The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘New York

Broadway experiment? Hakuna Matata

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Returning to our dear friends at the Associated Press, their articles aren’t always found syndicated on other news sites. Take this story from AP drama writer Mark Kennedy, who reported on Broadway participating in an experiment, with children on the autism spectrum as test subjects. Specifically, the Theatre Development Fund announced it will present an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, a highly successful Broadway adaptation of the 1994 Disney film of the same name. Organizers are gauging if this move should be replicated elsewhere.

To accommodate the increased sensitivity of the audience who will watch the October 2nd show at Minskoff Theatre, experts identified scenes where lights or sounds needed to be toned down, although no decrease was higher than 30 percent of levels in regular performances. Seven changes were made in all, and three quiet areas with beanbags and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, will be available to children whose sensory inputs are overwhelmed. A 16-page downloadable guide at the fund’s website informs children what to expect and options anticipating potential moments of sensory overload. An autism advocate and author is quoted saying even if this experiment fails, either this group or another organization can apply the effects of this event to make adjustments for a future autism outreach event.

Last year, I discussed two articles on movie theaters offering autism-friendly screenings, so to hear of Broadway taking part in the outreach effort is little surprise to me. The only serious question for autism-friendly events is a matter of when they will happen, versus 10 years ago where the question centered around if. I’m not sure we’ll see “autism-friendly” sporting events (which may have kept my head from ringing covering a Minnesota Lynx game in Chicago, where Allstate Arena’s acoustics amplify sound far greater than Target Center) given the size of sports stadiums, even with a rapid increase of autistics in the population. However, the Theatre Development Fund’s experiment does reinforce the course change regarding autistic people as experts and caregivers alike search for ways to integrate a population segment that prefers to isolate themselves. Personally, I can’t recall any moments where I fell victim to sensory overload at movie theaters or theatrical production. I even braved the stage myself in high school when I donned the character of Ali Hakim for the musical Oklahoma!¬†However, I am only one man and an oddity myself among the autism community, rendering my ability to represent the group useless in this capacity.

For those wondering why I haven’t dissected the article, the reason is the format of Associated Press stories. When your organization is behind the stylebook bought and used by aspiring college journalists and professionals seeking to maintain high standards, there isn’t much to discuss with Kennedy’s format of the story, although Kennedy shows some playfulness with the lead given Broadway’s venture in unproven territory. He uses a variety of sources related to the show and autism spectrum, speaking with a member of the Theatre Development Fund, the author I previously referenced, and an Autism Speaks representative. Exploring the changes to the specifically tailored performance was expected in this story, but readers also discover the speed of dissemination as most seats for the matinee performance have been snatched up.

If any of you fear about entertainment options for autistic people, whether or not this show succeeds, you may find yourself saying “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase meaning “There are no worries.” Oh, it’s also a song title from a popular Disney movie.

Temple Grandin, promoter of strength

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Temple Grandin, right, signs autographs and chats with two spectators following a lecture at SUNY Ulster. Photo by Kelly Dornicik

Autism’s longest-recognized advocate made another splash on Friday at SUNY Ulster in New York. Temple Grandin, who earned the respect of her professional peers and the admiration of a nation after her designs for cattle-handling facilities were widely adopted, promoted pushing autistic children out of their shells during her speech. Michael Novinson of the Times Herald-Record was there to cover her appearance.

Grandin has consistently emphasized teaching basic manners and social skills for autistic children, as well as channeling their interests as a parlay for employable skills. Her firsthand experience is referred to by supporters as living validation that a “marketing strategy” is beneficial. While Grandin had difficulty integrating with her peers on a social level in agriculture engineering classes, they quickly latched on when she presented her sketches (although she noted encountering a few skeptics in her first book, Thinking in Pictures). Grandin also spoke about the increasing prevalence of medicating autistic children. She believes exercise and dietary changes should be implemented first to address behavioral issues in autistic children, and medication only if previous methods are unsuccessful.

Compared to other stories I’ve discussed in the last week, Novinson’s article is a simple event coverage story. Readers who know of Temple Grandin already have some familiarity with her life story, but her name recognition continues to attract press coverage from local reporters when she visits their coverage area. Novinson only quotes Grandin from her speech and bookends the story with two sources who weren’t given quotes, but still displayed the mentally stimulating effect Grandin carries as a speaker. A similar approach is seen with Novinson’s short add-on about autism and medication.

