Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Goodbye Kevin and Elmo

Today's headlines, interspersed with news on Gaza, Syria, and various other news points, was interrupted with news that would devastate my boys if they understood:  Kevin Clash has resigned from Sesame Street.  It appears that the scandal of a false accusation and another accusation being filed against him has become a distraction for him and for Sesame Workshop, so he resigned.  As Sesame Workshop's blog stated, it is a sad day for Sesame Street.

I have never been a huge fan of Elmo, as I have always resented him for taking the place of Kermit the Frog, of whom I have very fond memories.  And with the advent of Elmo, Sesame Street changed it's format significantly.  It became more targeted, more focused, almost laser-like in it's educational mandate, but leaving some of the fun muppet skits that I enjoyed when I was very young.  But, I figured, it was up to them and how kids would learn best.

When I had kids, I was hesitant to have them watch Sesame Street, because it was so different then I remembered.  But watching it with them, I understood what they were learning.  I saw what Kevin had done with Elmo, and why he was so popular.  I saw the educational vision of Sesame Workshop, and was very impressed.

Over the years, we have gotten several toys with Elmo's voice, many of which have been relegated to storage or to thrift stores because our kids have grown out of them.  But they haven't grown out of Sesame Street, which has been a huge contributor to their education.  And now, it is less.

Not less in the sense that Sesame Street will suffer from Kevin's departure monetarily, or even in their vision.  Sesame Street lost it's creator in the 80's, and managed to continue to grow into a powerful educational provider to the world.  Sesame Street is also not less in it's vision, as they will continue with purpose to educate our children.  No, it will be less because Elmo, who has become a whole generation's symbol of education, acceptance, and curiosity, will be either phased out or replaced by another puppeteer.  Kevin is no longer there, no longer Elmo, and for that, it will be less.

I wish Kevin all the best as he works through his private life, and I hope it will remain just that, private. I hope that Sesame Street will give him a proper send-off, perhaps by helping children understand what happens when a friend moves away (like Elmo).  It will make it less traumatic for the kids, and perhaps help everyone cope with the loss of the little red monster who was friends with everyone.

Kevin, you will be missed.  Thank you for your work, for your efforts, and your positive influence on the lives of my children.  I wish you all the best.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Vaccine Studies and Autism: Which are Accurate?

Article first published as Vaccine Studies and Autism: Which are Accurate? on Technorati.
Two boys with autism sit on a bench.Recently an article published in the Examiner brought up the old "vaccines may cause autism" argument by questioning the authenticity of the Danish autism and vaccine study. The article alleges fraud on the part of the Danish research group by not disclosing the decrease in Danish instances of autism after usage of mercury in vaccines stopped.

The argument that vaccines and autism correlate has been hashed out again and again, often to the point of absurdity, with proponents of both sides being dead set that they are right and the rest of the world is conspiring against them. Personally, (bias revealed), I am inclined to believe that vaccines have little if anything to do with autism rates due to the increased evidence linked to Biology and genetics. Still, I ran through a lot of research to get my facts right, and realized there are several published studies trying to link autism to vaccines and mercury poisoning, or trying to disprove the study.

So which is right? How can you know which study to believe, and which to approach with healthy doses of salt? Well, as I'm not an MD, biologist, neurochemist, or biochemist, I have to rely on others to review the materials and report their findings.

One way to do that is to check the citations. Often a study will be cited for two reasons: either it was so good that everyone wants to show it as a foundation to their research, or it was so bad that it is used as an example of a disagreeing study that conflicts with your findings because of it's poor execution. That means that based on citation alone, you can't trust a published research study. Nope, you need to rely on critical research reviews.

Critical reviews takes a sampling of research data and reviews their findings. They review based on several criteria, such as how well the study can be reproduced, the rigor of the data accumulation, the margin of error in the statistical number crunching, etc. While not publishing new content themselves, these reviews serve as a critical baseline for existing research to determine what is good science, and what needs more work.

Based on this understanding of a critical review, I dug one up on autism, thimerosal, vaccines, and causation for review. The results found that those studies that supported a link between thimerosal and autism were poorly executed and difficult to reproduce, while those that found little to no link between vaccines containing thimerosal and an increase in autism.

Now, granted, this is not a perfect way to determine a cause for autism, hence the reason why no single cause has been found. But it is a great way to see a trend in the research, determine which research is more promising in it's results, and which research is employing accurate, scientific methods to reach their conclusions. That being said, new research is being done every day, and it can only help us better understand such a complex and baffling condition as autism.

But, ultimately, discovering a "cause" doesn't help children on the spectrum much in the short term. Sure, it's nice to know, but those individuals that have it will still need the resources available to help them learn and grow, to become better contributors to society. So, while it's nice to know a cause, I think it's better to know how to help those in need now.

Monday, November 19, 2012

NaNoWriMo: A Brain-Bending Exercise

This month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I have yet again taken up the challenge.  For those not familiar with the challenge, you are to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  That equates to roughly 1,700 words a day.  Doesn't sound like it would be all the difficult, does it?  Well, imagine that the average blog post that I've read comes in between 500 to 1,000 words.  The average tweet is about 10 to 20 words, and the average sound bite used in news broadcasts is about 5 to 10 words (averages and research done by author, and not in a scientific manner).

Now think of your average novel.  Good novels, the ones that get published and have a great following, leading to movie deals and thousands of die-hard fans that name their children after characters in your books, take years to develop, write, and refine.  Some may only take a year or so, some decades.  It's all about turning the phrase, gripping the reader, and drawing them in.  And, unless you are some kind of literary genius, it cannot be done well in a month.

