The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘strengths of autism’ Category

Sheldon Cooper’s got company

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Before you ask, no one on The Big Bang Theory has said Sheldon Cooper is officially on the autism spectrum. So what other connection could possibly exist? Hardcore fans may recall Sheldon enrolled in college at the age of 11. While the subject profiled in a TV story for MyFOX Atlanta (the local FOX affiliate) has aged another year before doing the same, the future North Georgia College and State University autistic student is no less an intellectual prodigy. George Franco, the reporter assigned to the story, highlights Alex Beach’s fluency in Japanese and Latin, his music composition and his chess skills. For a student who went blind in one eye due to a young childhood disease, calling him a visionary might be an understatement. His mother said Alex could have started college at age 10, but she and her husband decided to hold him until this June to develop Alex’s social skills.

The 12-year-old also takes martial arts training, with his mother serving as his instructor. His mother says the physical and social contact of the sport assist Alex with his autism spectrum disorder, and she will commute with him daily when his college classes start. Alex will be on his own, but the school will be ready to provide assistance. Alex’s mother also told Franco that not allowing his intellect to grow could have adverse side effects, even if he doesn’t act his age socially.

Alex’s intellectual abilities may ring parallels to Sheldon Cooper or Raymond Babbitt’s skills exhibited in Rain Man, but such skills are statistically rare in autistic people. Estimates suggest only 10 percent of the autism population possess above-average IQ in a particular subject, and a documentary produced 10 years ago on Discovery Channel reported that savant skills can deteriorate with the growth of knowledge of other subjects processed in the brain (nothing recent has refuted that theory). This area of autism isn’t linear either; many success stories of autistic people aren’t necessarily due to outperforming most peers in a certain subject, but folks like Alex reinforce the sometimes buried benefits an autism diagnosis grants its inhabitants.

As I’ve mentioned before with TV news, time constraints and the characteristics of the medium don’t often allow in-depth stories. Franco features only Alex and his mother for the story, yet his limits don’t restrict him from spilling out why Alex could most likely kick our butts on Jeopardy!. While unexplored plot points do exist, including where and how Alex caught up with his social skills to assist his adaptation to college (a stage in life some 18-year-olds aren’t always ready for), television is about showing the meat of the story hard and fast. If additional time remains to explain secondary plots, then television journalists will make the exploration. Otherwise, the focus is efficiently informing the audience why they should care about who gets TV time. However, Franco indirectly highlights the positive role of involving autistic children in activities with his fact about Alex’s martial arts training.

There’s a good chance Alex will receive more TV time in the future, as his bright mind will only expand in college. His story is growing riper for a medium increasingly eager to find more “pedestals” in the community, and this journalist can theorize Alex Beach will eventually be categorized in a long list of autistic people who could school us on material we thought was mastered. The key for future stories is displaying those talents while balancing the human element that exists, even inside the autism community.

Temple Grandin, promoter of strength

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Temple Grandin, right, signs autographs and chats with two spectators following a lecture at SUNY Ulster. Photo by Kelly Dornicik

Autism’s longest-recognized advocate made another splash on Friday at SUNY Ulster in New York. Temple Grandin, who earned the respect of her professional peers and the admiration of a nation after her designs for cattle-handling facilities were widely adopted, promoted pushing autistic children out of their shells during her speech. Michael Novinson of the Times Herald-Record was there to cover her appearance.

Grandin has consistently emphasized teaching basic manners and social skills for autistic children, as well as channeling their interests as a parlay for employable skills. Her firsthand experience is referred to by supporters as living validation that a “marketing strategy” is beneficial. While Grandin had difficulty integrating with her peers on a social level in agriculture engineering classes, they quickly latched on when she presented her sketches (although she noted encountering a few skeptics in her first book, Thinking in Pictures). Grandin also spoke about the increasing prevalence of medicating autistic children. She believes exercise and dietary changes should be implemented first to address behavioral issues in autistic children, and medication only if previous methods are unsuccessful.

Compared to other stories I’ve discussed in the last week, Novinson’s article is a simple event coverage story. Readers who know of Temple Grandin already have some familiarity with her life story, but her name recognition continues to attract press coverage from local reporters when she visits their coverage area. Novinson only quotes Grandin from her speech and bookends the story with two sources who weren’t given quotes, but still displayed the mentally stimulating effect Grandin carries as a speaker. A similar approach is seen with Novinson’s short add-on about autism and medication.

