The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘children

I was here first!

leave a comment »

Photo by Daniel Bock, The Miami Herald

In another first for The Autistic Journalist, I will be analyzing two reporters covering the same story after a Google News search uncovered another article on Barbara Delgado’s Miami Dance Project summer camp at the New Image Dance Studio. As I mentioned in my last post, Delgado is certified as an autism movement therapist. However, we get a closer examination via Nadege Green of The Miami Herald that NBC Miami couldn’t allocate resources for.

Green’s story is more descriptive, using words in place of action shots in Diana Gonzalez’s version. We learn more about the nine students enrolled in Delgado’s autism therapy dance class and the “curriculum” students take to address their autism spectrum disorder. One student, legally an adult, often leads class in combinations and spends part of her day in another studio with dancers who aren’t autistic.

We learn the students enjoy the classes enough to not notice the “therapy” part. In fact, dancing is only part of the day’s activities in Delgado’s class. Yoga, body strengthening exercises, crafts and activities to improve written and oral skills are also incorporated (two of them can assist in maximizing dancing ability, while the other two help maximize social ability).

Green also shared the origin of Delgado’s journey from certification to starting an autism dance class: Delgado offered a free autism movement therapy dance class on Sundays before starting the summer program, citing a desire to create a space where autistic kids feel no different from their neurotypical counterparts. Hugs and high-fives are shared frequently to help foster a supportive environment. Ultimately, her goal is to start a professional dance company for autistic dancers.

Green can share a lot more and employ some novel storytelling techniques because she had a larger space to report her story than Gonzalez. Unless assigned column space is quite small, written articles will generally have more detail than television stories when covering the same topic. In particular, print journalism is primarily about word choice; feature stories seek to give readers a sense of visualization by observing details about the subject being covered. Photos can supplement this form of storytelling, especially on the Internet where limits are lifted. However, the story’s effectiveness solely rests on the writer, and Green handles the task well by profiling multiple students involved from start to finish. Whether the students speak themselves or parents speak for the less verbal participants, the quotes published in the story suggest Green asked the students why the joined the program and what they like about it, reinforcing the summer camp’s idea of not pointing out the supplementary mission plans of the dance class.

While Gonzalez’s electronic version highlights the “non-traditional” form of autism intervention on its own, Green’s story spells out how the program does more to assist autistic children beyond improving their dance skills. Readers considering joining the program themselves may now understand other forms of therapy are not sacrificed with the class.

A curious element to the story itself is when Green began reporting on Delgado’s dance class. The Miami Herald story was published the same day as NBC Miami’s was, although NBC Miami posted their version online a few hours before The Miami Herald, suggesting the paper either submitted the story for publication in its traditional form either Monday or Tuesday of this week. Given the time frame, it’s very unlikely that either journalist picked up the story by getting hold of the other’s beforehand, and there’s usually no rivalry between a print and television news outlet. How the class was discovered may not be known, but with two reporters discussing the same class, the reporters could have picked up the story through a press release or a mutual contact that happened to know both Gonzalez and Green or their superiors.

Green’s advantages in reporting for The Miami Herald certainly doesn’t mean written articles are superior to television stories. The two stories only illustrate the differences between the two media. I wouldn’t expect additional stories on Delgado’s autism movement therapy sessions with the summer class wrapping up on Friday, but other reporters in Miami and beyond may draw inspiration to find “new” forms of autistic intervention to dissect for the audience. Dancing may not be the magic solution, but Delgado’s contributions may redefine how to treat autistic children.

Autistic kids can shout “Hallelujah”

with one comment

No three-month hiatus this time, although I’m surprised at the number of visitors who have found the site since my last post.

And the number of young autistic visitors for church services is also on the rise. Kelly Heyboer of USA Today published a story late last month highlighting increased acceptance of autistic parishioners in church services by illuminating efforts in New Jersey. The director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities for the Archdiocese of Newark said despite the heart and theology Christian churches offer to patrons, not all who attend worship live the meaning. The director runs the “Attends Mass” program that offers training for religious educators and support groups for parents, while a few churches host an event similar to sensory-friendly screenings from movie theaters. Called Inclusive Family Masses, autistic children can be loud or disruptive with no chance of being escorted out of church.

Caldwell College and its campus chapel also actively engages in integrating autistic children with Christ, where a new Center for Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis just opened. A Caldwell graduate student was featured by Heyboer for her involvement in the “Mass mentors” program. A dozen New Jersey children have buddied up with mentors who train them on proper behavior while attending Mass. The process, the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Caldwell’s graduate student, begins by bringing children to the last five minutes of Mass and slowly adapting them to the entire service, called “backward chaining.” The executive director for Caldwell’s autism center says “backward chaining” is applicable to any religious following.

