The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Asperger’s Syndrome

Policing the integration of autistics

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Courtesy Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun

Our latest story is part reporting, part editorial hailing from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Michele Mandel covers an incident at the Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre where Toronto Police are under fire from autism advocacy groups for their July 28th handling of a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be physically restrained after throwing a tantrum. Police handcuffed the boy for five minutes before the mobile crisis intervention team arrived and calmed him down. While autism groups protest that less drastic restraint measures could have been employed, police say the boy was a danger to himself and waiting for the crisis team could have posed a safety hazard.

The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Mandel quoted him saying he holds his mother’s hand whenever he sees a cop car. Naturally, parents of autistic children are furious, at least according to Autism Ontario. The executive director says they offer training for law enforcement on handling people with mental disabilities, but few have taken advantage of the program unlike their colleagues in Ottawa.

I have some question on the date’s accuracy in the published article. If the incident did occur on July 28th, having an article published now would be horrendously ill-timed. There is a possibility the story has a typo and the incident happened on August 28th, which would better justify releasing the story on its publication date (August 30th). With parents as emotionally charged as they are, notwithstanding parents of autistic children, waiting an entire month before expressing outrage over a controversial situation makes little sense.

Regarding the story itself, law enforcement is almost always a hotbed when it comes to controversy. This doesn’t suggest an antagonistic relationship between journalists and police (you need to establish a positive connection if assigned to a crime beat), but material that suggests public service officials aren’t performing their job description makes for saucy news material. Generally, this controversy arises when police are seen abusing their role. In Mandel’s story, the argument is police not considering the well-being of the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be restrained. When pursuing an event as it’s occurring, police have to be prepared for rapid responses to a multitude of situations to protect themselves and/or the people they intervene. The “gray area” illuminates how people who are trained to keep communities safe can adapt to the autism spectrum, as their emotional output doesn’t fall within expected norms. This story may spur Toronto’s law enforcement to seek more training, or lead to further coverage on public readiness to handle a population prone to mental outbursts.

On the story itself, I’m not familiar with the ethical standards of Canadian journalism, but the reporter appears to side with autism organizations and suggesting the response was mishandled. Mandel uses strong words and questions why less forceful measures weren’t used to begin with, creating the impression that Toronto police were the “bad guys” in the case. The discussion shouldn’t be about who’s right or wrong, but instead included for the ultimate concern of how an increasing number of autistic people throughout the world can be approached.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

Asperger’s? Autism? What’s the difference?

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Charlie and Raymond Babbitt eagerly wait to see if the roulette wheel will stop on Charlie's number. Courtesy MGM/United Artists

Jeanne Millsap, a writer for The Beacon-News, a publication of The Chicago Sun Times, brings us to a relatively unexamined destination in the autism spectrum (and my third in a day that brought me to a Pennsylvania affiliate, a national story and the third largest media market in the country): Asperger’s Syndrome. Throughout her exploration, she parallels the confusion parents and other adults have with an Aspergers diagnosis, who say they knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite identify it. A psychiatrist at the Institute for Personal Development said he has Asperger’s patients in their 40s who knew they were quirky but unable to find an explanation behind their behavioral differences.

Millsap frequently references the 1988 Academy Award-winning film Rain Man, as her sources say Raymond Babbitt, the character that landed Dustin Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar that year, was a perfect example of someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis. While its classification is under review, Asperger’s is associated with the high end of the autism spectrum. Intelligence and verbal skills are on par with peers not affected by a mental disability, but they have trouble communicating and interacting with people. As Raymond exhibited in the film with Jeopardy!, The People’s Court and Wheel of Fortune, people with Asperger’s can have intense preoccupations with subjects or items. While symptoms do exist, their subtlety can lead parents and even individuals with Asperger’s to wonder if there really is a problem or ponder about over-thinking their behavioral characteristics. Like the rest of the autism spectrum, Asperger’s diagnoses are increasing as a result of improved screening for all levels of the spectrum.

The story highlights what I was alluding to in my last post about the inverted pyramid. While the structure is common, not all stories dictate the use of that strategy, and Millsap’s is one of them. Instead, Millsap introduces us to the condition through a fictional character most are familiar with, and uses Raymond Babbitt to guide us through Asperger’s and its link to the autism spectrum. Where this story falls flat is its lack of human sources. The psychiatrist is the only person voicing the story with Millsap, even though there were plenty of opportunities to introduce more personalities. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are more likely to vocalize their stories simply because their verbal skills are better than other members of the autism spectrum on average. Guessing why we only hear from one person is too hard to tell, as Millsap could have been under deadline pressure, denied access to the psychiatrist’s patients, or she simply could not find a subject willing to conduct an interview.

However, getting the perspective from someone who lives on the spectrum daily would have reinforced the ideas and traits the psychiatrist presented in his interview, or introduced new angles to a story people are struggling to follow. Getting at least two sources reduces your reliance of writing the story around one, and creates an opportunity for a dynamic flow that allows the story to breathe with little intervention from the writer. While a profile piece sometimes only needs one source, a more broad topic often requires multiple avenues to tell the story adequately.