Speeches and press conferences possess the fluidity of water; no two events run by separate organizers will be alike in their approach. While reporters can receive press releases or schedules revealing the event’s course and time frame, they have to be prepared to incorporate speakers in whatever capacity they offer. There may not have been a one-on-one with Grandin scheduled out of personal discomfort, time constraints, or another reason totally unrelated to either theory. Ideally, most journalists will attempt to conduct a one-on-one before or after a lecture, and if that plan is unsuccessful, they’ll rely on the speech itself to guide the story.

Covering Grandin is a challenge in itself; she’s appeared in virtually all forms of storytelling through her own books, a documentary, TV appearances and an HBO film with Claire Danes assuming her character. The best tip for reporters is not to stress over one-upping others who filed reports on Grandin, but recognize the significance of the story she creates.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 24, 2011 at 10:58 am

Call him many things, except the R-word

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Photo by Bev Horne, Chicago Daily Herald

The R-word, standing for retarded, has recently joined campaigns to end other incorrect uses of words demeaning to certain groups. In the same vain as using “gay” to describe something unfair, “retarded” has gone through a desensitizing process in 21st century culture (did we all forget about “suck?”).

Kristy Kennedy of the Chicago Daily Herald profiled one autistic senior determined to bring us back to the days of “sucks” and “stinks.” Jordan Schubert, who will be graduating from Neuqua Valley High School soon, points his breakthrough moment to 6th grade, when he and his sixth-grade basketball won a Special Olympics gold medal. Schubert’s public speaking skills, not a common trait among autistic people, grant him speaking opportunities with groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the “R-word.” For good measure, Schubert and his Special Olympics co-host from a youth summit last summer created a soccer league that teams up disabled and non-disabled students.

Schubert himself isn’t surprised the word “retarded” is in contemporary vocabulary; his peers in middle school used the word to describe anyone or anything stupid. So he decided to speak to younger kids before they start using “retarded.” Schubert’s also changing perceptions of the autism spectrum with his on-camera poise; he produces stand up reports for the high school sports program and submits stories for the Neuqua Valley’s weekly news program. Fluent in Spanish and college-bound, his dream is becoming a foreign language teacher for students with special needs.

Quite a track record for a sports enthusiast. Schubert’s interests and ability to integrate with the mainstream may, ironically, explain why he’ll hear “retarded” being used among his peers. He’s quick to point out the negative connotation behind the word, and his campaign has won support from fellow students. The big issue with demeaning words that are incorrectly used in sentences is simply a numbers problem. Although there are no exact figures for the GLBT or disabled population, by percentage, their representation is small. With low odds of constant communication with either of these groups, using “gay” or “retarded” usually carries the same repercussion experienced when YouTube users post hateful comments on videos: little or none. Schubert’s peers understand what’s going on because they interact with him on a daily basis, likely allowing them to relate on the feelings he and other disabled people experience when the word “retarded” is uttered. Without that exposure, incentive to educate the self drops, increasing the likelihood of grammatically incorrect sentences.

Kennedy quotes many sources to tell the story of one, a technique not often seen in profiles of autistic people (and sometimes other people), but had she not sought insight from his peers, coaches and instructors, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have learned all of Schubert’s pursuits. She seeks to balance the leadership skills Schubert beams to his equals with his personal interests to remind the audience he’s still a teen. For an added touch, Kennedy ties in Schubert’s quest with legislative action in Illinois, where the state Senate passed a bill that would replace “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state statutes. Although such a story will have autism communities beaming themselves, Kennedy’s story communicates that Schubert isn’t all that different, even if he carries a more specific label.

His developmental key is also no different than most others who find professional success: they discover their passions early. Schubert’s was sports, playing baseball, basketball and football. You’ll also find him cheering on NASCAR, the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Bears. As long as there’s a supportive environment, kids will latch on and build off their interests. For parents of autistic children, their strategy should be no different.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schubert become a vocalist for the disabled community with the contributions he’s already provided. Journalists can take note of this story as well, as Kennedy points out autism, as with other disabilities, doesn’t necessarily define character or ability.

ESPN, the worldwide leader in autism?

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50 Tyson photo courtesy of Hudson Records

If you’ve never heard of ESPN before, congratulations on escaping your cave. The network that launched SportsCenter and grew from its small Bristol, Conn. roots in 1979 to a cultural phenomenon can now claim they covered the first publicly-known autistic rapper: Minnesota native 50 Tyson.