Heyboer bookends her story with the “backward chaining” approach, even though readers aren’t aware of the term until the next-to-last paragraph. Her first two paragraphs highlight the method’s effectiveness with an autistic boy who spent months of training to manage Mass, while the end of the story spells out the steps I listed earlier. No quotes are given to non-scholarly sources, not even from the mother and son featured in the lead, with the expected angle of struggling with church placed with a mother of an autistic teen who also is a task force member of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. While her experience may validate the obstacles she battled with bringing her autistic son to church, readers don’t get much perspective on the response from beneficiaries of the services featured in Heyboer’s article. The premise would likely be similar, but getting a word with people not directly involved in efforts can provide a more unbiased analysis on the success rate of implemented programs.

Heyboer’s story is a far cry from the controversy generated three years ago when a rural Minnesota church filed a restraining order banning a 13-year-old autistic boy because of loud outbursts (and that story was played heavily in Minnesota media as such a move was unprecedented to journalists). With Minnesota’s growing ties to autism in the Somali population, where Islam is the predominant religious practice, I wouldn’t be surprised if a religious leader or two from that community picks up this story and applies the “backward chaining” method discussed at the end of Heyboer’s article. The struggles families with autism face at their place of worship are already documented in Twin Cities media, which included a discussion of how far is too far when balancing accessibility and safety. Not seeing a similar story in the Twin Cities may sound surprising when they were briefly the center for autism and religion at first, but since several methods in Heyboer’s story are relatively new, not even the speed of today’s news will ring bells in the brains of news producers and editors immediately.

Regardless of the denomination (the story focused on Catholics), big crowds, loud music, and long periods of silence or monotony can overwhelm the senses. Combine nerves of parents already cautious about bringing their autistic children in public places, and not even the teachings of religious leaders can prevent isolation. Such concerns have led some priests and parishioners to discourage autistic children from attending church service. Heyboer’s story suggests that trend is reversing. No matter who people worship, I imagine families with autistic children will have their prayers answered, if not already addressed.

Autistic students become “teachers”

with one comment

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.

Adventuring with autistic kids

with one comment

The Children’s Museum of La Crosse has found a way to incorporate autistic children, as Eau Claire NBC affiliate WEAU highlights the museum’s new Adventure Packs designed by the museum and The Chileda Institue, a program that assists people with developmental disabilities. While Adventure Packs are available to anyone, families with autistic children receive priority. The backpack includes tools individualized for different exhibits, allowing autistic children to plan their museum visit. Earmuffs are included to combat sound sensitivity. The backpacks are one element Chileda is embracing, as they have plans to train employees on interacting with autistic people. The Children’s Museum of La Crosse has already received a warm response, with other museums requesting similar kits.

Museums with the young in mind can be overwhelming from a sensory perspective. Sounds, colors, images, and even smells can cause sensory inputs to overload. Sometimes, predicting what will cause an overload is no more accurate than a coin flip unless autistic people know what’s coming. The brainstorming of the Children’s Museum of La Crosse and Chileda likely factored autistic children’s preferences for advance notice, as the backpacks offer clues, if not the answers themselves, to what each exhibit projects. I have yet to hear of a similar program with Twin Cities local museums, but since the state borders Wisconsin, seeing the concept exported west is not a stretch to imagine.

The story may not appear as noteworthy compared to others I’ve discussed this week, especially for an accessibility item in a place that generally factors passages for many disabilities. The market size is noticeably smaller than my hometown Twin Cities market, even though the station branches out to Eau Claire residents. With smaller cities and fewer people to cover, notable places with even subtle additional features are more likely to be picked up by local reporters if the resources allow them to pursue such leads. The Adventure Pack story is no less encouraging for the autism community than Holly Robinson Peete’s weekly features on The Talk this month; the target audience just happens to be smaller. Stations in larger markets wouldn’t necessarily ignore such a feature in their coverage area, but the perks of working in larger population zones allow them to be more selective with the stories they report.

However, smaller markets have opportunities for big impacts (an older colleague’s story on SPAM’s 50th anniversary in 1987 was picked up by ABC after originally running on KAAL in the Austin-Albert Lea market). The ability to spread news outside the coverage zone gives reporters in big markets an opportunity to borrow from the little guys. Even if we don’t see a swath of accommodations for autistic visitors of museums and elsewhere, the citizens of La Crosse will know that even autistic minds can grow without hindrance inside their own children’s museum.

