The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Associated Press

Autism safety not “in the bag”

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To those who celebrated, I hope your Christmas was a blessed one. I also wish the same for a nine-year-old autistic boy at the center of a Louisville, Kent. school controversy when word got out that staff members at Mercer County Intermediate School stuffed Christopher Baker inside a duffel bag for allegedly acting out on Dec. 14. Chris is enrolled in a special needs program there.

The Kentucky Department of Education has no laws regarding restraint or seclusion, although an autistic Georgetown University student started a petition calling to fire the school employees responsible. The online petition had over 700 signatures at the publication date.

Thankfully, I can say I was never placed in a duffel bag when I was in school, or I’d probably be at the center of a lawsuit. However, controversies over how the education system handles autistic children still appear in mainstream news cycles periodically. With no uniform system in place for training on autistic students, coupled with varying levels of intervention behaviors chosen by education specialists, such actions are theoretically possible if educators are unprepared.

The biggest difficulty with the lack of a streamlined system are public school employees who do not understand the symptoms of autism. This does not suggest that all of them will choose actions that compromise the safety of students, but if their patience is low, they will be more likely to exhibit an impulsive emotional response.

Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press published the story, which was then syndicated on Huffington Post. The story is largely a reaction piece that interviews Christopher’s mother (the school cited confidentiality laws and refused to comment on the incident specifically), the Georgetown student who started the petition to fire school employees, and a former teacher who blogs about autism issues.

Generally, controversial stories revolve around what two parties are thinking, as reporters either on deadline or lacking journalistic intuition consider getting both sides of a story satisfactory. Schreiner goes one step deeper, researching the larger public’s response to the incident. While more sources may not change the tone of a “he-said she-said” story, but just as surveys decrease their margin of error when their sample size increases, quoting subjects not involved in the center of an altercation provides a better consensus of the situation’s brevity. As a result, readers will more likely get the idea that what the school did to Chris would violate rules or laws in other states.

Obtaining outside sources also develops a well-rounded story. When facing controversial topics, the “defendant” is often hesitant to speak either in an attempt to hide guilt or to control damage. Reporters shouldn’t be “out to get them,” but having a neutral go-to source to spell out an event’s significance will offer analysis or details that will likely be skipped by both the accuser and defender.

Odds suggest a follow-up story will be found on Huffington Post or the Associated Press if Mercer County School reaches a decision, but until then, the story highlights what all of us could add when taking the effort to expand the source pool.

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West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

Broadway experiment? Hakuna Matata

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Returning to our dear friends at the Associated Press, their articles aren’t always found syndicated on other news sites. Take this story from AP drama writer Mark Kennedy, who reported on Broadway participating in an experiment, with children on the autism spectrum as test subjects. Specifically, the Theatre Development Fund announced it will present an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, a highly successful Broadway adaptation of the 1994 Disney film of the same name. Organizers are gauging if this move should be replicated elsewhere.

To accommodate the increased sensitivity of the audience who will watch the October 2nd show at Minskoff Theatre, experts identified scenes where lights or sounds needed to be toned down, although no decrease was higher than 30 percent of levels in regular performances. Seven changes were made in all, and three quiet areas with beanbags and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, will be available to children whose sensory inputs are overwhelmed. A 16-page downloadable guide at the fund’s website informs children what to expect and options anticipating potential moments of sensory overload. An autism advocate and author is quoted saying even if this experiment fails, either this group or another organization can apply the effects of this event to make adjustments for a future autism outreach event.

Last year, I discussed two articles on movie theaters offering autism-friendly screenings, so to hear of Broadway taking part in the outreach effort is little surprise to me. The only serious question for autism-friendly events is a matter of when they will happen, versus 10 years ago where the question centered around if. I’m not sure we’ll see “autism-friendly” sporting events (which may have kept my head from ringing covering a Minnesota Lynx game in Chicago, where Allstate Arena’s acoustics amplify sound far greater than Target Center) given the size of sports stadiums, even with a rapid increase of autistics in the population. However, the Theatre Development Fund’s experiment does reinforce the course change regarding autistic people as experts and caregivers alike search for ways to integrate a population segment that prefers to isolate themselves. Personally, I can’t recall any moments where I fell victim to sensory overload at movie theaters or theatrical production. I even braved the stage myself in high school when I donned the character of Ali Hakim for the musical Oklahoma! However, I am only one man and an oddity myself among the autism community, rendering my ability to represent the group useless in this capacity.

For those wondering why I haven’t dissected the article, the reason is the format of Associated Press stories. When your organization is behind the stylebook bought and used by aspiring college journalists and professionals seeking to maintain high standards, there isn’t much to discuss with Kennedy’s format of the story, although Kennedy shows some playfulness with the lead given Broadway’s venture in unproven territory. He uses a variety of sources related to the show and autism spectrum, speaking with a member of the Theatre Development Fund, the author I previously referenced, and an Autism Speaks representative. Exploring the changes to the specifically tailored performance was expected in this story, but readers also discover the speed of dissemination as most seats for the matinee performance have been snatched up.

