The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘autism spectrum

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.

And now for something completely different

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As you may have noticed on this blog, I prefer not to talk about myself in regards to appearances in media. It’s not really my style as I figure my documentaries and other media are sufficient in telling my story.

However, I was the featured guest last Sunday on The Disability Show presented by Many Worlds Network. It was a 30-minute examination of my brain, my blog, and my other exploits.

Click the video below to listen to the podcast.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 6, 2009 at 11:48 am

Visualizing a singular identity

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Perhaps the most in-depth article I’ve read on autism since I began the blog. An article from the New York Times performs an extended look into the possibility of removing Asperger Syndrome and replacing it with simply autism spectrum disorder. A panel of 13 experts are evaluating autism and other neurological disorders for the new psychiatric diagnostic manual due in 2012. Their argument is that Asperger as a label is confusing and not very useful as psychiatrists shift from a “black and white” view of neurological disorders to a continuum with many levels of severity. Potential controversies are also discussed, as insurers, schools and researches all account for Asperger Syndrome. Australian psychologist Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin, America’s best-known autistic, also suggest keeping the term. Attwood’s concern is that removing Asperger Syndrome as a medical label may inhibit people on the spectrum from being assessed, due to the negative connotations of autism versus Asperger Syndrome.

This article highlights the controversies surrounding autism, from accounting for social setbacks and skills possessed by few others to constantly changing labels and the myriad of other health problems that often accompany autism (if only receding hair lines were included :-p ).

This is the first article to use percentages to explain how many kids have autism based on federal data. This is also the first article in some time that doesn’t provide the textbook definition of autism or Asperger Syndrome, but summarizes the disability in a way the mainstream can understand. I discussed the significance of both findings in a post I made in October reporting the government studies, suggesting the diagnosis rate was climbing. The New York Times may be considering the increase of awareness from the increase in autism stories and their reporters are electing not to define autism in the classic sense. The public is starting to catch on.

What this article also does is underscore the individuality within autism itself, an angle seldom seen in popular press. Most stories told through electronic media often group all autistic people together, not accounting for the abilities that astonish adults and bore playmates to tears. Autism Speaks’ Autism Every Day, released three years ago, is an example of lumping everyone to a single unit. With the proposed changes and almost certain debate forthcoming, we get to look into…GASP…differing opinions within the autism community. Some prefer keeping the Asperger name while others have lived comfortably with the autism label. Instead of a two-sided debate with a for and against side, the Times turns the story into a multi-perspective discussion with the scholarly medical side blending with the real-life side, a useful approach since the autism debate nearly matches autism itself in complexity.

On the surface, the article reports a very detailed discussion and debate over a possible exchange in terminology when diagnosing autism in kids and adults. Beyond that could be the beginning of the next stage of social discussions surrounding autism: self-identification. Detailed in modern media including True Blood and X-Men 3: The Last Stand, autistic people with enough cognitive abilities to process thoughts are now asking themselves who they are and who gets to decide how they live. This is no different from anyone else or any other group subjected to the prejudices of privilege and 20th century thinking, but the New York Times story is the first to profile what could be an autistic identity crisis.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 4, 2009 at 11:44 pm

iPod + iLessons

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Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

OK, so Apple hasn’t developed an educational technology with that name, but that didn’t stop Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis from experimenting with iPods.

Located near the U of M campus, the staff didn’t go on a music binge. They purchased iPods for people who are part of the Asperger’s treatment program. Asperger’s Syndrome is on the autism spectrum, which means these kids often have the same difficulties as people who are more severely affected. The difference between classic autism and Asperger’s is intellectual abilities. Classic autistics often lag behind their neurotypical peers in terms of speech and communication development. Asperger’s kids equal and sometimes surpass their peers, but retain difficulties in social awareness, making integration sometimes more challenging.

Fraser created video lessons to help rectify that problem. Participants can download them into their iPods and watch them as much as they want at any time. The idea surfaced when the Fraser staff noticed Asperger’s students already used iPods as a calming device from other distractions.

One advantage highlighted in the article is the program’s inconspicuous nature. The rest of us likely won’t guess that a teen or anyone else on the spectrum will pull out their iPod to watch a video on the intricacies of interaction.

Ironically, I’ve never owned an iPod because its use as a calming force almost works too well. iPods are a prime target for thieves because listeners won’t hear anything suspicious, especially if an owner wears its distinctive ear buds. But that doesn’t mean this idea should be abandoned. Fraser’s iPod project is just one example of how new media can influence society as a whole in ways we may not consider on a daily basis.

Also ironic is that I did a story on Fraser, although it was more a profile piece, and the people I talked to wouldn’t let me near anyone who was enrolled in their services. Perhaps my approach or my medium (this was for my TV news reporting class at the U of M) affected their thoughts.  There is HEPA, designed to protect the privacy of people’s medical records. In other words, there’s a rulebook. However, like anything else that involves media, there’s the giant grey area of how those rules are interpreted. Some are strict, some are loose, and sometimes two people will carry vastly different definitions after reading the same book. I doubt I would have come across this specific story, but when I chose to pursue a story on Fraser last fall, my goal was to produce something similar to what Maura Lerner did for the Star Tribune. Lerner’s article shows what can happen when you give people an opportunity to do a story their way.

At least Fraser is willing to open up.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 26, 2009 at 6:56 pm