The Autistic Journalist

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Archive for the ‘support’ Category

Broadway experiment? Hakuna Matata

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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Autism dashes another victim’s optimism

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Ben Barnhard, courtesy Associated Press

I always stress that autism itself cannot kill its inhabitants directly, but the stress and frustration that builds with raising children on the spectrum can lead caregivers to murder, as was the case with Margaret Jensvold, who killed her 13-year-old autistic son and then herself in a story published by Eric Tucker of the Associated Press and syndicated to Huffington Post. A dark irony in this instance was Jensvold’s occupation of a psychiatrist.

Police found a note along with their bodies earlier this month, with Jensvold saying she couldn’t deal with the Maryland school system and that debt was strangling her. Family members said Jensvold was increasingly strained by financial pressure and fights with the Montgomery County public school system as they refused to cover tuition costs for Ben Barnhard to attend a private school for special-needs students. Jensvold didn’t want to return her son to a public school district where family members said she felt harshly judged and marginalized while Ben had struggled.

The note added that Jensvold killed her son so he wouldn’t experience of the trauma of losing her mother, with Jensvold’s sister noting she wouldn’t believe Barnhard would mentally recover from such an event. Barnhard spent nine months at a weight-loss boarding school after he topped the scales at 275 pounds, and he dropped more than 100 pounds when he finished his time there, gaining new-found optimism about school and being a kid again. The day after Jensvold killed herself and Barnhard, a check came in the mail from her sister’s mother for $10,000 toward tuition at the private school she was hoping to enroll Barnhard in.

This is the third article I have dissected on my blog where an autistic child was killed by his or her parents, and recurring themes are all too similar: parents are unable to handle the challenges of raising children whose development doesn’t align with neurotypical kids, with their emotional stress exacerbated by the feeling of isolation from the community. Unfortunately, this leads parents whose conflict management skills are vulnerable to taking the life of the children they gave birth to. Imagine how Jensvold’s circumstances could have changed had she not become mentally unstable and held out for at least an extra day, where she would have learned that support was coming for her son.

Covering a story like this is not much easier than it was for the sources to speak about what happened (Jensvold’s sister and Barnhard’s father were interviewed). Since Tucker is an Associated Press employee, his story follows a specific format that’s about as hard-core as you can get with journalism. Opinions from authors of AP articles are non-existent, and since AP stories are often distributed throughout news outlets across the country, their writers will craft the story for a national audience as they cannot predict where and when their stories will appear online or in print.

Even with the guidelines, there still is room for some creative flow in AP stories, as Tucker leads with Ben’s achievement at the weight-loss boarding school he attended after enduring years of taunting from classmates. Similar to the mission plan of the Syfy series Alphas, Tucker sought to communicate qualities to the audience that highlight how Ben’s previous weight problems and autism spectrum disorder had little effect on his interests or capacity for autism. Midway through the story, he does the same for his mother. While it won’t change the fact that Ben’s mother ultimately killed him, Tucker does his part to humanize the story’s subjects to increase audience accessibility.

Instances of parents killing autistic children are rare, but the emotional weight of murder often means such deaths will likely find their way to online media. Autistic children shouldn’t live in fear of being killed by their parents, but Tucker explains through his reporting why murder/suicide is a poor solution. Tucker and the Associated Press won’t make a call to action themselves, but perhaps readers who know of parents traveling through an environment similar to Jensvold’s will pick up the cue.

Autistic people are not alone in growing

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

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

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

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

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