The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Autism Awareness Month

Autistic students become “teachers”

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Justin Evans, with assistance from an autism aide at Colfax Elementary School, highlights his shared interests with non-autistic classmates during a presentation. Photo by Jason Bridge.

OK, so adults still teach full-time, but Michael Aubele of Valley News Dispatch found three autistic students at Colfax Upper Elementary School who shared their autism spectrum disorder with their classmates. The school, along with other school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley in Pennsylvania, are involved in sponsoring events for Autism Awareness Month, which wraps up this Saturday.

The three autistic Colfax classmates, just like almost every other student, were nervous about their presentations because their lectures broke traditional routines (autistics are very routine-oriented). One student used an iPad to showcase his interest in Dr. Seuss, and his autism support teachers regularly use the iPad to communicate with him. Their fellow classmates embraced the learning lessons because they increased their overall understanding of autism spectrum disorder. One student interviewed by Aubele said she wasn’t aware of autism’s range of severity prior to the presentations.

Aubele’s story is short and doesn’t quote any sentences when he refers to his interviews, but give him credit for finding a pair of fellow students to gauge reaction to the information shared by their autistic classmates. Interviewing children is tougher than adults and even teens who are subjects of many other autism stories, so not seeing many quotes from them isn’t a surprise, no matter what restrictions were placed on story length. Complicating such an interview is the story’s subject; adults have spent hours upon hours and are still dumbfounded on many facets of autism. Now throw in a much younger face with much growing to do. Fortunately, as Aubele shows, no hairs need pulling when approaching kids for interviews. Stick to the simple questions, such as what they knew before and after a presentation and what they thought about it.

Although surmising a deadline for this story isn’t achievable, Aubele could have played up his third-person narrative with the autistic students and their classmates to a greater extent. How much did the autistic classmates believe their peers understood their disability? What goals did they have for the presentations? How well did they get along with classmates before they opened themselves up in this fashion? The story’s short length doesn’t allow much development for such ideas. However, Aubele’s story illustrates the reduced fear of sharing sensitive material about students that can increase their vulnerability. The mentality when I attended elementary school was silence in hopes that no one would think the disability exists. Unfortunately, autism and other disabilities don’t work that way. Gauging what would be different had I attended in this social environment is impossible due to too many changing variables, but Aubele’s piece could ease worries other parents or teachers may still have about revealing differences.

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Holly Robinson Peete’s autism “talk”

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Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna, Rodney Peete and Holly Robinson Peete host a roundtable during The Talk's weekly series promoting autism awareness

Holly Robinson Peete calls herself an autism supermommy on her Twitter account, and following this month’s insight on autism on The Talk, a CBS show she co-hosts, her followers may envision her with a cape. Peete hosted autism awareness segments for four weeks on Fridays, bringing the audience up to speed on the disability while sharing the stories of her own endeavors and the journeys of others.

You won’t see Peete’s autistic son, RJ, distract her from her hosting duties on The Talk. Based on the segments aired in the month of April, the only interruptions were joyful expressions as she sought to debunk the stereotype of autistic people casting a societal burden. You can watch all of Peete’s autism awareness segments on YouTube or The Talk’s own website. Her clips aren’t placed in a subcategory, but that won’t stop me from critiquing Peete’s voyage into mystery.

Week 1 was clearly targeted for any “cave dwellers” left who never heard of autism or understood its meaning. Since Holly carries a personal connection, the series began with a two-part package on RJ and the implication his diagnosis had for Holly and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney. The package was designed to carry an emotional weight, supplemented by stock music that would change in tone along with the story. Holly’s celebrity status brought no change in outlook with her son following his 2000 diagnosis, with the pediatrician on hand defining RJ’s autism as a roadblock from expected milestone’s in a child’s lifetime. A chat among the hosts followed, where Holly reveals that putting her son on a wheat and dairy-free diet helped his condition (I’ll touch on this later). She then updates the audience on RJ’s condition, where he recites an award speech, and mentions the HollyRod Foundation started by her and her husband.

Holly brought her friend and Autism Speaks member Peter Bell to provide an oversight on autism, its symptoms and the world of confusion a diagnosis often forces its inhabitants to guide through. Bell then promoted Autism Speaks’ “Light it Blue” campaign (a play off their blue puzzle piece logo, itself a nod to the multi-colored puzzle pieces that represent autism).

