The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Placing autistic brains “on the map”

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Erin Allday of the San Francisco Chronicle filed an article this weekend reporting a Stanford University research project suggesting autistic children have a distinctive topography within their brains, based on data obtained from brain scans of 24 autistic children between ages 8 and 18 when compared to scans of 24 non-autistic children. Unlike previous studies that analyzed the overall volume of the brain, where it was found that autistic children generally have larger than average brains, but the information wasn’t refined enough to be useful in diagnosing or treating the disorder, the Stanford study sectioned brain scans into tiny cubes and compared the size and structure through computer analysis. What they found was a pattern of organization in regions of the brain affecting communication and self-awareness particular to autistic children (communication and awareness are hallmark facets that autism affects).

The brain maps applied to 80 to 90 percent of autistic children, and the research pinpoints a potential bio-marker should the maps be replicated in a larger group of children. While the research is years away from application in the real world, coupled with questions about the method’s validity in screening children, the goal is providing refined treatments and clearer understanding of autism’s impact on a vital organ. The research was published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Numerous studies and endless research attempts to find a biological indicator for autism spectrum disorder will continue as long as the cause of the condition remains unknown. On this blog, I’ve covered urine tests and studies on genetic proteins as potential signs to determine whether or not a person fits the autism spectrum. The explorations of so many subjects aren’t all that different from “old wife’s tales” of treating various conditions. When there’s a lack of concrete indicators for a disorder or disease, researchers task themselves to discovering at least one answer. Throughout the quest, numerous possibilities and theories emerge until further research either eliminates them or creates new support to continue investigating a certain topic. Unfortunately, the process is agonizingly long and often ignored by a mainstream audience thirsting for instant gratification, and that’s one reason why stories I cover on biological research often mentions such studies are years away from widespread relevance.

Another reason? Small sample sizes. In order to determine whether a theory is potentially correct or not while avoiding over-exerting resources, autism studies will generally use a localized test group that rarely breaks four figures. This story is one example of how quickly patterns and similarities can be found among people with a particular condition, and that itself is progress compared to scientific observations of autism 20 years ago.

Allday goes through the usual angles in covering this story, explaining autism’s rapid growth while a solution to finding the cause continues. I’ve mentioned before that stories on studies are difficult to provide detailed information because what is published is usually an early step of testing a hypothesis. Allday tempers any reader who may spout that a bio-sign was found by uncovering the unknown usefulness of the research itself. Stories like hers will continue to be published to newspapers as a “mainstream translation” of what is disseminated by journals, even though answers lie far beyond. However, when a biological cause is found, reporters will hopefully have at least one story of their own to reference.


iLove the iPad (and always will)

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Courtesy Tim McCarthy, Asbury Park Press

Alesha Williams Boyd of the Asbury Park Press is the latest reporter to uncover the autism community’s love affair with Apple’s iPad computers. Several New Jersey school districts are purchasing iPads for special needs students for the upcoming 2011-12 school year, with a private school requiring families of students to purchase the mobile computers.

The mobility, aesthetics and the ability to install apps to personalize each system are a few reasons why iPads are such a hit for the mentally disabled community. The director of special services at New Jersey’s Marlboro Public School district credits Apple’s product for drawing autistic kids out from themselves. The iPad’s ability to provide a means of communication via screen images for autistic children is well-documented, but thanks to the app market, school districts are also using iPads to encourage autistic people to make eye contact. Even if such applications have a price tag (according to the article, some cost as much as $200), many still consider the iPad a marvel with its $500 list price compared to bulkier, bigger, more complicated devices that can reach four figures.

What about students with other disabilities? Boyd covers that segment in the first few paragraphs, reporting applications allowing students to organize their activities, thoughts and assignments (a boon for autistic children who adhere to routine), and apps that can vocalize text or translate the spoken word into text. Not enough? Settings on some apps can be adjusted to the type of touch students produce, and can also be rigged to challenge students to exercise their motor skills with different forms of touch.

