Autistics Helping Autistics

Medical Express has a piece on an autistic man, Kyle Barton, who lives in the Plano area and who attended UTD who has had a hard time finding a job. The title of the piece is Man with Autism Helps Design Virtual World to Make Life Better for Adults like Him. The entire thing is well worth reading, and I don’t want to summarize it. The article not only discusses his project, but goes into the struggles he’s had finding a job.

I certainly understand that struggle. Barton certainly should not be unemployed. He is a graduate of UT-Dallas and, very obviously, very intelligent. And yet, he’s struggled to find work. I have a Ph.D. from UT-Dallas, and yet the only work I’ve managed to get have been adjunct professor jobs, and temporary and part time work. I’m incredibly thankful I now have a full time job, but it’s as a paraprofessional (don’t get me wrong, I love the work I’ll be doing, but I should be making far more given my education and abilities).

While I do hope that Barton’s work will help many autistics navigate the world better and, hopefully, find and keep work, there’s a certain absurdity to someone like him or me having trouble finding employment. We seem to mostly be guilty of being socially awkward, spending too much time working at work, being too creative, and treating too many people as equals. The fact is that most people are completely intolerant of any real differences in thinking and behavior and only tolerate superficial differences.

 

North Carolina Higher Ed Center Weighs in on Nancy MacLean Controversy

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, out of North Carolina, has recently published a piece on the Nancy MacLean autism controversy in which this blog is cited and linked. As far as readers of this blog are concerned, there is perhaps not a great deal of new information in the piece by George Leef, but he does point out that Duke University has failed to address any aspect of her comments or conduct.

It is difficult to avoid politics in a situation like this, especially since Nancy MacLean’s work is highly politicized to begin with, and much of the controversy is itself politicized. This is why my objections were pickedĀ  up by libertarians and conservatives and pretty much ignored by the other political side. That being said, I do not consider her comments to be political in the least. I don’t like her anti-autism comments, and I went after her because she’s a well-known academic who made these comments. I will do the same any time anyone who is relatively well-known says anything ableist or spreads misinformation about autism or, as she did, accuse us of being the origin of an evil ideology. What’s worse, is that in her C-SPAN interview, she still tries to make that tie between autism and ideology.

At this point, I think it’s clear that MacLean simply doesn’t get it. She doesn’t actually understand the reason I object to her comments. She is so bound to her conspiracy theories that she doesn’t actually understand what she did wrong, or that it’s wrong. While I do appreciate the apology she did submit, I still don’t think she understands the actual offense she committed. While I think it’s silly to necessarily tie autism to a particular ideology, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in arguing some historical figure is or is not autistic. But it is offensive if you say that the reason they believe evil things is because they are autistic. In her C-SPAN interview she still makes that suggestion. What good is an apology when you then double down on your initial claim?

(Disclosure: I have published articles in The James G. Martin Center site, though none directly on autism and none on MacLean.)

The Freedom To Do and Be

Wednesday night I attended a talk at Southern Methodist University by Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Chicago. She is the author of a series of books–The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality–in which she argues that economists have misunderstood the driving force of economic growth and widespread wealth. It’s not savings, and it’s not capital investment–rather, it’s ideas. And it’s a specific set of ideas: treating people equally, equality under the law, and respect for people who engage in business. She argued last night that when people are given the freedom to do what they want to do and be who they want to be, that freedom results in the creation of wealth.

This made me wonder how much wealth the world has lost because autistics are not allowed to do what they want to do, and to be who they are.

 

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.

Autism in the Schools — A Personal Narrative

After losing a full time freelance to full time position because the company I was working for learned I have Asperger’s and, as they put it, they had “no intention of accommodating you,” I started substitute teaching for Dallas ISD. Because I live in Richardson, a suburb just north of Dallas, I was restricted, due to travel time, to which schools I can teach at. And through some sort of bizarre set of coincidences, I was somehow only been able to take special education classes — meaning, I was surrounded by autistic children almost every weekday for over half a year.