If any of you fear about entertainment options for autistic people, whether or not this show succeeds, you may find yourself saying “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase meaning “There are no worries.” Oh, it’s also a song title from a popular Disney movie.

Autism dashes another victim’s optimism

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Ben Barnhard, courtesy Associated Press

I always stress that autism itself cannot kill its inhabitants directly, but the stress and frustration that builds with raising children on the spectrum can lead caregivers to murder, as was the case with Margaret Jensvold, who killed her 13-year-old autistic son and then herself in a story published by Eric Tucker of the Associated Press and syndicated to Huffington Post. A dark irony in this instance was Jensvold’s occupation of a psychiatrist.

Police found a note along with their bodies earlier this month, with Jensvold saying she couldn’t deal with the Maryland school system and that debt was strangling her. Family members said Jensvold was increasingly strained by financial pressure and fights with the Montgomery County public school system as they refused to cover tuition costs for Ben Barnhard to attend a private school for special-needs students. Jensvold didn’t want to return her son to a public school district where family members said she felt harshly judged and marginalized while Ben had struggled.

The note added that Jensvold killed her son so he wouldn’t experience of the trauma of losing her mother, with Jensvold’s sister noting she wouldn’t believe Barnhard would mentally recover from such an event. Barnhard spent nine months at a weight-loss boarding school after he topped the scales at 275 pounds, and he dropped more than 100 pounds when he finished his time there, gaining new-found optimism about school and being a kid again. The day after Jensvold killed herself and Barnhard, a check came in the mail from her sister’s mother for $10,000 toward tuition at the private school she was hoping to enroll Barnhard in.

This is the third article I have dissected on my blog where an autistic child was killed by his or her parents, and recurring themes are all too similar: parents are unable to handle the challenges of raising children whose development doesn’t align with neurotypical kids, with their emotional stress exacerbated by the feeling of isolation from the community. Unfortunately, this leads parents whose conflict management skills are vulnerable to taking the life of the children they gave birth to. Imagine how Jensvold’s circumstances could have changed had she not become mentally unstable and held out for at least an extra day, where she would have learned that support was coming for her son.

Covering a story like this is not much easier than it was for the sources to speak about what happened (Jensvold’s sister and Barnhard’s father were interviewed). Since Tucker is an Associated Press employee, his story follows a specific format that’s about as hard-core as you can get with journalism. Opinions from authors of AP articles are non-existent, and since AP stories are often distributed throughout news outlets across the country, their writers will craft the story for a national audience as they cannot predict where and when their stories will appear online or in print.

Even with the guidelines, there still is room for some creative flow in AP stories, as Tucker leads with Ben’s achievement at the weight-loss boarding school he attended after enduring years of taunting from classmates. Similar to the mission plan of the Syfy series Alphas, Tucker sought to communicate qualities to the audience that highlight how Ben’s previous weight problems and autism spectrum disorder had little effect on his interests or capacity for autism. Midway through the story, he does the same for his mother. While it won’t change the fact that Ben’s mother ultimately killed him, Tucker does his part to humanize the story’s subjects to increase audience accessibility.

Instances of parents killing autistic children are rare, but the emotional weight of murder often means such deaths will likely find their way to online media. Autistic children shouldn’t live in fear of being killed by their parents, but Tucker explains through his reporting why murder/suicide is a poor solution. Tucker and the Associated Press won’t make a call to action themselves, but perhaps readers who know of parents traveling through an environment similar to Jensvold’s will pick up the cue.

Autism no fraud, but controversial study declared false

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Autism’s biggest firestorm refuses to cede its flames, as The Associated Press reports an analysis of the now-discredited study linking vaccines to autism published by Andrew Wakefield was based on doctored information on how the children were involved.

Brian Deer, a British journalist who made the discovery, learned that five of the 12 children in Wakefield’s study had documented developmental problems prior to receiving an MMR vaccine, which Wakefield claimed was the cause of autism in children and led to panic among parents of autistic children. Deer also noticed that all cases were misrepresented after comparing data from the children’s medical records and their parents.

As you may have guessed, a huge reaction among the autism community has erupted following the report. Wakefield’s dishonesty ruling last year, from the General Medical Council, was the first bombshell that brought pause to the belief of a link between vaccines and autism. In fact, 2010 was a significant year in terms of addressing the controversy with vaccine safety. While the study is no longer considered credible, immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella haven’t fully recovered from their lows of the late 1990s, and outbreaks of diseases once thought to be eradicated have cropped up where immunization rates decreased.

However, this scientific debate persists because of emotionally charged reactions from both sides as they attempt to one-up each other to prove their argument is more valid. Fear of the unknown remains a powerful catalyst as humans often worry about things not necessarily within their control, which is one reason why this debate remains autism’s spotlight controversy. Naturally, it’s a perfect story for reporters to follow up because its energy level remains high. I’ll discuss one story that gauges the reaction from supporters of Wakefield’s study tomorrow.

