The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘ABC News

Autism’s “brain power”

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Courtesy Jochen Sand, Digital Vision/Getty Images

A story picked up by several news outlets, including Reuters and ABC News (whose version I’m critiquing in this post), reports results of a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggest autistic children have heavier brains and an overflow of brain cells called neurons.

The study is crucial because it presents the first exhibit of hard evidence of brain development veering off course for autistic children. Previous research showed that autistic children have larger heads and brains, with key regions that develop communication overgrown.

The study, using brains of 13 boys that were donated for scientific study after their deaths, discovered that brains of autistic children have 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than non-autistic brains. The prefrontal cortex is linked to emotional, social and communication processing. The study’s lead author notes how surprising the finding was, also suggesting the abnormal development occurs in the prenatal stages as neurons aren’t generated in the prefrontal cortex after birth. Autistic brains also weighed 17.5 percent more than non-autistic brains.

While a future avenue could be explored in the research to find a cause, many point out the findings are preliminary and don’t apply to children and families currently dealing with autism. There is also no way to analyze brain tissue of living children.

The small sample size and lack of immediate impact may discourage some readers upon encountering this story. However, the findings are notable with several major outlets offering their version of the results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although not new, the story does reveal through autism brain research that a physical characteristic that could possibly signal the condition exists, but not every person with a larger-than-average head will automatically develop the disability.

As with most study findings, extrapolating the results to a form that fits mainstream journalism remains simple, yet difficult. When combining the small number of brains studied with the lack of any immediate significance for the autism community, the challenge for reporters is seeking a relevant development for a scientific breakthrough. In this case, Gann points out that discovering that an abnormal development occurs before birth could lead to improved screening efforts in the future.

Another possible avenue that could be investigated with the knowledge of this study are what effects larger, heavier brains with more neurons could have on autistic people. Several stories on this blog and general knowledge will highlight the untapped gifts of the autism spectrum, including superior memory skills and focus. This is by no means a suggestion that larger brains equal smarter people, but considering the astonishment from the public when autistic people demonstrate skills with general knowledge, but a plethora of stories relating to autism and the brain could be found should this study lead to more examinations.

For now, we’ll have to settle for current methods of diagnosis as science always approaches its studies with a methodical attitude.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm

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 to the rescue!

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I’m not sure autism played a role in this, but I don’t think teacher Sheri Lowe cared about what conditions her students have either. A 10-year-old autistic boy, who’s also a Cub Scout, employed the Heimlich maneuver when Lowe choked on an apple. Crisis averted, and a boy who was usually picked on by peers is now a hero.

It’s likely that the boy’s experiences with Scouts taught him a few things on handling potential small-scale disasters. News stations have a reputation for hyping up these kinds of stories because of the positive outcome. Autism just got thrown into the mix in the latest version.

The ABC News reporter touched on that, but didn’t frame the story to make the boy’s accomplishment something that he wasn’t expected to do. I’m sure all of his teachers will feel a little more comfortable after seeing his skills :-). While many Scout groups and other organizations that teach safety skills will use this story for their Heimlich lesson plan (to prove that the maneuver does work), psychologists and therapists might want to note this too…as a message to caregivers that autistic people do give a damn about others involved in their lives, even if those feelings aren’t blatantly expressed.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 16, 2009 at 11:46 pm