Speeches and press conferences possess the fluidity of water; no two events run by separate organizers will be alike in their approach. While reporters can receive press releases or schedules revealing the event’s course and time frame, they have to be prepared to incorporate speakers in whatever capacity they offer. There may not have been a one-on-one with Grandin scheduled out of personal discomfort, time constraints, or another reason totally unrelated to either theory. Ideally, most journalists will attempt to conduct a one-on-one before or after a lecture, and if that plan is unsuccessful, they’ll rely on the speech itself to guide the story.

Covering Grandin is a challenge in itself; she’s appeared in virtually all forms of storytelling through her own books, a documentary, TV appearances and an HBO film with Claire Danes assuming her character. The best tip for reporters is not to stress over one-upping others who filed reports on Grandin, but recognize the significance of the story she creates.

Written by TheSportsBrain

April 24, 2011 at 10:58 am

Autism shows its deadly side once more

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Kenneth Holmes and Micaela Jackson

I was hoping Saiqa Akhter’s murders of her two autistic children would be the last time we heard of such a thing in the autism community, but I came across an article from the New York Daily News via Autisable’s Twitter page (this blog is syndicated by Autisable, a community site for autism bloggers) that reported an update in the investigation of a murder-suicide where Micaela Jackson killed her 12-year-old autistic son and then herself with a 9-mm pistol. Jackson left a suicide note on the door and her last blog entry stated that her life was now in God’s hands.

While signs of potential harm against oneself or others usually appear before such an act occurs, sources interviewed in the article said they had no idea Jackson was about to snap, as she had recently earned a promotion at her job. The only theory investigators had to offer was Jackson potentially being strained by caring for her only child.

Unfortunately, answers will likely never be discovered. I explained in the Akhter murder post how autism can wreak havoc for parents if not approached carefully and optimistically. In theory, Jackson may not have done either. Combine that with being located in the Bronx borough of New York City, where the cost of living is high throughout the city and space is limited (although I have to believe there’s a nearby resource for people affected by autism), and perhaps Jackson experienced the perfect storm of emotions to carry out her act. However, I can only speculate.

This story is fascinating because people interviewed for the article did not notice any premonitions of the murder-suicide occurring. Jackson either made a choice without warning, or was possibly aware of the general red flags of suicide and did what she could to avoid detection.

The unique nature of the incident likely led to its publishing in one of New York’s news outlets. The photo that was found on Jackson’s blog and republished by the Daily News represents an element of autism I haven’t seen in any previous article I’ve blogged about on this site and only once on video (from Twin Cities station WCCO): that the disability can affect anyone from any ethnic background. I was fortunate enough to profile an autistic child of an interracial couple when I was producing documentaries on the subject, although I chose to report on his condition more than his or his parents’ ethnic background. In most mainstream articles and videos, the faces of autism movements and up-close examinations of the condition often have white people in the forefront. While there are plenty of cases in that group, whites as a whole are slowly becoming a minority in the United States, which means there’s a lot of non-white people around. It’s only natural that autism would affect those folks as well, but I rarely see reporters making an effort to point that out.

Would showing autism as everyone’s problem versus just a white person’s problem saved Jackson and her son? Impossible to verify because the question itself has too many variables. However, highlighting autism’s lack of racial discrimination could help everyone come to terms with the condition and not feel ashamed or scared about it. Committing suicide and taking your son with you certainly won’t achieve progress. When journalists are at their best, they can wield immense power in influence and information. Perhaps it’s time for journalists to re-evaluate the resources available and/or investigate the culture of autism outside the Caucasian realm. Anything to prevent another senseless end to an autistic person’s life.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 1, 2010 at 12:18 am

Autistic Origins: J-Mac

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Photo from Fanhouse. McElwain is third from left.

