The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘diagnosis

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.

 

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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.

This just in…5,000 hits to tickle your brain

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Autism news has been a little slow lately, but there’s still plenty of you interested in my previous posts based on the number of visits in the last few weeks, making today a milestone moment in the history of this blog.

The Autistic Journalist recorded its 5,000th hit today, less than a year after I toasted the 1,000th hit of this site. While my employment status is struggling, I find the slow but increasing growth of this site encouraging.

I don’t have any original material to contribute to honor this occasion, but I can offer some insight from Fox News via Reuters (don’t worry you politicians/pundits, lol) reporting on findings published by British scientists suggesting a 15-minute brain scan could be used in the future to detect autism.

The results came from testing 40 adults, half with autism and the other half not on the spectrum, and boasted an accuracy rating above 90% in detecting the condition. Using standard MRI machines, they analyzed structural changes in the brain’s gray matter. Scientists are hoping tests on children will produce similar results.

Obviously, the small sample size compromises this study to an extent. While intriguing, others may want a more expansive study to reduce margin of error. However, this marks the third story I’ve noted this year reporting on potential methods of discovering autism in the future. I discussed the cons of current testing before, requiring the need for a more objective supplement. Reuters also believes more education is needed, as they use a couple paragraphs to reiterate what autism is and the frequency level in the United States and Great Britain, where most autism cases and research appears. However, with media coverage continuing its shift to answering the questions they brought up in the last few years, the trend I’ve noticed regarding detection methods reveals two theories: an objective test for autism may be widespread within our lifetime, or the Internet is increasingly effective at spreading news not picked up by newspapers or traditional TV newscasts.

Whatever the reason, I’ve analyzed too many stories to rule out new detection possibilities as a coincidence (urine test, speech recognition software, brain scan). The question will eventually transform to which test comes out first, and how many will be available to a culture of paranoia.

Perhaps the best benefit out of this is the chance that people will finally stop inquiring about my thought process and focus on other topics within the autism spectrum.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 25, 2010 at 10:23 pm

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