The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘AOL Health

Books are “in” for sharing autism stories

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My apologies for not keeping up more frequently during Autism Awareness Month. Duties at my station and the Minnesota Festival of Nations precluded my attention to the site, but with things quieting down for the moment, I have more time to address the site again.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed with the explosion of media resources available on autism, it’s parents often writing books profiling their own journeys handling autistic kids. The latest to come forward is Shonda Schilling, wife of retired MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, with her book: The Best Kind of Different. She details her experiences raising Grant, the only child with Asperger’s Syndrome among 4 kids. Shonda shared some of her obstacles in an AOL Health Q&A.

Unlike Jenny McCarthy’s book, which documented the process that she believed “cured” her son from autism, Schilling considers those on the autism spectrum as having rewired brains. She also doesn’t equate Asperger’s, autism and autism spectrum disorder together. Parts of her story are familiar with other parents: wondering if she was a bad parent, what her son’s future would hold when she learned about the diagnosis, autism followers should get the drill by now. Unique to Schilling’s story was enduring her son’s uncommon behaviors often without her husband, until he officially retired from baseball in 2009. While most marriages end in divorce when autistic children are factored (the rate is far higher than those without autistic children, although celebrities could give families affected by autism a run :-P), Curt and Shonda hired a counselor to help sort out their differences. Since his retirement, Shonda says Curt has experienced her parenting struggles.

Shonda won’t be the last parent affected by autism to articulate her trials by written word. The variables are no different than what I’ve observed in faster, less detailed media on autism: that individual results will vary. Studying the Q&A, however, not getting a diagnosis for Grant until age 7 may have benefited her and the Schillings. Most kids have completed the largest percentage of vaccinations at that time, and her interview didn’t indicate that he regressed after getting vaccines. There are too many variables to make an indisputable conclusion, but it’s clear she chose to focus on what’s ahead for Grant, which will help him as he continues to develop.

I’m surprised Shonda’s book release hasn’t been played up more since the author herself is rather optimistic about her relationship and her children. However, Shonda doesn’t have the level of star power that McCarthy has (and only sports fans would be truly aware of husband Curt), and her perspective on autism is far less controversial than the former Playboy playmate’s. Mainstream media may see the release and her stories as “white noise” on the topic of autism, but I can’t imagine parents aren’t looking for ways to not only adapt with their autistic child, but their own relationship to ensure that autism won’t destroy the bond. The future of autism can be just as optimistic and unpredictable as every other disability or disease out there, but I’m not sure if major news outlets understand that yet.

Written by TheSportsBrain

May 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Q&A…what am I thinking?

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AOL Health posted a Q&A session a couple weeks ago with Jeanette O’Donnell. For the rest of the world, she runs a Blogspot site called What Are They Thinking? (a link to that site can be found in the article I linked here). The title relates to her family: Five of her six children are autistic, but O’Donnell will be the first to blog about how all her kids have improved with adapting to the “neurotypical” environment since they all received their diagnosis.

Q&A’s are a quick way to tell a story without have to interpret what the sources say. Most interviews use this format before they’re edited for print or broadcast. They’re a good way for beginning journalists to develop their skills before having them prune their quotes later on, but they can be effective, especially with sensitive topics like autism. The article’s writer develops a better shield against claims of bias since all they write on their end are the questions, perhaps trimming some of the answers before publication.

In regards to the article, the interview strikes an unusual tone. O’Donnell mentions some controversies she’s dealt with in autism circles because of her approach to the disorder. Her strategy definitely isn’t within the confines of conventional wisdom: She doesn’t believe in chelation (a procedure that removes heavy metals from the body, a hot topic now with the unsubstantiated belief of mercury causing autism), special diets or any other remedy that is popular with parents but unproven in science. O’Donnell believes media coverage plays a role (when in doubt, blame the media…wait a minute, what am I thinking? 😛 ), making autism appear desperate and something that must be eliminated to sustain order in the mental health world.

That’s not to say O’Donnell just sits there. She did employ the classic strategy of occupational/speech therapy, a pursuit with far more documented success. Another point O’Donnell makes was ensuring her kids knew they would have to adapt by society’s rules, regardless of how well society accepts them.

O’Donnell’s last point could create a dichotomy with an earlier question she answered about her critics. Some call her a media whore, yet the interview ends with her asking the reporter why she hasn’t asked what the reason was for having more kids after their first child was diagnosed with autism. O’Donnell may have been looking to get a specific point out, or the reporter may not have thought about it based on the direction the interview was going. Still, when a source mentions questions that aren’t asked, don’t be afraid to ask it. You’ll find out why they want that point in quotes or on the air and how genuine the reasons are.

O’Donnell does use that question to make a genuine point, from my perspective: She challenges any of her critics to meet her autistic children and tell her which one doesn’t belong.

I’ve noted several times about the emotional, reactive response from parents looking to find a solution and the risk of negative consequences by buying into the first thing that supposedly works but has no scientific backing. Of course, in my childhood days, there was no talk about diets, chelation or other odd treatments. Therapy was king. The Internet changed the treatment game in a hurry, and credit must be given to O’Donnell for refusing to fall in the emotional “trap” of doing something without applying some logic to the situation. She also refuses to take credit for her children’s success. To her, they were the masterminds.

The article’s tone itself is a rarity for anyone who isn’t named Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin. Even five years ago, coverage of autism painted a gloomy picture that could pose a problem to all of us. Even now, news outlets have quoted people talking about the autism “epidemic” as the diagnosis rate increases. Most articles assume some tone of how to keep autism from “destroying” us, ignoring the fact that most of us would acknowledge overcoming some flaw in our own lives, documented or not. The positives of autism may be the next phase introduced in autism coverage, and judging the articles I’ve discussed for the last year on this blog, more are sorely needed to give parents a breather and a reason to consider that autism will not be the culprit of our destruction.