I doubt this will be the last time iPad and autism blend in the same article, but future media coverage could become stagnant if future versions of the iPad aren’t considered revolutionary for the disabled population. Coupled with similar abilities from the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple’s sister products, stories on the benefits of these devices will find difficulty creating new flavors for an audience that follows autism news via the Internet, where geographical boundaries are neutralized. However, the primary reason for future media coverage that could repeat itself is all about the audience. Similar stories to find a place on this blog originated from Houston and the Twin Cities area, so to assume New Jersey residents would know of those stories would be unwise. While this means using a search engine for stories on autism may produce carbon-copies published in different outlets, local organizations aren’t worried about similar coverage outside their market.

However, Boyd does show her readers the iPad’s potential outside of the autism community, where most media coverage in this topic is focused. Truthfully, the advantages of the iPad aren’t any major revelation these days, but Boyd does answer the call for communities who may feel overshadowed by autism coverage. Examining the benefits is useful beyond informing the audience for Apple’s sake. Since Apple releases new editions of their products on an annual basis, viewing its impact across multiple facets may assist them with improvements for future editions through app technology or hardware components.

I had to learn to communicate through more traditional computers since touch-based technology was far from wide use growing up. I can’t say I’m more or less fluent with computers than autistic kids who use iPads are, but I can predict school districts will eventually saturate their special-needs students with iPads when budgets and resources allow for the opportunity, and you can bet I’ll follow the news coverage generated from the implementation.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Ari Ne’eman, “wired” and unfiltered

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Two things became clear to me as I read a Q&A by Steve Silberman, a contributing editor for Wired magazine, with Ari Ne’eman, now the first openly autistic White House appointee in the country’s history. First, my blog is drawing more eyeballs than I thought. A friend of mine, who runs the blog site, linked me to a MinnPost story via Twitter. MinnPost, in turn, linked the original story on the Wired website. I’m aware people do visit my site, since I can track how many visits are made in a window of time, but people I’m connected with are now just starting to send me links to news stories involving autism.

Second, Ne’eman and I appear to notice the same patterns in the treatment of autism in society, even though we’ve never met and likely lack parallels in our examinations of the disability. That doesn’t qualify one of us over the other, our paths merely lie in different directions.

The last time I talked about Ne’eman, he was still awaiting a Senate holdout blocking his confirmation. The hold, which can be placed anonymously, was later dropped, but not before controversy swelled within the autism community as divisions still exist on adapting versus curing autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, Ne’eman’s drawn flak because of his functionality, with critics suggesting he’d overlook the plights of more severe autistic people. Ne’man’s philosophy also ignited flames, with his belief that more resources should be devoted to helping autistic people adapt instead of finding a cause or cure to prevent the condition in future generations.

I won’t discuss much about the Q&A itself, since the only true intervention from the reporter is what questions were included in the story and how many quotes were included. However, Q&A sessions are no less credible than crafted stories in magazines and newspapers. A Q&A gives the audience an unfiltered discussion, where the reporter and viewer become listeners.

Wondering about what patterns him and I noticed? Ne’eman was asked about autism’s cultural shift from invisibility to media darling in the 21st century, and his response was that a special skill or astonishing success story was needed to gain representation in media (he discusses the other category of autism stories in other questions, where the picture is far more grim). His recommendation? Learning about autism doesn’t have to come from himself, Temple Grandin, or John Elder Robison (author of Look Me in the Eye), since so many exist in educational and workplace settings.

While I cannot measure individual experiences with autism outside of my own, reading the Q&A does highlight autism’s complexity and summarizes what may be a future focal point for journalists covering autism.

An “apple” a day keeps autism away

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If only autism were that simple to solve. Probing the mind of Apple owner Steve Jobs may be next to impossible for us non-celebrities, but he certainly found a way to attract a group whose minds are also difficult to comprehend. Several news outlets are carrying a story originally from Houston about the iPad assisting autistic children in communication (the link takes you to CBS4’s version). Specifically, parents who purchase an iPad can store pictures or other visual cues while their child taps or scrolls to point out his/her needs. While not documented for this story, I’m certain the benefits go beyond autistic people who don’t communicate orally. Whatever the benefits, autism experts believe the iPad is the next step in filling gaps autistic people have that other don’t.

