The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘safety

San Diego police officer protects and serves

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Police officer Brian Herritt and his autistic son

In what was a timely follow-up to my analysis of the Toronto Sun story published earlier this week, Rebecca Woolington of The Oregonian brings us a story profiling a San Diego police officer hosting a four-hour training session for fellow police officers in Oregon’s Washington County. The training is far from standard, as Brian Herritt will be instructing police officers on how to respond to autistic children. The father of an autistic child himself, Herritt’s inspiration began when his son eloped at the age of three and he found himself relying on police to find him. While his son was discovered safely, Herritt noticed police may be unprepared to handle autistic children, his experience as a parent and law enforcement official created a dedication to teaching cops how to recognize signs of autism and deescalate situations. Conversely, he also wants to teach parents the mentality of police officers.

The Autism Society of Oregon is funding the training session, and one likely subject will be the potential of confusing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (people talking to themselves or fixating on objects) with socially awkward behaviors that exhibit signs of drug and alcohol use. Herritt also explains how to best take autistic people into custody, what crimes they are most likely to commit or fall victim to, and to avoid assuming someone isn’t cooperating because they’re not responding to questions or orders (as explained many times on this site, some autistic people don’t communicate verbally).

Autistic people must follow the laws like everyone else, but after the ordeal I dissected in Toronto, Herritt’s mission is the perfect antidote to solve issues surrounding lack of awareness of autism in law enforcement. One training session won’t make police experts, but because Herritt is a fellow officer with an autistic child, his ability to communicate to both parents and cops is more effective. He understands the wishes of parents to accommodate autism spectrum disorder when approached and the rapid responses officers must sometimes make on or off-duty. As I mentioned in the last story, there will be increasing encounters between autistic people and police officers as the autism population grows and ages, which likely means Herritt won’t be the only cop to offer this training in the future.

There’s also a possibility of a follow-up story in The Oregonian as the training session doesn’t take place until next Wednesday, creating a set-up to report the response of attendants. Many are representatives of the sheriff’s office and local police departments in Oregon, so finding ties for the reading audience would not require much effort. Continuing to cover this story could also reveal Herritt’s future plans for these training sessions; the fact he is traveling to Oregon from the San Diego area brings forth the desire to promote a subset of knowledge to a group who most likely will need them on future assignments. Outside the region, other news editors and reporters may find citizens similar to Herritt who share his goal.

Woolington spends the first half of the story explaining Herritt’s background and his drive to educate other officers before switching to local sources for their reaction regarding his Oregon visit. Woolington indirectly highlights why autism training will matter to any kind of safety official in the long-term: parents already in the business are getting a first-hand experience with the disability.

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Policing the integration of autistics

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Courtesy Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun

Our latest story is part reporting, part editorial hailing from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Michele Mandel covers an incident at the Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre where Toronto Police are under fire from autism advocacy groups for their July 28th handling of a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be physically restrained after throwing a tantrum. Police handcuffed the boy for five minutes before the mobile crisis intervention team arrived and calmed him down. While autism groups protest that less drastic restraint measures could have been employed, police say the boy was a danger to himself and waiting for the crisis team could have posed a safety hazard.

The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Mandel quoted him saying he holds his mother’s hand whenever he sees a cop car. Naturally, parents of autistic children are furious, at least according to Autism Ontario. The executive director says they offer training for law enforcement on handling people with mental disabilities, but few have taken advantage of the program unlike their colleagues in Ottawa.

I have some question on the date’s accuracy in the published article. If the incident did occur on July 28th, having an article published now would be horrendously ill-timed. There is a possibility the story has a typo and the incident happened on August 28th, which would better justify releasing the story on its publication date (August 30th). With parents as emotionally charged as they are, notwithstanding parents of autistic children, waiting an entire month before expressing outrage over a controversial situation makes little sense.

Regarding the story itself, law enforcement is almost always a hotbed when it comes to controversy. This doesn’t suggest an antagonistic relationship between journalists and police (you need to establish a positive connection if assigned to a crime beat), but material that suggests public service officials aren’t performing their job description makes for saucy news material. Generally, this controversy arises when police are seen abusing their role. In Mandel’s story, the argument is police not considering the well-being of the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who had to be restrained. When pursuing an event as it’s occurring, police have to be prepared for rapid responses to a multitude of situations to protect themselves and/or the people they intervene. The “gray area” illuminates how people who are trained to keep communities safe can adapt to the autism spectrum, as their emotional output doesn’t fall within expected norms. This story may spur Toronto’s law enforcement to seek more training, or lead to further coverage on public readiness to handle a population prone to mental outbursts.

