The Autistic Journalist

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Archive for the ‘stereotype’ Category

The Onion peels a few autism layers

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John Cariani as Michael Falk. Courtesy The Onion

Perusing through some autism links through various Google searches, I came across a video with an autistic reporter from The Onion’s fake news program, Onion News Network. ONN episodes can be watched on the Independent Film Channel or its website. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, its roots began in print and has expanded to other forms of media. All of its reporting is false and mostly a satirical look at the way we report and absorb real-life news. While that premise sounds similar to the fellow news satire program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central juggernaut bases its humor on true stories.

Once you peel the top layer, exploring its inside reveals a fake story released in January where Michael Falk (played by actor John Cariani), the autistic reporter for ONN’s FactZone, is assigned to cover a gathering of crying people (better known as a funeral). The link I provided has an advertisement you must watch before seeing the story.

Falk is insensitive to the feelings of others who are mourning the death of a Washington, D.C. woman, asking her mother how she feels about her daughter’s death despite the imagery and emotional display suggesting a tearful atmosphere (a play on lack of empathy, a common characteristic of autistics). Falk then provides statistics that would be irrelevant in an actual story as The Onion continues its attempt at comic relief. They include the color and number of buttons on the mother’s shirt, followed by rattling off Detroit homicide numbers to a city councilman, even though the story is taking place in Washington. Of course, Falk rarely establishes eye contact in his one-on-one interviews, another symptom associated with autism spectrum disorder.

This was Falk’s first of two appearances so far on IFC’s Onion News Network show. Unfortunately, The Onion has not provided a link to his second story, where he fails to grasp the weight of a man run over by a train trying to save a woman’s purse. A YouTube copy of the video exists, which I linked here, but I can’t guarantee that clip will remain on YouTube. Mainstream press reaction was rather muted, but a few members of the blogosphere officially countered the assumption that autistics are emotionless. Landon Bryce of thAutcast.com accuses The Onion and IFC of bigotry in both video clips, and questions what exactly The Onion is satirizing when Falk returns for his train accident story. His concern is people who watch those stories will assume autistic people don’t place value on human life as other humans do, while fellow autistics who find this story amusing could be buying into the stereotypes.

Falk’s stories ring a parallel to what I mentioned last year in a news aggregate research of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, who many believe is autistic and led to the creators publicly refuting the idea in interviews. Because Falk has a stated condition before he presents his stories, The Onion may have removed the comedic value it was trying to provide by lampooning the social ineptitude we generally think of when we hear about an autistic person. Instead, they left the door open for criticism because they’re mocking a mental disability, rather than peculiar behaviors as Sheldon exhibits on CBS’ hit program. However, since The Onion is completely satirical, that may have shielded them from larger media exposure we would have seen had a more traditional news organization been accused of mocking autistic people.

Mental disabilities have always been easy to poke fun of by comedians and comedic organizations because the symptoms stand out significantly compared to other human characteristics. The same reasoning can be applied for the increased likelihood of bullying against the mentally disabled, and that feeling could be behind the negative reaction to the Michael Falk character from some bloggers. I do have to credit The Onion for its accuracy in depicting the condition, but perhaps more thought was needed on why an autistic reporter character was included for their Onion News Network show. Bryce interpreted the videos as showing autistic people are incompetent of any task outside of what was exhibited in Rain Man, and his concern is valid with the low employment of autistic people in this country.

You could simply rebuff all this by saying “It’s only a joke.” While the stories don’t display actual beliefs on what autism is, they do highlight the slippery slope of sensitivity that will arrive with the continuing saturation of autism in our country. The Onion would likely not satirize autism at all if they didn’t sense there was enough familiarity with the condition, and they may unintentionally provide the first lesson on how autism will be approached from a comedic point of view.

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.

Autism and ADHD not taken seriously for girls

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Unique challenges are presented to anyone that enters into existence in this world. Females endure the tougher and more painful process of giving birth, deal with a consistent barrage of stereotypes that attempt to persuade them to look a certain way, live their life where the presence of breast cancer is always a possibility. Now a researcher in Sweden says girls with autism or ADHD may not be taken seriously by healthcare professionals, who may downplay or misinterpret their problems.