This isn’t the first time Apple and autism have tangoed in the news together, as an autism center in the Twin Cities implemented iPods last year. Other stories have focused on the iPhone, which some joke is an iPad nano that makes phone calls. Evidence is mounting to support Apple’s surprising benefits for autistic people, regardless of what device is used.

I did scope the other versions of this story online, as some news stations will employ the technique of video news releases (VNR’s).  A VNR is essentially an advertisement or pitch created by a company that looks like a news story and is presented as such during a newscast, but the subjective nature can be detected easily by watchful eyes. A case could be made that I’m discussing a VNR, since the same story has appeared in three websites and highlights the iPad, Apple’s latest foray in the netbook PC market (yes, Apples are technically PCs). However, the iPad has no rival at this point, and previous articles have focused on the relationship between Apple and autistic people. On top of that, no computer company is specifically targeting the autistic demographic simply because there’s little financial stability in that group, rendering any marketing ploy ineffective. The more likely scenario is  was one station ran the story, other news outlets saw it, and decided to use the story themselves. Borrowing stories, especially from a major network’s local affiliates, is also common in television news.

There’s a common thread among all the Apple devices I mentioned that I believe is the reason their products are gold mines for families affected by autism: they’re all touch-based. Apple released the iPod Touch around the same time as the iPhone, and the iPad is nearly an identical alternate form of its predecessors. The touch-base technology allows anyone to navigate apps, software, images, just about anything, with a lower learning curve compared to standard computers. While assuming that only Apple products can help autistic people would be foolish (I’ve used Windows PCs for all my blog entries on this site), its storage and navigation techniques are intuitive, especially for non-verbals. They still may not speak, but the ability to communicate through alternate forms is increasingly easier.

Apple is known for updating its products annually and introducing new devices quickly, with a captive audience of techies and journalists who will scoop up almost any Apple lead. However, when the next product is released, there’s a good chance more news stories will be published about its unseen advantages for the autism community. One of my technology friends noted its power in uniting communities, and Apple is definitely showing strides for at least one of them.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

Autism may be a matter of math

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No, I’m not suggesting autistic people are automatically brilliant mathematicians (says the person who can calculate basic operations in my head at breakneck speed, often visualizing a typeface to represent my equation…usually the eggcrate font seen on many game shows of the past, including The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune. I might need a new hobby :-p). A study reported by NBC San Diego suggests toddlers who spend at least 69% of their observation time gazing at geometric images, such as those found on computer screen savers, are highly likely to fall in the autism spectrum.

Why is 69% a big deal? Because most other children would use that time engaging in interactive games, such as peek-a-boo. The University of California-San Diego, who published the study, responded to their findings by saying parents should simply speak to their pediatrician if their child is choosing to spend time gazing at moving geometric images versus engaging in more social activities.

Before anyone comes up with the idea of setting up a screen saver with a game of peek-a-boo, remember that the subject of fascination is geometric images, and that doesn’t account for other issues with a screen-to-screen interaction versus face-to-face. While a lack of interest in social activities is no secret to the autism community, the craving for geometric shapes intrigues me, yet makes sense when applied to my own experiences. I was a fan of game shows as a kid because of their highly structured set-up, but there was an abundance of shapes to be found. The title object in Wheel of Fortune is a giant circle, Jeopardy! is filled with quadrilaterals that pop up on the screen, and both were things I could easily visualize as a kid (along with Jeopardy’s enormous flashing logo used through the mid ’90s, image below). Coincidentally, both shows require a good amount of math to keep track, although none of it is related to its geometry embedded within the set.

The article is similar in nature to my last post about the study exploring infant gazes and autism. Combine the two stories and you’ll quickly notice a theme involving a lack of gazing at people. The fascinations that replace them may change as children get older, but both studies present possible clues or signs to answer the question about your child on the spectrum. Curiosities lead me to ponder if studies are in the works involving adolescents and what they enjoy observing. While there’s no linear link between autism and activities, I can’t recall too many journalists investigating what young autistic people notice in place of typical interests.

