The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Today Show

Advantage – autism

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I’m aware of my most recent hiatus, which was partly due to Minnesota Lynx playoff coverage and Minnesota state high school tournament coverage, but now I’ve returned with a new story to share.

Unfortunately, my blog was not selected a winner in WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition, but I appreciate those of you who still paid visits in my absence. While I continue to research a renewed fascination in the blogosphere and social media regarding Jason McElwain, the health page from NBC’s daytime program Today¬†published a story about a Canadian researcher who argues scientists need to stop viewing autistic traits as flaws that need correction. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal, reflects on recent data and personal experience in his assessment of the disability.

Mottron said researchers who notice activation in unusual regions of the brain compared to the average human, they report such activity as a deficit than an alternative brain organization. He nor most researchers will minimize the concerning outlook facing autistic people, but he advocates they can succeed in a favorable environment, including the field of research. Mottron has several autistic people working in his lab, where they can utilize their exceptional memories. Mottron believes intellectual problem may be over-estimated among autistic people because of inappropriate testing, saying how there is little hesitation to remove audible components for people with hearing impairments. In general, the research field has adapted a broader and deeper view of the disorder, although autism still presents many obstacles.

Rachael Rettner is the woman behind this story, and she reports on another changing trend in the approach to autism by science and mainstream media. While stories of struggle and the future will continue to permeate Google news feeds, the public has been exposed to potential benefits of the condition as far back as Rain Man, released in 1988. Rettner’s story isn’t groundbreaking either, as this blog does have a history of procuring articles on success stories in the autism community. However, with much fear about what autistic children and adults will be able to do, the story is part of a larger paradigm over the exact response about the enlarging base of autistic people. Many are quick to see action in order to address major problems, while others are concerned about an over-bearing assumption that autistic people need intervention in order to conform to expected values of mainstream society. Gauging where the discussion is tilting is difficult to evaluate given the unpredictable and inconsistent effects of autism, but researchers like Mottron see a vastly under-tapped potential that could benefit the community if utilized properly.

Talk about adaptation versus conformation will continue assuming many forms and tones. The conversation Rettner highlights is heavy on science and low on emotional output, without bold and temperamental claims that can sometimes fog progress. There is no question people given an autism diagnosis face a task tougher than a 16-seed playing a 1-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and reporters like Rettner will possess responsibility and influence in dictating the direction of the ongoing quest to determine what path, if any, should be laid for those who “think different.”

If only I can market my asset

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Photo by Andrew Nelles, MSNBC

I’ve noted how autism is often placed into two camps when covered by mainstream media. One is the tragic storyline that metaphorically equals the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. The other is the “pedestal” where someone will transcend all notions of a label. The story I’m discussing falls close to the “pedestal,” but not quite. It’s a big-picture profile, including a non-profit organization in Chicago that helps train high-functioning autistic people to adapt to the workplace, a difficult preposition with the Danish “spiritual sister organization” Specialisterne suggesting that 85% of autistic people under the age of 21 are unemployed or underemployed.

Aspiritech, the organization in Chicago, was training high-functioning autistics as testers for software development companies at the publication date (December 8th, 2009). Brix was a former computer systems employee for Wrigley before moving to Aspiritech. He and employees at Denmark’s Specialisterne credit their autism for giving them an advantage. The common symptom of taking interest in repetitive, predictable work becomes a help versus a hindrance, with employees at Specialisterne serving as consultants to perform data entry or assembly work. Not the most exciting career path, but those with autism often thrive on it, giving intense focus to their task at the exclusion of almost everything else (a workplace example of lack of empathy).

The second half of the article highlights challenges facing autistic adults, the common thread being social interaction. Other authoritative names, including Temple Grandin, suggest society would benefit by including people on the autism spectrum in the workforce, emphasizing the differences in personality versus weaknesses of the disability. Robert Austin, professor at the Copenhagen Business School, sees autism as a variation that could contribute to innovation at work.

My first reaction? DING! There’s been so much emphasis on heartbreak and despair with autism stories in the last few years that it’s no surprise autistic people (myself included) are having little luck finding steady work. Of course, graduating from college in the middle of The Great Recession hasn’t helped my odds, but autistic people are certainly capable of performing some tasks without a problem. My difficulty is finding the right employers to evaluate my skills. On broader terms, switching the focus to differences instead of disabilities could also assist people who have more severe variants of autism find ways to utilize skills the neurotypical world wishes they had.

The author is a science writer with a doctorate based in Seattle and Copenhagen in Denmark, which likely explains the interviews with Danish personnel. This article continues the trend I’ve noticed since fall of progressing from introductions to investigations of deeper issues surrounding autism. Other local and national reports of this nature should be published in the near future as autism occupies more adults. The Autism Society of America published a similar story in The Autism Advocate a couple years ago, but this is the first national story I’ve read on the subject that is available to the public. The article is well-sourced, and the international perspective adds more credence by showing the audience that autism is noticed in other developed countries. I doubt the author’s contribution will instantly change conventional views of autistic people, but historians may point to stories like these if a gradual acceptance of autism is observed.

Speaking from my own observations, there’s a trend with autism employment stories that I noticed in this report: That autistic people excel at monotonous, tedious and repetitive work. Yeah, most of us in the autism circle know about that, but if the pattern continues with other news outlets, I’m concerned the public will come down with “Rain Man Syndrome 2.0” and assume that autistic people are only capable of jobs described in the article. I don’t call myself a journalist just for the heck of it.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 30, 2010 at 12:02 am