Not much is explained in the story from UPI, but it’s not poor journalism. A neighbor of mine works on the UPI sports beat and informed me that several writers post short stories for syndication in Internet and newspaper feeds.

However, the story does provide another international insight into autism. Whether this downplay of issues is only present in Sweden or throughout the world, it doesn’t take long to find possible explanations. I’m not an ADD or ADHD expert, but autism is far more prevalent in males than females (four boys for every girl, according to the latest research). Not surprisingly, you’ll find a lot of male subjects on autism profile stories. Ironically, the most prominent autism figure of today is female: animal doctor and professor Temple Grandin. Grandin doesn’t shy away from speaking about the subject, but for those not familiar with her work or the disability in general, there’s a potential to misinterpret the disability as something that only afflicts boys.

Most papers or Internet news sources will likely run the feed and think little more of the subject, but there’s definitely a story potential to see how girls with autism or ADHD are treated in countries where both disabilities are heavily addressed.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 6, 2010 at 7:39 pm

People confusing learning and mental disabilities

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USA Today reported findings of a telephone poll conducted by the Tremaine Foundation today, discovering that 79% of parents and 80% of non-parents associate learning disabilities with mental retardation (Acknowledged dyslexic Jay Leno wouldn’t like this), while a majority of Americans (no exact numbers are given, but we know it’s at least 51%) also incorrectly group mental disorders like ADD and autism with learning disabilities. While there’s a greater understanding of disabilities and thought processes of people that continues to grow, the Tremaine Foundation is concerned about confusion with teachers and parents in addressing those affected by a learning or mental disability. A learning disorder doesn’t affect a person’s intelligence, only the brain’s ability to process, store and respond to information.

This may explain why reporters continue to stress the general symptoms of disabilities despite the increase of coverage and resources for those diagnosed with some sort of condition. While it’s clear that a large segment of the population is mixing things up, no margin of error is listed because the results are clearly one-sided (if you’re curious, it’s 3.1% based on the 2010 census estimate of the U.S. population. I linked the calculator here for you to try). Margins of error are generally listed when opinions are closer to an even split, and will be shown on most political polls.

Regarding why there’s much confusion on what is a learning disability or mental disability, only theories exist, but the USA Today story could be used as a springboard to dive into what would be a deep pool. Many profiles of autistic people will show difficulties in mental capacity, where an adult essentially has the mind of a much younger person. Few autistic kids are mainstreamed at school and the portion of autistic adults successfully integrating in social or work environments is also small. Many are mute as a result of their communication shortcomings. How those issues are interpreted as learning disabilities is difficult to determine, but the lack of vocal communication and approaches for it could be a false alarm, since speech problems can be addressed through therapy.

On the flip side, learning disabilities, including dyslexia, could be incorrectly seen as mental retardation when the general lack of understanding about disabilities among unaffected individuals is applied. Because the brain cannot handle information in the same way as others, people afflicted with learning disabilities often require some assistance until a solution is found. Such assistance may be seen as mentally inferior, even though data proves otherwise.

Now that a background exists on why almost every autism story includes a factoid on what the condition is, the logical step for news outlets is to examine what causes the mix-up between learning and mental disabilities. Otherwise, we may continue to see old facts about most common disabilities rehashed, taking up possible space or time for things to help our understanding move forward.

Autism “thunderstruck” by new controversy

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Think the vaccine debate is the only hot topic brewing in autism’s domain? If vaccinations were, they’re not alone anymore. Another lightning rod has surfaced in the form of 22-year-old Ari Ne’eman, who was nominated to the National Council on Disability by President Obama. Ne’eman’s nomination is currently on hold. If confirmed by the Senate, Ne’eman would be the first autistic person to serve on the council.