By the way, you’ve just read my first blog post of 2011. After taking a hiatus to focus on other assignments, I’ve returned to continue discussing autism in the news and what it means for the news. 2010 was a big year for the Autistic Journalist, where daily hits increased from 4 in 2009 to 20 in 2010. For you mathematicians, that’s a 400% increase. Yeah, not much, but increased syndication in 2010 helped spread the word about The Autistic Journalist, and I want to thank readers for their continued support. I’m no expert, but I will not rest in my goal to go beyond the surface in exploring autism and its news coverage. 2011 will be an even bigger ride than 2010.

When autism can be deadly

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Courtesy Irving Police/AP

It’s been a while, I know. Duties at SPNN and Community Hoops, where I cover the Minnesota Lynx, along with a lull in autism article publications, have kept me from making any new posts lately.

I mentioned in a blog regarding vaccines that autism can’t kill like the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent. I haven’t been proven wrong, but a Texas mother of two autistic kids strangled both of them to death, according to charges filed by the Irving Police Department. One charge has been filed, the other is still pending, but a 911 recording was released where Saiqa Akhter, a Pakistani native, tells the operator she killed her two children because they were autistic. If convicted (which is really a sure thing given the evidence presented at this point), Akhter could have the same fate of her kids since Texas allows the death penalty.

Reading this story brought back memories of watching a series of stories on YouTube where a couple in a small Ohio town killed their adopted autistic son and made up a story that he was missing. Akhter didn’t go that far, not that it relieves her of any wrongdoing. Ideally, a news outlet or two could pick up this story to highlight the frustrations of raising autistic children, then present a number of options to safely deal with those obstacles. I’ve absorbed a few stories where parents give up hope for their autistic child to pursue dreams their peers will have no trouble with, but killings are very rare.

This story is sure to get some office chatter going, but it won’t likely be substantial. What happens to Akhter is irrelevant, although I’m sure an update will be published on the national feeds. Very often, when parents cut their children’s lives short, mental issues are present. Signs will often present themselves, and those with keen eyes can potentially intervene before a scenario like Ahkter’s develops. This story highlights the dark side of autism. No one expects it, and no one can expect how parents will respond to the situation, but murdering children when they’ve done no wrong is bound to get you on the news without any brownie points.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 21, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Wakefield supporters refuse to sleep

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I was going to post solely on Dr. Andrew Wakefield getting banned from practicing medicine in his native Great Britain after his paper proposing a link between vaccinations and autism was discredited and retracted, but a more recent article in the Chicago Tribune suggests he has already taken notice.

Feeding off the strong support he still has (I discussed why people would still follow him even if his research was ruled dishonest when news of the ruling made its first appearance in the press), Wakefield stated that he planned to resume his research at a vaccination-choice rally at Grant Park in Chicago, in conjunction with a conference hosted by Generation Rescue. Wakefield plans to start a “virtual university” where he will design research programs to examine the causes of autism and other diseases. Rally supporters (a small crowd according to the article) claimed they were unfairly labeled as anti-vaccine folk. On the other side of the spectrum, over 200 health experts met in a downtown hotel to figure out how to increase vaccination rates, which dropped after Wakefield’s paper was published and led to measles outbreaks in the United States and Britain.

We do learn something new that puts a perspective on the vaccine debate. Resistance can be traced back to the 19th century, which means the issue may not be as modern for those who lack experience in the medical field as once thought. The closing paragraphs mirror the message transmitted in Frontline’s look at the issue: vaccines were effective at preventing diseases, shifting focus to the safety of vaccines themselves, despite the slim chance of immunization recipients developing an adverse reaction to them.

Another point of contention may be Wakefield’s view of autism as a disease that can be cured. Folks who believe autism can be reversed may be at odds with theories suggesting the condition is caused by a genetic malfunction, and that doesn’t factor the myriad of studies concluding no link between autism and vaccines, a point often beat to death by reporters when they report on the subject.

Wakefield’s speech and plan of action resemble the mindset of many who are directly criticized over their ethical or lawful shortcomings (search political scandals and you’ll find plenty among our elected officials). They often deny such accusations or continue to tout their beliefs. While a healthy amount of skepticism is necessary to ensure the answers are indeed correct, promoting an idea refuted by hard evidence suggests stubbornness may be at play. Stubborn refusal of the truth is often a weakness of human emotion.

The Wakefield coverage also suggests that we’re nowhere near wrapping up coverage of the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism. The continuing press is likely because no other theory is juicy or concrete enough to warrant publicity among media’s major players. Until then, journalists will often retreat to what’s popular in the present. Vaccine skeptics will likely remain unless a widespread outbreak of a preventable disease occurs, and the true loser may be the autism community as time and resources are spent on old wounds.