Autism Is Not a Behavioral “Problem”

One thing people do not seem to get when it comes to people on the spectrum is that they literally cannot help certain behaviors, and they do not necessarily respond the same way as regular children or adults do to given situations or requests, depending on how they are delivered. To expect them to do so would be equivalent to expecting a blind student to look at you when you speak to her, or a deaf child to listen up or a man in a wheelchair to walk over to you. There is a tendency to think that the issues surrounding people on the spectrum are “simply” behavioral; however, there is a powerful underlying neurology that affects that behavior and the way they interact with the world and other people.

As a consequence, the situation in our schools is, for those of us who understand what is really going on with autism, absurd. We expect autistic children to simply change their behaviors. However, if there were a deaf child, do you think they would refuse to have someone who could do sign language to communicate, but insist that she listen like all the other students? For similar reasons, it is important to understand that there is far more to autistic people than meets the eye, and dealing with them does in fact require training. That training is lacking in a variety of institutions, in schools across this country, including in special education — I have seen the lack. But that lack needs to be remedied.

Take for example the issue of meltdowns, which are unfortunately not uncommon among people on the spectrum. If you are having a meltdown, you have no control over your behavior whatsoever. This is an unfortunate feature of children with autism, especially younger children. It occurs when they get stuck on something and/or are completely overwhelmed in sensory and social input. This is a feature of autism which many children grow out of, but which some do not. Meltdowns occur when a child is in a situation in which he feels so overwhelmed and threatened by his environment that becomes overwhelmed. This is not an intentional behavior problem. There is nothing intentional in meltdowns.

A meltdown should not be mistaken for a temper tantrum, as the latter are an intentional way for the child to get what he or she wants, while the meltdown comes about from a distressing situation. They can often be mistaken for tantrums because there is typically some object of focus involved. To understand what is happening, you have to think about what happens when there is positive feedback in a sound system. The sounds gets louder and louder until it becomes a deafening screech. The same thing is happening in an autistic meltdown. This is a feature of autism, and it cannot be punished. What must happen is the distressing situation must either be avoided or the person has to be prepared for it.

If someone is having a meltdown, you cannot control having that meltdown, since it is a feature of autistic physiology. Unlike with a tantrum, a meltdown should not be punished, as it makes as much sense to punish someone for something completely out of their control as it would be to punish a deaf person for refusing to listen. Yet, these are seen as “behavioral problems” all too often.

These sorts of problems arise when the adults do not have the training they need to deal with an autistic child, to ensure they are not overwhelmed and so they understand how to deal with things like meltdowns. Our son, for example, is also hyperactive, and as a result he has a hard time sitting still. In a school environment, it is expected that the children sit still for long periods of time. However, Daniel simply cannot do this — at least, not without giving him something that will keep his mind busy in place of his body. Understanding the nature of autism would go a long way toward helping educators deal with autistic children and help them to get a good education.

Fortunately for Daniel, his mother and I understand these things, and we plan to fight to make sure Daniel is treated well. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of behaviors we don’t put up with. But we also know how to deal with them and how to get Daniel to stop them. Repetition and logic work best for Daniel. And talking him into empathizing with the person, if he’s aggravating someone else. But nobody knows these things, including most special education teachers. I have seen plenty trying to treat autistic children like regular children, and they inevitably fail to get the desired results. All because, although (if we include Asperger’s and autism, as the DSM-V does) around 2% of the population is on the spectrum, it seems that nobody really knows anything at all about it. That is something that needs to change. That is something I intend to change.

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What to Do with Employees on the Autism Spectrum

People on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s have poor executive functioning in their brains. This can have various implications for work. Here are some things bosses can do to ensure their employees on the spectrum succeed in the workplace.

  • ·         Give step-by-step instructions and have your employee repeat them back
  • ·         Make instructions as simple and concrete as possible
  • ·         Break down tasks/assignments into smaller chunks with more deadlines
  • ·         Provide written instructions, or at least have the employee take notes
  • ·         Allow the employee to keep “cheat sheets” around which they can look at to ensure they know what they need to do
  • ·         When possible, provide a daily checklist so your employee can check off what they have finished
  • ·         Provide the employee with a rubric so they know what a successful project looks like
  • ·         Say to the employee “This is important because . . .”
  • ·         Provide them with a routine when possible

All of these things help those on the spectrum keep on track and to prioritize. But do keep in mind that if you do provide them with a way to prioritize, they will prioritize in exactly that way. You have to provide them with any nuances, because such nuances will not occur to them on their own.

