The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Illinois

Call him many things, except the R-word

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Photo by Bev Horne, Chicago Daily Herald

The R-word, standing for retarded, has recently joined campaigns to end other incorrect uses of words demeaning to certain groups. In the same vain as using “gay” to describe something unfair, “retarded” has gone through a desensitizing process in 21st century culture (did we all forget about “suck?”).

Kristy Kennedy of the Chicago Daily Herald profiled one autistic senior determined to bring us back to the days of “sucks” and “stinks.” Jordan Schubert, who will be graduating from Neuqua Valley High School soon, points his breakthrough moment to 6th grade, when he and his sixth-grade basketball won a Special Olympics gold medal. Schubert’s public speaking skills, not a common trait among autistic people, grant him speaking opportunities with groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the “R-word.” For good measure, Schubert and his Special Olympics co-host from a youth summit last summer created a soccer league that teams up disabled and non-disabled students.

Schubert himself isn’t surprised the word “retarded” is in contemporary vocabulary; his peers in middle school used the word to describe anyone or anything stupid. So he decided to speak to younger kids before they start using “retarded.” Schubert’s also changing perceptions of the autism spectrum with his on-camera poise; he produces stand up reports for the high school sports program and submits stories for the Neuqua Valley’s weekly news program. Fluent in Spanish and college-bound, his dream is becoming a foreign language teacher for students with special needs.

Quite a track record for a sports enthusiast. Schubert’s interests and ability to integrate with the mainstream may, ironically, explain why he’ll hear “retarded” being used among his peers. He’s quick to point out the negative connotation behind the word, and his campaign has won support from fellow students. The big issue with demeaning words that are incorrectly used in sentences is simply a numbers problem. Although there are no exact figures for the GLBT or disabled population, by percentage, their representation is small. With low odds of constant communication with either of these groups, using “gay” or “retarded” usually carries the same repercussion experienced when YouTube users post hateful comments on videos: little or none. Schubert’s peers understand what’s going on because they interact with him on a daily basis, likely allowing them to relate on the feelings he and other disabled people experience when the word “retarded” is uttered. Without that exposure, incentive to educate the self drops, increasing the likelihood of grammatically incorrect sentences.

Kennedy quotes many sources to tell the story of one, a technique not often seen in profiles of autistic people (and sometimes other people), but had she not sought insight from his peers, coaches and instructors, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have learned all of Schubert’s pursuits. She seeks to balance the leadership skills Schubert beams to his equals with his personal interests to remind the audience he’s still a teen. For an added touch, Kennedy ties in Schubert’s quest with legislative action in Illinois, where the state Senate passed a bill that would replace “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state statutes. Although such a story will have autism communities beaming themselves, Kennedy’s story communicates that Schubert isn’t all that different, even if he carries a more specific label.

His developmental key is also no different than most others who find professional success: they discover their passions early. Schubert’s was sports, playing baseball, basketball and football. You’ll also find him cheering on NASCAR, the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Bears. As long as there’s a supportive environment, kids will latch on and build off their interests. For parents of autistic children, their strategy should be no different.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schubert become a vocalist for the disabled community with the contributions he’s already provided. Journalists can take note of this story as well, as Kennedy points out autism, as with other disabilities, doesn’t necessarily define character or ability.

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Wakefield supporters refuse to sleep

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I was going to post solely on Dr. Andrew Wakefield getting banned from practicing medicine in his native Great Britain after his paper proposing a link between vaccinations and autism was discredited and retracted, but a more recent article in the Chicago Tribune suggests he has already taken notice.

Feeding off the strong support he still has (I discussed why people would still follow him even if his research was ruled dishonest when news of the ruling made its first appearance in the press), Wakefield stated that he planned to resume his research at a vaccination-choice rally at Grant Park in Chicago, in conjunction with a conference hosted by Generation Rescue. Wakefield plans to start a “virtual university” where he will design research programs to examine the causes of autism and other diseases. Rally supporters (a small crowd according to the article) claimed they were unfairly labeled as anti-vaccine folk. On the other side of the spectrum, over 200 health experts met in a downtown hotel to figure out how to increase vaccination rates, which dropped after Wakefield’s paper was published and led to measles outbreaks in the United States and Britain.

