The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘teen

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.

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They call him a “case study,” aka 50 Tyson

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Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

I wrote the headline because Minneapolis rapper 50 Tyson (who got the name when people suggested he was a physical cross between 50 Cent and Mike Tyson) may very well be a popular case study in how young autistic people see the world. He’s 17 and now an Internet sensation after posting clips of himself rapping freestyle on YouTube. Since then, he’s signed with Hudson Records, owned by former Wolves player Troy Hudson, and can be found at nightclubs and often at Brooklyn Center, where he does studio recordings. Even at Edison High School, where 50 Tyson attends school, classmates will use him as a point of pride in assignments and the hallway.

In that sense, 50, whose real name is Antonio Henderson-Davis, is no different than other music artists who made the scene at a very young age. What the Star Tribune and several others are thinking about is how he’ll adapt when he still has difficulties understanding social environments. Media production is well-known for large egos and people attempting to leech from potential stardom, and Henderson-Davis’ football coach at Edison and his case manager both worry if people will take advantage of an artist in a vulnerable position who’s more trusting than even music industry peers (I’ve noted many times in this blog that autistic people are less likely to lie or believe that others would lie to them, one reason why they often become bullying targets in a school setting). Hudson and Henderson-Davis’ parents have clashed a few times with Hudson and Nikki McComb, Henderson-Davis’ manager. Hudson and McComb suggested pulling “50 Tyson” out of school for weekday shows, offering to hire a tutor. Henderson-Davis’ mother declined.

Hudson’s also seeking to market “50 Tyson” as the face of autism, a decision whose effect on the autism community is very much unknown. In terms of mainstream media, the character of Charlie Babbitt assumed that role for many years following the release of Rain Man. In real-world stories, animal rights advocate and professor Temple Grandin is presented as the most successful autistic person. Even comparing those two, the face of autism varies equally to the face of a snowflake; no two are ever alike. Add the always-present stereotypes about rappers and their music, and “50 Tyson” could easily shake up what all of us know about autism, whether or not Antonio intends to.

Corey Mitchell, the article’s author, handled the task of covering the Twin Cities raging sensation well. If it’s not the first multi-faceted look at 50 Tyson’s world, it’s certainly an unfiltered one. Through Mitchell’s reporting, 50 Tyson’s story is similar to less famous autistic people, the simple of notion of understanding a social world while trying not to be played by those with selfish pursuits. Shady constituents are a sad norm, but a clear reality when your skill set makes you capable of delivering a powerful message. In 50 Tyson’s case, it’s music creation and performance. In my case, it’s creating media designed to inform, encourage and highlight the public.

As understanding autism remains an obstacle, Mitchell’s article illustrates autistic people seeking a career in media will likely find themselves in a social conundrum. Certainly, I’ve encountered people who only wanted to use me and didn’t give a damn about my well-being. The detachment process doesn’t take long, but the journey to get there can be frustrating because I often spend time feeling out new contacts or clients. There lies the dilemma: media creators won’t survive without placing some trust with their associates. Henderson-Davis wouldn’t be in his position without the help of others, and he’s been given a huge chance to debunk what people believe an autistic’s skill set is. However, he may also get a lesson on how strange people can be.

So far, most discussions on 50 Tyson are supportive, which is exactly what autism organizations want people on the spectrum to get, and not pity or scorn that we’ve sometimes seen in mainstream media. With his stock value rising, this won’t be the last time Antonio Henderson-Davis is featured in the newspaper and/or TV. Because 50 Tyson’s in a position that no known autistic person has experienced before, he’ll likely be the forefront of expectations with autistic people deciding to pursue any form of entertainment.

I included a link to 50 Tyson’s page on the Hudson Records website, which provides updates on his musical endeavors.

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 24, 2010 at 6:52 pm

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 people do lend a hand

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Courtesy CNN

Go ahead, say what you want about autistic people living in their own world and ignoring their surrounding environments. Haley Moss, a 15-year-old autistic who wrote and illustrated a book about helping others get through middle school, can’t hear you.

Haley’s on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Non-verbal at age 3, her parents got her private speech therapy and hippotherapy, a technique that involves a horse and a speech-language pathologist, shown to increase verbal communication in some children. She never took a special education course and is a straight-A student at a private school in Florida, but nothing could prepare her for the challenges of middle school, and those challenges inspired her to create her first book.

Sarcasm is a challenge, as she doesn’t find the concept to make any sense (which technically is true), along with starting conversations. Haley says her interests, art and video games, don’t always match up with her peers. But her memorization skills are above most of her classmates and her advice on social situations differs from what most people would say. Haley might be an incarnation of myself if I were female, although it took me a little longer to get up to speed. I always called myself a “Lego brick” in school, because I could detach and attach myself to any “set.” Haley’s parents kept her autism private until she started working on her book. So far, Haley says revealing her condition hasn’t helped socially, but it did help her peers understand.

Her responses to numerous situations suggest that she employs a logical problem-solving technique. Instead of jumping to conclusions after hearing a comment she doesn’t understand, she asks her mom for help. Another tip she shares is logical, but I wonder how necessary it is: learning about trends to talk about them. She says doing so helped her fit in because you’ll be picked on if you’re not like other kids, which means she’s watched the Twilight series and knows about the Jonas Brothers. My experience was no different than Haley’s in middle school, although I have no complaints about not sharing similar interests with most of the crowd, especially if they weren’t to my liking. Depending on your interpretation, Haley’s suggestion could be seen as forcing to assimilate yourself into what society wants you to be like (she’s not a fan of the Twilight series and its second entry, New Moon, earned mediocre reviews with critics).

Of course, I do share interests with the rest of the world, and you’ll know that right away when it comes to most movies or sports. If she’s learning trends to fit in, I’d be curious to know how friendly her friends are. Obviously, you need a few things in common, but my friendships have lasted in part because of my stubborn refusal to give up individuality. I’m curious about my friends’ pursuits and they know and are interested in mine, regardless of whether or not they’re following the same path.

Curiosities aside, Haley’s doing the very thing that I mentioned autistic people don’t often get the chance to: fight their own battles. The CNN story has no political tone, but they do an effective job examining Haley’s personal life, using her art and writing skills as catalysts. Her book applies to everyone across the board when it comes to middle school, including anecdotes written from other autistic kids. She also has her own website, and her bio on the home page mentions nothing about her autism spectrum disorder. That’s fine, playing the autism “card” is never a requirement, and can be a confidence booster if your talents are recognized simply on their merit.

Haley’s a rarity, an autistic girl who’s managed to integrate with society and use her experience to assist those entering the world she departed. With the initial wave of doom and gloom behind us in press coverage, we’ll see more stories like Haley’s in its wake. Nothing cheers up an audience like a good profile piece detailing success, especially with an economic condition that sucked happiness from most of us. Her story won’t have the magnitude of Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin, but that isn’t necessary. Progress in press coverage will happen when the audience realizes that autistic people are no different from any of us. Everyone is flawed, but they also have talent. If readers get that message, then don’t be surprised if you hear more autism success stories to the point where they become “annoying.”