The Autistic Journalist

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Archive for the ‘safety’ Category

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.

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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

Caution ahead

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Photo by John Luke, Northwest Indiana Times

Lindsay Machak of the Northwest Indiana Times covered an incident whose psychological implications weren’t fully explored, but bound to stir up thoughts to readers. Julia Cox, who successfully campaigned to have a sign placed in her neighborhood alerting motorists of her autistic son who sporadically elopes, believes a vandal targeted her family because of her son. Underneath the sign (seen with Julia in the photo), someone painted the words “Retard F U.” Cox later painted over the words to avoid other children from seeing the language, and a graffiti team later returned the sign to its normal state.

However, local police aren’t so sure the vandalism was indeed a hate crime, with Lansing police saying the crime didn’t go far enough to be investigated as such, even though they note the distastefulness of the vandal’s word selection. Police are also reluctant to conduct a full investigation because there is no known offender and little information about who is possibly responsible. Cox is simply hoping the sign won’t be vandalized in this manner again.

From a criminal perspective, graffiti is commonplace but detection is not consistent. Usually, only paint is needed to make a graffiti hit on property. In neighborhoods such as Cox’s, vandals can avoid losing their cover by performing graffiti at a time when most of its residents are sleeping, as even a few public places aren’t equipped with surveillance systems to discourage such behavior. In terms of enforcement, police may allocate resources to combating more serious crimes that can more severely compromise the public’s safety, unless such graffiti instigates violent behavior. However, they are not completely immune to being reported should a passerby and/or night owl take notice, and those who are caught won’t escape without penalty.

Cox’s claim that the sign’s vandalism was the result of a hate crime is also not easy to process. Hate crimes themselves carry a legal definition, used to describe bias-motivated violence on the basis of personal characteristics. Traits include race, religion, appearance, nationality, language and disability. Incidents include offensive graffiti and/or damage to property on the basis of personal characteristics, which would contradict quotes given by the Lansing police officer in the story if simple definitions were applied. Based on what the Lansing police officer said, it’s possible he or his department have processed more grotesque hate crimes within his jurisdiction that went beyond graffiti on public property, or he could have been speaking generically.

Furthermore, without any clues to the culprit, investigating the incident as a hate crime is difficult to justify. Theoretically, Cox herself could have vandalized the sign to attract attention to herself, although committing such an act would be illogical considering the amount of time lobbying and receiving a sign to alert people about her son. If the perpetrator was indeed found, as was the case in a January incident in the Twin Cities reported by several news outlets (I linked WCCO’s version), finding ground to consider the incident a hate crime would be less difficult.

This also brings up the emotional investment of mothers regarding their children born with a “disadvantage.” Paternal instincts influence their thought process,  which can lead them to decisions or beliefs they wouldn’t otherwise possess. There’s no way to determine if Cox would still believe such an act would be a hate crime if autism didn’t affect her personally. This is not to say having children leads parents to making illogical, impulsive decisions, but their feelings may simply reflect a retaliatory mood should they believe their children are under attack. Thoughts of vengeance are nothing new, if recent media coverage of Casey Anthony’s trial provide sociological indications.

The story itself does more than simple police blotter because its nature doesn’t carry the repetition of “typical” crimes. Making specific signs warning of handicapped people has been somewhat controversial, as concerns, such as what Machak reports, creep into the public psyche. Other worries reflect potential consequences of publicly “transmitting” that at least one person in the neighborhood suffers a mental disability. Machak deduces that leading the story with the events that led to the sign would clarify why its vandalism was troublesome, as most readers would ponder over a “Caution: Handicapped Person” versus “Stop” or “Yield.”

Future story paths will be dependent on what happens to the sign. If graffiti continues, stories on public safety for the disabled may appear, which may lead to a closer mainstream examination of addressing the public about people who suffer from autism and other disorders. It could also re-open a dialogue on the struggle for acceptance in the face of other characteristics.

Quest for autism’s “holy grail” engulfed by maze of treatments

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Dr. Mark Geier. Photo by Jed Kirschbaum, The Baltimore Sun

As Andrew Wakefield continues to press forward with the vaccine link controversy (which is now being compared to other political debates where opponents repeatedly deny what almost all research suggests), the battle to address the autism spectrum in children found another metaphorical maze in Maryland. In a story originally published by The Baltimore Sun and syndicated by Los Angeles Times, a Maryland doctor sought to regain his medical license after suspension by the Maryland Board of Physicians. The doctor, Mark Geier, uses an alternative form of autism treatment with no scientific backing, injecting patients with Lupron, a drug approved to treat prostate cancer in men and endometriosis in women.

