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Elizabeth Irish, MLS, AHIP, Schaffer Library of Health Sciences, Albany Medical College

Silver anniversaries are special for professional publications. Not only are they

indicative of longevity, but also of the ability to adapt to changing needs. Twenty-five years ago, Autism Asperger’s Digest (AAD) was founded by Wayne Gilpin of Future Horizons, Inc., as the first international magazine focused on autism. Over the years

AAD has provided support for neurodiverse individuals, their families, and professionals in the field. AAD has weathered several transformations since 1999. The title has been updated to reflect our evolving understanding of autism and associated conditions. Now known simply as Autism Digest (AD), the magazine’s success is also due in no small part to the ability of its publishers to embrace innovative technologies, to adapt to the 16 expectations of its readers, and sometimes, to pass the legacy over to new visionaries who can continue the dream.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down via Zoom with Lois Jean Brady (LB) and Matthew Guggemos (MG), co-publishers, to discuss Autism Digest and its lasting legacy.

You are both experienced speech-pathologists in the autism field. How did you find yourselves suddenly embracing the role of publisher?

LB: Lyn Dunsavage Young, the previous publisher, reached out to me as she began to contemplate retirement. When she proposed that I assume control over AD, my first reaction was, “no, no way.” I promised her I would think about it, fully expecting to say, “Thank you for the opportunity, but I can't do it.” Then I talked to Matthew, whose immediate response was, “We could do this!” We began brainstorming, and the more we talked, the more excited we became at the possibilities.

MG: I just was saying, “Oh, that sounds great.” I knew it was going to be harder than I imagined.

Publishing is a new avenue for iTherapy (https://www.itherapyllc.com/), the speech therapy and assistive technology company you founded. What was most surprising to you in this new role?

LB: It's the language. It's a whole new language, too. You know how you go into the medical profession, and they have a language? Speech pathology has a language. Well, there's a publishing language that I knew nothing about. Then there’s the deadlines. I'm not naturally strict, but you have the final copy to printers by a certain date. Despite very strict deadlines, I love how much people are willing to share their time and their knowledge. It’s been amazing. Anyone Matthew and I call up -- and we're talking international leaders in the field of autism --will make time for us. For instance, Simon Baron Cohen, the Director of University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, has been so giving of his time.

Creating a safe writing environment for diverse voices is an integral component of your vision. Can you give us some examples of new contributors that you’ve recruited to empower the community?

LB: We already have some of the greatest voices contributing content. Dr. Temple Grandin has been with AD since the early years. We wanted to continue to expand the voices represented, including non-verbal members of the community. For instance, my first goal was to get Ito Kedar to submit an article. He’s a non-speaking young adult who wrote the first fiction book on autism that a person with autism has ever written. He’s also written a book on his life, what being autistic means. He has so much energy in our virtual meetings that’s communicated via his movements and using word prediction in the keyboard. I want people to know that was huge for me. That was step one.

In addition to reaching out to potential authors, you also accept article pitches, which is how I began writing for AD twelve years ago. How do you ensure the quality of the information you publish?

MG: There's a lot of misinformation out there. We do spend quite a bit of energy making sure that what we publish is verifiable. If we can’t fact-check what you say, then we can't feature you. We’re sorry, but we won't publish things that aren't true. I’ve had to deal with authors getting mad at me for rejecting a pitch, but our job is to be a reliable source of information. Yes, there are challenges associated with autism, but we don’t just want articles discussing how hard life is. I’m not sure how much people can gain from a steady stream of negative articles. If you have autism, you're capable. 17 There are things that can help if you have challenges. We want to include positive stories that will empower. We also are careful not to advertise anything that we think is potentially not safe. We don’t feature miracle cures. Our articles are better for holding our authors and advertisers to a high standard.

AD started as a print-only magazine, but in the last year, you’ve fully embraced the digital experience by moving beyond only offering print-only PDFs online. Can you tell us more about that decision?

LB: We are very proud of not only getting our digital edition up and running but making it interactive with the print edition. We realize that the trend is moving towards people not reading as much. There are still folks who like to read, but younger people like short videos. They want information given to them visually in short chunks. Folks with autism are all visual. So, let's combine the formats the best way we can using available technology. The things we discovered we could do are amazing. You can make the print pop out at you. For instance, our latest issue features Chef Chy. She's 8 years old, non-speaking, yet you can watch this little girl cooking in the kitchen like she’s on Gordon Ramsay's show.

Let’s talk about AI for a moment. As you mentioned, you’ve already begun the process of incorporating it to create a more entertaining and visual experience, how else is it transforming AD?

LB: We can do so many more incredible things. AI can read the article to you. We can integrate more media to give life to printed words. You can be immersed in the story. If you want to be entertained, you can be. You can actually bring surveys and other research to life by showing, not just telling, why this research was necessary and is important. How can you use it? Matthew's vision is to make AD look like a magical, interactive magazine with moving pictures and spoken text.

MG: One thing we’ve done is trained ChatGPT to interpret the magazine. The AI we use is more sophisticated, because I’ve been iterating it so you can ask questions about a specific article. If the concepts discussed are complex, AI can summarize and break down the meaning. You can ask the GPT questions to help you better understand the nuances of the content. For instance, if the article is discussing the best way to design a sensory classroom, you can ask to see a 3D visual representation of the design. How do you address some of the concerns that are being addressed about the use of AI? MG: I feel that initial negative opinions and feelings about AI may largely be based on fear of the unknown. I just spoke about this at the National Academies of Sciences.1 Building trust through responsible use and policymaking is key. We’ve drafted a new AI policy for Autism Digest, which includes transparency, ethical use, quality control, data privacy, and intellectual property. We will only support AI tools from our approved list. We feel that AI can be an excellent tool to augment ideas, creativity, and human capabilities in general -- if it's used responsibly.

As the magazine embarks on its next 25 years, what’s next?

LB: We plan to continue refining the magazine's interactive features, such as the Autism Digest Book Club GPT, to offer an even more personalized and valuable experience for readers. We also hope to expand the magazine’s reach and impact by incorporating a greater diversity of voices and perspectives, including those of nonspeaking autistic individuals.

Lois, Matthew, thank you both for sharing your time and expertise with us. Here’s to another 25 years!

Disclosure: Elizabeth Irish has been a regular contributor and advisor to Autism Digest since 2012.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, iTherapy, LLC, has made the May digital issue available at no cost: https://online.fliphtml5.com/kszqp/rmml/


1Guggemos, M. “Automation for Good: The transformative potential of instrumentive AI in healthcare and education,” presented at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Workshop, Exploring the Bidirectional Relationship Between Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience on March 26, 2024.

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