You might say “What does 50 Tyson have to do with sports?” Although 50 Tyson, whose real name is Antonio Henderson-Davis, did play high school football for Minneapolis Edison High School, ESPN usually sticks with professional and NCAA Division I sports. That’s where Antonio’s record label comes in; his owner is former NBA player Troy Hudson, whose most productive years were with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Freelancer Kalani Simpson contributed a profile for ESPN’s page 2, a site for sports figures in the news but not necessarily for athletics. Because the article is geared toward a national audience, Simpson gives us a quick glance at how 50 Tyson landed a record deal, an accomplishment not all musicians get early in their lifetime (Antonio turned 18 recently). Hudson watched YouTube videos posted by Henderson-Davis when the rapper sneaked his sister’s camera and spit off a few freestyle rhymes in his bathroom. Now, Henderson-Davis has released his first album to coincide with Autism Awareness Month, aptly titled “50 Tyson Presents the Rhythm of Autism Vol. 1.” Simpson, who writes a weekly column for FoxSports.com, would have posted this story sooner, but his interview with Hudson and Henderson-Davis was delayed as both sought out a tuxedo for Henderson-Davis’ school prom.

Although concern lingers with how an autistic music artist will handle show business, Hudson believes the biggest name on his label will change the world, with Hudson still learning about what he calls his most important project he’s ever done. 50 Tyson has no trouble embracing his autistic roots; he headlined a concert during the Autism Society of Minnesota’s annual fundraising event.

In terms of young autistic celebrities, 50 Tyson has the most staying power. Jason McElwain flooded the airwaves five years ago with his famous 20-point performance in his first and only high school basketball game, but attention has faded. The owner and writer of this blog has morphed into an adult but is still looking for a big break in a profession with less glamor than music, although no less fulfilling. Meanwhile, 50 Tyson has grown to be a darling of the locals for the same reason McElwain and this writer developed followings of our own, regardless of the magnitude, we found a talent of some sort and that trait has captured the hearts of a public still investigating autism itself. 50 Tyson’s mainstream exposure has permeated for some time now, gaining fans who are notable names themselves and last fall’s Star Tribune profile piece that introduced the Twin Cities rapping sensation to his hometown media market. Even one of my friends paid a visit to get a photo with him following a recent Timberwolves game we attended. We have yet to hear of any fallout with 50 Tyson and his label, or with anyone else, which is a positive sign in the fast-paced business of music.

As I mentioned in my first discussion of 50 Tyson’s mainstream coverage, the community still holds genuine curiosity about his activity because he’s in a position no known autistic person has assumed before. It’s an interest that may not fade for years as 50 Tyson grows in age, wisdom, ability and possibly name recognition. Even though ESPN placed Simpson’s story on Page 2, the network owned by Disney isn’t shy to promote stories of this nature when there’s a sports tie-in, as Troy Hudson has with his NBA career.

Speaking of the story, Simpson’s may sound redundant if you’ve followed 50 Tyson to this point, but when you’re writing for a national audience about a personality who isn’t too famous outside of Minnesota, you have to consider the number of first-time readers when writing the story. Simpson also had to factor an audience whose source of news doesn’t explore autism as deeply as general news outlets. Considering those elements, Simpson was effective at briefly explaining Antonio’s differences compared to his peers because he also included a storyline to keep Antonio human. For parents who worry about their children ever going to a prom, seeing a rapper getting ready for one is a welcome line of reading.

With Antonio approaching high school graduation, watching his career evolution will reveal more to an inquiring public on how autism can adapt to the entertainment industry. You can follow 50 Tyson’s career path as well by visiting his website

Asperger’s? Autism? What’s the difference?

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Charlie and Raymond Babbitt eagerly wait to see if the roulette wheel will stop on Charlie's number. Courtesy MGM/United Artists

Jeanne Millsap, a writer for The Beacon-News, a publication of The Chicago Sun Times, brings us to a relatively unexamined destination in the autism spectrum (and my third in a day that brought me to a Pennsylvania affiliate, a national story and the third largest media market in the country): Asperger’s Syndrome. Throughout her exploration, she parallels the confusion parents and other adults have with an Aspergers diagnosis, who say they knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite identify it. A psychiatrist at the Institute for Personal Development said he has Asperger’s patients in their 40s who knew they were quirky but unable to find an explanation behind their behavioral differences.

Millsap frequently references the 1988 Academy Award-winning film Rain Man, as her sources say Raymond Babbitt, the character that landed Dustin Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar that year, was a perfect example of someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis. While its classification is under review, Asperger’s is associated with the high end of the autism spectrum. Intelligence and verbal skills are on par with peers not affected by a mental disability, but they have trouble communicating and interacting with people. As Raymond exhibited in the film with Jeopardy!, The People’s Court and Wheel of Fortune, people with Asperger’s can have intense preoccupations with subjects or items. While symptoms do exist, their subtlety can lead parents and even individuals with Asperger’s to wonder if there really is a problem or ponder about over-thinking their behavioral characteristics. Like the rest of the autism spectrum, Asperger’s diagnoses are increasing as a result of improved screening for all levels of the spectrum.