Since we’re on the subject of origins, AOL’s FanHouse returned to the spark that electrocuted stereotypical conventions of autism going back to Rain Man. Jason McElwain, who scored 20 points in Greece-Athena High School’s final home game of the 2005-06 season after spending the year as a student manager (the now 6′ McElwain was considered too short to play with his 5’6″ frame in 2006), has lived a rather quiet life since that game transformed him from an average kid to inspiring celebrity. McElwain now spends his time as a volunteer assistant coach for Athena’s JV basketball team as he pursues his dream of coaching high school basketball.

The article is a profile story to the T updating us on what McElwain is doing since his 20-point game four years ago. He holds a part-time job at Wegman’s, a grocery store chain, and was invited by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to attend the team’s preseason training camp. McElwain has participated every year for the past four seasons, and McElwain returns the favor by drafting Manning and kicker Adam Vinatieri in McElwain’s fantasy league. Throughout the story, the writer includes anecdotes of McElwain’s behavior that will strike a chord in autism world (including his desire to get to practice while the writer glances over pictures of McElwain with celebrities and a binder from a Gatorade commercial shoot).

I learned a lot reading this since the hoopla surrounding McElwain has long faded. The most notable segment was the reporter asking McElwain’s father if Jason would be any different had he never stepped on the court four years ago. His father doesn’t believe there would be much of a difference while Jason regrets a coaching decision he made during a JV team scrimmage. My post on autism and the job market highlighted the passion autistics often have for their interests, disregarding almost everything else to maintain their focus. McElwain is no exception, although it’s difficult to say how far his coaching career could go should his passion stay there. Based on the article, there are still traits that could interfere with his interactions, especially toward people unfamiliar with his story (good luck finding them in these parts).

This won’t be a game-changer for autism and media coverage, but for you journalists in training, it’s not uncommon for reporters to follow-up on big stories. If the subject is controversial or inspirational enough, make a note, because chances are you’ll be assigned to check those stories after the initial wave. Profile stories give viewers the glimpse they often seek after hearing a story like McElwain’s, and this one communicates the message that Jason’s visible label fails to dissuade him from executing his game plan. We’re always labeled, but how we interpret them determines our fate more than labels do.

A joyful occasion?

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Autism coverage remains at a crawl, but I found an article on CNN that strikes me as somewhat odd. The writer is actually a contributor who doesn’t work for CNN, but she published a long piece about at New York’s P.S. 176X after spending a year there for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The article reports services and the environment for students at the school. All students who attend the school are autistic, and 90% of the student body require special services. The meat of the story is bookended by the school’s graduation ceremony.

Obviously, graduation is a big deal for any parent who cares about their kid, but the hope is darkened for parents who discover that their kids are autistic. I added a question mark at the end of the title because the article explains the debate on how to educate autistic students and what to do with them when they’re finished with school. The writer highlights a few options, such as “day hab” programs for those who are severely affected. However, despite the progress rate for several students who attend P.S. 176x, there’s still the problem of integrating and functioning effectively in an environment that still doesn’t fully understand autism. I’d like to not think that graduating from high school will be the pinnacle of their lives, because that means there could be a lot of turmoil ahead. Yes, the severity ranges and can affect a person’s overall capabilities, but I’d like to know how many of these students are attending college or have big dreams now that they have their diplomas. I don’t say this in an attempt to make everything upbeat, but accounting for multiple perspectives, the biggest question parents may have is “Now what?” Knowing that even one of those students will be heading for higher education would give them some assurance that high school isn’t the endpoint, but simply an exit to another freeway.

I go into this a little further in my next autism documentary that I’m currently editing, but the pattern with autism coverage in mainstream media is that if autistic people don’t do something that is expected for their neurotypical peers, they’re often cast as nightmares. Reporters don’t make the kids look evil, the tone simply suggests that options are few and the outlook is dim. On the opposite end, autistics who make an achievement like Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin are often cast as heroes because they did something that wasn’t expected of them, but people who don’t think like them could do without question (although Grandin renovated treatment of farm animals when several others thought she was crazy). Reporting on autism is a tough assignment for journalists since many of them don’t know autism in great detail. Patterns are quickly established because of the lack of knowledge in order to give reporters a starting point. I’m waiting for the time when discussions will get deeper among the mainstream audience.

As the population grows, my gut is parents of autistic children won’t be the only ones thinking “Now what?”

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 20, 2009 at 10:45 am