Millsap or another Chicago Sun-Times writer could easily expand on this exploration, even if there’s a skeleton crew of fictional characters to relate to regarding Asperger’s Syndrome (the NBC drama series Parenthood features a boy diagnosed with the condition), and who’s to say they won’t do so. Even in the third largest media market, the thirst to understand how minds work persists with the audience.

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

Autism “thunderstruck” by new controversy

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Think the vaccine debate is the only hot topic brewing in autism’s domain? If vaccinations were, they’re not alone anymore. Another lightning rod has surfaced in the form of 22-year-old Ari Ne’eman, who was nominated to the National Council on Disability by President Obama. Ne’eman’s nomination is currently on hold. If confirmed by the Senate, Ne’eman would be the first autistic person to serve on the council.

Sounds like a benchmark, right? Why Ne’eman was placed on hold may not be determined since holds can be issued anonymously (Obama’s seven other nominees to the council were confirmed earlier this month). What isn’t helping his situation is criticism he’s received by some autism advocates for his belief that autistic people should be accepted as a form of neurodiversity instead of being cured.

If you’re new to autism, it’s often referred to as a spectrum disorder because symptoms and severity can range. The common thread is impaired social interaction, but they could have anything from no verbal language to savant skills in communication. Ne’eman himself has Asperger’s, considered a high-functioning form but now a candidate for possible removal from the autism spectrum. Ne’eman is the founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and his belief mirrors a  growing movement that autism should be accommodated and not eradicated, citing the steps taken for people with physical disabilities, including ramps and bathroom stalls.

Ne’eman has spoken with the New York Times before, suggesting that pursuit of a cure, instead of improving quality of life, will provide few benefits to severely afflicted autistic people. Critics argue his philosophy only represents people who can communicate and take care of themselves. Autism Speaks, whose mission is to finance research for a cure, says Ne’eman fails to understand or sympathize those affected more severely than he is.

Autism Speaks’ rebuttal is hardly a surprise since Ne’eman himself criticized Autism Speaks over a fund-raising video last year. While Autism Speaks is the largest advocacy group in the country, their views are rarely met without criticism that began with the release of the Autism Every Day documentary 4 years ago. Critics accused the film of depicting autism as a disease that doomed the inflicted and anyone surrounding him or her. It’s worth noting that Autism Speaks doesn’t have anyone on their board with autism spectrum disorder.

I mentioned in my post about Wakefield’s ruling from the General Medical Council that the story crossed one controversy off a very long list, and the biggest squashing of the vaccine-autism link would open the door for another hot topic to swoop in. The vaccine debate still lingers, but a cure/no cure rivalry could be a candidate to take over the hot seat. The size of Autism Speaks allowed them to take the first swing at addressing the topic to a national audience when mainstream reports finally made the airwaves and newspapers about 5 years ago. After reading this article, I’m almost certain that journalists have gone away from the overview and moved to the more complex controversies surrounding it. I produced a documentary series on autism a few years ago as I was unsatisfied with the lack of digging from mainstream media, and it appears I won’t be digging alone anymore.

Regarding the story itself, Obama may have nominated him as a reflection of his attitude toward the treatment of different communities. Instead of a hard-line strategy that many consider a benchmark of the Bush years, Ne’eman’s beliefs and accomplishments in his own right could have persuaded the president to recruit someone who could speak for a group that rarely gets a chance to do so. Although a stretch, Ne’eman may mirror Obama himself: both have advocated for topics that aren’t necessarily popular or understood because they believe it’s the best way to make progress in the country. Whether they’re right or wrong is not my place to decide, I’m just discussing a theory on why Ne’eman was given the nomination.

The controversy of responding to a growing autistic population carries a few parallels with the hot buttons surrounding the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. In fact, you could replace autistic with gay in articles and chances are the story would still make sense. While I doubt we’ll see autistic marriage bans, the sense of panic over difference definitely carries over.

If Ne’eman is confirmed, and there’s nothing to suggest that won’t happen, pay attention to any statements released by him or his critics (primarily Autism Speaks). If both sides get big enough to dominate air time on cable news or print space on newspapers, the nomination could serve as an origin. Controversies are ugly, but Ne’eman could potentially be the springboard for other high-functioning autistic people to not only advocate their own stories, but perhaps pursue their dreams knowing that it’s truly possible for them to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I’m still waiting and attempting to create my chance 😛

After review, the ruling on the field is…

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I did a little research after blogging about Monday night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory about Sheldon Cooper and his connections with autism spectrum disorder. This should make things more clear, but as we’ve seen several times this season, there’s always room for overlap.

