The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘WCCO

Alpha and Omega

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Photo by Justin Stephens, Syfy

Before I analyze my next story, I want to inform you that this blog is a finalist for Twin Cities CBS affiliate WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition in the health/fitness/medical category. Click here to view all the entries in the category. Voters can select their favorite blog in each category once per day. The winner receives a $50 Amazon gift card.

Speaking of value, Jean Winegardner of The Washington Times explores the usefulness of an autistic character on Syfy’s new series, Alphas. The series focuses on people whose neurological anomalies give them special powers while simultaneously dealing deficits and difficulties brought on by their differences. One of the five main characters, Gary Bell, is a high-functioning autistic adult who can read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals.

Actor Ryan Cartwright, who portrays Bell, enjoys the complexity of the character that he believes extends beyond the autism diagnosis. Naturally, Gary makes little eye contact, his speech patterns are stilted and echolalic, he relies on rules learned by rote and carries a strict adherence to routines. All are common traits of autism spectrum disorder. However, the kicker is Gary’s sense of humor, giving him an extra personality to challenge mainstream notions that autistic people are humorless (an idea promoted in the days of Rain Man).

Much detail and care was included in the science portion of the science fiction show. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member of UCLA’s neuroscience program, is a consultant for Alphas who reviewed each script for the show’s inaugural season while offering on advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Cartwright’s research included consulting with people who work with autistic individuals, reading books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet along with blog sites created by autistic people (I wonder if he came across this one :-p) and watching documentaries on the subject. Cartwright credits this research for helping him understand the reasoning behind the attributes and difficulties of autistic people to create and not imitate the physicality of Gary. Cartwright’s biggest goal? Playing the person and not the disorder

With the story part reporting and part editorial, Winegarden expresses approval for the show introducing a complex character with autism as opposed to stereotypical characters that permeated mainstream media in the early days of autism exposure. Bookheimer concurs, as the show seeks to examine themes of neurodiversity as the topic itself becomes more embroiled in public dissemination.

Science fiction itself has always opened doors to addressing ideas and topics among current events that could never be extrapolated by media set in the present because of raw, impulsive emotional responses from segments of the viewing audience. Star Trek and its spin-offs before the 2009 reboot contained many allegories among its episodes and races, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with a 23rd century version of Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union. Alphas may not be as futuristic, but the science fiction elements of neurological conditions leading to superhuman powers does communicate to viewers that disabled people aren’t so simplistic in real life. Several examples of autism in mainstream media used to place autistic individuals as “out there,” separated from the public domain. Recent portrayals, including a young boy with Asperger’s on the second version of NBC’s Parenthood and now Alphas, approach the condition with a mission to deconstruct what the public erected years ago about the condition.

Credit must also be given for Winegardner’s approach to the story. There are few indications of the article presenting itself as a column until the end of the story, when Winegardner analyzes the character of Gary Bell and the effort from Cartwright and the show’s production staff. While I doubt anyone would be critical of a column praising a television show for avoiding stereotypes, columns and editorials can sometimes fall into traps created by the writers (or pundits on television shows), where the writer eschews fact and reasoning for an egotistical nature. Winegardner’s structure is very similar to what a straight-up reporter would write, and prefaces her sense of encouragement with a behind-the-scenes look for a rookie series seeking to establish itself in the Syfy lineup, using both the actor and a consultant whose expertise is the science of the brain as sources for her analysis.

While an opinion is more blatantly expressed, opinion articles sometimes employ the tactics of more neutral stories that make up the front page of newspapers, as such work can carry the same effect in both instances. Thanks to Winegardner’s interviewing, she doesn’t have to rely solely on her own word even in a news environment where someone’s word is sometimes given more credence than traditional reporting. A positive side effect is the illustration of commitment from Alphas to accurate portrayals within its neuroscience surroundings.

As with any art form, television isn’t immune to subjectivity from the viewing audience, critics and advertisers, but even if Alphas joins the long list of “one-and-done” programs, expect future shows that tackle neurodiversity to draw inspiration from the latest work of science fiction.

