The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘sports

Call him many things, except the R-word

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Photo by Bev Horne, Chicago Daily Herald

The R-word, standing for retarded, has recently joined campaigns to end other incorrect uses of words demeaning to certain groups. In the same vain as using “gay” to describe something unfair, “retarded” has gone through a desensitizing process in 21st century culture (did we all forget about “suck?”).

Kristy Kennedy of the Chicago Daily Herald profiled one autistic senior determined to bring us back to the days of “sucks” and “stinks.” Jordan Schubert, who will be graduating from Neuqua Valley High School soon, points his breakthrough moment to 6th grade, when he and his sixth-grade basketball won a Special Olympics gold medal. Schubert’s public speaking skills, not a common trait among autistic people, grant him speaking opportunities with groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the “R-word.” For good measure, Schubert and his Special Olympics co-host from a youth summit last summer created a soccer league that teams up disabled and non-disabled students.

Schubert himself isn’t surprised the word “retarded” is in contemporary vocabulary; his peers in middle school used the word to describe anyone or anything stupid. So he decided to speak to younger kids before they start using “retarded.” Schubert’s also changing perceptions of the autism spectrum with his on-camera poise; he produces stand up reports for the high school sports program and submits stories for the Neuqua Valley’s weekly news program. Fluent in Spanish and college-bound, his dream is becoming a foreign language teacher for students with special needs.

Quite a track record for a sports enthusiast. Schubert’s interests and ability to integrate with the mainstream may, ironically, explain why he’ll hear “retarded” being used among his peers. He’s quick to point out the negative connotation behind the word, and his campaign has won support from fellow students. The big issue with demeaning words that are incorrectly used in sentences is simply a numbers problem. Although there are no exact figures for the GLBT or disabled population, by percentage, their representation is small. With low odds of constant communication with either of these groups, using “gay” or “retarded” usually carries the same repercussion experienced when YouTube users post hateful comments on videos: little or none. Schubert’s peers understand what’s going on because they interact with him on a daily basis, likely allowing them to relate on the feelings he and other disabled people experience when the word “retarded” is uttered. Without that exposure, incentive to educate the self drops, increasing the likelihood of grammatically incorrect sentences.

Kennedy quotes many sources to tell the story of one, a technique not often seen in profiles of autistic people (and sometimes other people), but had she not sought insight from his peers, coaches and instructors, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have learned all of Schubert’s pursuits. She seeks to balance the leadership skills Schubert beams to his equals with his personal interests to remind the audience he’s still a teen. For an added touch, Kennedy ties in Schubert’s quest with legislative action in Illinois, where the state Senate passed a bill that would replace “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state statutes. Although such a story will have autism communities beaming themselves, Kennedy’s story communicates that Schubert isn’t all that different, even if he carries a more specific label.

His developmental key is also no different than most others who find professional success: they discover their passions early. Schubert’s was sports, playing baseball, basketball and football. You’ll also find him cheering on NASCAR, the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Bears. As long as there’s a supportive environment, kids will latch on and build off their interests. For parents of autistic children, their strategy should be no different.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schubert become a vocalist for the disabled community with the contributions he’s already provided. Journalists can take note of this story as well, as Kennedy points out autism, as with other disabilities, doesn’t necessarily define character or ability.

Par for the autism course

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In essentially a fluff piece from WCCO’s Mark Rosen (fluff in journalism is referred to stories included that are meant to fill time but not necessarily hard-hitting), a 13-year-old autistic teen is featured for his love of golf. Charlie Bristow took a golf class last year and immediately was hooked. Charlie took lessons from an Applewood Hills golf pro this year and Charlie and his father hit the links once a week during golf season.

In fact, the story’s so fluffy, we don’t really know what Charlie’s issues were before he started taking up golf. The only clue to life before birdies came from his father, who said Charlie finally found something he knows he can do well. The only point viewers could really take is how finding an activity that an autistic person excels at could be key to solving some issues autistic children often face, although the idea of finding ways to keep kids engaged and entertained has been fed to us by mainstream media outlets for many years.

Does that make Rosen’s story a waste of time? The answer isn’t clear-cut. The story first appeared on Rosen’s Sports Sunday, Mark’s Sunday night sports show. Sports segments carry about a quarter of the total viewing audience for a news broadcast, but those who truly dig sports will hang around. While the Vikings will always carry the Twin Cities sports headline in games they play, Rosen was left with a rut. The Wolves are still in preseason mode and already written off, the Twins won’t make news again until spring training as they made another first-round exit, and the Wild are just starting their season, but with low expectations from the locals. While the firing of University of Minnesota football head coach Tim Brewster also made news, there was little to discuss because the reason was very clear. No better time to roll out stories like this, even if the reporting is very basic.

For parents with autistic children, the strategy revealed by this story is identical to the game plan for any child: search high and low for a productive activity, and obstacles will find themselves evaporating.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm

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.