stand, autistic people with enough cognitive abilities to process thoughts are now asking themselves who they are and who gets to decide how they live. This is no different from anyone else or any other group subjected to the prejudices of privilege and 20th century thinking, but the New York Times story is the first to profile what could be an autistic identity crisis.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 4, 2009 at 11:44 pm

The relationship side of things

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I went bar-hopping for the second time of my life Friday (I didn’t go prior to my 21st) and I’m fascinated with the personality shift my peers go through from daytime to nighttime. I suppose you make these observations when your BAL isn’t as high as everyone else’s.

I also noticed another characteristic that separates me from the field; I assume the role of “captain” among my peers. No, I’m not the leader everyone follows and/or idolizes, but I apply logic and reasoning while balancing pleasure and risk-taking, as many of you know how bars can be attractive places for students to push themselves beyond their limits. I downed a couple shots, but knowing I had to meet with a client who hired me for a $500 video project, the money did a lot of talking, so I refused any more shots.

But it wasn’t the end of that adventure just yet. I’m assuming there was a tinge of silliness, but a friend suggested I buy a drink for a student who looked like she had a few already, not to mention she already has a boyfriend (that’s not how you engage in relationships), so I inconspicuously declined out of her well-being. The last thing I want to do is make someone sick when I can’t sense their ability to function.

My behavior when bar-hopping though may explain my inability to land a relationship. I’ve never even come close since my life began. I just don’t find bars as a hot-spot for seeking relationships. You never quite know how many drinks people have had, and we all know how alcohol impairs the body. Remove alcohol from the equation, and there’s still a sense of unfamiliarity about who you’re dealing with. My minds creates a shield as I try to assess several things in my head, from the overflow crowds to the mental capacity of customers. Still not enough? My memory serves me almost too well as I can tell you the countless stories I’ve read and/or watched of students dying from alcohol-related incidents.

I wonder if those traits are preventing me from having any success in initiating relationships. My defense mode plays off my weakness to overanalyze social situations. Perhaps loosening up would ease those tensions and increase my comfort level, but there’s always a part of me warning me that opening up too much could trap me in a situation I want to avoid. Seeing how several of my peers are in relationships (but not everyone, so I’m not entirely alone) as time goes on, I start to wonder the likelihood of succeeding in one, or if I’ll end up like many other autistic people and remain single. Conversely, I also think about how accepting or open women would be about my quirks. Would they want to face these things every day of their lives, and what if they wanted children? Suggestions point to a genetic connection, but there’s many unknowns, and the thought of potentially having more than one family member on the spectrum can be overwhelming. Conventional wisdom would place in that category of never marrying or having children. I’d like to sway from that trend, but reality is a tough thing to accept.

Relationship scenarios remind me of how much I miss my old roommate and his experience in psychology. He would always attempt to break down my emotions and how to gear myself for repeat occurrences, but without his expertise, I do feel lost and sometimes unable to convey my feelings with others. This is one of those times where I could use some help, but where do you turn when few people share this experience?

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 12, 2009 at 3:32 pm