Jimmie Smith appears on The Talk with his two children

Week 2 shifted the spotlight from Holly to her husband, and by extension, fathers of autistic children. Often the “forgotten” parents in the conquest to understand the spectrum (magnified by the amount of attention to mothers in the very medium Holly used to promote autism awareness), Holly brought her husband and Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna to the set as visual reminders. Rodney shared his transition from denial to advocacy with RJ and the strain his conversion length had on his marriage. Mantegna, father of a now 23-year-old autistic daughter, guided viewers through his search to find a school in Chicago that could adapt with an autistic first-grader in a social environment that didn’t foster openness on differences. Jimme Smith provided the non-celebrity viewpoint, which wasn’t all that different from his more recognizable peers, except he’s divorced and raising both his kids as a single father. Holly awarded Smith an iPad 2, known for helping autistic people communicate more easily, and a vacation to Disney World in recognition of his effort to raise his kids.

Week 3’s focus was teens who defied the common stereotypes of young autistic people. Holly invited Carly Fleischmann, a non-verbal Canadian who uses a computer and voice recognition software to communicate with vocal linguists. While Fleischmann made a live appearance at the set, her interview was pre-taped and edited for time because she can’t control her symptoms as easily as other spectrum members. Fleischmann notes the lack of control and inability to speak as primary factors for harsh judgments, but that hasn’t deterred her fan base of over 12,000 Twitter followers. Winfred Cooper, a verbal autistic, also appeared on the show for his 67-yard touchdown catch on his high school football team. Winfred’s path to higher education after graduating with honors inspired his father to get his teaching degree while serving as Winfred’s college aid.

Week 4 brought back a familiar face: Jason McElwain, who I ironically noted was fading from public attention five years after his 20-point game as a high school senior won the admiration of the country. His interview was taped in advance and edited rather short (with my TV experience, I can spot clear edits as broadcast shows make room for their commercial time), but there was just enough space for him to tell the audience he coaches at Greece Athena High School and the 17U East Coast Fusion AAU team, which he hopes will parlay to a varsity high school or college coaching position. Peter Bell returns to bookend the series, offering tips on helping autistic people adapt with mainstream society.

Overall, the editors who squeeze The Talk‘s raw footage to 38 minutes per broadcast almost served as documentary producers, fishing for what was considered the best material to air on a show still aiming to stand out in the talk show genre. Granted, virtually any topic could be procured beyond the time allotted, but with autism’s complex structure, there’s a plausible argument on the first chapter of the autism awareness series not maximizing its usefulness inside a short time frame. Even in more in-depth profiles, few glimpses were publicized. Mantegna’s story was brief, where only his story on finding a supportive school for his daughter was aired. Winfred Cooper’s package detailed his achievements up to his interview, but we didn’t hear his own thoughts on college and his ascension plans after higher education. McElwain’s mini-window was the biggest surprise since he was autism’s biggest celebrity a few years ago. With no additional material available, ascertaining sound bites edited out of the original broadcast is impossible outside of the show’s production staff. Perhaps nothing of value was said, or new avenues were left unexplored. Unfortunately, such thoughts will remain only a curiosity.

Viewers who watched all four installments may have noticed an element to autism often overlooked by most mainstream press coverage, and that piece of the puzzle starts with Holly. No one featured on the autism awareness segments dramatized this, but Holly’s African-American heritage within her family should serve a sign to other families and reporters about autism’s lack of discrimination. Beyond Holly and Rodney, two African-American families were featured in her exploration. Virtually every mainstream story I have read or watched profiling families living with autism featured Caucasians. Their struggles aren’t lower in difficulty, but autism can manifest in anyone of any lineage. Autism and race are rarely intertwined in public, and I doubt they will as the mixture would overshadow efforts to promote awareness in both categories, but journalists should note that everyone can suffer from the mystifying disability.

Holly’s bucking of mainstream media also extends to a point I’ve repeatedly underlined: fathers. Yes, the divorce rate among parents with autistic children is high (although I have yet to see a number to validate those claims), but as Holly and Rodney prove, stats aren’t necessarily linear with the unpredictability of human emotion and negotiation. Although Rodney battled to ignore RJ’s autism diagnosis, his transformation morphed his battle strategy to advocating autism awareness. Mantegna illustrated his involvement with his emotional reaction when he found a teacher who would get her class to help and support his autistic daughter, and Smith had nothing but respect for single mothers raising autistic children as his single status created an empathy bond.

Returning to the point of Holly putting RJ on a diet, the New York Times Magazine article I discussed covered the newest craze among autism parents, who claim removing wheat and dairy help alleviate autism symptoms despite no scientific research to support those claims. Her internal strategy influenced the actions she pursued to help RJ, as supportive mothers are more likely to follow instinct no matter how much or little scientific backing there is for a treatment. By no means are they fools, they are simply less apt to strictly follow logic when facing a disability boggling the minds of non-autistic people.

