To Sue or Not to Sue, that Is the Question!

Getting into fights with employers about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act may cause more problems than it solves. The legal route is the last resort. Getting into a nasty lawsuit with an employer may get you branded as a troublemaker. There are some situations when a lawsuit is justified, such as being fired after the boss lied to her superiors and told them that you failed to do your job even though you had good performance reviews. Just remember, if you choose to fight, even if you win the battle with an employer, others may be reluctant to hire you. You will be forced to choose between the lawsuit or a career.
–Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy. Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. Appendix. pg 146

While on the one hand this is good advice from a purely personal perspective, this also creates the conditions for continued open discrimination such as I have experienced. Having a child makes one more future-minded, and I hate to have to imagine my son going through what I’ve gone through.

Whether the battle is worth it depends on what war you’re waging. If you’re simply trying to get back at the company, it’s probably not worth it. It will cost you a lot to get very little. But if you intend to make the lawsuit into a public discussion of discrimination against autism–a discussion that certainly needs to take place–then you should go forward with it.

No one has ever accused those with autism of having a great deal of “public-spiritedness” or of being particularly communitarian, but the fact of the matter is that we need to stand up for ourselves and speak out on our own behalf. I know that this is essentially saying, “Introverts of the world, unite!” but discrimination against us will continue until and unless we do. While I will certainly do as much as I can sitting here at this computer, I am also willing to go out there and give talks and do other social things that will get done what needs to get done. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, as much of it certainly does.

I’ve already been without a career of any real sort for a long time now. And it is because people have been discriminating against me because of my Asperger’s. This was true before I knew I was on the spectrum, and it has proven itself explicitly true since I learned and have made the choice several times to disclose. Each time I have found myself without a job. I could only surmise, of course, that my disclosure affected the decision to not keep me around. At least, until the last time it happened. When you are told, “We have no intention of accommodating you” there is little left to the imagination. And that’s when it may be time to sue.

Our Autism Talk at the University of Texas at Dallas

In April 2016, Anna and I gave a presentation to a graduate class at the University of Texas at Dallas on our family’s experience with autism. We talked about our discovery that Daniel had autism, and the reasons I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Daniel–at least until it was clear he had a speech delay. The reasons, of course, were that I behaved much like he was behaving, and I of course was behaving that way because I, too, am on the spectrum.

One of the great things about our discussion with the graduate class is that we aren’t a one-trick pony. You can find people who can talk about their family experience with autism, and you can find people who can talk about the scientific aspects of autism, but how many people can do both? Other than Temple Grandin, of course.

You can see that mixture on this blog. I talk about the latest research I found, but I also talk about personal things, like little things Daniel has done. I think it’s important to both understand the underlying genetics/neurobiology as well as particular expressions that result. Of course, those particular expressions can range from meltdowns to taking things literally to various obsessions to (in my case) writing poetry and plays.

While everyone wants to hear about the problems, we also think it’s important to talk about the positive things. More, I am of the view that autism is a structural difference that gives rise to a different kind of thinking and a different kind of mind. And I try to communicate that as much as possible. I also try to talk about job-related issues. And, with Daniel, school-related issues.

Indeed, we talked about some of the problems I have had with finding and keeping employment. And we talked about some of the issues we have had with the school. The good news on that front is that Daniel has a fantastic Kindergarten teacher at Arapaho Classical Magnet here in Richardson, and the support staff all seem to like Daniel and think he’s sweet.

We hope that we can talk to more groups about autism in the future. We have given a talk at The Warren Center and to a graduate class at UT-Dallas. We are will hoping that these are just the beginning.

Autism and Group Selection

There is a theory of evolution out there that applies to social groups called group selection. It’s an idea that arose, been discredited, and re-arose. The economist F.A. Hayek supported it in his theory of spontaneous orders, arguing that large social groups would undergo selection for the best social orders if let free to do so (the benefit, as he understood is, is that people were both free to leave and to change society so that only the society “died off” rather than the individuals–thus could we experiment in ways of living), and E.O. Wilson is now an advocate.

There was an article that came out last year that argued that the presence of autism could be important for the health of groups and thus would arise through group selection. This argument is not dissimilar to observations I have made here and here. The bottom line is that neurodiversity is vital for the health of any society. There have to be a large majority (around 80%) who act to stabilize the system, and there have to be a small group (around 20%) who destabilize the system through creativity and innovation.

The article makes this point as well. Those groups that tolerated autistics seem to be those better able to survive. Of course, creative innovators, those who challenged the status quo in technology or culture, have always been at best “tolerated.” But the more tolerant a culture has been to such people, the more innovative and wealthier that culture has been.

