The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘acceptance

Caution ahead

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Photo by John Luke, Northwest Indiana Times

Lindsay Machak of the Northwest Indiana Times covered an incident whose psychological implications weren’t fully explored, but bound to stir up thoughts to readers. Julia Cox, who successfully campaigned to have a sign placed in her neighborhood alerting motorists of her autistic son who sporadically elopes, believes a vandal targeted her family because of her son. Underneath the sign (seen with Julia in the photo), someone painted the words “Retard F U.” Cox later painted over the words to avoid other children from seeing the language, and a graffiti team later returned the sign to its normal state.

However, local police aren’t so sure the vandalism was indeed a hate crime, with Lansing police saying the crime didn’t go far enough to be investigated as such, even though they note the distastefulness of the vandal’s word selection. Police are also reluctant to conduct a full investigation because there is no known offender and little information about who is possibly responsible. Cox is simply hoping the sign won’t be vandalized in this manner again.

From a criminal perspective, graffiti is commonplace but detection is not consistent. Usually, only paint is needed to make a graffiti hit on property. In neighborhoods such as Cox’s, vandals can avoid losing their cover by performing graffiti at a time when most of its residents are sleeping, as even a few public places aren’t equipped with surveillance systems to discourage such behavior. In terms of enforcement, police may allocate resources to combating more serious crimes that can more severely compromise the public’s safety, unless such graffiti instigates violent behavior. However, they are not completely immune to being reported should a passerby and/or night owl take notice, and those who are caught won’t escape without penalty.

Cox’s claim that the sign’s vandalism was the result of a hate crime is also not easy to process. Hate crimes themselves carry a legal definition, used to describe bias-motivated violence on the basis of personal characteristics. Traits include race, religion, appearance, nationality, language and disability. Incidents include offensive graffiti and/or damage to property on the basis of personal characteristics, which would contradict quotes given by the Lansing police officer in the story if simple definitions were applied. Based on what the Lansing police officer said, it’s possible he or his department have processed more grotesque hate crimes within his jurisdiction that went beyond graffiti on public property, or he could have been speaking generically.

Furthermore, without any clues to the culprit, investigating the incident as a hate crime is difficult to justify. Theoretically, Cox herself could have vandalized the sign to attract attention to herself, although committing such an act would be illogical considering the amount of time lobbying and receiving a sign to alert people about her son. If the perpetrator was indeed found, as was the case in a January incident in the Twin Cities reported by several news outlets (I linked WCCO’s version), finding ground to consider the incident a hate crime would be less difficult.

This also brings up the emotional investment of mothers regarding their children born with a “disadvantage.” Paternal instincts influence their thought process,  which can lead them to decisions or beliefs they wouldn’t otherwise possess. There’s no way to determine if Cox would still believe such an act would be a hate crime if autism didn’t affect her personally. This is not to say having children leads parents to making illogical, impulsive decisions, but their feelings may simply reflect a retaliatory mood should they believe their children are under attack. Thoughts of vengeance are nothing new, if recent media coverage of Casey Anthony’s trial provide sociological indications.

The story itself does more than simple police blotter because its nature doesn’t carry the repetition of “typical” crimes. Making specific signs warning of handicapped people has been somewhat controversial, as concerns, such as what Machak reports, creep into the public psyche. Other worries reflect potential consequences of publicly “transmitting” that at least one person in the neighborhood suffers a mental disability. Machak deduces that leading the story with the events that led to the sign would clarify why its vandalism was troublesome, as most readers would ponder over a “Caution: Handicapped Person” versus “Stop” or “Yield.”

Future story paths will be dependent on what happens to the sign. If graffiti continues, stories on public safety for the disabled may appear, which may lead to a closer mainstream examination of addressing the public about people who suffer from autism and other disorders. It could also re-open a dialogue on the struggle for acceptance in the face of other characteristics.

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Autistic kids can shout “Hallelujah”

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No three-month hiatus this time, although I’m surprised at the number of visitors who have found the site since my last post.

And the number of young autistic visitors for church services is also on the rise. Kelly Heyboer of USA Today published a story late last month highlighting increased acceptance of autistic parishioners in church services by illuminating efforts in New Jersey. The director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities for the Archdiocese of Newark said despite the heart and theology Christian churches offer to patrons, not all who attend worship live the meaning. The director runs the “Attends Mass” program that offers training for religious educators and support groups for parents, while a few churches host an event similar to sensory-friendly screenings from movie theaters. Called Inclusive Family Masses, autistic children can be loud or disruptive with no chance of being escorted out of church.

Caldwell College and its campus chapel also actively engages in integrating autistic children with Christ, where a new Center for Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis just opened. A Caldwell graduate student was featured by Heyboer for her involvement in the “Mass mentors” program. A dozen New Jersey children have buddied up with mentors who train them on proper behavior while attending Mass. The process, the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Caldwell’s graduate student, begins by bringing children to the last five minutes of Mass and slowly adapting them to the entire service, called “backward chaining.” The executive director for Caldwell’s autism center says “backward chaining” is applicable to any religious following.

Heyboer bookends her story with the “backward chaining” approach, even though readers aren’t aware of the term until the next-to-last paragraph. Her first two paragraphs highlight the method’s effectiveness with an autistic boy who spent months of training to manage Mass, while the end of the story spells out the steps I listed earlier. No quotes are given to non-scholarly sources, not even from the mother and son featured in the lead, with the expected angle of struggling with church placed with a mother of an autistic teen who also is a task force member of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. While her experience may validate the obstacles she battled with bringing her autistic son to church, readers don’t get much perspective on the response from beneficiaries of the services featured in Heyboer’s article. The premise would likely be similar, but getting a word with people not directly involved in efforts can provide a more unbiased analysis on the success rate of implemented programs.

Heyboer’s story is a far cry from the controversy generated three years ago when a rural Minnesota church filed a restraining order banning a 13-year-old autistic boy because of loud outbursts (and that story was played heavily in Minnesota media as such a move was unprecedented to journalists). With Minnesota’s growing ties to autism in the Somali population, where Islam is the predominant religious practice, I wouldn’t be surprised if a religious leader or two from that community picks up this story and applies the “backward chaining” method discussed at the end of Heyboer’s article. The struggles families with autism face at their place of worship are already documented in Twin Cities media, which included a discussion of how far is too far when balancing accessibility and safety. Not seeing a similar story in the Twin Cities may sound surprising when they were briefly the center for autism and religion at first, but since several methods in Heyboer’s story are relatively new, not even the speed of today’s news will ring bells in the brains of news producers and editors immediately.

Regardless of the denomination (the story focused on Catholics), big crowds, loud music, and long periods of silence or monotony can overwhelm the senses. Combine nerves of parents already cautious about bringing their autistic children in public places, and not even the teachings of religious leaders can prevent isolation. Such concerns have led some priests and parishioners to discourage autistic children from attending church service. Heyboer’s story suggests that trend is reversing. No matter who people worship, I imagine families with autistic children will have their prayers answered, if not already addressed.

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.