The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

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Fabil teaches us about autism’s indiscriminatory targets

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Dianaoriginals.com

AOL occasionally highlights articles originally published for its Spanish-speaking audience. One of them was a profile piece on Diana Trevino-Wilson, whose expertise in graphic design led to a series of flash cards called Fabil Teaches. Available for parents of any language, the goal is to help children understand prepositions, tenses, pronouns and feelings (some highlighted in the picture).

Fabil was originally created in 1990, but Diana used the character to help her autistic daughter understand things most parents take for granted with neurotypical children (although they too can benefit from Fabil Teaches as the article indirectly demonstrates). Diana also accepts special requests for cards when the normal set is either too advanced or too simple.

From a journalistic perspective, this is simply a profile piece about a mother of an autistic child who found a way to help her daughter adapt to the modern world. But there are two bits of information that demonstrate ways autism transcends what you might read in mainstream news sites (traditional newspapers and television broadcasts). The first is the publication site of this story, designed for the Spanish-speaking audience, particularly the Latin-American population that resides in the country. With the group providing the fastest population growth due to mass immigration, it’s only logical to expect a rise of autism in communities whose roots lie in Central America. The story defeats the stereotypical portrayal of autism only affecting European-Americans, something we shouldn’t assume as whites slowly shift to a minority status in the United States.

Second, the writer found a story within a story that tells the audience how a cartoon character helps autistic children express their thoughts in an appropriate manner also helps other children do the same, regardless of their mental state. Give credit to the reporter for considering the audience while keeping the focus on autism. The audience is a very important factor when crafting stories. You don’t have to submit to their every request (no two viewers/readers will agree on everything a reporter should do in a story), but you’ll get their attention if you find a potential impact one person can make. Few people reading the story will have an autistic relative.

The writer also considered the audience when crafting the lead, which continues the shift I’ve seen in autism articles that abandon clinical definitions to focus on developing stories. We still understand its effects by using Diana’s personal endeavors of learning about her daughter’s autism diagnosis and how that could affect her development.

The article provides evidence that autism will continue to integrate with communities as a whole and, unlike race relations, cannot be separated to deflect the problem. However, Diana’s Fabil is one way autism can teach all of us about typical child development; that even the most normal of kids will accomplish learning milestones in various ways and various times.

Written by TheSportsBrain

March 4, 2010 at 1:10 am

Autistic Origins: J-Mac

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Photo from Fanhouse. McElwain is third from left.

Since we’re on the subject of origins, AOL’s FanHouse returned to the spark that electrocuted stereotypical conventions of autism going back to Rain Man. Jason McElwain, who scored 20 points in Greece-Athena High School’s final home game of the 2005-06 season after spending the year as a student manager (the now 6′ McElwain was considered too short to play with his 5’6″ frame in 2006), has lived a rather quiet life since that game transformed him from an average kid to inspiring celebrity. McElwain now spends his time as a volunteer assistant coach for Athena’s JV basketball team as he pursues his dream of coaching high school basketball.

The article is a profile story to the T updating us on what McElwain is doing since his 20-point game four years ago. He holds a part-time job at Wegman’s, a grocery store chain, and was invited by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to attend the team’s preseason training camp. McElwain has participated every year for the past four seasons, and McElwain returns the favor by drafting Manning and kicker Adam Vinatieri in McElwain’s fantasy league. Throughout the story, the writer includes anecdotes of McElwain’s behavior that will strike a chord in autism world (including his desire to get to practice while the writer glances over pictures of McElwain with celebrities and a binder from a Gatorade commercial shoot).

I learned a lot reading this since the hoopla surrounding McElwain has long faded. The most notable segment was the reporter asking McElwain’s father if Jason would be any different had he never stepped on the court four years ago. His father doesn’t believe there would be much of a difference while Jason regrets a coaching decision he made during a JV team scrimmage. My post on autism and the job market highlighted the passion autistics often have for their interests, disregarding almost everything else to maintain their focus. McElwain is no exception, although it’s difficult to say how far his coaching career could go should his passion stay there. Based on the article, there are still traits that could interfere with his interactions, especially toward people unfamiliar with his story (good luck finding them in these parts).

This won’t be a game-changer for autism and media coverage, but for you journalists in training, it’s not uncommon for reporters to follow-up on big stories. If the subject is controversial or inspirational enough, make a note, because chances are you’ll be assigned to check those stories after the initial wave. Profile stories give viewers the glimpse they often seek after hearing a story like McElwain’s, and this one communicates the message that Jason’s visible label fails to dissuade him from executing his game plan. We’re always labeled, but how we interpret them determines our fate more than labels do.