The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘health

West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

Alpha and Omega

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Photo by Justin Stephens, Syfy

Before I analyze my next story, I want to inform you that this blog is a finalist for Twin Cities CBS affiliate WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition in the health/fitness/medical category. Click here to view all the entries in the category. Voters can select their favorite blog in each category once per day. The winner receives a $50 Amazon gift card.

Speaking of value, Jean Winegardner of The Washington Times explores the usefulness of an autistic character on Syfy’s new series, Alphas. The series focuses on people whose neurological anomalies give them special powers while simultaneously dealing deficits and difficulties brought on by their differences. One of the five main characters, Gary Bell, is a high-functioning autistic adult who can read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals.

Actor Ryan Cartwright, who portrays Bell, enjoys the complexity of the character that he believes extends beyond the autism diagnosis. Naturally, Gary makes little eye contact, his speech patterns are stilted and echolalic, he relies on rules learned by rote and carries a strict adherence to routines. All are common traits of autism spectrum disorder. However, the kicker is Gary’s sense of humor, giving him an extra personality to challenge mainstream notions that autistic people are humorless (an idea promoted in the days of Rain Man).

Much detail and care was included in the science portion of the science fiction show. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member of UCLA’s neuroscience program, is a consultant for Alphas who reviewed each script for the show’s inaugural season while offering on advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Cartwright’s research included consulting with people who work with autistic individuals, reading books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet along with blog sites created by autistic people (I wonder if he came across this one :-p) and watching documentaries on the subject. Cartwright credits this research for helping him understand the reasoning behind the attributes and difficulties of autistic people to create and not imitate the physicality of Gary. Cartwright’s biggest goal? Playing the person and not the disorder

With the story part reporting and part editorial, Winegarden expresses approval for the show introducing a complex character with autism as opposed to stereotypical characters that permeated mainstream media in the early days of autism exposure. Bookheimer concurs, as the show seeks to examine themes of neurodiversity as the topic itself becomes more embroiled in public dissemination.

Science fiction itself has always opened doors to addressing ideas and topics among current events that could never be extrapolated by media set in the present because of raw, impulsive emotional responses from segments of the viewing audience. Star Trek and its spin-offs before the 2009 reboot contained many allegories among its episodes and races, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with a 23rd century version of Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union. Alphas may not be as futuristic, but the science fiction elements of neurological conditions leading to superhuman powers does communicate to viewers that disabled people aren’t so simplistic in real life. Several examples of autism in mainstream media used to place autistic individuals as “out there,” separated from the public domain. Recent portrayals, including a young boy with Asperger’s on the second version of NBC’s Parenthood and now Alphas, approach the condition with a mission to deconstruct what the public erected years ago about the condition.

Credit must also be given for Winegardner’s approach to the story. There are few indications of the article presenting itself as a column until the end of the story, when Winegardner analyzes the character of Gary Bell and the effort from Cartwright and the show’s production staff. While I doubt anyone would be critical of a column praising a television show for avoiding stereotypes, columns and editorials can sometimes fall into traps created by the writers (or pundits on television shows), where the writer eschews fact and reasoning for an egotistical nature. Winegardner’s structure is very similar to what a straight-up reporter would write, and prefaces her sense of encouragement with a behind-the-scenes look for a rookie series seeking to establish itself in the Syfy lineup, using both the actor and a consultant whose expertise is the science of the brain as sources for her analysis.

While an opinion is more blatantly expressed, opinion articles sometimes employ the tactics of more neutral stories that make up the front page of newspapers, as such work can carry the same effect in both instances. Thanks to Winegardner’s interviewing, she doesn’t have to rely solely on her own word even in a news environment where someone’s word is sometimes given more credence than traditional reporting. A positive side effect is the illustration of commitment from Alphas to accurate portrayals within its neuroscience surroundings.

As with any art form, television isn’t immune to subjectivity from the viewing audience, critics and advertisers, but even if Alphas joins the long list of “one-and-done” programs, expect future shows that tackle neurodiversity to draw inspiration from the latest work of science fiction.

I’m pregnant with an autistic child

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Obviously, that statement is far away from entering the lexicon of childbirth, and unless I’m asked to re-enact a Cosby Show episode where Bill dreams most of the show’s male characters are pregnant (he gave birth to a two-liter bottle of Sunkist), I’ll be physically unable to claim such a thing.

However, health reporter Jenifer Goodwin returns to decipher more studies, with the story stripped in several outlets, including USA Today. Four studies are dissected by Goodwin and the findings may reveal clues on the likelihood of giving birth to an autistic child. One study reveals that catching a fever during pregnancy could increase the risk of autism in children. Another study suggests mothers who have diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity may also carry an increased risk of autism in their offspring. Three studies examined data from 1,000 kids participating in the Childhood Autism Risks and Genetic Environment study, whose acronym is shortened to CHARGE.

In a weighted analysis, the first study suggesting a relation between fever and autism reported that mothers of autistic children were twice as likely to report a fever during pregnancy than mothers of children without autism. Risks were highest when mothers reported a fever during the second trimester of pregnancy. Researchers behind the study those findings as preliminary and no statistical significance was found when sampling weights were omitted.

A second study found mother of autistic children were more likely to have elevated levels of certain inflammatory markers. A third, which drew from CHARGE data, mothers who had any combination of type 2 or gestational diabetes, chronic hypertension, or pre-pregnancy obesity were significantly more likely to give birth to children with autism or another developmental delay. The fourth and final study examined Cesarean-section births and autism using CHARGE data and found no statistically significant link between birthing method and autism. The research was presented in a press conference at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Diego, but they have yet to undergo the scrutiny of research published in peer-reviewed medical journals. A study co-author who was interviewed for the story did say many factors were modifiable, so if they are confirmed as autism risk factors, they could be altered.

The article should not be a cause for panic as findings are in the preliminary stage and several health factors like diabetes and obesity carry more dire health risks than a potential autism diagnosis in children. While placing a time frame on when the factors described in the array of studies presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research would be confirmed isn’t the most productive choice with the slow-and-steady nature of study development, a confirmation would be significant. Coupled with the continuous attention given to the dangers of obesity and diabetes, mainstream news outlets would waste no time hyping or even saturating media with such a link. Even if a link is confirmed should these studies exit the preliminary stage, I doubt a significant impact would occur with personal health, with obesity on the rise and a lack of incentive, initiative and resources blocking efforts to combat the problem.

Jenifer Goodwin and articles on studies are quite common this year; this is the third story published by Goodwin that I’ve discussed in 2011. She sorted out a lot of data in a facet of journalism notorious for its difficulty to communicate meaning. Given the story’s nature, fitting results from four studies wasn’t too difficult though, as Goodwin highlighted each piece of data and offered a brief expansion to explain its significance. She tempers the findings by not only including the caution from researchers on the preliminary state of data, but ending the article explaining why such data should be viewed skeptically until more research is conducted.

I don’t expect Goodwin to tackle four studies in one article on a regular basis as the research was presented at a significant event. Such gatherings are prime for swarms of data, analysis and conclusions in an attempt to decipher the mystery of autism. Generally, one study will be spelled out per article, as most are published in peer-reviewed medical journals that are distributed regularly. I don’t foresee supplementary coverage from journalists as the information is still speculative, but the studies may lead to additional examinations on a possible link, either disputing what was found or reinforcing conclusions. Those future developments will be the focus of Goodwin and other news editors as this story evolves.