For example, let’s say that you have four tasks for your employee. The most important thing to do is task A, then B, then C, then D. D is the least important, but it has to get done too. Also, the times when certain things in each set have to get done varies. So if there is something in A that can get done in two days, the priority is to do something in D due in an hour. However, if you fail to discuss the way time factors into prioritizing, the person on the spectrum will simply get all of A done, then do all of B, then do all of C, and then do as much of D as he can get to. He may not even do any in D, since the others are top priority. As you can imagine, this employee is going to get in trouble for not getting to anything in D. However, since the employer did not explain how to prioritize using time, it is not really the fault of the autistic employee that D wasn’t getting done.

What typically has to be done is to allow the employee to get down prioritizing A-B-C-D, then introducing them to the time factor so that they understand the time element of prioritizing. They can and will learn the entire system, because to them it will be an algorithm by which they work, but it has to be taught to them explicitly and in steps.

Does this sound like a major pain in the neck? Yet, once you have your employee trained, you can rest assured that this employee will do the work pretty much without flaw, and will be a major workhorse. Of course, being a major workhorse can itself be its own problem, since his fellow employees will likely not like the fact that the autistic employee is so focused on work that he is getting more done than everyone else. We all know that when that happens, office politics come into play. Beware of what your regular employees say about your autistic employee, and be aware that your autistic employee is complete oblivious that anyone is undermining him or in any way acting underhanded. His social world can completely fall apart, and he won’t know it. Also, it probably won’t help him that he’s typically too blunt and direct, won’t look anyone in the eye, has no earthly idea how to make small talk, won’t notice when people are bored about his obsession (typically work), treats bosses and employees the same, has a tendency to interrupt during a conversation or walk away in the middle of one, and ask too many questions.

But do also keep in mind that your employee on the spectrum also has the following traits:

  • ·         Attention to detail
  • ·         Sustained concentration
  • ·         Excellent long term memory
  • ·         Vast knowledge in certain fields
  • ·         Tolerance of repetition and routine
  • ·         Strong logic and analytical skills
  • ·         Creative thinking
  • ·         Bluntness (which can be good if you want to know what’s really working and what’s not)
  • ·         Honest
  • ·         Loyal
  • ·         Strong desire to do well

These are the reasons you want someone on the spectrum to work for you. They may not be the best employees from the perspective of being socially ideal according to neurotypical standards, but they will typically be your best workers, once you have them trained.

Why I Fight

I want you to imagine someone talking to a deaf person, yelling at them, complaining that they won’t listen. Imagine this person insisting that the deaf person be disciplined for refusing to listen and, because he wouldn’t listen, to be disciplined for subordination.

We would obviously find the person who behaves like this appalling. They are expecting something from someone they are literally incapable of doing. A deaf person’s ears do not work the same as yours — do not work at all in this case. But it would be just as ridiculous to expect a color blind person to differentiate between red and green. Or that a blind person be required to take an art appreciation class. We recognize exactly how ridiculous these things are.

But when it comes to autism, there is a completely irrational expectation that the person simply change their behavior, as though that were at all possible. It’s not. The wiring of our brains are different, the workings of our brains are different, and that results in different kinds of behaviors. I can be made conscious of certain behaviors, but it is difficult at best to always, constantly override those behaviors. For someone like my son, who has mild to moderate autism, and is only 8, the expectation for him to always be able to control himself the way a regular person can is completely unrealistic. As unrealistic as expecting the deaf to listen to you.

Worse, it seems that it is we on the spectrum who always have to accommodate, who have to try to fit in. Why shouldn’t others accommodate us — at least on occasion? Why don’t you try to understand us? We are forced to try to understand you, but it seems that nobody even bothers to try to truly understand us. It would be as though nobody who spoke ever tried to learn sign language, but simply treated the deaf as mental defectives who we need to get out of the way. Because that is the way we are treated. And it needs to stop.

Executive Function and Perceiving the World

The brain’s executive function creates a hierarchy within the brain itself, with the executive function at the top, in charge of setting goals and priorities, preventing one from giving in to whatever urges one would otherwise follow. One can think of it as the CEO of the brain. Those with weaker executive function are going to have brains with weak or even nonexistent CEOs. Yet, an organization like the body requires at least a weak EF/CEO for the world to make sense to the rest of the brain and for the body to show control from the brain. Unconscious desires get expressed, resulting in socially inappropriate actions or comments. However, conscious moral construction is able to replace EF, or to at least lend it support.

F. A. Hayek observed in The Sensory Order, and this idea is supported by Stuart Kauffman, that complex systems model the world according to their own internal structures. Hierarchically, ordered brains with a strong EF, would see hierarchy everywhere; spontaneously ordered brains with weak EFs would see spontaneous orders everywhere. Each “sees” the world through their own structures.

Network controls are through negative feedback — this is cybernetic control. The stronger positive feedback is, the more control is lost. If negative feedback is dominant, the person is very controlled, but not very creative; if they are codominant, the person is creative (just like with spontaneous orders); if positive feedback dominates, they are on the autism spectrum (including ADD/ADHD).

