The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘lawsuit

Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

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Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

Autistic student sues over test

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Autism is heating up in Australia, and not because the country is transitioning to its summer period. A 17-year-old student is suing the Education Department for discrimination because he claims his teacher refused to re-word math questions on tests.

The student, Lewis Walton, said his math scores dropped because test questions were open-ended that related to real-life situations. He said he struggled with those questions and became so anxious that he was almost admitted to a hospital. The school did not comment in the story, but meeting minutes reported that the tests in question did not present any language difficulties.

While the story is another example of “he said/she said,” where the story is comprised of mostly claims, there are a few twists. Autistic people are not known for lying as most have difficulty comprehending complexities with language, including exaggerations and “white lies.” To have an autistic person take sarcasm or exaggeration literally is not a surprise, finding comfort with logically-based communication (for those who can communicate orally). However, the reporter did not present any proof beyond Walton’s testimony in the story, so the extent of the alleged discrimination is truly unknown.

So what makes this story intriguing compared to my last post? This was a story in Australia covered by an Australian news outlet. While access to international journalism is well-known for news junkies and web surfers, a close study can make an effective comparison to domestic coverage. The school lawsuit story provides an example that adaptation for autistic people can be problematic anywhere in the world, despite the majority of stories coming from the United States and United Kingdom. While not frequent, Australia contributes to the autism news front, and I’m sure further examination would quickly reveal autism issues in countries where English is not the primary language.

While parents will often question their own abilities when they discover autism in the family, this story may help them understand that the condition is global. Closer examinations of autism’s international saturation may highlight tips, parallels, strategies, questions and topics that may not be discussed within the states. Autism’s biggest controversy, the suggestion that vaccines caused the condition, started in the United Kingdom.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 9, 2010 at 6:12 pm

A story somewhat familiar.

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According to the Associated Press, a former teacher in an Indiana school district is being sued by the mother of an autistic boy who has severe peanut allergies. Anita Young accused the teacher of trying to feed her son a peanut-filled candy bar in order to make him sick enough to withhold him from a zoo field trip. The boy didn’t eat the candy bar as the wrapper was unfamiliar to him (autistic people adhere to strict routines and rarely pursue items outside of their interests). The Indiana Department of Child Services reviewed classroom aides’ complaints about Trinda Barocas attempting to prevent him from going because of his behavior. The report also includes claims of abusing a 9-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome. In both incidents, the teacher denied any wrongdoing. County prosecutors and Department of Education officials are currently investigating.

In my last post, I spoke about looking for signs in popular press for shifts in autism coverage. The abuse case isn’t one of them, but unfortunately a somewhat familiar story if you follow the news closely. Rain Man signals this issue well in the film’s climax, when Charlie Babbitt finds himself struggling to adapt to the behavioral patterns and peculiarities of his brother Raymond, claiming his case of autism as made up. The abuse case doesn’t exactly parallel with the film’s plot, but it does feature a person working in education who’s ineffective at handling oddities of the mentally disabled (if the claims are correct). Regardless of the situation, people accused of any kind of wrongdoing often deny their involvement when approached by media (and some continue to do so even if they’re convicted). Those who do lie may cover up the truth as the need to be liked often outweighs the need to be accurate. In criminal/civil cases, accuracy often leads to costly rulings against convicts. Ironically, high costs could be avoided if rules weren’t broken in the first place. Isn’t logic fascinating?

Ideally, the perpetrator is innocent until proven guilty, but because these highly sought stories are combined with some cynicism from the public, people named in such cases are usually guilty until proven innocent (and are still believed to be guilty by cynics afterward, not to mention the hype that follows when the justice systems commits an error and wrongly punishes an innocent person).

There’s a good chance the teacher is trying to cover her hide based on previous problems working with mentally disabled kids. The autistic boy is mostly nonverbal, rendering him ineffective at expressing needs and discomforts through spoken language. Language barriers, often a point of contention in immigration and citizenship debates, can also be troubling to kids who simply cannot do what neurotypicals (and well-developed disabled people) assume is simple. The lack of understanding leads to frustration, and in extreme cases, schemes to take care of the problem.

To say tolerance is needed is accurate, but perhaps an investigation into why a few bad apples find their way in the crop would prove fruitful for journalists. Mentally disabled kids grow up with an early strike in the count. Educators should be required to understand difficulties with the disabled population in order to understand and appropriately respond to episodes not experienced by neurotypicals.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 11, 2009 at 12:05 am

We’re all misfits

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I found more proof last week that the corporate world still has a long way to go in understanding autism. The lack of intuition cost Abercrombie and Fitch over $115,000. Abercrombie was fined this summer (the results weren’t published until last week) for not allowing the sister of an autistic teenage girl to help try out clothes for the autistic female at its Mall of America location.

Abercrombie’s store policy only allows one person in dressing rooms at a time as a means to prevent shoplifting, but Molly Maxson, who was 14 when the incident occurred in 2005. Molly’s autism appears to be more severe than most (and certainly mine) as the article reports her sister saying Molly always had a close eye on her because of her emotional vulnerabilities. Abercrombie continued to refuse entry even after Molly’s sister and mother both explained Molly’s autism. The company then denied that Molly had a disability until the first day of hearings in the case and the judge hearing the case found that Abercrombie interpreted disability rules only for people with visible handicaps. In its resistance, Abercrombie subjected Molly to an interview with a forensic psychologist, who Molly told she was a misfit at the store. A clerk at another store consented with Brittany (the older sister) immediately after she revealed Molly’s autism.

Abercrombie has a history of social problems, targeted over several racial discrimination lawsuits. Unfortunately for them, they turned a blind eye to mental disabilities as well. While the settlement will help Molly’s family cover legal costs and other undeserved penalties, the store could have saved their own hide had they simply admitted making a mistake. By continuing to resist, they only dug themselves a deeper hole. Given their reduction in sales for refusing to lower prices of their clothing, the short-term future doesn’t bode well as the economy undergoes a lethargic recovery stage.

What’s important to note is the year the incident originally took place. Not much mainstream focus was given to autism in 2005; that took place the following year after Jason McElwain’s athletic achievement. However, the fact another store consented to the Maxsons suggest people knew about autism and its effects back then. Unfortunately, this problem will likely persist as the autistic population grows. As the judge’s ruling indicated, there’s still an opinion among some that invisible handicaps aren’t the same as visible impairments. The statement is technically correct, but any disability that interferes with a human’s physical or mental capabilities is still a disability.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 15, 2009 at 4:56 pm