On the story itself, I’m not familiar with the ethical standards of Canadian journalism, but the reporter appears to side with autism organizations and suggesting the response was mishandled. Mandel uses strong words and questions why less forceful measures weren’t used to begin with, creating the impression that Toronto police were the “bad guys” in the case. The discussion shouldn’t be about who’s right or wrong, but instead included for the ultimate concern of how an increasing number of autistic people throughout the world can be approached.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

Asheville agency giving autistics their own “home”

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WNC House Manager Melanie McGill and Holland exchange hugs. Photo courtesy of Erin Brethauer, Asheville Citizen-Times

North Carolina’s no stranger for people to place themselves in the minds of autistics. As the adult population grows, so will the need for homes to accommodate 24-hour support and supervision for autistic adults whose behavioral challenges prohibit them from living on their own. WNC Group Homes, who owns five facilities in Asheville, have been testing their new Kenmore Street location since January, which replaced a Montford home that WNC described wasn’t built for their needs.

WNC teamed up with Tyner Construction, Co. and architect Andrew Willet to design a hybrid that could withstand pressure but not give off a sterile, cold feeling. The walls were created with high-impact drywall, a material often used in hospitals and detention facilities, but can also hold up against sudden emotional outbursts from its residents who may be unable to express their emotions in a more subtle way. The counters were constructed with extra-durable granite, and the trim is stained wood, which doesn’t chip as easily as standard painted moldings.

Not that visitors would notice right away. The walls are painted beige and the home is an open-floor plan, filled with light and lined nearly floor to ceiling with windows. Even the residents live out the home’s hybrid model, who all participate in sports and arts programming and hold jobs with various employers.

Casey Blake, who wrote the story, may have been inspired by Autism Awareness Month as the article’s web page includes a notice about WNC Group Homes and a link to the Autism Society of North Carolina’s website. Had this story been published in another time, the timing would have been more questionable since the story occurred long after the group home opened (stories on new facilities are generally released near or soon after their opening date). Still, Blake’s profile of the facility may highlight the future of caring for autistic adults as the public wonders what their future holds once their youth services end.

Blake offers one possibility by sticking with a hybrid theme for both the home and its residents. As with any other group home, the design incorporates the challenges of its residents, which are sensory sensitivity, accessibility and emotional outbursts in this case. While the aesthetic incorporation was the core of the story, she could have stopped reporting about the residents after explaining how the home could adapt to them. Instead, she continues her interview to reveal how the Kenmore residents are contributing to society, even if the rest of the public would take those contributions for granted.

Caretakers who clients include autistic people stand to gain the most from Blake’s story, by either following the WNC Group Home model for their Kenmore location (reaction has been overwhelmingly positive) or contacting their local reporters to highlight a similar hybrid home. Autism coverage of old often painted grim pictures of autistic adults whose symptoms were too severe to completely integrate with the mainstream. Blake doesn’t play “happy-go-lucky” with her story, but she does communicate that even the most severely impaired individuals who require special needs can enjoy some of the comforts their unimpaired peers almost expect.

In face of ridicule, Wakefield fights for his theory

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Photo by Shaun Curry, Getty Images

The start to the 2011 calendar year was rocky for Andrew Wakefield, whose study was declared false by British journalist Brian Deer, who published several stories in the British Medical Journal highlighting Wakefield’s alleged false claims and unethical practices. Deer compared Wakefield, who lost his medical license after his study linking M.M.R. vaccines to autism was retracted last year from the medical journal Lancet, to a religious leader who occasionally uses the smoke and mirrors technique to goose the faith of his followers.

Deer’s investigation was one of many facets spilled out in an article by Susan Dominus for The New York Times Magazine, a longhand form of the country’s most recognizable newspaper. As with any form of magazine writing, the stories take on the form of novels and are more descriptive, too descriptive for me to summarize in shorthand form. That’s no reason to turn away though, as Dominus provides an insight on Wakefield no American reporter has offered before. Through her journey interviewing and shadowing Wakefield, we learn that Wakefield himself didn’t claim proof that M.M.R. vaccines were causing autism, but that didn’t stop his concerns from spreading worldwide the same way viruses spread through the body until its defense mechanisms can suppress it. If recent media coverage is any indication, Wakefield became one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, receiving blame for starting a panic that led to the resurgence of diseases long squashed by vaccinations.

