The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘high school

Autistic people do lend a hand

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Courtesy CNN

Go ahead, say what you want about autistic people living in their own world and ignoring their surrounding environments. Haley Moss, a 15-year-old autistic who wrote and illustrated a book about helping others get through middle school, can’t hear you.

Haley’s on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Non-verbal at age 3, her parents got her private speech therapy and hippotherapy, a technique that involves a horse and a speech-language pathologist, shown to increase verbal communication in some children. She never took a special education course and is a straight-A student at a private school in Florida, but nothing could prepare her for the challenges of middle school, and those challenges inspired her to create her first book.

Sarcasm is a challenge, as she doesn’t find the concept to make any sense (which technically is true), along with starting conversations. Haley says her interests, art and video games, don’t always match up with her peers. But her memorization skills are above most of her classmates and her advice on social situations differs from what most people would say. Haley might be an incarnation of myself if I were female, although it took me a little longer to get up to speed. I always called myself a “Lego brick” in school, because I could detach and attach myself to any “set.” Haley’s parents kept her autism private until she started working on her book. So far, Haley says revealing her condition hasn’t helped socially, but it did help her peers understand.

Her responses to numerous situations suggest that she employs a logical problem-solving technique. Instead of jumping to conclusions after hearing a comment she doesn’t understand, she asks her mom for help. Another tip she shares is logical, but I wonder how necessary it is: learning about trends to talk about them. She says doing so helped her fit in because you’ll be picked on if you’re not like other kids, which means she’s watched the Twilight series and knows about the Jonas Brothers. My experience was no different than Haley’s in middle school, although I have no complaints about not sharing similar interests with most of the crowd, especially if they weren’t to my liking. Depending on your interpretation, Haley’s suggestion could be seen as forcing to assimilate yourself into what society wants you to be like (she’s not a fan of the Twilight series and its second entry, New Moon, earned mediocre reviews with critics).

Of course, I do share interests with the rest of the world, and you’ll know that right away when it comes to most movies or sports. If she’s learning trends to fit in, I’d be curious to know how friendly her friends are. Obviously, you need a few things in common, but my friendships have lasted in part because of my stubborn refusal to give up individuality. I’m curious about my friends’ pursuits and they know and are interested in mine, regardless of whether or not they’re following the same path.

Curiosities aside, Haley’s doing the very thing that I mentioned autistic people don’t often get the chance to: fight their own battles. The CNN story has no political tone, but they do an effective job examining Haley’s personal life, using her art and writing skills as catalysts. Her book applies to everyone across the board when it comes to middle school, including anecdotes written from other autistic kids. She also has her own website, and her bio on the home page mentions nothing about her autism spectrum disorder. That’s fine, playing the autism “card” is never a requirement, and can be a confidence booster if your talents are recognized simply on their merit.

Haley’s a rarity, an autistic girl who’s managed to integrate with society and use her experience to assist those entering the world she departed. With the initial wave of doom and gloom behind us in press coverage, we’ll see more stories like Haley’s in its wake. Nothing cheers up an audience like a good profile piece detailing success, especially with an economic condition that sucked happiness from most of us. Her story won’t have the magnitude of Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin, but that isn’t necessary. Progress in press coverage will happen when the audience realizes that autistic people are no different from any of us. Everyone is flawed, but they also have talent. If readers get that message, then don’t be surprised if you hear more autism success stories to the point where they become “annoying.”

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A joyful occasion?

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Autism coverage remains at a crawl, but I found an article on CNN that strikes me as somewhat odd. The writer is actually a contributor who doesn’t work for CNN, but she published a long piece about at New York’s P.S. 176X after spending a year there for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The article reports services and the environment for students at the school. All students who attend the school are autistic, and 90% of the student body require special services. The meat of the story is bookended by the school’s graduation ceremony.

Obviously, graduation is a big deal for any parent who cares about their kid, but the hope is darkened for parents who discover that their kids are autistic. I added a question mark at the end of the title because the article explains the debate on how to educate autistic students and what to do with them when they’re finished with school. The writer highlights a few options, such as “day hab” programs for those who are severely affected. However, despite the progress rate for several students who attend P.S. 176x, there’s still the problem of integrating and functioning effectively in an environment that still doesn’t fully understand autism. I’d like to not think that graduating from high school will be the pinnacle of their lives, because that means there could be a lot of turmoil ahead. Yes, the severity ranges and can affect a person’s overall capabilities, but I’d like to know how many of these students are attending college or have big dreams now that they have their diplomas. I don’t say this in an attempt to make everything upbeat, but accounting for multiple perspectives, the biggest question parents may have is “Now what?” Knowing that even one of those students will be heading for higher education would give them some assurance that high school isn’t the endpoint, but simply an exit to another freeway.

I go into this a little further in my next autism documentary that I’m currently editing, but the pattern with autism coverage in mainstream media is that if autistic people don’t do something that is expected for their neurotypical peers, they’re often cast as nightmares. Reporters don’t make the kids look evil, the tone simply suggests that options are few and the outlook is dim. On the opposite end, autistics who make an achievement like Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin are often cast as heroes because they did something that wasn’t expected of them, but people who don’t think like them could do without question (although Grandin renovated treatment of farm animals when several others thought she was crazy). Reporting on autism is a tough assignment for journalists since many of them don’t know autism in great detail. Patterns are quickly established because of the lack of knowledge in order to give reporters a starting point. I’m waiting for the time when discussions will get deeper among the mainstream audience.

As the population grows, my gut is parents of autistic children won’t be the only ones thinking “Now what?”

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 20, 2009 at 10:45 am