It was a very eye-opening. I saw and interacted with autistic children in elementary, middle, and high school. And I saw how nobody — not a single special education teacher, not a single teacher’s aide, let alone any of the regular teachers in which some of these students have “inclusion” — has the foggiest idea what to do with these children. IĀ  saw them try to interact (and discipline) autistic children as though they were simply neurotypical children with behavior problems. But this is exactly the wrong way to think of them. Given what we have learned about autistic people, given what we know about why they behave so differently from neurotypicals, one is bound to fail to teach proper behaviors, let alone provide them with the rest of the education they need to receive at their schools. As a result, I have seen in the high schools extremely intelligent young men and women who have not received nearly the education they could have received.

At the elementary school, there was about a dozen students, most of whom had autism. When they would “misbehave,” they would be threatened with moving colors, etc. that are typically used in the schools. These tactics clearly had no effect whatsoever on their behaviors, as they didn’t mean anything to the children. Abstract symbolism don’t mean much to us. Yes, there were picture cards for the students, but the use of those picture cards seemed to be limited at best. Picture cards are necessary for autistic children, but they have to be used constantly and consistently. But more than that, threats upset autistic children, shutting them down, pushing them toward having breakdowns. If you want to change an autistic child’s behavior, you have to use logic and reason — and use it repeatedly. Also, if they are doing something to another child, you have to get them to empathize with the other child to get them to stop what they are doing.

For example, one of the children was poking another in the back. The one being poked was just sitting there and taking it (probably having gotten used to her poking him all the time), but he was obviously annoyed, as anyone would be. I got down on the floor and said to her, “Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that?” I tried to get her attention, repeated her name, and kept asking the question. After a while, she finally said, “No.” I said, “Well then, you shouldn’t do that to him if you wouldn’t like it.” And she stopped. And she never did it again — at least, the day I was there.

I was in that class with the special ed teacher’s aide. During recess, the aide asked me, “How on earth are you reaching these kids?” She had never seen anyone change their behaviors so quickly before. Of course, there’s nothing I was doing that I haven’t learned from simply doing research on autism and some of the behavior modifications used. It is nothing anyone out there couldn’t do or learn about. So I told her what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was a complete revelation to her. I gave a brief explanation of what is happening with children with autism, why they acted as they did, etc., which of course ties back in with how to properly teach proper behavior to autistic children.

That same day, toward the end of the day, the same girl got upset and ran to the other side of the room. She threw a tissue box and tried to hide among the pillows in the corner. I went over to her and told her she needed to pick up the tissue box. She of course just withdrew. I had noticed earlier that she liked playing a computer game with a gorilla, so I grabbed a toy gorilla and started talking to her through the gorilla. The gorilla asked her if she wanted to come back to story time and if she would pick up the tissue box. She smiled at me, nodded, and stood up, picked up the tissue box and put it away, and then walked over and sat with the other students and listened to the story. Why did this work? Autistic people are object-oriented, she liked the gorilla game, and I got her to focus on an object she liked and had it talk to her. In other words, I successfully communicated with an autistic child. But few truly understand how to do this.

At one of the high schools at which I used to sub, I taught in all three of the special education classes, which range from classes with students so severely autistic that they are nonverbal and can just barely function at all to talkative, intelligent, humorous students who I wonder why they are not in inclusion classes. There are students who are clearly only in school just to give their parents a break — they won’t be learning anything, and whatever they learn, the won’t be applying outside of school, as they are not going to be holding any sort of job. But those aren’t the students I want to talk about.