Last summer, creator Bill Prady went on the record saying Sheldon doesn’t have Asperger’s in the face of unscientific polls suggesting the contrary. Prady told TV Squad’s Allison Waldman that he never had Asperger Syndrome or any form of autism in mind when writing for Sheldon, writing the character as the character.

The A.V. Club discovered in an interview with Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, that Parsons himself asked the writers if he had Asperger’s. Parsons hasn’t approached them on the topic since, but he read Look Me in the Eye by John Robison after Big Bang co-star Johnny Galecki recommended the book, noting the comparisons to Sheldon. Parsons notes the intellectual nature of Sheldon’s character makes it easier for viewers to leap into the autism realm; he often wonders what elements of the autism spectrum are included in scripts despite the character not being on the spectrum.

Waldman’s analysis mirrors my conclusion on why the writers refuse to make the leap, but she presents the argument in vocabulary that would not rival Spock (I consider him to bear the closest resemblance to me of any fictional character, read my Star Trek post to find out why): If Sheldon did have a diagnosis, his friends could no longer mock him and would be constrained by the nature of the spectrum (implying an ironically interpersonal quality for a condition known to create introverts).

There is a precedent: an episode of House featured an autistic child and suggests a possibility that Gregory House’s personality is a result of Asperger Syndrome, a hypothesis that was later refuted by his colleague, Wilson, as an excuse for his behaviors.

After reading these articles, fans will have to carry on with Sheldon not having an official diagnosis in the same way multiracial people carry on with their lives even with the current President not officially recognizing his multiracial status. Given my examinations this week, perhaps we’re looking for a label to please ourselves than the actual parties involved. Sheldon is quite hilarious on his own as fans wait to see what nerdy exploits he pursues, what ways he’ll insult Penny, and how he’ll annoy his friends to no end. What more could be requested for a show that bases its comedy on intellectualism, a rarity among the prime-time lineup?

I’m sure I’ll find another show this season and in years to come that highlights Sheldon’s “trips” to the autism spectrum while not staying there permanently.

Bazinga!

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Sheldon, right, taunts Leonard as Leonard attempts to remove Sheldon from a ball pit

This blog marks the first time I’ve analyzed CBS’ hit show The Big Bang Theory this season. After watching this week’s episode, “The Einstein Approximation,” I saw several examples of the writers avoiding any attempt to link Sheldon Cooper with the autism spectrum, but certainly toying with those traits whether they intend to or not.

My most popular blog last year was an overall critique of Sheldon, portrayed by Jim Parsons, and how he and the production staff of Big Bang handled inquiries regarding Sheldon’s mental state. The creators summarized his behaviors as “Sheldony,” but even without an official label, I’ve often cited the show as a great illustrator for autism and how others respond to the bohemian characteristics of Sheldon.

In Monday’s episode, Sheldon attempts to solve a physics problem and devotes all his effort to solving the problem, using anything nearby as a prop. Unfortunately, his quest for knowledge usually comes at the expense of his friends. One scene combines two trends of autistic people and employs them for comedic effect. The first represents an obliviousness to the surrounding environment because Sheldon is focused solely on his mission. Since Sheldon can’t sleep while he’s solving a problem, he leaves his apartment in the middle of the night and enters a ball pit inside a kids play area (rigging a tumbler and alarm system to get inside). A security guard then calls Leonard, and Leonard arrives to bring Sheldon home.

Before Leonard meets Sheldon, the security guard tells Leonard that he once worked a party with a “special” kid, special a clear reference to a mentally disabled child. Leonard replies that Sheldon is “extra special.” Again, the writers don’t consider Sheldon an autistic, but Leonard’s reply reinforces the audience that Sheldon’s thought process is vastly different from his academic and social peers and could be easily interpreted that Sheldon, at the very least, definitely has traits that match with autism spectrum disorder.

Of course, Sheldon refuses to leave because he’s still working on his problem, using balls to represent the parts of a carbon atom. The stubborn behavior reflects the intense focus autistic people put into their projects, refusing to let anything distract them, which often leads to ignoring other people’s requests. Leonard threatens to forcibly remove Sheldon and enters the ball pit to do so (pictured), but Sheldon’s superior knowledge of the structure allows him to outfox Leonard, appearing every few seconds to taunt him with “Bazinga!”

While fans familiar with autism still relate Sheldon’s behavior to that of an autistic friend or relative, I haven’t read any articles or noticed a recurring pattern on the show that suggests a direct link in the Big Bang timeline. Seeing almost every episode since season 2, I’m convinced that making Sheldon an official autistic would remove most of his comedic value. We understand much more than we did when Rain Man was released, but after seeing the domino effect that occurred after Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between vaccines and autism, the precedent exists to suggest that fans, TV critics, and casual mainstream viewers could blindly assume that anyone with autism would interact the same way as Sheldon. That assumption would certainly complicate the education process and perhaps kill the momentum The Big Bang Theory is riding.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy the comedic follies of contemporary television’s favorite nerds while I watch for more “hidden” signs of autism that find their way into the show’s script.