Despite the wave of damning evidence which has led him to close himself professionally, he still draws followers, as 250 attended a discussion he conducted regarding his work. His supporters view him a hero when nearly everyone else paints him as a villain. Wakefield himself believes public health officials and pharmaceutical companies pay bloggers to post vicious material about him. Throughout the story, Dominus compliments Wakefield’s persuasive skills, even when the audience knows better. Wakefield continues to fight and promote his theory, with Dominus adding that the more he has sacrificed (he resigned from London’s Royal Free Hospital following his publicized concerns and now lives in Austin, Texas), the more he must believe in his theory, or all efforts will be rendered useless. Ironically, medical experts suggest aggressive studying of the M.M.R. vaccine following Wakefield’s 1998 media splash means the vaccine is one factor than can be ruled out in a disability still shrouded by mystery.

Dominus assures the readers that she isn’t necessarily siding in Wakefield’s camp, but she does give him an opportunity to present his case as other reporters who interview Wakefield quickly write him off as a discredited liar. By not falling into the dramatic trap that can detract storytelling from other outlets, readers of this story see why Wakefield continues his battle for reputation with his supporters waiting in the wings to back him up. We even learn a few personal anecdotes about his life before gaining his notorious status in Great Britain and most of the United States.

In order to obtain the behaviors, characteristics and traits Dominus lists regarding Wakefield, interviewing goes well beyond the simple press conference or brief one-on-one interview. Traveling with the source and immersing in the source’s comfort zone is common, and more relationship skills are needed to ensure you get the story requested in your assignment. In the case of Wakefield, encountering Dominus and her approach may have been more comforting since she offered a value other reporters decided to box away, even though she was no less neutral than shorthand writers covering the Wakefield saga. Ultimately, Dominus reveals the basis of Wakefield’s support comes from parents seeking answers who credit him or his associates for trying a possible solution, even if the strategy is cautioned by others (including casein and gluten-free diets, a media craze for a short time).

Magazine-style writing allows writers like Dominus to include more details and examine many subtopics of a story that traditional news articles can’t provide because of space or time constraints. Her observations may not remove Wakefield’s “villainous figure” in the eyes of the medical community, but just as the Marvel Comics movies emphasize human elements within their villains, Dominus’ story leaves Wakefield less clear-cut than previous mainstream glimpses portrayed him.

Autism no fraud, but controversial study declared false

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Autism’s biggest firestorm refuses to cede its flames, as The Associated Press reports an analysis of the now-discredited study linking vaccines to autism published by Andrew Wakefield was based on doctored information on how the children were involved.

Brian Deer, a British journalist who made the discovery, learned that five of the 12 children in Wakefield’s study had documented developmental problems prior to receiving an MMR vaccine, which Wakefield claimed was the cause of autism in children and led to panic among parents of autistic children. Deer also noticed that all cases were misrepresented after comparing data from the children’s medical records and their parents.

As you may have guessed, a huge reaction among the autism community has erupted following the report. Wakefield’s dishonesty ruling last year, from the General Medical Council, was the first bombshell that brought pause to the belief of a link between vaccines and autism. In fact, 2010 was a significant year in terms of addressing the controversy with vaccine safety. While the study is no longer considered credible, immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella haven’t fully recovered from their lows of the late 1990s, and outbreaks of diseases once thought to be eradicated have cropped up where immunization rates decreased.

However, this scientific debate persists because of emotionally charged reactions from both sides as they attempt to one-up each other to prove their argument is more valid. Fear of the unknown remains a powerful catalyst as humans often worry about things not necessarily within their control, which is one reason why this debate remains autism’s spotlight controversy. Naturally, it’s a perfect story for reporters to follow up because its energy level remains high. I’ll discuss one story that gauges the reaction from supporters of Wakefield’s study tomorrow.

By the way, you’ve just read my first blog post of 2011. After taking a hiatus to focus on other assignments, I’ve returned to continue discussing autism in the news and what it means for the news. 2010 was a big year for the Autistic Journalist, where daily hits increased from 4 in 2009 to 20 in 2010. For you mathematicians, that’s a 400% increase. Yeah, not much, but increased syndication in 2010 helped spread the word about The Autistic Journalist, and I want to thank readers for their continued support. I’m no expert, but I will not rest in my goal to go beyond the surface in exploring autism and its news coverage. 2011 will be an even bigger ride than 2010.

Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am