The students I want to talk about are those who are together in a special education class that is designed to teach little more than a handful of practical living skills, but who really ought to be in a regular class, because they are definitely intelligent enough to do the work. Many of these students are in fact probably more intelligent than the vast majority of regular students. Why, then, are they not in regular classes? It is because of their “behavioral problems” that have followed them throughout their school years. These have been lucky enough to be identified as autistic, so their behavioral problems were sequestered away in the special education classes rather than the behavioral units (more on that later), but as a result, they have also been sequestered away from a real education. And it is all because nobody understands how to properly modify their behaviors. By the time they reach high school, they haven’t been taught how to properly interact with anyone other than other autistic people — and a dozen frustrated teachers. As a result, we have an army of highly intelligent people who have received no education to speak of and thus will not be able to live up to their full potential. The person who could have been the next Newton may be that socially awkward, “slow” young man or woman who talks funny busing your table before you sit down at the restaurant. That is all they are really being taught to do, and that is a real shame. And it is all because nobody understands how to raise autistic children to be functioning adults.

But, as troublesome as all of this should be to you, I promise you that things can be far, far worse. I know, because I have seen it.

One day I was assigned to a middle school behavioral unit. If you know anything at all about the regular behavior of middle school students, you can only imagine how over-the-top ridiculously bad the behavior of these students had to have been to get them in a behavioral unit. We are talking about repeat offender fighters, kids who take offense at everything and anything and who are convinced that beating the crap out of people is the solution to every problem. In here was one student who — other than cursing like a sailor at the drop of a hat — quietly did all of his school work and played on the computer. He wanted to be left alone to do what he was doing, but of course none of the other students would allow that to happen. They would harass him, turn off his computer, do anything they could to get him riled up and curse at them. A girl in the class, however, would first harass him until he called her a “bitch,” at which point she would get mad and hit him. She hit him four times before she was taken away (by the other adult in the classroom with me the whole time, since there is supposed to be at least two people in there most of the time) to be suspended.

However, there was a time when the other adult had to take three other students away, leaving me with this student and another. The constantly harassed student suddenly came up and started talking to me. The first thing I noticed is that he had an odd way of speaking (odd if you’re not autistic) and seemed a bit awkward. It was obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He started complaining about the other kids, and I said that if he didn’t like these kids, why was he doing things to get in the behavioral unit? His answer?

“I’ve been in the behavioral unit since I was in first grade. I was put in it after I bit my teacher. I’ve been in the behavioral unit in first grade and second grade and third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade and now sixth grade.”

“You’ve been in the behavioral unit all this time because you bit a teacher in first grade?”

“Well, no . . .”

Well, of course not. But from what I had been witnessing — and what I would witness in the last hour of the day — convinced me that, in a real sense, he was in fact in behavioral units since first grade because he was in one in first grade.

Here is the probable scenario. This kid was/is an undiagnosed autistic. Maybe Asperger’s, but definitely on the spectrum. And definitely prone to meltdowns. His odd behaviors were probably enough of a turn off for his fellow students and teachers, but no doubt they considered his meltdowns to be mere temper tantrums. Meltdowns occur when a stressful situation — or series of them — becomes too much. Meltdowns can appear to be very violent — many autistics will also engage in self-harm, especially if they are not allowed an outlet for their frustration. It would not surprise me if more than a few people have gotten bitten by an autistic child during a meltdown if the adult was intervening wrong. And if the child is undiagnosed, he’s not an autistic child who needs help (but who won’t get the right kind of help because almost nobody understands how to help them), but a serious behavioral problem. So we get a child who gets easily stressed having a meltdown, a teacher who is stressed dealing with it wrong, and therefore get a bitten teacher and a first grader sent off to the behavioral unit.

Of course, the kind of children in the behavioral unit are anything but understanding and kind. They are cruel, bullies, a certain percent are sociopathic, and autistic children are weird and seem to be the perfect victims. So they get picked on, the stress results in violent meltdowns, and the child remains in the behavioral unit. Year after year after year. And the problem is never solved, but is in fact worsened by such an environment.

That is the situation this poor child is in. He’s been placed in a never-ending Hell, all because he’s an undiagnosed autistic. His fate? He has been taken away to the mental hospital twice. And based on his conversation with me, he is very, very, very angry.