Which should worry you, because our culture does not much tolerate such people outside of programming. Indeed, we are finding continued wealth in the IT sector of our economy, while the rest of the economy seems stagnant at best.

Improving Executive Function

Tali Shenfield’s Child Psychology Blog has a post on improving executive function. I have written on executive function before (here and here and here and here) but this post goes into greater detail about all the things affected by executive function, including:

  • achieving goals we set
  • achieving goals others set for us
  • short term memory
  • planning
  • organization skills
  • emotional self-regulation

Shenfield also points out that executive functioning is on a gradient, meaning a 12 year old could have the emotional maturity of a 9 year old. Or, as I’ve told my wife, Daniel (8) has the emotional maturity of his brother, who is 5, while his cognitive abilities are much more advanced. But with executive functioning essentially making him “act 5,” most people don’t realize how advanced he is in many other ways.

I have issues with all of the above listed, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. At the same time, once I have all my ducks in a row and I have said I’m going to do something, you can take it to the bank that it will get done. In the end, I can achieve goals I set or other set for me because for me it’s a matter of integrity to do what I say. Deadlines loom large for me, and that helps me overcome at least that issue–when a clear deadline is actually set.

EEOC Ruling on My Discrimination Claim

Today I received a message on my phone from the EEOC saying, after three years of “investigation,” they found no fault with Lockton-Dunning in my claim Lockton discriminated against me for being autistic. Pretty much everything Lockton claimed was a lie–including that they had problems with my work from the beginning (which I’m sure is why they told me they were getting ready to give me more duties the Friday before they let me go) and that I was only going to be there part-time (it was admittedly a trial period, a part time to hire, but they lied that it was intended to be a full time position–meaning the EEOC believed Lockton over both me and the placement agency that told me it was part time to hire).

More, the EEOC said that it was apparently a problem that I hadn’t disclosed to Lockton that I had Asperger’s before they hired me. And apparently the EEOC isn’t familiar with its own laws which make it abundantly clear that I in fact don’t have to ever disclose my disability. They also said there was a problem with the fact that I hadn’t been officially diagnosed (something I have since taken care of), even though their own laws state that the company only has to believe I have a disability for them to discriminate against my having a disability. The people at the EEOC ought to know the laws they enforce better than this.

So the EEOC is now going to give me a release that will allow me to sue the company if I want. I’m sure I will have to disclose that the EEOC found no fault with the company. Which ought to bias everyone against me, because everyone just assumes that the EEOC is on the side of employees and not the employers.

More Work Opportunities

Finding work is a major problem for autistic people. While we have a great many strengths employers ought to find of great benefit, the fact of the matter is that our social differences are often too difficult for neurotypicals to overcome. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that most of the businesses are run by neurotypicals, so their deficits in dealing with social differences are a problem for us.

Fortunately a few businesses are recognizing there are benefits to hiring autistic employees. Of course, many of them, including Microsoft, are simply using the fact that autistics are particularly good at coding and computers in general. It would be nice if other opportunities would open up for those of us who are educated in areas other than computers, though.

What Is Executive Functioning?

You have probably read somewhere that one of the main features of autism is weak executive functioning. But how many of you really understand what executive functioning actually is? And how does it explain some of the features of autism?

The purpose of the executive functioning of the brain is to prevent all thoughts from coming to the surface and being expressed. As a result, a great many of your thoughts–perhaps most of your thoughts, never come to consciousness. Others sort of exist on the periphery, but never get expressed or said. Your executive function allows you to be social precisely to the degree that it censors you even before the thoughts are made conscious.

You can think of “thoughts” in the following ways: there are

  1. Thoughts you don’t have
  2. Thoughts you have but are censored by the executive functioning before they come to conscious awareness
  3. Thoughts you have but censor consciously
  4. Thoughts you say

If you are wondering what the difference is between 1. and 2., congratulations, you’re not autistic! The average person who doesn’t, say, think about cheating on his wife may either be experiencing 1. or 2., but will never know it. If an autistic man doesn’t think about cheating on his wife, it’s because he’s actually not having thoughts about cheating on his wife. It’s 1. or nothing. The weak executive functioning means unwanted thoughts will arise and intrude on one’s thoughts. So those of us on the spectrum who never think about cheating on our wives sleep with a clear conscience.