Autistic people are not alone in growing

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Checking off the May archives with this post, we return to our backyard with a story from WCCO Radio’s Edgar Linares on a store that sells products designed to help children and adults on the autism spectrum develop (Coincidentally, WCCO is also hosting a Most Valuable Blogger competition, which you can learn more about here).

Simply called The Autism Shop, owners Cherri and David Saltzman recently located their facility to the Sundial Center in Minnetonka because they couldn’t showcase all their products at their old location in Hopkins. Naturally, their inspiration originated with their daughter, diagnosed with autism at age 2 and now a full adult. Their quick action helped their daughter’s condition improve, but the Saltzmans wanted to continue supporting the autism community, which led to The Autism Shop, now in its 16th year of operation. Over 1,200 items are available to shoppers either in person or online, including books that help autistic children handle emotions and a line of CD’s created by a Minnesota speech pathologist. The Autism Shop is a non-profit business, with proceeds benefiting autism research and support.

Linares profiles what the store is all about, because even with 16 years of existence, knowledge of The Autism Shop in the Twin Cities media market is likely rather low given its sole location. His highlights of the store’s features play off the backbone of The Autism Shop moving to a bigger home. Although the move is reportedly done out of desire to showcase more products and generate more foot traffic, and no sales figures are given, it’s reasonable to deduce the shop is a hit with patrons who visit the store.

While organizations focused on autism, including the Autism Society of Minnesota, are likely to have resources for people involved with those groups, The Autism Shop is the first time I’ve heard of a Twin Cities location offering such resources in a public manner. Linares takes people unfamiliar with the store into consideration with his reporting by offering a quick history of the store and its owners, and in doing so, he effectively communicates that the Saltzmans are eager to help through the products they offer and the proceeds they donate. As the autistic population grows, so does the demand for material to help adapt to the population, which would etch dollar signs in the minds of some entrepreneurs. Instead, the Saltzmans go with the old adage of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

Profile stories have a lower difficulty level of reporting than other subjects, as the goal is simply featuring a noun to an audience that may not know what makes the noun special. Thanks to Linares’ storytelling, residents in Stillwater or Woodbury need not tremble over trekking a long distance to a western Twin Cities suburb, and citizens close by can browse through all 1,200 products in person. The only missing element that would have supplemented the story was getting testimonials from customers who could vouch for what the Saltzmans were saying. However, just like its television counterpart, the journalists in WCCO’s radio division are also on a short time limit when it comes to story length.

New Wakefield ruling permeating local news

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Courtesy CBS

WCCO’s take on Brian Deer’s suggestion of doctored information in Andrew Wakefield’s study that concluded vaccines were a cause of autism illustrates the magnitude of the controversy. Whenever you see a local news source provide their own take on a national story, that generally means the subject is either well-known to the audience or there’s a serious need to inform the public about a potential mass impact.

For WCCO, CBS’ Twin Cities affiliate, they used the recent development to explore how Wakefield’s study impacted immunizations. WCCO talked with parents of twins who wanted to be sure they made the right choice when it came to vaccinating their kids. On a broad scope, they would certainly appear to be reporting “yesterday’s news” as they tell their viewers how Wakefield’s study caused parents to put more thought into all vaccines, not just the MMR shot in Wakefield’s research. For followers of autism in the news, this story doesn’t reveal much that isn’t already known: parents pausing to consider the “what if” questions out of concern for their children, and as I mentioned in my first post on the new development with Wakefield’s study, fear is a powerful catalyst in decision-making. Logic isn’t even enough to defeat the presence of fear. Ultimately, the parents WCCO interviewed decided to vaccinate their kids and no side-effects occurred, as they rarely do when immunizations are administered.

I’ve discussed why local news sometimes gives off a lackadaisical appearance with some of their topics of interest before, and some of those reasons return in WCCO’s latest autism story. Primarily, the news producers don’t believe their audience is fully aware of autism yet, as they re-iterate what autism does to its inhabitants and that no one knows what causes the disability. Given how short a window most video packages are (news code for a story generally 60 seconds or more covered by a reporter), there’s little time to explain the finer, more complex questions currently surrounding autism.