I don’t see a swarm of attention on what autistic people gaze at in the future, but I see these articles and studies possibly giving us more signs and reasons to be socially aware, regardless of who is or isn’t on the autism spectrum. My psychologist mentioned how autism can teach us a lot about typical human development in my first autism documentary. We may be teaching ourselves now.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 7, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Autism finds its way to the gaming world

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Courtesy Bioware/Electronic Arts

Note: This post discusses possible spoilers, so if you’re interested in playing and haven’t completed the mission I talk about, you may want to put off reading this.

Autism has been explored in the fictional and real environments on television and film, but Bioware and Electronic Arts may be the first to include the spectrum in the gaming world.

The game happens to be Mass Effect 2, the second of a three-part space opera trilogy and a huge critical and financial success (the series is most comparable to the Star Wars saga). Bioware is supplying a lot of content for download in between releases of this game and the upcoming Mass Effect 3, which is standard for many PC games today. As such, the mission where autism comes into play must be purchased separately from the game through Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 site. Titled Project Overlord, the protagonist Commander Shepard is asked by Dr. Gavin Archer to stop a rogue VI from possibly wreaking havoc in the galaxy, as the VI can interact with and control most synthetics (ships and/or robots).

As Shepard (the player) progresses through the mission, he/she gains access to data files detailing the creation of the VI that went rogue. Shepard discovers Archer wasn’t totally upfront with his information: Archer was the lead researcher in the project and used his autistic brother, David, as a test subject to integrate with the geth, a technological race of AI robots. Shepard learns that Archer saw David’s condition as a handicap until he sees his autistic mind as useful because of his supreme mathematical skills. Before integrating David with the geth, Archer says David’s mind is as alien as an actual alien, but he still must use him in the experiment. Shepard eventually destroys the rogue VI program and finds David in the VI core, begging for mercy. Shepard then has a choice regarding David’s fate, although the influence of that choice may have little effect in Mass Effect 3 (decisions made in the first two games could influence what happens in the third).

Not even the hard-hitting social justice Star Trek franchise has touched on the autism spectrum, so Bioware at least deserves credit for its implementation of the disorder in a mission plot. Even in a futuristic sci-fi world, players who have some understanding of what autism is should find parallels with older representations of autism in fiction. The character of Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man had a difficult time accepting his brother as an equal and used Raymond’s mathematical abilities to his own advantage to win a large sum of money in blackjack (although the money won was used to pay off debts). Loosely applied, the Project Overlord mission represents what some neurotypical people see with autistic people: an alien mind that’s difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.

Nonetheless, the plot is quite dark and it’s obvious that several moral breaches were made in the experiment, with David’s pleas for help clearly indicating that autistic people do express emotion. While Mass Effect 2 isn’t as gory as other M-rated games, the mature theme in this mission and throughout the game isn’t for the kids.

What this mission will accomplish outside of the game for ME2 fans is unclear. Chances are they won’t be too meticulous about it since completing the primary storyline and achieving desirable results can take about 24 hours of play time (there’s plenty of dialogue among the characters). A more intriguing question is if more games include autism as a plot device. Video games can bring us to very realistic worlds now thanks to improvements in graphics, while story elements have also expanded for the same reason. I’ll be surprised if a game is ever released where a player could use powers from an autistic protagonist, but I don’t believe Mass Effect 2 will be the only time we see autism in gaming.

Computer program could detect signals of autism

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Before Saiqa Akhter dominated autism headlines this week, science produced news that could assist developing an objective form to detect autism, marking the second time this year I’ve come across an article that discovers new possibilities.

The first brought forth the theory of using urine tests to diagnose autism. This time, scientists say they’ve designed a computer program that can distinguish speech patterns between autistic and normal children, correctly identifying more than 85% of its subjects. Scientists working on the study discovered that autistic children mangled their syllables for much longer than non-autistic children, making a diagnosis easy for the computer program. However, those involved in the study recommend caution: the lead researcher doesn’t believe the program should be the sole measurement in determining who is autistic.