Screen grab of Holly expressing appreciation for audience support of the autistic teens who appeared on The Talk

Holly doesn’t ignore logic though, as she chose to highlight strong minds in the final two weeks of her autism awareness coverage. There will never be a shortage of role models for anyone in anything, but only recently has mainstream coverage on autism followed suit. While McElwain was a big get whose appearance will refresh memory banks, Holly and The Talk imported other success stories beyond usual idols. In that respect, finding new sources to speak on autism may reflect on the work she invests in the HollyRod Foundation. Whether this inspires fellow stations to find new success stories is uncertain, but interviews with Fleischmann and Cooper stress the point a psychologist made in my first documentary on autism that reporters can absorb: anyone afflicted with any disability always has a potential to improve their condition and offer a productive role in societal communication.

Assessing long-term impact from The Talk‘s journey through autism will require time to procure. There’s no telling if we’ll see this feature return next April as that will first depend on CBS’ stance on continuing the show to the 2011-12 season and Holly’s interest in holding her co-host role. What can be said is her contributions for the autism community may benefit reporters assigned to future autism stories, as her segments will either lead reporters to borrow the sources she used or inspire them to reach untouched depths. Either way, Holly could not only champion more knowledge of autism, but fresh ideas for newsrooms.

Asheville agency giving autistics their own “home”

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WNC House Manager Melanie McGill and Holland exchange hugs. Photo courtesy of Erin Brethauer, Asheville Citizen-Times

North Carolina’s no stranger for people to place themselves in the minds of autistics. As the adult population grows, so will the need for homes to accommodate 24-hour support and supervision for autistic adults whose behavioral challenges prohibit them from living on their own. WNC Group Homes, who owns five facilities in Asheville, have been testing their new Kenmore Street location since January, which replaced a Montford home that WNC described wasn’t built for their needs.

WNC teamed up with Tyner Construction, Co. and architect Andrew Willet to design a hybrid that could withstand pressure but not give off a sterile, cold feeling. The walls were created with high-impact drywall, a material often used in hospitals and detention facilities, but can also hold up against sudden emotional outbursts from its residents who may be unable to express their emotions in a more subtle way. The counters were constructed with extra-durable granite, and the trim is stained wood, which doesn’t chip as easily as standard painted moldings.

Not that visitors would notice right away. The walls are painted beige and the home is an open-floor plan, filled with light and lined nearly floor to ceiling with windows. Even the residents live out the home’s hybrid model, who all participate in sports and arts programming and hold jobs with various employers.

Casey Blake, who wrote the story, may have been inspired by Autism Awareness Month as the article’s web page includes a notice about WNC Group Homes and a link to the Autism Society of North Carolina’s website. Had this story been published in another time, the timing would have been more questionable since the story occurred long after the group home opened (stories on new facilities are generally released near or soon after their opening date). Still, Blake’s profile of the facility may highlight the future of caring for autistic adults as the public wonders what their future holds once their youth services end.

Blake offers one possibility by sticking with a hybrid theme for both the home and its residents. As with any other group home, the design incorporates the challenges of its residents, which are sensory sensitivity, accessibility and emotional outbursts in this case. While the aesthetic incorporation was the core of the story, she could have stopped reporting about the residents after explaining how the home could adapt to them. Instead, she continues her interview to reveal how the Kenmore residents are contributing to society, even if the rest of the public would take those contributions for granted.

Caretakers who clients include autistic people stand to gain the most from Blake’s story, by either following the WNC Group Home model for their Kenmore location (reaction has been overwhelmingly positive) or contacting their local reporters to highlight a similar hybrid home. Autism coverage of old often painted grim pictures of autistic adults whose symptoms were too severe to completely integrate with the mainstream. Blake doesn’t play “happy-go-lucky” with her story, but she does communicate that even the most severely impaired individuals who require special needs can enjoy some of the comforts their unimpaired peers almost expect.

Holly Robinson Peete shares her odds-beating strategy

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Holly Robinson-Peete, co-host of The Talk

I’ve discussed the fissure autism can bring to families in previous posts, with the divorce rate among parents of autistic children significantly higher than the national average. Holly Robinson Peete of 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper fame and current co-host of CBS’ The Talk, has a clear sense of those odds based on an interview she conducted with CBS 21, a local network affiliate in Pennsylvania. In the profile piece, she highlighted how an autism diagnosis of her now-teenage son RJ nearly caused a divorce between Holly and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. Rodney denied the diagnosis when RJ first received it at age 3, and Holly quoted how she and Rodney shouldn’t be married on paper.

Fortunately, their marriage is still alive on paper and Holly talked about how their family approach supports the HollyRod foundation, which the two started to help other families struggling with autism. Holly is using her Twitter account to promote bracelets she’s selling to benefit people affected by autism. Earlier this month, she appeared on CBS’ daytime juggernaut, The Price is Right, to cross-promote The Talk and present a showcase of prizes she selected that can help families of autistic children, which included a set of iPads. Holly also co-wrote a book with her daughter, Ryan, about their experience growing up with RJ.

