The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘learning disability

Questionnaire could answer autism concerns earlier than before

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Courtesy CNN

CNN picked up a story originally published by Health.com reporting that a new study may help detect autism in children as young as 1. The study is a 24-item questionnaire that assesses a child’s ability to communicate via eye contact, sounds and gestures. Warning signs could then be noted, allowing children to receive treatment earlier than current models. The Health.com story lists the average age for a diagnosis at five years old. Although the lack of biological signs for autism can make diagnosing the disability tricky, the questionnaire takes five minutes to fill out and can be scored on the spot.

The checklist doesn’t identify autism spectrum disorder specifically, but will tell takers something is wrong, which may point to autism or another developmental delay. In the study, where 137 pediatricians in the San Diego area screened over 10,000 children, only 32 of the 184 children whose development was below normal were diagnosed with autism. However, 56 were diagnosed with a learning disorder and 9 had another disorder entirely. Overall, the questionnaire’s accuracy level from the study’s data pool was 75 percent.

While the questionnaire doesn’t add the long-awaited biological marker everyone in the autism community, the questionnaire showcased its potential with detecting delays in developmental skills. Although the accuracy rating may make some parents squirm, there may be some satisfaction with its versatility, especially when virtually all medical professionals stress intervention as early as possible. One reason for the accuracy rating may simply be who they screen. Infants and toddlers are far from developing their abilities with motor and communication skills, as opposed to five-year-olds, where deficiencies are easier to detect. Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggest symptoms of autism aren’t clear until a child reaches 18 months of age. While the screening doesn’t specifically evaluate infants under that age, there’s a risk from parents or caregivers making too much out of the questionnaire’s findings and preparing for a disability whose presence can’t be officially identified that early.

The story itself focused on the study’s findings, how they were procured, and its potential for widespread use. Unfortunately, without an author, gauging who contributed to the story is virtually impossible. Most stories will indicate if more than one writer published the article, but stories themselves aren’t structured in different formats when written by a host of writers. The structure of journalism doesn’t change for television, newspaper or magazine writing. Even if writers have a unique approach to writing a story, the editing process will streamline the final version.

Developments on this questionnaire will unfold over time, but the community will eat up almost anything that may give them an edge, even if a wild goose chase ensues.

People confusing learning and mental disabilities

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USA Today reported findings of a telephone poll conducted by the Tremaine Foundation today, discovering that 79% of parents and 80% of non-parents associate learning disabilities with mental retardation (Acknowledged dyslexic Jay Leno wouldn’t like this), while a majority of Americans (no exact numbers are given, but we know it’s at least 51%) also incorrectly group mental disorders like ADD and autism with learning disabilities. While there’s a greater understanding of disabilities and thought processes of people that continues to grow, the Tremaine Foundation is concerned about confusion with teachers and parents in addressing those affected by a learning or mental disability. A learning disorder doesn’t affect a person’s intelligence, only the brain’s ability to process, store and respond to information.

This may explain why reporters continue to stress the general symptoms of disabilities despite the increase of coverage and resources for those diagnosed with some sort of condition. While it’s clear that a large segment of the population is mixing things up, no margin of error is listed because the results are clearly one-sided (if you’re curious, it’s 3.1% based on the 2010 census estimate of the U.S. population. I linked the calculator here for you to try). Margins of error are generally listed when opinions are closer to an even split, and will be shown on most political polls.

Regarding why there’s much confusion on what is a learning disability or mental disability, only theories exist, but the USA Today story could be used as a springboard to dive into what would be a deep pool. Many profiles of autistic people will show difficulties in mental capacity, where an adult essentially has the mind of a much younger person. Few autistic kids are mainstreamed at school and the portion of autistic adults successfully integrating in social or work environments is also small. Many are mute as a result of their communication shortcomings. How those issues are interpreted as learning disabilities is difficult to determine, but the lack of vocal communication and approaches for it could be a false alarm, since speech problems can be addressed through therapy.

On the flip side, learning disabilities, including dyslexia, could be incorrectly seen as mental retardation when the general lack of understanding about disabilities among unaffected individuals is applied. Because the brain cannot handle information in the same way as others, people afflicted with learning disabilities often require some assistance until a solution is found. Such assistance may be seen as mentally inferior, even though data proves otherwise.

Now that a background exists on why almost every autism story includes a factoid on what the condition is, the logical step for news outlets is to examine what causes the mix-up between learning and mental disabilities. Otherwise, we may continue to see old facts about most common disabilities rehashed, taking up possible space or time for things to help our understanding move forward.