Geier believes testosterone is elevated in autistic children (and a study I discussed in my blitzkrieg of posts last month concurs with his opinion) and worsens the vaccine-related mercury toxicity they believe is causing autism in children, which is why he uses Lupron, as the drug suppresses testosterone production. However, the Maryland Board of Physicians reported that Geier placed children at risk with improper diagnoses and misrepresenting his credentials.

Geier’s branch is small in the story’s “tree.” Frank D. Roylance and Meredith Cohn, the writers who penned this story, summarize a point previously covered in mainstream press coverage but quantify what is known inside the autism community: the slow pace of identifying causes and effective treatments for autism lead to a proliferation of unproven treatments that grow wildly in popularity (the gluten and casein-free diet is one example). 38,000 families participating in a database at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore have reported 381 different treatments. Families use five treatments simultaneously on average, spending around $500 per treatment. Do the math, and that’s $2,500 a month and $30,000 annually. Compounding the problem, a source from Kennedy Krieger’s Interactive Autism Network says only 10 percent of autistic children are enrolled at IAN or other research studies.

Roylance and Cohn highlight the low percentage by including three parent perspectives. We hear from Alison Singer, who was featured in Autism Speaks’ Autism Every Day and is co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation. While she tried several alternative treatments for her autistic daughter, she now advocates any new treatment should seek for a scientific study. Other mothers shared their experience with alternative treatments, and ultimately refused some because they lacked scientific evidence.

Despite the small percentage of autistic children enrolled in research studies, data from the IAN project is helping identify widely-used therapies so they can be subjected to scientific testing. Although science is not always accepted (the vaccine controversy still burns despite a mountain of evidence disproving a link), finding treatments proven to work can reduce the likelihood of parents making irrational decisions about their autistic children. Based on Kennedy Krieger’s data, a lot of irrationality exists. With families giving their children an average of five treatments for autism simultaneously, even if those treatments mitigate the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, there’s no way to decipher which treatment actually works. With the money and time invested in so many treatments without scientific backing, little discussion is needed to explain why researching treatments should be a priority.

As the Kennedy Krieger source states, telling parents not to pursue any interventions without scientific support is impractical. Instead, the goal is encouraging families to avoid rash decisions that lead to children receiving a multitude of treatments. Emotional responses are road blocks to such a strategy, and Roylance and Cohn use their sources to explain why logic is sometimes discarded: vulnerability is high when parents first learn of an autism diagnosis. Since most parents will instinctively fight for their child’s success, and many lack an understanding of autism when they first hear of the disability, their susceptibility to doctors claiming to have a solution increases.

Geier’s treatment and recent suspension were subjects of recent stories, as two links appear as related articles to the investigative story filed by Roylance and Cohn. Using people like Geier as a springboard to a deeper story is a commonly-used tactic when resources and news editors allow reporters to execute the strategy. Treatments for autism are ripe subjects for story exploration because supposed techniques have exponentially increased. Most individual treatments without scientific evidence aren’t usually covered in mainstream news. Even if a treatment allegedly works on an autistic child, that technique can only represent a theory, not fact. The lack of scientific proof in alternative interventions can leave reporters in a precarious position with an autism community eager for awareness. However, Geier’s recent coverage opened the door to this realm of the autism spectrum while allowing Roylance and Cohn to filter the story and not create an impression of advocating alternative therapies themselves. Thanks to their reporting, we learn why Geier and other doctors can gain popular support: many parents of autistic children are rarely at the forefront of finding answers. Explaining why few parents involve their children in research studies is difficult, outside of simple impatience, but the low percentage of children in research studies should not be attributed to laziness.

Roylance and Cohn don’t suffer from laziness either. Readers unfamiliar with Geier are briefed on why he’s in the news, and they use parental perspectives to validate the analysis presented by Kennedy Krieger sources on the proliferation of autism treatments. Readers on top of autism coverage also gain a new perspective from the parental point of view. While emotional volatility is almost a guarantee for parents who learn of their child’s autism diagnosis for the first time, that mental state is transferred to research, regardless of what choice is made with alternative treatments. Roylance and Cohn could also open another door by highlighting the lack of involvement of autistic children in research of treatments. They didn’t specifically list how to enroll in research studies, but other reporters could piggyback on that subplot.