Now, the problem with having a weak executive function isn’t so much that you aren’t actively suppressing much if anything at all in your unconscious; no, the problem is that your head is full of a constant stream of thoughts, and with a weak censor, you’re bound to say more than a few of them. Many of us learn to run thoughts by ourselves before we speak, but that presupposes we aren’t being pressured to say something right now. If we’re delayed in speaking, it’s because we’re making sure what we plan to say is appropriate. Put us under any sort of pressure, make us uncomfortable, and you’re bound to hear what we really think. And that, of course, can be . . . awkward!

If there is anything good about a weak executive function, it’s that such “leakiness” tends to lead to rather creative thoughts. When writing a poem, play, or prose fiction, having a weak censor is actually a boon. All kinds of crazy thoughts come to mind, and many of them are quite interesting from an artistic perspective—or from the perspective of technological innovation. All those crazy thoughts are thoughts everyone is having—but only those on the spectrum aren’t censoring the overwhelming majority of them. If you wonder why I claimed autistics may be among the most creative, now you know why.

 

Conversing With Asperger’s

I cannot turn off background sounds
I cannot help but hear
The chatter that is out of bounds
To every normal ear

To hear you I must first ignore
The fact that you are there
Pretend the rest out on the floor
Speak words I want to wear

I promise that I’m listening
To every word you speak
I look away to hear you sing
And warble from your beak

Don’t turn away I’m interested
I want to hear each word
I promise you that I am fed
I eat just like a bird

A bird you know appears to peck
And barely seems to eat
But food fills double to its neck
Your words they are my wheat

The Importance of Autism in the Human Population

It is not uncommon to think that everyone is, essentially, the same. Certainly there don’t seem to be any significant genetic differences among different groups, particularly those genes involving the brain. But what if there are differences not among different racial/ethnic/cultural groups but, rather, within the human species as a whole?

About 84% of the genes are expressed in the brain. Given that humans have 20,000 genes, that means about 16,800 genes are expressed in the brain.

We should not be surprised, then, if we were to find more than a bit of variation among human brains.

We should expect to see variation in degrees of creativity vs. copying, on liberalism vs. conservatism, on selfish behavior vs. altruism, introversion vs. extroversion, leadership vs. following, variations in thinking styles, degrees of mental energy, I.Q. and flexibility of I.Q., and of course any of a variety of learning and mental disabilities. These last are of course often disabilities based on a certain accepted mean of learning and/or behavior.

I have noted in some previous posts, linked above, that each of these consists of a spectrum of behaviors, which can be placed in a 20-60-20 grouping of the two extremes and a varying middle. I suspect that the same is true of the autism spectrum as well. The numbers don’t seem at first to support this, but I suspect that the number of people with Asperger’s is grossly underestimated and that ADD/ADHD is properly on the spectrum, such that the true spectrum looks like this:

ADD/ADHD—Asperger’s—autism

Indeed, recent research has found a genetic link among major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. About 11% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD, and while only about 0.2% of the population has been diagnosed with Asperger’s (the distinction of which has been lost by being folded into autism), I strongly suspect it’s more. Many we would just call “introverted” are probably on the spectrum and specifically have Asperger’s. Many upon my telling them I have Asperger’s insisted that, no, I was just very introverted. But as anyone on the spectrum will tell you, much of our “introversion” comes from a combination of complete mental exhaustion from having to negotiate a social environment that doesn’t make much sense to us, and our not understanding how to be social, rather than a desire not to be social.

In addition to the above research, there are a number of other studies that find genetic and structural similarities between autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, autism was once considered to be a form of childhood schizophrenia. It may be that the doctors who thought that were on to something. While there do seem to be significant-enough differences between schizophrenia and autism to make the distinction worthwhile, they may be close-enough related to consider them together–at least for the purposes of this essay.

If we take these things into consideration, we have an expanded autism spectrum that includes something like 20% of the population. If that is the case, what we have here is not really a disorder, but a natural variation that contributes to social complexity and dynamics. At the other end, constituting another 20% of the population, would then be what we could consider solipsistic thinkers, who are in many ways truly opposite of autistic, as I discuss here.

Also, one may note that there are a lot of overlaps in categories. Many introverts are on the autism spectrum, and vice versa (many with ADHD may be considered extroverts because of their hyperactivity, so the correlation, in my expanded definition of autism, won’t be perfect with introversion); many on the spectrum are creative and non-conformists. (It is notable that people on the spectrum, while being non-conformists, also dislike a great deal of change, while the more conformist neurotypicals are more capable of change; this tension also likely contributes to social dynamics in interesting ways that should be investigated.) Variations in thinking styles also maps well onto the solipsistic to autism spectrum.

