The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘MSNBC

Advantage – autism

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I’m aware of my most recent hiatus, which was partly due to Minnesota Lynx playoff coverage and Minnesota state high school tournament coverage, but now I’ve returned with a new story to share.

Unfortunately, my blog was not selected a winner in WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition, but I appreciate those of you who still paid visits in my absence. While I continue to research a renewed fascination in the blogosphere and social media regarding Jason McElwain, the health page from NBC’s daytime program Today┬ápublished a story about a Canadian researcher who argues scientists need to stop viewing autistic traits as flaws that need correction. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal, reflects on recent data and personal experience in his assessment of the disability.

Mottron said researchers who notice activation in unusual regions of the brain compared to the average human, they report such activity as a deficit than an alternative brain organization. He nor most researchers will minimize the concerning outlook facing autistic people, but he advocates they can succeed in a favorable environment, including the field of research. Mottron has several autistic people working in his lab, where they can utilize their exceptional memories. Mottron believes intellectual problem may be over-estimated among autistic people because of inappropriate testing, saying how there is little hesitation to remove audible components for people with hearing impairments. In general, the research field has adapted a broader and deeper view of the disorder, although autism still presents many obstacles.

Rachael Rettner is the woman behind this story, and she reports on another changing trend in the approach to autism by science and mainstream media. While stories of struggle and the future will continue to permeate Google news feeds, the public has been exposed to potential benefits of the condition as far back as Rain Man, released in 1988. Rettner’s story isn’t groundbreaking either, as this blog does have a history of procuring articles on success stories in the autism community. However, with much fear about what autistic children and adults will be able to do, the story is part of a larger paradigm over the exact response about the enlarging base of autistic people. Many are quick to see action in order to address major problems, while others are concerned about an over-bearing assumption that autistic people need intervention in order to conform to expected values of mainstream society. Gauging where the discussion is tilting is difficult to evaluate given the unpredictable and inconsistent effects of autism, but researchers like Mottron see a vastly under-tapped potential that could benefit the community if utilized properly.

Talk about adaptation versus conformation will continue assuming many forms and tones. The conversation Rettner highlights is heavy on science and low on emotional output, without bold and temperamental claims that can sometimes fog progress. There is no question people given an autism diagnosis face a task tougher than a 16-seed playing a 1-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and reporters like Rettner will possess responsibility and influence in dictating the direction of the ongoing quest to determine what path, if any, should be laid for those who “think different.”

Blame my absence on testosterone

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I’m sure plenty of you are wondering what happened to this site’s activity. To summarize, my schedule was eaten up by a swarm of Minnesota state tournament coverage, but I’ve now returned from my hiatus to continue informing you of autism’s role in the news. I appreciate the visits you’ve made in my three months away from The Autistic Journalist, which passed 10,000 hits during my pause. To thank you, I’ll pull out an article I had saved to discuss with you.

Two months ago, MSNBC reported a study suggesting testosterone could be a culprit in the higher prevalence of autism in males. A similar story was picked up by a CBS TV affiliate in Green Bay, but that story has since been removed. The study found testosterone lowers the ability for cells to express a particular gene known as RORA. That gene, when activated, can protect neurons from the effects of stress and inflammation, and both are elevated in autistic people. Conversely, estrogen raises RORA levels, which may protect females against autism even if RORA levels were otherwise low. An alternate theory is genes in the X chromosome, suggesting females have a “backup copy” since they carry two X chromosomes while males have one X and one Y chromosome. Despite the theory’s plausibility, no X chromosome genes have been associated with autism.

This doesn’t mean your boys will develop autism upon reaching puberty, when testosterone increases can be noticed. The story gives us a potential clue to autism’s cause, but genes and testosterone levels are simply a game of chance when cells are developing. The explanations provided in the story make sense, but more research will be needed to make an accurate conclusion to this hypothesis.

While the story doesn’t say much, people have been wondering why boys are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis than girls, and any step that brings an answer closer to a question may help ease the mind of concerned individuals.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 12, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Spewing newborn babies quickly? Study says autism risk increases

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A Columbia University study discovered something that might make “Octomom” or other parents eager to have several kids pause for a moment: Children conceived less than 12 months after an older sibling is born are three times more likely to develop an autism diagnosis. According to the study, which documented 662,730 second-born California children from 1992 to 2002, the multiplied risk doesn’t subside until at least 23 months have passed. While no data was found suggesting an explanation for the statistical findings, medical experts assert that the risk of actually developing the disability is still low. The study was conducted because authors noticed previous research revealing an association between short intervals and other brain problems, including schizophrenia.