So after being picked on all day, he was told at the end of the day to go outside and get his backpack. He didn’t want to, but I talked him into it (which got me cursed out a few times for my effort). He stepped out to see his papers being blown away, the girl who was being suspended for hitting him all day having apparently dumped out his things. And that’s when the meltdown occurred. He began picking up desks and throwing them. Keep in mind that he’s eleven. All of the desks and chairs ended up in a pile in the middle of the room. It was a slow-motion rage — oddly controlled, as he went out of his way to make sure he never threw a chair or desk in such a way that I would be hit by one. And I was close to him the entire time, trying to talk him back.

I never did talk him back. The bell rang, the teachers told me they would take care of it, and I had to pick up my own children from daycare and school. When I walked away, he was outside the portable, banging his head against the metal side. I glanced back one last time to see a chair flying out of the door.

Without a diagnosis of autism, and without parents like us, Daniel could have been that child. That is a sad, terrifying, and infuriating thought.

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.

Employing People on the Spectrum–Good for Business

Word is starting to get out that it makes good business sense to hire autistic people. Apparently, Microsoft is making a push to hire more people with autism. They have discovered that people with autism have capabilities neurotypicals do not, and that those capabilities are great for the bottom line. Who, after all, doesn’t want someone who can find 10% more coding errors than can the average population? (This, by the way, is why I’m a good editor and proofreader.)

It turns out that people with autism seem to have increased perceptual awareness, which makes us appear distracted or not able to pay attention, but which in fact means we are taking in more and more and more information. If this is also what is happening with ADD/ADHD, this would suggest that ADD/ADHD is on one side of Asperger’s like autism is on the other side of it. In any case, this would suggest that there is a group of people we have pathologized, but who are simply hyperperceptual. Such people are taking in and processing more information than are neurotypical people. Which would go a long way to explaining why so many people on the spectrum (especially if we expand the spectrum to include ADD/ADHD) are scientists, artists, and creative types.

While processing extra information does cause sensitivities — to touch, to light, to certain sounds (like the high-pitched screech from my son that overwhelmed me for a few seconds while I was trying to write this) — and background noises becoming foregrounded, making hearing conversations in a crowded room difficult, it also means strong attention to detail, high degrees of pattern recognition, and a strong ability to differentiate sounds. Different people will have different skills, meaning there will be some better with sounds, others better with language, and others better with math and programming. And there may be combinations. I’m not sure how good I may be with sounds, as I never learned to play an instrument, but I am a poet in no small part because I am obsessed with the sounds of the words — I love alliteration, and I used it even before I started writing with regular rhythm and end rhyme. I am equally obsessed with patterns — which is why I study complexity (love of patterns also is important in writing poems and studying literature).

Despite all of these benefits, people on the spectrum are woefully underemployed. I have read that people with Asperger’s have about a 20% unemployment rate. The linked article reports that in the U.K., only 15% of people on the spectrum have full time employment. But 60% say they want to work. That’s a terrible situation. And it’s one I’ve been familiar with myself. In truth,

employers need to be better educated about the value autistic employees can bring. Businesses need to know about potential difficulties that autistic employees might experience, the simple adjustments that can accommodate them and the wide range of skills and interests that they can bring to the workplace.

One adjustment that needs to be made, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that employers need to decide whether or not they want good workers or good people with whom to socialize. I would also note that people on the spectrum are probably not going to mention during the interview that they are on the spectrum — and as a result, give an interview that they will think is fine, but which is, in the view of the interviewer, a disaster with someone whom they would never hire. Who would hire someone who won’t look at you and rambles on and on? In my experience, very few.

Civil Rights and Mental Differences

Differences in thinking is the next area in which there needs to be social reform. We insist that people accept women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays, transgendered people, and cultural differences, but people continue to insist that everyone think exactly the same way.

I am not talking about ideology here (though there is a case to be made for more ideological heterogeneity in many situations, such as the social sciences and the humanities). No, I am talking about truly different ways of thinking — what we all too often call mental disabilities.