The story highlights what I was alluding to in my last post about the inverted pyramid. While the structure is common, not all stories dictate the use of that strategy, and Millsap’s is one of them. Instead, Millsap introduces us to the condition through a fictional character most are familiar with, and uses Raymond Babbitt to guide us through Asperger’s and its link to the autism spectrum. Where this story falls flat is its lack of human sources. The psychiatrist is the only person voicing the story with Millsap, even though there were plenty of opportunities to introduce more personalities. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are more likely to vocalize their stories simply because their verbal skills are better than other members of the autism spectrum on average. Guessing why we only hear from one person is too hard to tell, as Millsap could have been under deadline pressure, denied access to the psychiatrist’s patients, or she simply could not find a subject willing to conduct an interview.

However, getting the perspective from someone who lives on the spectrum daily would have reinforced the ideas and traits the psychiatrist presented in his interview, or introduced new angles to a story people are struggling to follow. Getting at least two sources reduces your reliance of writing the story around one, and creates an opportunity for a dynamic flow that allows the story to breathe with little intervention from the writer. While a profile piece sometimes only needs one source, a more broad topic often requires multiple avenues to tell the story adequately.

Millsap or another Chicago Sun-Times writer could easily expand on this exploration, even if there’s a skeleton crew of fictional characters to relate to regarding Asperger’s Syndrome (the NBC drama series Parenthood features a boy diagnosed with the condition), and who’s to say they won’t do so. Even in the third largest media market, the thirst to understand how minds work persists with the audience.

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.

Temple Grandin preaches autistic skills at Minnesota

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Continuing to catch up on my articles, a friend of mine linked a Star Tribune story in late February highlighting a Minnesota visit from Temple Grandin, who spoke at the inaugural Autism and Employment Forum at 3M’s headquarters. 

3M, Cargill, Best Buy and the Autism Society of Minnesota sponsored the event, designed to raise awareness and boost hiring levels of autistic people, where the employment rate is a measly three percent (lower than the winning percentage of the Minnesota Timberwolves). While the general lack of social skills can present obstacles in finding a full-time job, employees of the event sponsors believe autistics are the largest untapped pool of talent. Grandin suggested Silicon Valley, Hollywood, corporate labs and IT departments are loaded with “well-paid” individuals who would fall on the spectrum (autism’s diagnosis rate is difficult to track with people who may be autistic but not carry an official diagnosis).

Grandin’s biggest suggestion for employers was to be specific because most autistic people may misinterpret what is being said. She listed an example of taking a 30-minute lunch break within a two-hour time block instead of saying the lunchroom is available from the opening to closing time.

I can relate to the difficulties of finding employment, especially with my chosen field and media market size (the Twin Cities is the 15th largest market and larger organizations skew towards veterans of the journalism trade). Unless you plan to relocate to a smaller market (and most of my peers who decided to stick with journalism have), freelancing and networking are two ways to offset the lack of regular work that has come my way. Social skills are a must with my profession, as I frequently have to make eye contact with my colleagues and subjects. Fortunately, implementing those facets aren’t difficult as I enter my third season covering the Minnesota Lynx and wrapped up my fifth season covering high school basketball.

Dee DePass’ story is no surprise for two reasons: the keynote speaker is the most highly-regarded individual on the autism spectrum, and Grandin’s keynote highlighted an issue that will face virtually all autistic people as the population sees an increase of aging spectrum inhabitants. However, the forum tackled just one facet of the challenge with autism and employment from the employer’s perspective. In terms of job hunting, little is known about how that will be addressed. Will it require autistic people to apply and perform job interviews? Will there be a job fair designed for people on the spectrum to meet with prospective employers? Those are future questions for further exploration in this division of autism news coverage. DePass’ story is effective with showing how adding autistic people can enrich the workroom for the same factor that leads to the hiring of others: the skill sets may be similar, but with every person comes an opportunity to improve and grow. Cargill expressed their gratitude with Grandin at the forum, who pioneered equipment designed to better handle animals.

If nothing else, readers may hopefully grasp the notion that employers are taking notice and adapting to the needs of a new breed of workers, which may calm even my concerns as I continue my quest of networking and job-searching. DePass’ story doesn’t account for the job market itself, but employment opportunities as a whole can be discussed elsewhere.