The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘NBC

Autistic kids not welcome in restaurants?

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Courtesy WECT

WECT (NBC affiliate in North Carolina) released a story this evening about a mother who claims that a local restaurant is violating the American with Disabilities Act by posting a sign and refusing to admit screaming children. The owner told WECT that screaming children wouldn’t be kicked out. They would be asked to step outside until they calm down. The mother, Kelly Chambliss, has an autistic son (tantrums are a common symptom as autistic people are sometimes unable to express emotions in a less intense manner) and confronted the restaurant’s owner as she feels the establishment doesn’t want her son there. According to WECT, no formal suit has been filed against the restaurant.

From a journalistic background, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from a “he said/she said” perspective. A general rule for journalists is to report every side of the story in order to satisfy the criteria for objectivity. While the rule prevents professional reporters from choosing sides (cable news pundits have that covered), the strive for balance can also be a hindrance, with many articles and TV reports on social topics stripped to an over-simplification, including the story on a restaurant supposedly banning autistic people. With no clue to the actual cause, this story, through no fault of the reporter, is likely to waste time on Internet space and a newsblock because viewers really won’t know whose story is more accurate.

That’s not to say this idea should be abandoned. Mainstream reports in the past have touched on the trials of transporting autistic children, where they face environments that can be overwhelming for them and for a public who may not understand the autistic mind. I blogged about a movie theater chain offering autism-friendly screenings back in April as a sign that autism is slowly permeating through mainstream society. After reading the WECT story, journalists may want to speak with businesses and/or psychologists on how everyone can adapt to autistic customers. Businesses would be ill-advised to restrict entrance based on physical or mental disabilities, as they would suffer the wrath of civil rights groups. They also need to maintain a professional and relaxing atmosphere to avoid alienating other customers, and those two needs sometimes clash as they may have with the subject of today’s blog.

This won’t be the last “he said/she said” story to hit the web or the airwaves, but proper conflict management and understanding of the rules in place for customers and employees would likely promote a better emotional understanding and reduce the quantity of stories like this, focusing instead on the deeper realms of autism yet to be explored.

Autism may be a matter of math

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No, I’m not suggesting autistic people are automatically brilliant mathematicians (says the person who can calculate basic operations in my head at breakneck speed, often visualizing a typeface to represent my equation…usually the eggcrate font seen on many game shows of the past, including The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune. I might need a new hobby :-p). A study reported by NBC San Diego suggests toddlers who spend at least 69% of their observation time gazing at geometric images, such as those found on computer screen savers, are highly likely to fall in the autism spectrum.

Why is 69% a big deal? Because most other children would use that time engaging in interactive games, such as peek-a-boo. The University of California-San Diego, who published the study, responded to their findings by saying parents should simply speak to their pediatrician if their child is choosing to spend time gazing at moving geometric images versus engaging in more social activities.

Before anyone comes up with the idea of setting up a screen saver with a game of peek-a-boo, remember that the subject of fascination is geometric images, and that doesn’t account for other issues with a screen-to-screen interaction versus face-to-face. While a lack of interest in social activities is no secret to the autism community, the craving for geometric shapes intrigues me, yet makes sense when applied to my own experiences. I was a fan of game shows as a kid because of their highly structured set-up, but there was an abundance of shapes to be found. The title object in Wheel of Fortune is a giant circle, Jeopardy! is filled with quadrilaterals that pop up on the screen, and both were things I could easily visualize as a kid (along with Jeopardy’s enormous flashing logo used through the mid ’90s, image below). Coincidentally, both shows require a good amount of math to keep track, although none of it is related to its geometry embedded within the set.

The article is similar in nature to my last post about the study exploring infant gazes and autism. Combine the two stories and you’ll quickly notice a theme involving a lack of gazing at people. The fascinations that replace them may change as children get older, but both studies present possible clues or signs to answer the question about your child on the spectrum. Curiosities lead me to ponder if studies are in the works involving adolescents and what they enjoy observing. While there’s no linear link between autism and activities, I can’t recall too many journalists investigating what young autistic people notice in place of typical interests.

I don’t see a swarm of attention on what autistic people gaze at in the future, but I see these articles and studies possibly giving us more signs and reasons to be socially aware, regardless of who is or isn’t on the autism spectrum. My psychologist mentioned how autism can teach us a lot about typical human development in my first autism documentary. We may be teaching ourselves now.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 7, 2010 at 11:04 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