If positive feedback dominates, control breaks down and cycles dominate. More and more processes become decoupled from each other — which may explain why severe autistics are often non-verbal and have to rely exclusively on images. If words become dissociated from images, how can you speak? And of course, the more decoupled processes in the brain are from each other, the less sense the world makes, the less the brain can integrate.

Autism and Our Anti-Hierarchical World

One of the main features of autism is the lack of a foreground/periphery differentiation. This is particularly noticeable in hearing, since we can become overwhelmed by background noises which we cannot filter out in order to focus on the foreground. For most people it is an automatic, natural thing to filter out the background and focus on what you want to hear—typically whoever is talking to you. However, people with autism get everything at once.

However, this is also true with vision. We are easily distracted by things in our peripheral vision, causing us to look around, glance at everything. This is easily taken as attention deficit, but what it is in fact is attention to too many things at once. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. And it’s at least annoying to anyone you’re speaking to, who is expecting you to look at them the entire time.

What this means is that on the sensory level, people with autism do not differentiate between the center and the periphery, the foreground and the periphery. That is, we quite literally do not create a hierarchy in our hearing or our vision.

This inability to recognize hierarchy extends beyond the sensory. I believe that people with autism are naturally egalitarian in nature precisely because we simply cannot create the hierarchies in the first place. One result of this is a refusal to recognize work hierarchies — people on the spectrum are infamous for treating their bosses like their coworkers. This makes sense if there is something about the autistic brain that refuses to either create or recognize hierarchy.

If this is true, it makes sense of some comments that were made about some characters I had created for a novel I was writing for a novel writing class. I had a husband and wife in the novel, and people — both men and women — complained that they couldn’t tell who was “in charge” in the relationship. Consider the fact that this was a graduate level novel writing class, meaning pretty much everyone in there was left of Stalin, and you can see how deeply ingrained the typical person’s thinking is in hierarchy. I created a truly equal relationship, and egalitarian leftists objected! My thinking was able to create a truly egalitarian relationship, and nobody liked that fact.

In fact, I can think of any number of times when my refusal to recognize hierarchies of any kind created problems. Yet, at the same time, it means I refuse to treat women as unequal to men in any way, and it means I refuse to differentiate among races, ethnicity, etc. The poor and the wealthy, the weak and the powerful are all the same to me. Perhaps it is because I simply can’t differentiate among them.

Of course, this equally suggests that neurotypical people simply cannot help but to differentiate among people, to place people into hierarchies. It is a struggle for neurotypicals to recognize scale free networks, to think of men and women as equal, to not think in racial and ethnic terms, of people as unequal by any number of measures. This explains why they think social orders can be turned into hierarchical organizations, and why they think it’s desirable to do so.

Human Universals and Autism

There are many myths out there about people on the autism spectrum. A recent one I experienced involved an argument that because people on the spectrum aren’t naturally social, being social isn’t a human universal (since “universal” means everyone does it — more on that, momentarily). One could make the argument that, because people on the spectrum tend to have opposite tendencies to neurotypicals, the existence of autism either proves that human universals are, at best, only quasi-universal, or people on the spectrum should not be properly considered “human.”

The latter option is nauseous, and the former option I reject. And I reject it because the assumption regarding people on the spectrum is wrong. People with autism are not naturally anti-social. Quite the contrary. There is a strong desire to be social — only, there are extreme difficulties in actually being social, in doing the right things, in communicating (literally, or properly). If the human universal involves wanting to be social to any degree whatsoever, then sociality is a human universal, since people on the spectrum do in fact want to be social to at least some degree.

Another example one could raise is the fact that neurotypical humans tend to engage in top-down thinking. Is this a human universal? Probably. Does the fact that autistics are dominated by bottom-up thinking disprove this universal? Not at all. Neurotypicals can in fact engage in bottom-up thinking, and autistics can in fact engage in top-down thinking. There is a range of which tendency dominates. It is a natural variation, and there is no one who cannot do both, even if one or the other is preferred.

I leave aside the fact that when dealing with complex entities, you have to have a somewhat fuzzier definition of “universal.” The fact that there are people who are born without legs does not mean humans are not universally bipedal, and the fact that there are people born without a moral compass (sociopaths) does not mean humans are not universally moral or share a universal moral system. To avoid the problem, one could perhaps argue more for “cultural universals” rather than “human universals,” but this really says practically the same things, since humans are always already social. Even sociopaths most of the time pretend to abide by the morals of the society into which they are born. And sometimes pretending is enough.

Indeed, people on the spectrum spend a great deal of time learning how to pretend to act “normal.” But this normal is really just part of a spectrum of behaviors and ways of thinking that lie outside the existence of the kinds of universals of which I speak. Indeed, some things — like rituals — are even more strongly desired by autistics than neurotypicals. No one would argue that ritual isn’t a human universal because neurotypicals are less attracted to them than are autistics.