Of course, we once considered homosexuality as a mental illness. Sexual orientation has since been normalized. We need to do the same with a variety of mental differences, and ceasing to call them mental disabilities is a step in that direction. Of course, mental differences result in differences in behavior, the same way that differences in sexual orientation result in differences in sexual behavior. A person who has autism is going to behave differently from someone who is neurotypical, yet everyone expects people with autism to behave like everyone else, and to respond in the same way as everyone else. But those are completely unrealistic expectations.

Of course, there are degrees of autism. There are people you may not suspect of being on the spectrum (I present myself as Exhibit A), but who clearly are if you fully understand the features of autism, the behaviors that result, and the interactions with others as a result (which very few do). These — people with Asperger’s or who are mildly or moderately autistic — are people who could contribute in fantastic ways to society if just given the chance. But too many are not given the chance. Or, given a momentary chance, find themselves without a job without understanding why. Because who wants to work with the “weird” guy who (because you don’t know he’s on the spectrum) you just know can help his behavior — he just doesn’t want to, or whatever people tell themselves about people they find “strange.” And given all of the barriers our governments create to prevent people from starting new businesses (and given the fact that people on the spectrum are easily discouraged), alternatives to working for others are all too often far out of reach.

I understand this first-hand. I have had a difficult time keeping a job. On paper I look great (except to those who do not understand what they are seeing when they view my C.V.), and yet I have a hard time keeping a job. I never quite understood why, until I read a book about work and having Asperger’s. That book was practically a catalog of all the problems I had in every job I ever had. All to often I found myself without a job without understanding what happened. But now I know.

Now, you would think that knowing would help, but as it turns out, knowing you do certain things and being able to do something about it are quite different things. Imagine if in order to keep a job, it was very important that you never, ever make eye contact with anyone, and if you do, you will get a mark against you, and ten marks will get you fired. Only nobody tells you how many marks you have. This is what it’s like trying to do something unnatural, even knowing the rule. And this is why it’s important to have workplaces where people are prepared to deal with and interact with people on the spectrum.

This is important not just because only about a fourth of people on the spectrum are even working and only a fourth of those working are working full time or because people on the spectrum are almost twice as likely to get fired from a job as anyone else, but because they bring traits that ought to be of great value to a business.

People on the spectrum have a lot to offer the world, and it’s a real shame that the rest of the world is almost completely unaware of that fact. Part of it is because people are truly afraid of people who think differently than they do. It is the last allowed and allowable prejudice — to such a degree that if you tell your boss you have something like Asperger’s, you can find yourself let go. And the person won’t think anything of it. They would never fire someone because of their sex or race or sexual orientation, but if they find out you are on the spectrum, you could in fact get fired. But at the same time, if you don’t say anything, you could end up getting fired anyway because of your differences in social behavior, learning, and thinking.

We hear a lot of lip service about the importance of different kinds of thinking, of creative thinking in the work place. We need more “diverse” work places to ensure we have a more creative environment. But in fact the vast majority of businesses want nothing but identical ways of thinking, so they hire people who will fit in perfectly, provide the same ways of thinking, and not rock the boat at all. This would be fine if we did not have laws on the books that enforce this prejudice throughout society. That they target what could be some of the most intelligent, most creative people in society — in no small part because they are too often labeled as mentally disabled — is all the more shameful and harmful to society.

While I have talked mostly about autism, since I know most about it, this is also applicable to many other mental differences, from dyslexia to bipolar to schizophrenia. Many such people could be contributing members of society, if only people accepted their eccentricities more. True, at the most extreme, help (like medication may be needed by many of the kinds of people I’ve discussed here, but at the same time, one has to wonder how much better many of these people’s lives would be if we simply accepted them as they were and accepted them into society, cherishing their different ways of thinking. How many of their problems with living in society would disappear if the stigma associated with their differences in thinking were no longer stigmatized?

This is a civil rights issue. And we who are heterogeneous thinkers need to make it a civil rights issue. Like others who were Others before us, we need to stand up for ourselves and insist that we be treated like fellow human beings — albeit differently-thinking human beings. We have much to offer, and there is nothing more shameful than the fact that practically everyone keeps rejecting the gifts we offer.