Sounds like a benchmark, right? Why Ne’eman was placed on hold may not be determined since holds can be issued anonymously (Obama’s seven other nominees to the council were confirmed earlier this month). What isn’t helping his situation is criticism he’s received by some autism advocates for his belief that autistic people should be accepted as a form of neurodiversity instead of being cured.

If you’re new to autism, it’s often referred to as a spectrum disorder because symptoms and severity can range. The common thread is impaired social interaction, but they could have anything from no verbal language to savant skills in communication. Ne’eman himself has Asperger’s, considered a high-functioning form but now a candidate for possible removal from the autism spectrum. Ne’eman is the founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and his belief mirrors a  growing movement that autism should be accommodated and not eradicated, citing the steps taken for people with physical disabilities, including ramps and bathroom stalls.

Ne’eman has spoken with the New York Times before, suggesting that pursuit of a cure, instead of improving quality of life, will provide few benefits to severely afflicted autistic people. Critics argue his philosophy only represents people who can communicate and take care of themselves. Autism Speaks, whose mission is to finance research for a cure, says Ne’eman fails to understand or sympathize those affected more severely than he is.

Autism Speaks’ rebuttal is hardly a surprise since Ne’eman himself criticized Autism Speaks over a fund-raising video last year. While Autism Speaks is the largest advocacy group in the country, their views are rarely met without criticism that began with the release of the Autism Every Day documentary 4 years ago. Critics accused the film of depicting autism as a disease that doomed the inflicted and anyone surrounding him or her. It’s worth noting that Autism Speaks doesn’t have anyone on their board with autism spectrum disorder.

I mentioned in my post about Wakefield’s ruling from the General Medical Council that the story crossed one controversy off a very long list, and the biggest squashing of the vaccine-autism link would open the door for another hot topic to swoop in. The vaccine debate still lingers, but a cure/no cure rivalry could be a candidate to take over the hot seat. The size of Autism Speaks allowed them to take the first swing at addressing the topic to a national audience when mainstream reports finally made the airwaves and newspapers about 5 years ago. After reading this article, I’m almost certain that journalists have gone away from the overview and moved to the more complex controversies surrounding it. I produced a documentary series on autism a few years ago as I was unsatisfied with the lack of digging from mainstream media, and it appears I won’t be digging alone anymore.

Regarding the story itself, Obama may have nominated him as a reflection of his attitude toward the treatment of different communities. Instead of a hard-line strategy that many consider a benchmark of the Bush years, Ne’eman’s beliefs and accomplishments in his own right could have persuaded the president to recruit someone who could speak for a group that rarely gets a chance to do so. Although a stretch, Ne’eman may mirror Obama himself: both have advocated for topics that aren’t necessarily popular or understood because they believe it’s the best way to make progress in the country. Whether they’re right or wrong is not my place to decide, I’m just discussing a theory on why Ne’eman was given the nomination.

The controversy of responding to a growing autistic population carries a few parallels with the hot buttons surrounding the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. In fact, you could replace autistic with gay in articles and chances are the story would still make sense. While I doubt we’ll see autistic marriage bans, the sense of panic over difference definitely carries over.

If Ne’eman is confirmed, and there’s nothing to suggest that won’t happen, pay attention to any statements released by him or his critics (primarily Autism Speaks). If both sides get big enough to dominate air time on cable news or print space on newspapers, the nomination could serve as an origin. Controversies are ugly, but Ne’eman could potentially be the springboard for other high-functioning autistic people to not only advocate their own stories, but perhaps pursue their dreams knowing that it’s truly possible for them to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I’m still waiting and attempting to create my chance 😛

Fabil teaches us about autism’s indiscriminatory targets

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Dianaoriginals.com

AOL occasionally highlights articles originally published for its Spanish-speaking audience. One of them was a profile piece on Diana Trevino-Wilson, whose expertise in graphic design led to a series of flash cards called Fabil Teaches. Available for parents of any language, the goal is to help children understand prepositions, tenses, pronouns and feelings (some highlighted in the picture).

Fabil was originally created in 1990, but Diana used the character to help her autistic daughter understand things most parents take for granted with neurotypical children (although they too can benefit from Fabil Teaches as the article indirectly demonstrates). Diana also accepts special requests for cards when the normal set is either too advanced or too simple.