What we can learn from this story is how much attention local news producers are giving for, in this case, an international story. Few would question WCCO if they decided not to pursue a local angle to Deer’s discovery, since local TV news can’t focus on one topic for too long without risking losing audience interest. However, Wakefield’s study created huge implications, too big for most reporters to ignore. WCCO is simply doing what most of us affected by autism or worry about the disability already are, keeping an eye peeled for new leads, stories, developments and breakthroughs.

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

The “Wow” movement continues

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Tran_LocWCCO’s John Lauritsen published a story last night on the gifts of autism. I would have posted the story last night, but they were slow to get it online partly due to internet connection problems at the studio. But that is irrelevant with the story now online.

Loc Tran is a 17-year-old senior attending Champlin Park High School. While his gifts would be enough to make him a fan favorite in the autism community, he’s also blind. Not that it stops him from pursuing aspirations in music. Give this guy a song and he’ll give you five avenues composed in his brain. As you may have guessed, his math and numbers memory could rival that of Rain Man. He even composed a song for the Minnesota Timberwolves (perhaps he could write a few more given the team’s struggles).

This continues the new trend in autism I noted last week with the New York Times article on the possible removal of Asperger Syndrome. A trend that shifts away from despair and the years of struggle for everyone involved to one that emphasizes individuality within the autism and other disability community. I can tell you that my capacity for music is nowhere near this guy, but we probably could share an intellectual moment in the sports world. Not a single sentence is mentioned about Tran’s difficulties as a result of his sight or autism. I’m sure they exist, but as I’ve come to learn through my documentaries and this blog, it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t have any crises to deal with.

The story is simply a profile piece showing what this kid can do that not everyone can replicate as smoothly as him. No concerns about what his life will be like or how he’ll take care of himself when he gets older (video does show him using a special projection screen to help him read assignments and a cane to sense what’s in front of him). No talk about how agonizing adjusting to his life is. Every second of the story is spent on optimism.

As the new decade approaches, it’s a safe bet to say we’ll see more stories like Lauritsen’s. New controversies will undoubtedly emerge too as people discover how autistics can excel at subjects that leave everyone else in envy, but the envy will be created because reporters are spending more time focusing on specifics than the generic tragic storyline of the “Rain Man era.”


Written by TheSportsBrain

November 13, 2009 at 12:38 pm

“I want my money back!”

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A woman who’s been charged with 12 felony counts of swindling more than $300,000 from an autistic man might hear that phrase from the person she’s accused of stealing from.

Katherine Rosenthal was given power of attorney over the swindling victim because he was autistic. The autistic man’s mother saved money while working at the Federal Reserve Bank as a librarian in order to support the rest of the family after her death. The father granted power of attorney to Rosenthal sometime after she and the autistic man befriended each other at an Eagan apartment. When the man’s father died in 2004, Rosenthal began withdrawing money from the autistic man’s account, along with cashing out 17 savings bonds. An attorney who filed charges against Rosenthal claims she used the money to pay off student loans and purchase a house under her name alone in San Antonio when it was intended to go to the autistic man. Her response? “That’s my money.”

Umm, I’m pretty sure the money belonged to the man and not you. Swindling is a heartless crime as perpetrators often take advantage of someone else’s trust for a cruel purpose. This case is no different. The WCCO story spent a lot of time focusing on the crime itself, not revealing much detail about Rosenthal’s motive or how severe the autistic man suffered from his disability. Knowing those two things would answer some questions and serve as a potential lesson for people dealing with autism about criminals preying on easy targets (the mentally disabled fall here). I’ve discussed lack of awareness, particularly to danger, as a symptom for autistic people. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosenthal stole from the autistic man as his condition would likely reduce his awareness to the crimes Rosenthal allegedly committed.

The crime itself is a story, an all-too-common one for reporters (TV and newspapers often have several crime beat reporters), but there’s a much deeper story embedded within the charges. Should WCCO pursue the juice inside, the rest of us might learn something and adequately prepare ourselves in case our internal sensors detect a scenario similar to the autistic man’s. We work hard to earn our money. The only shortcuts are game shows and lotteries. I’d never support swindling, but if you have any dastardly plans to do so, target someone who can at least match your intellect. You’ll most likely get busted, but you’d save some face versus stealing from a mentally disabled person.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 17, 2009 at 12:09 am