They call them “the wanderers”

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My journey to find a news story that would cover the perils of wandering drew parallels with the 1961 Dion hit of the same name. Unfortunately for parents, autistic kids who go “around, around, around” aren’t doing so to impress females. A study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, using a national survey of 856 parents of autistic children, revealed around half of them wandered off at least once, sometimes gone long enough to cause alarm. Two-thirds of surveyors said their children had a “close call” with traffic while one-third said a child nearly drowned. A 58 percent majority cited wandering as the most stressful behavior displayed by an autistic child.

Delthia Ricks of Indiana newspaper The Republic interviewed a doctor who wasn’t involved with the survey but has communicated with families whose autistic kids elope. The study listed no primary reason for eloping as that wasn’t the study’s focus, but the story mentions “wanderlust,” avoidance or a specific destination as theories for taking off. Wandering can continue through adulthood, although the odds drop as children age. The biggest concern with autistics eloping is their lack of social awareness, including stranger-danger, increasing their vulnerability to harmful elements.

I detailed such a case of wandering in my third autism documentary, but the mystery was solved long before a major panic ensued. Most stories on studies hash out the numbers while adding quotes from a source on a press release or in a separately-conducted interview before validating those numbers in a follow-up story should a journalist take that action. For an autism community member, these findings may allow them to cite scientific evidence instead of anecdotal references, but the story is hardly surprising since wandering is a publicly-known issue. The focus of an autistic child is sometimes intense, to the point where they close off other forms of stimuli until the child’s task is complete. Drama can exponentially rise if a wandering child is non-verbal, reducing the likelihood of responding to audible signals.

The news environment itself adds a dramatic dash, with their preference to hype stories of danger, despair and fear of an unknown future to boost ratings and theatrics. The last two paragraphs of Ricks’ story fit with the overall theme without fabricating autism’s hazards, but when parents are exposed to this story, combined with other risks of childhood (which include eloping from non-autistic kids), the chances of buying the media’s perspective of the world is higher, even though stranger-danger is statistically less of a risk than harm from a known acquaintance. Autism can nullify the odds, but this story is a worthwhile lesson to absorb content presented to us without reacting impulsively.

Knowledge of autistic people eloping is common among the community, the wild card may be people who aren’t exposed to autism regularly. Don’t be surprised if Ricks or another reporter spells out the numbers through a story of experience with a family or caregiver watching an autistic child. Monitoring “child-proofing” stories for an expose on preventing autistic children from bolting may also prove fruitful in the short-term, as child safety is a frequently covered topic in news.

The information was public for some time through Google searches, but until The Republic picked up the story, all I could find were press releases. While PR does contain journalistic elements, they generally don’t follow the same format as professional journalists, and the purpose of this blog is detailing and dissecting mainstream news coverage of autism. Occasionally, I’ll post coverage outside of traditional newspapers and TV stations, but my theme will not bend from analyzing how mainstream media presents news and information on the topic of autism, which is why some time elapse before I got to this story.

Asheville agency giving autistics their own “home”

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WNC House Manager Melanie McGill and Holland exchange hugs. Photo courtesy of Erin Brethauer, Asheville Citizen-Times

North Carolina’s no stranger for people to place themselves in the minds of autistics. As the adult population grows, so will the need for homes to accommodate 24-hour support and supervision for autistic adults whose behavioral challenges prohibit them from living on their own. WNC Group Homes, who owns five facilities in Asheville, have been testing their new Kenmore Street location since January, which replaced a Montford home that WNC described wasn’t built for their needs.

WNC teamed up with Tyner Construction, Co. and architect Andrew Willet to design a hybrid that could withstand pressure but not give off a sterile, cold feeling. The walls were created with high-impact drywall, a material often used in hospitals and detention facilities, but can also hold up against sudden emotional outbursts from its residents who may be unable to express their emotions in a more subtle way. The counters were constructed with extra-durable granite, and the trim is stained wood, which doesn’t chip as easily as standard painted moldings.

Not that visitors would notice right away. The walls are painted beige and the home is an open-floor plan, filled with light and lined nearly floor to ceiling with windows. Even the residents live out the home’s hybrid model, who all participate in sports and arts programming and hold jobs with various employers.

Casey Blake, who wrote the story, may have been inspired by Autism Awareness Month as the article’s web page includes a notice about WNC Group Homes and a link to the Autism Society of North Carolina’s website. Had this story been published in another time, the timing would have been more questionable since the story occurred long after the group home opened (stories on new facilities are generally released near or soon after their opening date). Still, Blake’s profile of the facility may highlight the future of caring for autistic adults as the public wonders what their future holds once their youth services end.