We do learn something new that puts a perspective on the vaccine debate. Resistance can be traced back to the 19th century, which means the issue may not be as modern for those who lack experience in the medical field as once thought. The closing paragraphs mirror the message transmitted in Frontline’s look at the issue: vaccines were effective at preventing diseases, shifting focus to the safety of vaccines themselves, despite the slim chance of immunization recipients developing an adverse reaction to them.

Another point of contention may be Wakefield’s view of autism as a disease that can be cured. Folks who believe autism can be reversed may be at odds with theories suggesting the condition is caused by a genetic malfunction, and that doesn’t factor the myriad of studies concluding no link between autism and vaccines, a point often beat to death by reporters when they report on the subject.

Wakefield’s speech and plan of action resemble the mindset of many who are directly criticized over their ethical or lawful shortcomings (search political scandals and you’ll find plenty among our elected officials). They often deny such accusations or continue to tout their beliefs. While a healthy amount of skepticism is necessary to ensure the answers are indeed correct, promoting an idea refuted by hard evidence suggests stubbornness may be at play. Stubborn refusal of the truth is often a weakness of human emotion.

The Wakefield coverage also suggests that we’re nowhere near wrapping up coverage of the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism. The continuing press is likely because no other theory is juicy or concrete enough to warrant publicity among media’s major players. Until then, journalists will often retreat to what’s popular in the present. Vaccine skeptics will likely remain unless a widespread outbreak of a preventable disease occurs, and the true loser may be the autism community as time and resources are spent on old wounds.

It’s autism awareness month, so let’s see a movie!

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Joel Wintermantle, Chicago Tribune

Most of you people familiar with autism know that April is more than bidding farewell to snow and cold temperatures until the next holiday season (up in Minnesota anyway). April is also autism awareness month, and April 2nd is recognized by the United Nations as World Autism Day. Expect more activity than usual on this site as autism coverage often ramps up in the beginning of the month.

Kicking off the month is a night at the movies! Actually, it’s more a day at the movies, and two theater chains are offering movie screenings designed to allow autistic children to discover why the rest of us enjoy watching a film in theaters. AMC and Kerasotes Theaters in the Chicago area have programs in place to accommodate the bohemian behaviors that usually frustrate moviegoers who have little knowledge of the autism spectrum. AMC runs Sensory Family Screenings while Kerasotes hosts All-Star Saturdays. With both programs, the sound level is reduced while light levels are increased to compensate for the often-increased sensitivity to light and sound from autistics. Children can also clap, dance and sing along to the movie without getting thrown out; autistic children will respond the way their minds tell them to act (not much different than the rest of us, except we don’t say as much during a movie).

I’m not aware of any programs in the Twin Cities area, and as you may have guessed, I don’t require special accommodations to attend a movie screening; my favorite theater to attend happens to be a Kerasotes in downtown Minneapolis. The urban crowds are much looser and find a laugh even with the most serious of films. But I’m not the only autistic in the Twin Cities, and now I won’t be shocked to learn about a theater program that caters to the autistic population in the neighborhood. Logically speaking, offering this alternative benefits all parties: Families can bring their children and not worry about potential outbursts, which often prevents them from seeing family-friendly content before it hits DVD shelves, while the previously untapped audience generates revenue for the theaters and movies. The special events are held monthly (AMC) or weekly (Kerasotes), so there’s little to gain economically in terms of overall revenue for a specific film, but nothing boosts your business like brownie points spread through word-of-mouth (and families affected by autism aren’t too silent).

Special movie screenings are part of what I consider the second phase of autism coverage in popular press. The audience has some understanding of what’s going on, and now appear eager to know what is being done to assist autistics beyond the medical realm. The story is significant because locations that gave us an early glimpse of the spectrum (where else did they show Rain Man when it was first released?) are now giving kids on the spectrum a choice that would never be available when Rain Man was pleasing audiences. Given the popularity, this could inspire other arts venues to give families a choice neurotypical peers often have.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 2, 2010 at 12:37 am