So why bother?  Because a good first draft requires a complete story from beginning to end (at least in my case), so that you can look at it in it's entirety, and make the necessary changes to fix it.  That, and sometimes it's just fun to see if you can write a story in the given amount of time and have it worth reading.  To date, I haven't done such a thing.  Even after spending months of prep work building a scaffold of back story (a la Rowling or Tolkien), outlining the story, and getting to know my characters.

This time I thought I would approach the story as a way to explore a wish or a dream, and place that wish or dream in the belly of a huge problem.  In this case, I have always wanted to live on a boat (or have a boat that could be lived on for long, cruising voyages).  The problem is, the world just ended, and now all I have is my boat.  What to do?

Anyway, the fun is working through various plot points and possibilities while writing the story.  It takes a lot of focus, and a lot of research to make sure it's accurate.  The nice thing is once it's down on "paper", it's easily edited, searched for, and recalled when needed.

So, now that I have decided to write the novel, what tools have I been using?  Well, I've been burned before by losing files, trying to move them back and forth from multiple computers, and now I have an iPhone or iPad I can use as well, how do I write on those tools when I'm not in front of my computer?  Here is a list of tools I use:

  1. iCloud:  First and foremost I use iCloud.  I don't want to come up to my iPad and see that my son has deleted the whole thing, or accidentally wash my jump drive.  I also want to have offline access to the file, and have it update once I'm back online.  iCloud is a great tool for that, and it's supported by my favorite editor.  
  2. Dropbox:  I spent a week writing, backing up to Dropbox, and then the unthinkable happened:  my phone editor removed 7,000 words from my story, as it updated from what it had before it pulled from the cloud.  Fortunately, Dropbox has a restore feature online, so I was able to get it back.  From then on I kept two copies of my story:  One on iCloud, and one on Dropbox.  Two cloud based backups helps me sleep better at night. 
  3. iA Writer:  My editor I use is iA Writer.  It's one of those "Just get out of my face and let me write" apps.  I purchased it for my Mac and for my iOS devices, and I have just loved it.  It supports both iCloud and Dropbox on both platforms, so I have access to both copies, just in case.  
  4. Bing:  I have been slowly and deliberately moving away from Google based items.  Not because I hold any animosity toward Google, but rather because I'm concerned how much control I have allowed them in my tech life.  That control has been strained, as Google kills web apps that I have used for years.  As such, I started using Bing as my search engine (though I still use Google Scholar).  For basic information about Avalon on Santa Catalina Island to research in pneumatic robots and atomic sterling engines, Bing has been a champ.  
Well, that's about it!  Using these tools, I've managed to write (to date) a 28,000 page half-novel that is working it's way to completion.  Based on my current rate of completion, I could very well finish my novel in time.  

So for all of you who are working on your novels during this time, I salute you!  For those of you who have not tried writing a novel in such a constrained manner, I recommend trying it.  It exercises the mind, keeps your story-telling skills nimble, and could possibly be the catalyst for the next Twilight, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings series.  And if not, at least you can say you did it.  And that feeling of accomplishment can be worth a lot. 

And for those who don't fancy writing a lot this month, it is also Movember, or the month to grow a mustache, provided your significant other doesn't mind a scratchy cookie-duster in their kiss. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Autism and Floorplay with Your Kids

Article first published as Autism and Floor Play with Your Kids on Technorati.
Mother and son with autism watching a Lemon Shark from the entrance at Sea World San Diego's Shark Encounter.One of the interesting behaviors that both my sons tend to exhibit that is unique to most children with autism is their relative willingness to socialize. My oldest child had a friend at his last school, and likes to play with other kids he knows. He loved playing with his cousins, as did my youngest son. Yet this is unique to children on the spectrum, as most find it difficult to socialize, even with their parents.

I hadn't thought much about it, because in our home we get down on the floor and play quite a bit with our kids. I remember when my oldest was a lot younger (shortly after he was diagnosed), he would often lose interest when we played. Now he can't wait, often tackling me when I sit down, just to right on my back. The difference is that I would play a lot with him, trying to get him to give me eye contact. I would sit and tickle him, praise him for giving eye contact, and tickle him again. We went the rounds quite a bit, and he still loves to be tickled.

Apparently, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Children who received the Early Start Denver Model therapy saw a significant change in their brain functions relating to normal social behavior, normalizing those functions to coincide with the control group. The study was well done, and fascinating to read.

Of course, this begs the question: what is the Early Start Denver Model, and what does it have to do with playing with your kids? Well, the Denver Model is a version of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy that takes the therapy to the floor with the child. Parents can quickly learn to use this method to help their children, and it all comes from integrating play with the therapy. I'm sure there is a lot more that goes along with it, but the core is teaching while playing. Early Start Denver Model is specifically designed for those children between the ages of 12 and 48 months to help them while their brain is developing.

So it seems that while I was playing with my son, I was implementing, at least in a rudimentary form, the Denver Model to help his development. From that period he gained some pretty impressive skills for his age at the time, and they have helped him as he goes through school now.

How did I get the idea for playing with the kids all the time in order to reinforce behavior? Well, my parents did the same thing while we were younger. I knew what to focus on because the psychologist that evaluated our oldest had told us, "work on his eye contact". So that's what we did, and apparently it worked.