The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘students

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.

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Get ready colleges…we’re moving in!

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Courtesy Jeff Genter, Associated Press

Actually, I moved out two years ago upon obtaining my bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications at the University of Minnesota, but my condition was muted enough where additional services weren’t required. I simply notified my roommates of my quirks and simply to be aware of any unusual behaviors.

Other autistic students don’t share my awareness though, nor do they necessarily possess my weaknesses. To combat the social awkwardness that may interfere with the college experience for autistic students, colleges are now offering autism intervention programs, with Colorado State University’s Opportunities for Postsecondary Success and a program at the University of Connecticut featured on National Public Radio’s flagship news program All Things Considered.

When NPR isn’t sticking its foot up its mouth in the political fray (and I’m referring to their recent flaps that led to resignations in their front office), the report they broadcast from local affiliate KUNC spells out what will be a growing trend as the autism population ages. Without accounting for the variables of intervention methods and symptom severities, the percentage of autistic people who apply for college will naturally increase as more children with the diagnosis grow older, resulting in a higher frequency of spectrum members applying for higher educational institutions. Since virtually all institutions are eager to boast admirable graduation rates, they won’t be hesitant to offer assistance to the student body.

In the case of Colorado State, autistic students who are part of their program may be given a peer mentor to practice social interactions that are often difficult to grasp. Marshall University has its own Autism Training Center, which includes tutoring services for students. Another source who started the autism program at UConn suggested the best chance for autistic people to adapt to college and find jobs later on is turning differences into strengths.

Tying things with my last post, corporations could take notice of these programs. Autistic students in Fort Collins, Colo., Huntington, W. Va. and Storrs, Conn. can display their improvements in social skills and present their differences that serve as strengths. Peer mentors and tutors may not be on call once students transition from college life to the professional world, but companies eager to tap into the population’s quickly growing pool could piggyback off the programs at Colorado State, Marshall and UConn, and any other school not covered by the NPR report (the woman who started the UConn program co-runs the College Autism Spectrum website to counsel other parents and universities).

While I discussed the ironies about my job status in my last post, seeing programs specifically designed for autistic students doesn’t surprise me. While my collegiate alma mater, the University of Minnesota, doesn’t have a specific program yet, I have been a featured guest in the last three academic years for the Disabled Student Cultural Center’s Lunch and Learn program. However, being a speaker for the U of M’s DSCC leaves me wondering why other facets of the disabled community aren’t reported as heavily, even though most conditions have preceded autism in regards to official documentation.

When I was a senior, there was much discussion over the lack of accessibility for wheelchair-bound individuals in a campus that began operations in 1851, long before any thought was given to multiple groups. High-traffic buildings can handle those unable to walk, but other buildings on campus require a tricky path to traverse. While autism coverage is certainly warranted as the disability continues its saturation of American culture, I do wonder if other groups will be ignored as we frantically attempt to solve potential issues the autism community is dealing with.

In the short-term, I’d expect more versions of this story in local media when programs are initiated or stories of this nature are selected by news producers. Producing a local and original angle will inform communities served by those markets and fill up space with a quality story, but perhaps the autism craze will cast aside other groups who could benefit from programs to help them adapt to the world of college and beyond.