Variations in brain structure, then, is going to be quite common. Given the number of genes involved in the brain, what should be most surprising is that so much is common among humans. This is in no small part because various streams tend to converge into the same general pathways (as described by constructal theory). This is why there can be a variety of causes of autism, with there being similarities among those who have autism (even with variations in degrees of expression). For there to be complex human societies, it would be necessary to have a variety of ways of thinking or even a variety of kinds of minds so that our societies are neither too stagnant nor too changeable. The most stable societies will be those that both honor tradition and are open to change, that change on the margins rather than abruptly.

Even though we have had literally millennia of species experience with the presence of such variation, we still nevertheless see a great deal of prejudice and discrimination against those who have variations in their thinking. This seems especially true in the postmodern period, where we have developed institutions whose job it is to separate out anyone who has a difference in the way they think, process information, etc. This institutional discrimination is very widespread today, to such a degree that you almost cannot get a job unless you are solidly in the 80% solipsistic-neurotypical range. Businesses quite often, if not almost always, actively discriminate against anyone on the autism spectrum, which is why so many on the spectrum are unemployed.

This discrimination against people who think differently comes from more recent egalitarian attitudes which insist that everyone is/must be identical. Given that these variations in mind/thinking cut across race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, one can actively discriminate against mental variation even while insisting on acceptance of other categories. Worse, because these mental differences are real and are a consequence of structural differences, insistence that all children are the same and learn the same results in the development of the idea of learning disabilities and of behavioral problems.

The politically correct change of this to “learning differences” has not resulted in any real change in attitude toward those differences as being bad. And differences in processing and interacting with the world are treated as behavioral problems to be solved. But the fact of the matter is that people on the spectrum cannot and should not be expected to behave like neurotypical people, because the are literally structured differently. This isn’t a matter of something superficial like culture, which can be written on any individual born into that culture, regardless of race, etc.; no, this is something deep and fundamental that cannot be so readily changed.

And even if the changes can be made–typically, forced–they always feel artificial to the person. It’s much like insisting that gays can just ignore their preferences and act heterosexual; it can be done, but it will never feel quite right, and it will likely make the person feel anxious and depressed. Perhaps not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are typically part of autism.

Our societies have been formed by the majority of those not on the autism spectrum. There are obvious reasons for that–not the least of which being that those people make up 80% of the population. As a result, it is not entirely unreasonable to insist that we on the spectrum conform to them and not vice versa. Of course, this seems easy enough to a group of people for whom conformity is natural. But what they need to understand, what everyone needs to understand, is that it’s not easy for us.

More, by preventing us from being ourselves–at least on occasion–I suspect that our societies are losing out on a great deal that we could and would otherwise contribute to society. Free to be ourselves, with less anxiety and depression, we may feel more up to innovating and creating and thus contributing to society in the many ways we have in the past. That’s all we ask: to be allowed to be ourselves, to be allowed to contribute, to be allowed our humanity.

Daniel’s Literal Interpretations

Sometimes Daniel’s literalism can result in some funny situations.

____________________________________

Just the other day, Anna puckered her lips and told Daniel, “Give me a smack.”

The minute I heard it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And sure enough, he got a quizzical look on his face, then lifted his hand in the air…

Fortunately, Anna also realized what she had said and caught his hand in time. She laughed and told him, “No, I meant give me a kiss.”

Daniel responded, “Well why don’t you just say what you mean?”

______________________________________

Every week Daniel has homework. One week the homework was to create a coin. I read the instructions to Daniel exactly as written: “Create a coin and put your face on it.”

So Daniel drew a circle on the paper, then laid his face in the middle of the circle and said, “I don’t know how this is going to work.”

______________________________________

One day Daniel had a caterpillar on his t-shirt. We all got in the van to go somewhere, and he didn’t want to leave the caterpillar behind. Because it was nice, we rolled our window down. Melina told Daniel, “Roll up your window. The caterpillar is going to fly out.”

“No it’s not!” Daniel said. “It doesn’t have wings!”

______________________________________

Last Christmas, Anna sang part of Mariah Carey’s Christmas song to Daniel, “All I want for Christmas . . . is you!”

Daniel gave her his quizzical look and said after a few seconds, “So . . . you want a Daniel statue?”

______________________________________

Needless to say, he also tends to take teasing literally and seriously. The good news is that more and more he’s starting to ask me, “Are you joking?” And just the other day I made some ridiculous claim as a joke, and my daughter said, “You’re lying,” but Daniel defended me and said, “No, sometimes daddy’s joking.” So it seems my relentless challenging of his literalism is starting to work. It will take a while, but metaphors, figures of speech, and jokes will eventually make sense to him. And if he’s like me, he’ll come to find them pretty fascinating.