The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘autistic children

Placing autistic brains “on the map”

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Erin Allday of the San Francisco Chronicle filed an article this weekend reporting a Stanford University research project suggesting autistic children have a distinctive topography within their brains, based on data obtained from brain scans of 24 autistic children between ages 8 and 18 when compared to scans of 24 non-autistic children. Unlike previous studies that analyzed the overall volume of the brain, where it was found that autistic children generally have larger than average brains, but the information wasn’t refined enough to be useful in diagnosing or treating the disorder, the Stanford study sectioned brain scans into tiny cubes and compared the size and structure through computer analysis. What they found was a pattern of organization in regions of the brain affecting communication and self-awareness particular to autistic children (communication and awareness are hallmark facets that autism affects).

The brain maps applied to 80 to 90 percent of autistic children, and the research pinpoints a potential bio-marker should the maps be replicated in a larger group of children. While the research is years away from application in the real world, coupled with questions about the method’s validity in screening children, the goal is providing refined treatments and clearer understanding of autism’s impact on a vital organ. The research was published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Numerous studies and endless research attempts to find a biological indicator for autism spectrum disorder will continue as long as the cause of the condition remains unknown. On this blog, I’ve covered urine tests and studies on genetic proteins as potential signs to determine whether or not a person fits the autism spectrum. The explorations of so many subjects aren’t all that different from “old wife’s tales” of treating various conditions. When there’s a lack of concrete indicators for a disorder or disease, researchers task themselves to discovering at least one answer. Throughout the quest, numerous possibilities and theories emerge until further research either eliminates them or creates new support to continue investigating a certain topic. Unfortunately, the process is agonizingly long and often ignored by a mainstream audience thirsting for instant gratification, and that’s one reason why stories I cover on biological research often mentions such studies are years away from widespread relevance.

Another reason? Small sample sizes. In order to determine whether a theory is potentially correct or not while avoiding over-exerting resources, autism studies will generally use a localized test group that rarely breaks four figures. This story is one example of how quickly patterns and similarities can be found among people with a particular condition, and that itself is progress compared to scientific observations of autism 20 years ago.

Allday goes through the usual angles in covering this story, explaining autism’s rapid growth while a solution to finding the cause continues. I’ve mentioned before that stories on studies are difficult to provide detailed information because what is published is usually an early step of testing a hypothesis. Allday tempers any reader who may spout that a bio-sign was found by uncovering the unknown usefulness of the research itself. Stories like hers will continue to be published to newspapers as a “mainstream translation” of what is disseminated by journals, even though answers lie far beyond. However, when a biological cause is found, reporters will hopefully have at least one story of their own to reference.

 

They call them “the wanderers”

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My journey to find a news story that would cover the perils of wandering drew parallels with the 1961 Dion hit of the same name. Unfortunately for parents, autistic kids who go “around, around, around” aren’t doing so to impress females. A study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network, using a national survey of 856 parents of autistic children, revealed around half of them wandered off at least once, sometimes gone long enough to cause alarm. Two-thirds of surveyors said their children had a “close call” with traffic while one-third said a child nearly drowned. A 58 percent majority cited wandering as the most stressful behavior displayed by an autistic child.

Delthia Ricks of Indiana newspaper The Republic interviewed a doctor who wasn’t involved with the survey but has communicated with families whose autistic kids elope. The study listed no primary reason for eloping as that wasn’t the study’s focus, but the story mentions “wanderlust,” avoidance or a specific destination as theories for taking off. Wandering can continue through adulthood, although the odds drop as children age. The biggest concern with autistics eloping is their lack of social awareness, including stranger-danger, increasing their vulnerability to harmful elements.

I detailed such a case of wandering in my third autism documentary, but the mystery was solved long before a major panic ensued. Most stories on studies hash out the numbers while adding quotes from a source on a press release or in a separately-conducted interview before validating those numbers in a follow-up story should a journalist take that action. For an autism community member, these findings may allow them to cite scientific evidence instead of anecdotal references, but the story is hardly surprising since wandering is a publicly-known issue. The focus of an autistic child is sometimes intense, to the point where they close off other forms of stimuli until the child’s task is complete. Drama can exponentially rise if a wandering child is non-verbal, reducing the likelihood of responding to audible signals.

The news environment itself adds a dramatic dash, with their preference to hype stories of danger, despair and fear of an unknown future to boost ratings and theatrics. The last two paragraphs of Ricks’ story fit with the overall theme without fabricating autism’s hazards, but when parents are exposed to this story, combined with other risks of childhood (which include eloping from non-autistic kids), the chances of buying the media’s perspective of the world is higher, even though stranger-danger is statistically less of a risk than harm from a known acquaintance. Autism can nullify the odds, but this story is a worthwhile lesson to absorb content presented to us without reacting impulsively.

Knowledge of autistic people eloping is common among the community, the wild card may be people who aren’t exposed to autism regularly. Don’t be surprised if Ricks or another reporter spells out the numbers through a story of experience with a family or caregiver watching an autistic child. Monitoring “child-proofing” stories for an expose on preventing autistic children from bolting may also prove fruitful in the short-term, as child safety is a frequently covered topic in news.

The information was public for some time through Google searches, but until The Republic picked up the story, all I could find were press releases. While PR does contain journalistic elements, they generally don’t follow the same format as professional journalists, and the purpose of this blog is detailing and dissecting mainstream news coverage of autism. Occasionally, I’ll post coverage outside of traditional newspapers and TV stations, but my theme will not bend from analyzing how mainstream media presents news and information on the topic of autism, which is why some time elapse before I got to this story.