Because the study focused on finding a link and not the factors increasing a child’s likelihood of developing autism, the only speculation offered was nutritional deficiencies that appear in the years immediately following the birth of a child. While this offers little insight about the research, the timing is notable considering my post two days ago when WCCO mentioned the pause parents are having about vaccinating their children. When factoring the overall risk of developing autism, the percentage is low, with current estimates around 1%. However, most journalists and editors will gloss over that specific number in favor of flashy, attention-getting figures. In fact, it’s a pattern you’ll see on most reports about studies; the percentage difference is listed, usually in multiples (twice, three times, four times a likely, etc.), but the overall percentage is never calculated.

The lack of statistical detail often irks me when I read or watch stories on studies because reporters rarely put new findings into perspective. No reference point is often an ingredient in driving the news audience to a state of paranoia, because the audience is more likely to ignore the 1% chance of a child developing autism and see a flashing LED sign about the three-fold increase for children conceived less than a year after their first-born.

To be fair, Linda Carroll, who published MSNBC’s version of the story, does acknowledge the potential of scaring parents-to-be by including figures on the recommended intervals for multiple kids. She also quotes two medical professionals who advise people maintain their common sense about deciding to have a child. Such anecdotes are generally included in reports about studies that could carry significant implications to people’s health. Also stressed are the unanswered variables the study hasn’t accounted for, which only means further research lies ahead, leading to more questions as the search for factors that increase a risk of autism continues.

I’m the oldest of 4, and I’m sorry to say I’m the only screw-up of the bunch :-P. While more questions than answers are revealed by this study, it symbolizes autism’s increasing saturation with Americans as several outlets picked up the study. This may also provide more evidence to organizations who recommend a more patient stance (including the World Health Organization) to ensure the best health for both mother and child. Ultimately, there will always be a risk of something when giving birth, but that hasn’t stopped most parents (and more shady figures) from “laying their eggs.” Journalists would be advised to hatch more stories about the Columbia University study for future use.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm

If only I can market my asset

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Photo by Andrew Nelles, MSNBC

I’ve noted how autism is often placed into two camps when covered by mainstream media. One is the tragic storyline that metaphorically equals the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. The other is the “pedestal” where someone will transcend all notions of a label. The story I’m discussing falls close to the “pedestal,” but not quite. It’s a big-picture profile, including a non-profit organization in Chicago that helps train high-functioning autistic people to adapt to the workplace, a difficult preposition with the Danish “spiritual sister organization” Specialisterne suggesting that 85% of autistic people under the age of 21 are unemployed or underemployed.

Aspiritech, the organization in Chicago, was training high-functioning autistics as testers for software development companies at the publication date (December 8th, 2009). Brix was a former computer systems employee for Wrigley before moving to Aspiritech. He and employees at Denmark’s Specialisterne credit their autism for giving them an advantage. The common symptom of taking interest in repetitive, predictable work becomes a help versus a hindrance, with employees at Specialisterne serving as consultants to perform data entry or assembly work. Not the most exciting career path, but those with autism often thrive on it, giving intense focus to their task at the exclusion of almost everything else (a workplace example of lack of empathy).

The second half of the article highlights challenges facing autistic adults, the common thread being social interaction. Other authoritative names, including Temple Grandin, suggest society would benefit by including people on the autism spectrum in the workforce, emphasizing the differences in personality versus weaknesses of the disability. Robert Austin, professor at the Copenhagen Business School, sees autism as a variation that could contribute to innovation at work.

My first reaction? DING! There’s been so much emphasis on heartbreak and despair with autism stories in the last few years that it’s no surprise autistic people (myself included) are having little luck finding steady work. Of course, graduating from college in the middle of The Great Recession hasn’t helped my odds, but autistic people are certainly capable of performing some tasks without a problem. My difficulty is finding the right employers to evaluate my skills. On broader terms, switching the focus to differences instead of disabilities could also assist people who have more severe variants of autism find ways to utilize skills the neurotypical world wishes they had.

The author is a science writer with a doctorate based in Seattle and Copenhagen in Denmark, which likely explains the interviews with Danish personnel. This article continues the trend I’ve noticed since fall of progressing from introductions to investigations of deeper issues surrounding autism. Other local and national reports of this nature should be published in the near future as autism occupies more adults. The Autism Society of America published a similar story in The Autism Advocate a couple years ago, but this is the first national story I’ve read on the subject that is available to the public. The article is well-sourced, and the international perspective adds more credence by showing the audience that autism is noticed in other developed countries. I doubt the author’s contribution will instantly change conventional views of autistic people, but historians may point to stories like these if a gradual acceptance of autism is observed.

Speaking from my own observations, there’s a trend with autism employment stories that I noticed in this report: That autistic people excel at monotonous, tedious and repetitive work. Yeah, most of us in the autism circle know about that, but if the pattern continues with other news outlets, I’m concerned the public will come down with “Rain Man Syndrome 2.0” and assume that autistic people are only capable of jobs described in the article. I don’t call myself a journalist just for the heck of it.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 30, 2010 at 12:02 am