The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘autism spectrum disorder

Questionnaire could answer autism concerns earlier than before

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Courtesy CNN

CNN picked up a story originally published by Health.com reporting that a new study may help detect autism in children as young as 1. The study is a 24-item questionnaire that assesses a child’s ability to communicate via eye contact, sounds and gestures. Warning signs could then be noted, allowing children to receive treatment earlier than current models. The Health.com story lists the average age for a diagnosis at five years old. Although the lack of biological signs for autism can make diagnosing the disability tricky, the questionnaire takes five minutes to fill out and can be scored on the spot.

The checklist doesn’t identify autism spectrum disorder specifically, but will tell takers something is wrong, which may point to autism or another developmental delay. In the study, where 137 pediatricians in the San Diego area screened over 10,000 children, only 32 of the 184 children whose development was below normal were diagnosed with autism. However, 56 were diagnosed with a learning disorder and 9 had another disorder entirely. Overall, the questionnaire’s accuracy level from the study’s data pool was 75 percent.

While the questionnaire doesn’t add the long-awaited biological marker everyone in the autism community, the questionnaire showcased its potential with detecting delays in developmental skills. Although the accuracy rating may make some parents squirm, there may be some satisfaction with its versatility, especially when virtually all medical professionals stress intervention as early as possible. One reason for the accuracy rating may simply be who they screen. Infants and toddlers are far from developing their abilities with motor and communication skills, as opposed to five-year-olds, where deficiencies are easier to detect. Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggest symptoms of autism aren’t clear until a child reaches 18 months of age. While the screening doesn’t specifically evaluate infants under that age, there’s a risk from parents or caregivers making too much out of the questionnaire’s findings and preparing for a disability whose presence can’t be officially identified that early.

The story itself focused on the study’s findings, how they were procured, and its potential for widespread use. Unfortunately, without an author, gauging who contributed to the story is virtually impossible. Most stories will indicate if more than one writer published the article, but stories themselves aren’t structured in different formats when written by a host of writers. The structure of journalism doesn’t change for television, newspaper or magazine writing. Even if writers have a unique approach to writing a story, the editing process will streamline the final version.

Developments on this questionnaire will unfold over time, but the community will eat up almost anything that may give them an edge, even if a wild goose chase ensues.

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.