From a journalistic perspective, this is simply a profile piece about a mother of an autistic child who found a way to help her daughter adapt to the modern world. But there are two bits of information that demonstrate ways autism transcends what you might read in mainstream news sites (traditional newspapers and television broadcasts). The first is the publication site of this story, designed for the Spanish-speaking audience, particularly the Latin-American population that resides in the country. With the group providing the fastest population growth due to mass immigration, it’s only logical to expect a rise of autism in communities whose roots lie in Central America. The story defeats the stereotypical portrayal of autism only affecting European-Americans, something we shouldn’t assume as whites slowly shift to a minority status in the United States.

Second, the writer found a story within a story that tells the audience how a cartoon character helps autistic children express their thoughts in an appropriate manner also helps other children do the same, regardless of their mental state. Give credit to the reporter for considering the audience while keeping the focus on autism. The audience is a very important factor when crafting stories. You don’t have to submit to their every request (no two viewers/readers will agree on everything a reporter should do in a story), but you’ll get their attention if you find a potential impact one person can make. Few people reading the story will have an autistic relative.

The writer also considered the audience when crafting the lead, which continues the shift I’ve seen in autism articles that abandon clinical definitions to focus on developing stories. We still understand its effects by using Diana’s personal endeavors of learning about her daughter’s autism diagnosis and how that could affect her development.

The article provides evidence that autism will continue to integrate with communities as a whole and, unlike race relations, cannot be separated to deflect the problem. However, Diana’s Fabil is one way autism can teach all of us about typical child development; that even the most normal of kids will accomplish learning milestones in various ways and various times.

Written by TheSportsBrain

March 4, 2010 at 1:10 am

After review, the ruling on the field is…

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I did a little research after blogging about Monday night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory about Sheldon Cooper and his connections with autism spectrum disorder. This should make things more clear, but as we’ve seen several times this season, there’s always room for overlap.

Last summer, creator Bill Prady went on the record saying Sheldon doesn’t have Asperger’s in the face of unscientific polls suggesting the contrary. Prady told TV Squad’s Allison Waldman that he never had Asperger Syndrome or any form of autism in mind when writing for Sheldon, writing the character as the character.

The A.V. Club discovered in an interview with Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, that Parsons himself asked the writers if he had Asperger’s. Parsons hasn’t approached them on the topic since, but he read Look Me in the Eye by John Robison after Big Bang co-star Johnny Galecki recommended the book, noting the comparisons to Sheldon. Parsons notes the intellectual nature of Sheldon’s character makes it easier for viewers to leap into the autism realm; he often wonders what elements of the autism spectrum are included in scripts despite the character not being on the spectrum.

Waldman’s analysis mirrors my conclusion on why the writers refuse to make the leap, but she presents the argument in vocabulary that would not rival Spock (I consider him to bear the closest resemblance to me of any fictional character, read my Star Trek post to find out why): If Sheldon did have a diagnosis, his friends could no longer mock him and would be constrained by the nature of the spectrum (implying an ironically interpersonal quality for a condition known to create introverts).

There is a precedent: an episode of House featured an autistic child and suggests a possibility that Gregory House’s personality is a result of Asperger Syndrome, a hypothesis that was later refuted by his colleague, Wilson, as an excuse for his behaviors.

After reading these articles, fans will have to carry on with Sheldon not having an official diagnosis in the same way multiracial people carry on with their lives even with the current President not officially recognizing his multiracial status. Given my examinations this week, perhaps we’re looking for a label to please ourselves than the actual parties involved. Sheldon is quite hilarious on his own as fans wait to see what nerdy exploits he pursues, what ways he’ll insult Penny, and how he’ll annoy his friends to no end. What more could be requested for a show that bases its comedy on intellectualism, a rarity among the prime-time lineup?

I’m sure I’ll find another show this season and in years to come that highlights Sheldon’s “trips” to the autism spectrum while not staying there permanently.