The article may be another sign of an incoming phase in autism coverage. A CNN article a few years back highlighted the primary problem of no objective method of diagnosing autism. A couple years back, ABC News reported a study that found certain genes in an autistic person’s DNA lie dormant. With two discoveries this year, it’s clear there’s a focus at finding something that will make autism diagnoses foolproof (there’s some skepticism at the rapid increase in autism diagnosis rates). While the Internet posts its share of contemporary issues, the medium is also proving its use at publishing articles paving new paths for the autism community, and it goes well beyond Google searches. Home pages of various e-mail and Internet service providers have a page that features major news stories at the moment, much like the front page of local and national newspapers did before the delivery of news rapidly increased speed. Because these sites update their top stories every few hours, topics ignored by other outlets have a place to carry their information.

It would be a safe bet to suggest more objective methods of looking for autism in children will appear, although how coverage will branch after that is unknown. Reporters may choose to focus on how soon objective tests will be put in place, others may weigh pros and cons against the status quo, and there may be a chance of hearing stories about psychologists’ appointments dropping because their services will no longer be required to provide an autism diagnosis. Of course, they will still be needed to help manage autistic people’s behaviors. In any case, expect computers to be at the forefront in finding an indisputable form of detection.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 23, 2010 at 11:39 pm

A “yes or no” question

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If British doctors successfully develop a test to detect autism, then the questions about getting the condition would be reduced to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Like a pregnancy test, the test would detect the condition from a few drops of urine. The urine test would speed up diagnosis of the condition by removing psychological visits that are currently used to determine if someone is autistic. The test is based on research showing autistic people with different bacteria in their guts than other people. Depending on the success of test trials, the urine test could be widely available by 2015.

Of course, diagnosing autism wouldn’t only become faster, but more accurate. Many issues surrounding autism now, including its causes, are fueled by the lack of an objective way to detect the condition. Assuming that autistic children retain the different bacterial “fingerprint” as they become adults, the urine test could also put a hard number on just how many people are autistic. How diagnosis rates would be affected are unclear, but the test could halt the alarmist hyping of increasing diagnosis rates in mainstream media (1 in 110 for the United States, more than 1 in 100 for Great Britain).

The test would also remove the “gray area” with people who believe they’re autistic, but only possess certain traits of the condition and not enough to make a confident diagnosis.

At this point, I can’t see a risk of an adverse reaction from the public on the urine test. All the test will do is determine if someone is on the spectrum or not, it doesn’t pinpoint a cause for the condition. If we do see the test hitting the market, I doubt we’d see less furor from vaccine skeptics since children are given their first shot almost immediately after birth. Instead of claiming that children developmentally regressed after taking a vaccine, skeptics could claim that a child’s bacterial makeup was normal until a shot was administered. However, there would be no reason for skeptics to refuse a urine test since nothing will be placed inside a child’s body.

What may be limiting coverage of a potential breakthrough is the nature of tests and studies themselves. Developing new technologies is a time-consuming process, which doesn’t fit well in regards to the speed of developed societies. Speaking of speed, the urine test won’t be available to the public for at least five years. While we all say five years go by quickly when the time period is complete, it’s a very long time in communities where instant gratification is demanded and people get upset if problems aren’t fixed instantly (the current political mood is shaped by this mentality. Politics not your thing? Look at head coaches in sports who get called for removal when they barely get time to implement their style). Newscasts won’t likely lead with a story that could take more than five years to develop.

Even if progress goes at a snail’s pace, it’s the first sign that many people in the autism community have been looking for over the last few years. No longer would people have to wait for a child to lose developmental milestones before action is taken to help a child adapt. Quicker intervention is a tactic I’m sure no one would have a problem with.

Written by TheSportsBrain

June 9, 2010 at 10:06 am

Software does all the talking for autistics

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Even if you’ve only followed autism in the headlines for a short time, you’ve likely discovered that a good percentage of autistic people are non-verbal, meaning they don’t communicate through spoken word.

Some do nothing, some dwell on what could have caused a child to become truly speechless, but one British father decided to create a software program to help his son communicate. Speaks4Me is compatible with Windows from XP onward, and plans are underway to sell a software-only platform and a version for gaming consoles and mobile devices. As of now, Speaks4Me is only available through a touch-screen media player. The program works by dragging and dropping images from one area of the screen to another. When a sentence is complete, the user presses “verbalize” to have the computer program audibly repeat what the user wants to say. Stephen Lodge, designer of the software, believes the program would also benefit stroke survivors who can no longer speak.