The story itself was likely not too difficult to set up, as interviewing personalities of the national network a local station is affiliated with is a common practice. That’s not to say Holly and other notables from ABC, NBC and FOX won’t appear on stations not affiliated with their respective networks, but local stations won’t be afraid to vet what’s on their timeslots. This interview also doesn’t surprise me because April is Autism Awareness Month, and Holly has used the calendar to bring RJ and Rodney on the set of The Talk, where the hosts share a roundtable discussion about autism on Fridays through the month of April. With the need to constantly fill time slots, CBS 21 decided reaching out to their national “cousin” would promote many things while killing a couple minutes on the newscast’s timeline. The story is more a byproduct of the relationship that unfolds when a local station is picked up by a for-profit national affiliate than a case of lazy reporting. CBS 21 also used this story to highlight a visit Holly and Rodney will make in August within their coverage area, as they will speak at a Greater Harrisburg Area Autism Society event this August.

Although the bottom-line is always omni-present, CBS 21’s profile of Holly’s promotional efforts does provide a glimpse of celebrities struggling through the same obstacles as less famous parents of autistic children, helping those without national profiles relate. Will it draw millions of viewers to The Talk? Not necessarily, but families affected by autism are always looking for role models.

Mind my eyes!

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The New York Times reported another facet of autism that will likely be added to parents/guardians who tremble in fear about what could happen to their autistic kids. Those who use swings as a calming force may be at risk from falling metal shavings that peel as the suspension apparatus wears. The paper cites a medical journal article where two boys were treated repeatedly for metallic fragments that got lodged in their eyes. Recommendations to solve the problem include giving children safety goggles for therapeutic swings.

Obviously, the matter isn’t laughable as anything that gets stuck inside someone’s eye can cause significant damage. In terms of New York Times coverage, Autism Awareness Month did little to fuel new stories for 2010. However, it’s not easy for the paper to find an autistic child whose eyes were lodged with metal fragments from swings since the city doesn’t have much breathing space for backyards; you have to head outside the city limits. Not much is given on the frequency of such incidents. One theory relates to their low awareness for danger; the last thing autistic kids are thinking about, when swinging to calm the senses, is the condition and integrity of the swing.

For the audience, the biggest concern with the story may be a parental overreaction to safeguard their kids. People are already scared enough, and who’s to say this doesn’t happen with “normal” kids as well.

Despite the knowledge caregivers would find important, the story isn’t a landmark article on the developments of autism. The news may encourage parents to find other forms of therapy, but I doubt sales of swings will drop significantly over metal shavings.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Yep, autistics can be Eagle Scouts too

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A freelance article published in the Star Tribune highlights an autistic man honored after earning the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor possible in the Boy Scouts of America. His case would fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; Keely reads at a third-grade level, his motor skills aren’t up to speed with his peers, and he definitely loathes physical contact.

The Boy Scouts have revised their requirements over the years to accommodate Scouts with disabilities, and the writer spends some time highlighting their inclusion of people with disabilities, offering a brief respite from criticism over not allowing gays to serve as troop leaders. The adjustments allow parents to “mainstream” kids in Cub Scout packs before switching to special-needs troops or deciding to stay with regular troops when they move to Boy Scout packs.

Regarding the autism side, the writer’s explanation of the disability and Keely’s challenges parallels stories I encountered five years ago about autism. Using contrast to tell the story, she explains all the typical elements included in Keely’s Court of Honor ceremony, then throws the bombshell that he’s autistic. Unfortunately, autism is clearly explained in the article’s headline, which spoils the surprise included in the story. I wonder how many times we’ll read or hear all the drawbacks that autistic people deal with in the social environment before the writers and/or audience realizes that many cases parallel each other, even if the severity doesn’t.

Using Keely’s story to transition into the Boy Scouts’ response to special-needs kids was effective, but it may have also buried the story underneath. Assuming that Boy Scouts allows young males with any disability to participate, there’s a worthwhile story that members would be thrilled to share, especially with a massive celebration coming next month to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. Stories of concerns have surfaced about how to handle all these autistic people…she found an answer and didn’t aggressively make that point.

Evaluating the knowledge the writer has on the subject is virtually impossible with only one article as evidence, but my analysis suggests the writer may not know much about autism and structured her article for others in her position, although that group is slowly shrinking. Comeback stories are good for morale, but they get repetitive for me as I’ve critiqued a few dozen articles since this site was launched. Reporters assigned to autism stories may want to take note that the “pedestal” angle works for a while, but runs the risk of annoying the attentive portion of the audience who want to know what will happen beyond. In this case, how Keely’s Eagle Scout rank could help him adapt to life when he leaves his troop or how the Boy Scouts may evolve as an option for autistic boys looking to enjoy themselves.