The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘resources

Autism needs growing faster than available resources

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A kindergartner turns away during a read along in class. Photo by Diandra Jay

News about cash-strapped school districts has landed on television and newspapers for the last few years following The Great Recession, exacerbating issues the districts are facing within their student bodies. They have no immunity against autism, and as Kelly Puente of the Press-Telegram highlights, the state of California is implementing what they can with limited resources as more autistic students enroll in their schools. California’s Department of Education estimates 60,000 children in their schools are autistic, with over 1,000 serving in the Long Beach Unified School District, the primary coverage area for the Press-Telegram.

While limited funding increases the difficulty of adapting to rising autistic students, districts like the LBUSD are far from helpless. Previously relying on outside agencies to provide services for autistic children, the district now offers resources that include the Long Beach Early Autism Program which begins before a child turns 3. The program helps parents and the district construct and Individualized Education Program (IEP) while the child enrolls in preschool and special day classes. While such amenities cost the LBUSD $91 million, nearly 20 percent of their overall budget, they say doing so saves money long-term by going in-house versus using outside agencies (my post on Ken Salazar’s granddaughter highlighted some reasons for the high cost of autism services).

The state of California formed an Autism Advisory Committee in 2007 as a call to action to meet the challenge of educating autistic children. A teaching authorization for autistic students was added to special-education teachers, and the LBUSD now requires an authorization to teach autistic students for all special education teachers working with children who have mild to moderate disabilities.

Although Puente’s main plot is the course of action pursued by the local district her paper serves, she makes the story easier to relate by including an insight from an autistic student inside the Long Beach district who is prone to mental breakdowns but excels in his middle school classes. Blake Wesselman serves as the springboard for the story’s focus, representing one face of the 60,000 inside the country’s most populous state. While Wesselman’s mother holds hope that her son can lead a normal life, Puente bookends the story emphasizing such “normal” things, including his proficiency in math, his passion for sports, heavy metal and Guitar hero, even mentioning Blake’s girlfriend in the story. I doubt Puentes and Temple Grandin have met face-to-face, but Puente has taken Grandin’s advice about promoting the strengths of autistic people, as such strengths aren’t exclusive to them or non-autistic people.

Using Blake’s profile as a bookend benefits the story beyond illuminating a success figure in the schools, his story reinforces the effectiveness of the LBUSD’s autism programs. While no doubt was cast in the story on the school district’s programs, using a student who was more severely impaired or just started receiving attention in one of their programs could unintentionally communicate an ulterior message in Puente’s story. Factoids about autism awareness month and the disability itself are included to clue in readers who may not be aware of either element.

Puente’s reporting balances the increase in support for autistic students in California schools with ongoing obstacles, allowing her sources to promote why autism services require continuous support. A follow-up certainly isn’t out of the question with the always-changing nature of education. Whether that’s through more success stories like Blake’s, new programs offered by school districts, or the impact current programs have on students is unknown, but the story’s positive nature will at least offer a nice reprieve for readers growing weary of stories warning of a metaphorical apocalypse.

Examining lives lost to autism

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While stories of deaths involving the autism spectrum are rarely reported outside of local affiliates, there’s no secret to the potentially stressful challenge that lies for caregivers of autistic people, particularly those on the “low-functioning” end of the spectrum, where symptoms and abnormalities are more severe, robbing the ability to function effectively from its inhabitants.

Now, thanks to a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette, online readers can access a blog that documents deaths and the autism spectrum. Some are autistic people killing others, some fit a classic issue of children wandering off and succumbing to the elements, unaware of their dangers. However, several are murders or murder-suicides, and most parents (only mothers were used in the story, another conventional tactic I’ve noted when family members are interviewed for autism coverage) can relate to the intensity of raising an autistic child, although none of them condone the actions of parents who killed their autistic children.

A few elements in this story appeared in my coverage of Saiqa Akhter murdering her two autistic children and in general research: parents, mothers in particular, developing depression and social isolation because resources are lacking and internalizing fears about being judged or ostracized by other parents who believe autistic children are simply brats. Collectively, all the sources in the story suggest more resources need to be available for overwhelmed parents, while parents in despair should find an initiative to get help.

I can cite evidence from my documentaries on the subject that not everyone will take a villainous attitude toward parents of autistic kids. In one episode, I profiled a St. Paul couple who are members of the Autism Society of Minnesota and a Stillwater family whose mother bands together with other moms of autistic kids, dubbing the group “The A-Team.” While there’s no linear progression of development for autistic people, getting help definitely prevents social or mental side-effects that lead to drastic measures.

The only mystery about preventing autistic children from dying at the hands of their parents is why this issue isn’t getting much national coverage. Suggesting election cycles is accurate, but short-sighted since other news is covered leading up to major election year. Another possibility is the low percentage of autistic people in relation to the country’s population. While the population rises, a lack of understanding about the condition remains. In fact, disabilities lag behind illnesses in terms of comprehension, which is why you’ll see a lot of mainstream support for events that fight diseases more often than disabilities. That doesn’t mean disabilities are ignored, they simply don’t draw as much interest because the material isn’t as relateable.

While I ponder what the tipping point will be to highlight the issue of parents murdering autistic kids, this is one case where “blame the media” would be an unwise decision. Social awareness is key; symptoms of depression and isolation may show up for others to spot. Likewise, people who find out they’ll have to adapt with an autistic person can easily find resources through quick Internet searches. News coverage can highlight problems we may not be aware of otherwise, but proper journalists don’t take a direct role in influencing stories. The audience plays that role with their reaction to coverage.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 9, 2010 at 5:57 pm