The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘media coverage

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.


Act your age

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The New York Times reported a study released by the journal Autism Research earlier this week suggesting that older mothers are more likely to have an autistic child and older fathers also increase the risk when his partner is under 30.

The research was conducted on five million births in California during the 1990s, with 12,159 of those children receiving an autism diagnosis. Fathers 40 or older who had children with mothers 30 or younger increased the risk of having an autistic child by 59%.

The new study may challenge previous research that linked a higher rate of autism with advancing paternal age, but not with advancing maternal age. However, the authors said that alone doesn’t account for the sevenfold rise in autism cases in the 1990s.

Studies are notoriously long, tedious and often can’t account for every variable due to lack of resources, and even though the results may bring new answers for the causes of autism, most in the know about the disability are aware of the hasty increase of autism diagnoses in the last decade. However, since we’re only a month and a half into the new decade, it’s unlikely we’ll know about any changes that took place from 2000-2009 for some time. When published, studies will often note potential fallacies of the published findings and/or list the methods used to obtain them, so other studies on the same topic can use them as a reference. Studies have a similar structure to film and TV documentaries; they’re not meant to be an end-point to specific issues, but another piece to solve a very long puzzle.

One such drawback is the sample size. While over 12,000 California newborns were examined in the study, that leaves out 49 states. It’s safe to say autism increased in those states and there’s enough to theorize that similar increases regarding autism and parental age happened at other states, but at what levels?

The story isn’t getting much buzz outside The New York Times. Super Bowl XLIV is a likely culprit, with reports on its record-breaking ratings (passing the M*A*S*H* finale as the most-watched TV program in history). Another could involve the nature of media coverage itself. Local, national and 24-hour cable news often blitzkrieg major headlines throughout the day, but don’t offer many updates in a 24-hour period. Seeing the effects of swine flu saturating airwaves last spring, avian flu a few years ago, and the endless amount of information coming in after 9/11, we should consider ourselves lucky. In situations that threaten security, the reaction from the herd is often panic, and hyping the finding of the study may only add another fear about having a child.

I believe the lack of attention to the new study is caused more by other big news stories than a conscientious decision by news producers to avoid overloading consumers; we’ve seen little change from news outlets to suggest they’ll handle the news more intellectually this decade than they did in the previous one.

Written by TheSportsBrain

February 10, 2010 at 12:41 am

Who says autism is destructive?

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Courtesy WECT

At least that’s what the mother of two adult sons with autism thinks. She started a program in North Carolina called ASAP (Autism Support and Programs) to support the autistic community after her oldest son had to check into a special facility because his condition was so severe.

The program grew large enough where Judy Clark can now bring her sons back together in a group home designed for people with autism. Despite all the symptoms both her sons have, Clark (left) says she wouldn’t trade her kids for any other kids in the world. If they weren’t autistic, Clark says her kids wouldn’t be who they are.

A friend of mine from college who now works at the group home sent me this story. The air date was November 5th of last year. Sure, it’s a little old, but after some head-scratching stories in my last two posts, this profile piece was refreshing to watch. Clark has so much love for her kids that WECT could probably do a profile of those two as a follow-up, or highlight how ASAP is helping “aging” autistics as the adult population grows. An article in The Washington Post last year suggested we could have 1.5 million adults by 2016 (that’s only six years from now), which means there’s going to be a significant segment of the population that we’ll have to adapt to. Dylan and Remly, Clark’s two sons, will be a part of that population. Don’t be surprised if you see similar stories in your area or nationally in the future, as all those kids newspapers and TV stations featured in their autism stories of yesteryear will grow.

Evaluating progress is difficult with the wide range in severity, but the group home in this story does provide evidence that even the most severely impaired can live a fulfilling life if their needs are met. Last year, I questioned the idea of progress with autistic people and if that means they act more like neurotypicals or if more people are accepting autistic people’s views of the world. Some parents who read this will likely develop understandable fears, others will learn not to fret about the future.

The reporter does a fine job profiling how the center is already changing lives in its infancy and sets up possibilities for future stories in multiple directions.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

We’re always watching

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Courtesy KARE 11 News

Courtesy KARE 11 News

Well, at least that’s what people who participate in a new program offered by Ramsey County can say. The news is nothing new if you closely follow coverage in the Twin Cities area, but it’s significant after a severely autistic man wandered off and got lost near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. He was found and is back to normal, but the program is designed to protect people like him should he get lost again. The search and rescue initiative, targeted for the county’s most vulnerable citizens (severe autism, Down’s Syndrome, etc.), uses a radio transmitter attached to the recipient that law enforcement can detect if someone goes missing.

I’ve noted this before, but a common symptom of autism is lack of awareness for danger. In my case, that might be the opposite given my ability to absorb more information than the average person :-). They’ll often wander off if they see something that stimulates them, and in some cases, autistics will vanish for no apparent reason. The man who was featured is unable to communicate verbally, making any effort to understand his thought process impossible. For that reason, I see no problem with taking steps to protect people who have the highest risk of going unnoticed.

The cost might be a turn-off, much like health insurance is (the infamous short-term vs. potential long-term consequences debate). To say hindsight is 20-20 is accurate, but a little short-sighted. Ultimately, the debate could come down to how severely is a person affected, as there’s often a correlation between severity and supervision. I doubt we’ll see any panic from parents of people who are at-risk, or at least hear about it in the news. I can see this facet incorporated into more profile stories of autistic people reporting the constant despair their families go through (there are two prevailing patterns in autism coverage that I’ve noticed from anecdotal evidence). One detail left out that Hult should have inquired was the range the transmitters can reach. Otherwise, there’s the possibility of an impulsive reaction that the system is ineffective, similar to what I’ve observed with seat belts when fatal car crashes are reported.

In the quest to understand autism, it should be noted that Ramsey County’s surveillance program won’t fit for everyone. For those who can’t live on their own, this may provide some relief.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 23, 2009 at 12:23 am