The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Texas

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 Deer compared Wakefield, who lost his medical license after his study linking M.M.R. vaccines to autism was retracted last year from the medical journal Lancet, to a religious leader who occasionally uses the smoke and mirrors technique to goose the faith of his followers.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.

An “apple” a day keeps autism away

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If only autism were that simple to solve. Probing the mind of Apple owner Steve Jobs may be next to impossible for us non-celebrities, but he certainly found a way to attract a group whose minds are also difficult to comprehend. Several news outlets are carrying a story originally from Houston about the iPad assisting autistic children in communication (the link takes you to CBS4’s version). Specifically, parents who purchase an iPad can store pictures or other visual cues while their child taps or scrolls to point out his/her needs. While not documented for this story, I’m certain the benefits go beyond autistic people who don’t communicate orally. Whatever the benefits, autism experts believe the iPad is the next step in filling gaps autistic people have that other don’t.

This isn’t the first time Apple and autism have tangoed in the news together, as an autism center in the Twin Cities implemented iPods last year. Other stories have focused on the iPhone, which some joke is an iPad nano that makes phone calls. Evidence is mounting to support Apple’s surprising benefits for autistic people, regardless of what device is used.

I did scope the other versions of this story online, as some news stations will employ the technique of video news releases (VNR’s).  A VNR is essentially an advertisement or pitch created by a company that looks like a news story and is presented as such during a newscast, but the subjective nature can be detected easily by watchful eyes. A case could be made that I’m discussing a VNR, since the same story has appeared in three websites and highlights the iPad, Apple’s latest foray in the netbook PC market (yes, Apples are technically PCs). However, the iPad has no rival at this point, and previous articles have focused on the relationship between Apple and autistic people. On top of that, no computer company is specifically targeting the autistic demographic simply because there’s little financial stability in that group, rendering any marketing ploy ineffective. The more likely scenario is  was one station ran the story, other news outlets saw it, and decided to use the story themselves. Borrowing stories, especially from a major network’s local affiliates, is also common in television news.

There’s a common thread among all the Apple devices I mentioned that I believe is the reason their products are gold mines for families affected by autism: they’re all touch-based. Apple released the iPod Touch around the same time as the iPhone, and the iPad is nearly an identical alternate form of its predecessors. The touch-base technology allows anyone to navigate apps, software, images, just about anything, with a lower learning curve compared to standard computers. While assuming that only Apple products can help autistic people would be foolish (I’ve used Windows PCs for all my blog entries on this site), its storage and navigation techniques are intuitive, especially for non-verbals. They still may not speak, but the ability to communicate through alternate forms is increasingly easier.

Apple is known for updating its products annually and introducing new devices quickly, with a captive audience of techies and journalists who will scoop up almost any Apple lead. However, when the next product is released, there’s a good chance more news stories will be published about its unseen advantages for the autism community. One of my technology friends noted its power in uniting communities, and Apple is definitely showing strides for at least one of them.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

When autism can be deadly

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Courtesy Irving Police/AP

It’s been a while, I know. Duties at SPNN and Community Hoops, where I cover the Minnesota Lynx, along with a lull in autism article publications, have kept me from making any new posts lately.

I mentioned in a blog regarding vaccines that autism can’t kill like the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent. I haven’t been proven wrong, but a Texas mother of two autistic kids strangled both of them to death, according to charges filed by the Irving Police Department. One charge has been filed, the other is still pending, but a 911 recording was released where Saiqa Akhter, a Pakistani native, tells the operator she killed her two children because they were autistic. If convicted (which is really a sure thing given the evidence presented at this point), Akhter could have the same fate of her kids since Texas allows the death penalty.

Reading this story brought back memories of watching a series of stories on YouTube where a couple in a small Ohio town killed their adopted autistic son and made up a story that he was missing. Akhter didn’t go that far, not that it relieves her of any wrongdoing. Ideally, a news outlet or two could pick up this story to highlight the frustrations of raising autistic children, then present a number of options to safely deal with those obstacles. I’ve absorbed a few stories where parents give up hope for their autistic child to pursue dreams their peers will have no trouble with, but killings are very rare.