The fact that Speaks4Me could benefit several communities of disability makes the story noteworthy. There’s also a secondary message of how addressing issues of a disability versus gloating about them can lead to real changes in the way people handle those who fall outside the neurotypical realm. The article also highlights a rare connection between autism and technology. Often, technology is mentioned only when vaccinations are included in the article’s storylines (and that’s a stretch in terms of defining technology). However, the last instance of technology relating to autism on this blog wasn’t that long ago, when I discussed how movie theaters were offering autism-friendly screenings.

Speaking of screens, this program stands to have a very good chance of success because of the visual nature of the program. Verbal or not, autistic people are often visual learners. They enjoy repetitive tasks because they’ve observed and memorized them. They use visual images to understand messages because it requires little or no interpretation (live sports coverage is a sightly heaven if there’s an interest in athletics). Users can quickly associate images with words or phrases on Speaks4Me, which also could spark a creative surge beyond using a computer to speak.

The United Kingdom will remain a fruitful source for autism stories, but don’t be surprised if you see a report or two on this software pop up in the states, especially if the software itself can be sold for installation on our home computers. If successful, expect at least a possibility of a cross-platform version for Mac compatibility. In the whirlwind of autism, technology will constantly remain a bright spot, offering hope that otherwise may not exist.

Written by TheSportsBrain

May 10, 2010 at 8:20 pm

It’s autism awareness month, so let’s see a movie!

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Joel Wintermantle, Chicago Tribune

Most of you people familiar with autism know that April is more than bidding farewell to snow and cold temperatures until the next holiday season (up in Minnesota anyway). April is also autism awareness month, and April 2nd is recognized by the United Nations as World Autism Day. Expect more activity than usual on this site as autism coverage often ramps up in the beginning of the month.

Kicking off the month is a night at the movies! Actually, it’s more a day at the movies, and two theater chains are offering movie screenings designed to allow autistic children to discover why the rest of us enjoy watching a film in theaters. AMC and Kerasotes Theaters in the Chicago area have programs in place to accommodate the bohemian behaviors that usually frustrate moviegoers who have little knowledge of the autism spectrum. AMC runs Sensory Family Screenings while Kerasotes hosts All-Star Saturdays. With both programs, the sound level is reduced while light levels are increased to compensate for the often-increased sensitivity to light and sound from autistics. Children can also clap, dance and sing along to the movie without getting thrown out; autistic children will respond the way their minds tell them to act (not much different than the rest of us, except we don’t say as much during a movie).

I’m not aware of any programs in the Twin Cities area, and as you may have guessed, I don’t require special accommodations to attend a movie screening; my favorite theater to attend happens to be a Kerasotes in downtown Minneapolis. The urban crowds are much looser and find a laugh even with the most serious of films. But I’m not the only autistic in the Twin Cities, and now I won’t be shocked to learn about a theater program that caters to the autistic population in the neighborhood. Logically speaking, offering this alternative benefits all parties: Families can bring their children and not worry about potential outbursts, which often prevents them from seeing family-friendly content before it hits DVD shelves, while the previously untapped audience generates revenue for the theaters and movies. The special events are held monthly (AMC) or weekly (Kerasotes), so there’s little to gain economically in terms of overall revenue for a specific film, but nothing boosts your business like brownie points spread through word-of-mouth (and families affected by autism aren’t too silent).

Special movie screenings are part of what I consider the second phase of autism coverage in popular press. The audience has some understanding of what’s going on, and now appear eager to know what is being done to assist autistics beyond the medical realm. The story is significant because locations that gave us an early glimpse of the spectrum (where else did they show Rain Man when it was first released?) are now giving kids on the spectrum a choice that would never be available when Rain Man was pleasing audiences. Given the popularity, this could inspire other arts venues to give families a choice neurotypical peers often have.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 2, 2010 at 12:37 am