Pinpointing autism may be for your eyes only

leave a comment »

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published a theory from autism researchers in their September issue, suggesting infants who don’t engage in gazing at other people’s faces could be exhibiting the first signs of autism spectrum disorder. Researchers studied 25 infants whose siblings were autistic against 25 infants with no history of autism in the family. Autism’s “signature” symptoms are a lack of social interaction and eye contact.

What the article does is expand upon known facts about autism. How extensive is uncertain, since I imagine more study will be needed before any indisputable conclusions are made. Even if this becomes fact, I doubt the earlier assessment would change other unproven, but popular, theories about autism’s causes. The still sizzling vaccine controversy wouldn’t be cooled because infants are given many immunizations in the first two years. What this story may do is speed up a diagnosis, or at least alert parents early on so they can keep an eye on their child. Of course, this could go out the window in a hurry if the biological possibilities I’ve discussed this year become reality soon.

This likely won’t be a major discovery, but a potentially supplemental one and something everyone can catch on to since it doesn’t require drastic shifts in observation or parenting. Earlier clues can also lead to earlier intervention methods, meaning a higher chance of making something out of nothing (as many autistic people are relegated to that category).

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm

When autism can be deadly

with 7 comments

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

Q&A…what am I thinking?

leave a comment »

AOL Health posted a Q&A session a couple weeks ago with Jeanette O’Donnell. For the rest of the world, she runs a Blogspot site called What Are They Thinking? (a link to that site can be found in the article I linked here). The title relates to her family: Five of her six children are autistic, but O’Donnell will be the first to blog about how all her kids have improved with adapting to the “neurotypical” environment since they all received their diagnosis.

Q&A’s are a quick way to tell a story without have to interpret what the sources say. Most interviews use this format before they’re edited for print or broadcast. They’re a good way for beginning journalists to develop their skills before having them prune their quotes later on, but they can be effective, especially with sensitive topics like autism. The article’s writer develops a better shield against claims of bias since all they write on their end are the questions, perhaps trimming some of the answers before publication.

In regards to the article, the interview strikes an unusual tone. O’Donnell mentions some controversies she’s dealt with in autism circles because of her approach to the disorder. Her strategy definitely isn’t within the confines of conventional wisdom: She doesn’t believe in chelation (a procedure that removes heavy metals from the body, a hot topic now with the unsubstantiated belief of mercury causing autism), special diets or any other remedy that is popular with parents but unproven in science. O’Donnell believes media coverage plays a role (when in doubt, blame the media…wait a minute, what am I thinking? 😛 ), making autism appear desperate and something that must be eliminated to sustain order in the mental health world.

That’s not to say O’Donnell just sits there. She did employ the classic strategy of occupational/speech therapy, a pursuit with far more documented success. Another point O’Donnell makes was ensuring her kids knew they would have to adapt by society’s rules, regardless of how well society accepts them.

O’Donnell’s last point could create a dichotomy with an earlier question she answered about her critics. Some call her a media whore, yet the interview ends with her asking the reporter why she hasn’t asked what the reason was for having more kids after their first child was diagnosed with autism. O’Donnell may have been looking to get a specific point out, or the reporter may not have thought about it based on the direction the interview was going. Still, when a source mentions questions that aren’t asked, don’t be afraid to ask it. You’ll find out why they want that point in quotes or on the air and how genuine the reasons are.

O’Donnell does use that question to make a genuine point, from my perspective: She challenges any of her critics to meet her autistic children and tell her which one doesn’t belong.

I’ve noted several times about the emotional, reactive response from parents looking to find a solution and the risk of negative consequences by buying into the first thing that supposedly works but has no scientific backing. Of course, in my childhood days, there was no talk about diets, chelation or other odd treatments. Therapy was king. The Internet changed the treatment game in a hurry, and credit must be given to O’Donnell for refusing to fall in the emotional “trap” of doing something without applying some logic to the situation. She also refuses to take credit for her children’s success. To her, they were the masterminds.

The article’s tone itself is a rarity for anyone who isn’t named Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin. Even five years ago, coverage of autism painted a gloomy picture that could pose a problem to all of us. Even now, news outlets have quoted people talking about the autism “epidemic” as the diagnosis rate increases. Most articles assume some tone of how to keep autism from “destroying” us, ignoring the fact that most of us would acknowledge overcoming some flaw in our own lives, documented or not. The positives of autism may be the next phase introduced in autism coverage, and judging the articles I’ve discussed for the last year on this blog, more are sorely needed to give parents a breather and a reason to consider that autism will not be the culprit of our destruction.