This story is sure to get some office chatter going, but it won’t likely be substantial. What happens to Akhter is irrelevant, although I’m sure an update will be published on the national feeds. Very often, when parents cut their children’s lives short, mental issues are present. Signs will often present themselves, and those with keen eyes can potentially intervene before a scenario like Ahkter’s develops. This story highlights the dark side of autism. No one expects it, and no one can expect how parents will respond to the situation, but murdering children when they’ve done no wrong is bound to get you on the news without any brownie points.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 21, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Q&A…what am I thinking?

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AOL Health posted a Q&A session a couple weeks ago with Jeanette O’Donnell. For the rest of the world, she runs a Blogspot site called What Are They Thinking? (a link to that site can be found in the article I linked here). The title relates to her family: Five of her six children are autistic, but O’Donnell will be the first to blog about how all her kids have improved with adapting to the “neurotypical” environment since they all received their diagnosis.

Q&A’s are a quick way to tell a story without have to interpret what the sources say. Most interviews use this format before they’re edited for print or broadcast. They’re a good way for beginning journalists to develop their skills before having them prune their quotes later on, but they can be effective, especially with sensitive topics like autism. The article’s writer develops a better shield against claims of bias since all they write on their end are the questions, perhaps trimming some of the answers before publication.

In regards to the article, the interview strikes an unusual tone. O’Donnell mentions some controversies she’s dealt with in autism circles because of her approach to the disorder. Her strategy definitely isn’t within the confines of conventional wisdom: She doesn’t believe in chelation (a procedure that removes heavy metals from the body, a hot topic now with the unsubstantiated belief of mercury causing autism), special diets or any other remedy that is popular with parents but unproven in science. O’Donnell believes media coverage plays a role (when in doubt, blame the media…wait a minute, what am I thinking? 😛 ), making autism appear desperate and something that must be eliminated to sustain order in the mental health world.

That’s not to say O’Donnell just sits there. She did employ the classic strategy of occupational/speech therapy, a pursuit with far more documented success. Another point O’Donnell makes was ensuring her kids knew they would have to adapt by society’s rules, regardless of how well society accepts them.

O’Donnell’s last point could create a dichotomy with an earlier question she answered about her critics. Some call her a media whore, yet the interview ends with her asking the reporter why she hasn’t asked what the reason was for having more kids after their first child was diagnosed with autism. O’Donnell may have been looking to get a specific point out, or the reporter may not have thought about it based on the direction the interview was going. Still, when a source mentions questions that aren’t asked, don’t be afraid to ask it. You’ll find out why they want that point in quotes or on the air and how genuine the reasons are.

O’Donnell does use that question to make a genuine point, from my perspective: She challenges any of her critics to meet her autistic children and tell her which one doesn’t belong.

I’ve noted several times about the emotional, reactive response from parents looking to find a solution and the risk of negative consequences by buying into the first thing that supposedly works but has no scientific backing. Of course, in my childhood days, there was no talk about diets, chelation or other odd treatments. Therapy was king. The Internet changed the treatment game in a hurry, and credit must be given to O’Donnell for refusing to fall in the emotional “trap” of doing something without applying some logic to the situation. She also refuses to take credit for her children’s success. To her, they were the masterminds.

The article’s tone itself is a rarity for anyone who isn’t named Jason McElwain or Temple Grandin. Even five years ago, coverage of autism painted a gloomy picture that could pose a problem to all of us. Even now, news outlets have quoted people talking about the autism “epidemic” as the diagnosis rate increases. Most articles assume some tone of how to keep autism from “destroying” us, ignoring the fact that most of us would acknowledge overcoming some flaw in our own lives, documented or not. The positives of autism may be the next phase introduced in autism coverage, and judging the articles I’ve discussed for the last year on this blog, more are sorely needed to give parents a breather and a reason to consider that autism will not be the culprit of our destruction.