Blake offers one possibility by sticking with a hybrid theme for both the home and its residents. As with any other group home, the design incorporates the challenges of its residents, which are sensory sensitivity, accessibility and emotional outbursts in this case. While the aesthetic incorporation was the core of the story, she could have stopped reporting about the residents after explaining how the home could adapt to them. Instead, she continues her interview to reveal how the Kenmore residents are contributing to society, even if the rest of the public would take those contributions for granted.

Caretakers who clients include autistic people stand to gain the most from Blake’s story, by either following the WNC Group Home model for their Kenmore location (reaction has been overwhelmingly positive) or contacting their local reporters to highlight a similar hybrid home. Autism coverage of old often painted grim pictures of autistic adults whose symptoms were too severe to completely integrate with the mainstream. Blake doesn’t play “happy-go-lucky” with her story, but she does communicate that even the most severely impaired individuals who require special needs can enjoy some of the comforts their unimpaired peers almost expect.

In face of ridicule, Wakefield fights for his theory

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Photo by Shaun Curry, Getty Images

The start to the 2011 calendar year was rocky for Andrew Wakefield, whose study was declared false by British journalist Brian Deer, who published several stories in the British Medical Journal highlighting Wakefield’s alleged false claims and unethical practices. Deer compared Wakefield, who lost his medical license after his study linking M.M.R. vaccines to autism was retracted last year from the medical journal Lancet, to a religious leader who occasionally uses the smoke and mirrors technique to goose the faith of his followers.

Deer’s investigation was one of many facets spilled out in an article by Susan Dominus for The New York Times Magazine, a longhand form of the country’s most recognizable newspaper. As with any form of magazine writing, the stories take on the form of novels and are more descriptive, too descriptive for me to summarize in shorthand form. That’s no reason to turn away though, as Dominus provides an insight on Wakefield no American reporter has offered before. Through her journey interviewing and shadowing Wakefield, we learn that Wakefield himself didn’t claim proof that M.M.R. vaccines were causing autism, but that didn’t stop his concerns from spreading worldwide the same way viruses spread through the body until its defense mechanisms can suppress it. If recent media coverage is any indication, Wakefield became one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, receiving blame for starting a panic that led to the resurgence of diseases long squashed by vaccinations.

Despite the wave of damning evidence which has led him to close himself professionally, he still draws followers, as 250 attended a discussion he conducted regarding his work. His supporters view him a hero when nearly everyone else paints him as a villain. Wakefield himself believes public health officials and pharmaceutical companies pay bloggers to post vicious material about him. Throughout the story, Dominus compliments Wakefield’s persuasive skills, even when the audience knows better. Wakefield continues to fight and promote his theory, with Dominus adding that the more he has sacrificed (he resigned from London’s Royal Free Hospital following his publicized concerns and now lives in Austin, Texas), the more he must believe in his theory, or all efforts will be rendered useless. Ironically, medical experts suggest aggressive studying of the M.M.R. vaccine following Wakefield’s 1998 media splash means the vaccine is one factor than can be ruled out in a disability still shrouded by mystery.

Dominus assures the readers that she isn’t necessarily siding in Wakefield’s camp, but she does give him an opportunity to present his case as other reporters who interview Wakefield quickly write him off as a discredited liar. By not falling into the dramatic trap that can detract storytelling from other outlets, readers of this story see why Wakefield continues his battle for reputation with his supporters waiting in the wings to back him up. We even learn a few personal anecdotes about his life before gaining his notorious status in Great Britain and most of the United States.

In order to obtain the behaviors, characteristics and traits Dominus lists regarding Wakefield, interviewing goes well beyond the simple press conference or brief one-on-one interview. Traveling with the source and immersing in the source’s comfort zone is common, and more relationship skills are needed to ensure you get the story requested in your assignment. In the case of Wakefield, encountering Dominus and her approach may have been more comforting since she offered a value other reporters decided to box away, even though she was no less neutral than shorthand writers covering the Wakefield saga. Ultimately, Dominus reveals the basis of Wakefield’s support comes from parents seeking answers who credit him or his associates for trying a possible solution, even if the strategy is cautioned by others (including casein and gluten-free diets, a media craze for a short time).

Magazine-style writing allows writers like Dominus to include more details and examine many subtopics of a story that traditional news articles can’t provide because of space or time constraints. Her observations may not remove Wakefield’s “villainous figure” in the eyes of the medical community, but just as the Marvel Comics movies emphasize human elements within their villains, Dominus’ story leaves Wakefield less clear-cut than previous mainstream glimpses portrayed him.