The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘confusion

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.

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People confusing learning and mental disabilities

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USA Today reported findings of a telephone poll conducted by the Tremaine Foundation today, discovering that 79% of parents and 80% of non-parents associate learning disabilities with mental retardation (Acknowledged dyslexic Jay Leno wouldn’t like this), while a majority of Americans (no exact numbers are given, but we know it’s at least 51%) also incorrectly group mental disorders like ADD and autism with learning disabilities. While there’s a greater understanding of disabilities and thought processes of people that continues to grow, the Tremaine Foundation is concerned about confusion with teachers and parents in addressing those affected by a learning or mental disability. A learning disorder doesn’t affect a person’s intelligence, only the brain’s ability to process, store and respond to information.

This may explain why reporters continue to stress the general symptoms of disabilities despite the increase of coverage and resources for those diagnosed with some sort of condition. While it’s clear that a large segment of the population is mixing things up, no margin of error is listed because the results are clearly one-sided (if you’re curious, it’s 3.1% based on the 2010 census estimate of the U.S. population. I linked the calculator here for you to try). Margins of error are generally listed when opinions are closer to an even split, and will be shown on most political polls.

Regarding why there’s much confusion on what is a learning disability or mental disability, only theories exist, but the USA Today story could be used as a springboard to dive into what would be a deep pool. Many profiles of autistic people will show difficulties in mental capacity, where an adult essentially has the mind of a much younger person. Few autistic kids are mainstreamed at school and the portion of autistic adults successfully integrating in social or work environments is also small. Many are mute as a result of their communication shortcomings. How those issues are interpreted as learning disabilities is difficult to determine, but the lack of vocal communication and approaches for it could be a false alarm, since speech problems can be addressed through therapy.

On the flip side, learning disabilities, including dyslexia, could be incorrectly seen as mental retardation when the general lack of understanding about disabilities among unaffected individuals is applied. Because the brain cannot handle information in the same way as others, people afflicted with learning disabilities often require some assistance until a solution is found. Such assistance may be seen as mentally inferior, even though data proves otherwise.

Now that a background exists on why almost every autism story includes a factoid on what the condition is, the logical step for news outlets is to examine what causes the mix-up between learning and mental disabilities. Otherwise, we may continue to see old facts about most common disabilities rehashed, taking up possible space or time for things to help our understanding move forward.