Progress in Language Skills

Recently Daniel has been showing the degree to which he has been making progress in his language skills. Two areas in which he has shown improvement have been the initiation of conversations and the use of figurative language–two areas typically difficult for those on the spectrum.

Anna’s mother recently had a surgery, and we had talked about it a little bit around the house. When Anna’s mother came up for Thanksgiving, as soon as she sat down upon arrival, Daniel went up to her and asked her about her surgery, and then told her he was happy she was doing better. This was the first time Daniel had ever initiated a conversation. It wasn’t the first time he started talking to someone–but simply starting to talk to someone isn’t the same as properly initiating a conversation. Daniel will ask you questions about sharks or Star Wars or planets, but he’s not going to ask you about how your day went or, well, pretty much anything at all about you. So him asking his grandmother how her surgery went–and doing it on his own–was major.

The other one happened yesterday. I was having the kids clean up their rooms and the toys scattered throughout the house, and finally Daniel decided he was finished. He announced that if he continued cleaning, in 5 minutes he would blow up. I told him I wanted to see that, so keep cleaning for 6 minutes. He said, “I’m not going to actually blow up. It’s like saying I’m hungry enough to eat an elephant. If I did that, I’d die. Like the old lady who swallowed the horse.” I told him, “Oh, then, since you were just being hyperbolic, keep cleaning.” He gave a huge groan–which he does any time you “got” him–and he finished cleaning.

The significance here, of course, is that he not only used metaphorical language–hyperbole is of course metaphorical–and use it correctly, but was able to explain it. That doesn’t mean he’s now going to get that people are being metaphorical and will no longer stop taking people literally (I’m a poet, playwright, and fiction writer, dealing with metaphors all the time in my reading and writing, and I still take people literally when I shouldn’t), but he’s on the way to doing it less often. It’s important to understand that people don’t always “mean what they say” in this sense.

Daniel receives a variety of special education services at his elementary school, Arapaho Classical Magnet, including speech. A good speech teacher and a good special education program in general will get results, and I think we’re seeing some of those results in Daniel’s development of these skills. After all, among the foci of his ARD is being able to initiate conversations. That’s not something I have tried to work on with him, though I have tried to help him with non-literal language (something I’m better with because of my being a language artist, while I still struggle with initiating conversations outside of bombarding you with my interests). So I’m glad at the progress his teachers have made with him, and I think it’s important to give credit when it’s due. After all, our first instinct often seems to be to just complain when something goes wrong–and perhaps we need to focus more on giving credit when something goes right.

Why I Am an Expert in Autism

I do not have a degree in psychology or neuroscience with a concentration in autism. So what, then, makes me an expert in autism?

First of all, not having a degree in something doesn’t make one an expert–or prevent you from being an expert. There are plenty of ignorant fools with Ph.D.s. And while I wouldn’t want to go so far in describing most neurotypial experts in autism, I would have to insist that there is a certain degree in which they are necessarily and irrevocably ignorant, and that is in understanding autism from the inside, in how it’s experienced. Interpreting behaviors without understanding the inner experiences that lead to those behaviors will often lead you to the wrong conclusions.

A favorite wrong conclusion is that autistics don’t have a theory of mind. This is something which I have written about before and refuted. In fact, it we autistics could posit that because neurotypicals didn’t think like us, they didn’t have a theory of mind. Yes, I often don’t know how you’re thinking or why you’re doing something, because it would have never occurred to me to do or think that way. For the longest time I simply thought everyone else was simply stupid and irrational. Since I found out I am on the spectrum, I’ve come to realize everyone else’s thinking is normal and it’s mine that is on the long tail. That is, neurotypical people think in neurotypical ways, and I think in autistic ways, and some of those ways overlap, and some of them don’t, and that’s okay.

But how does any of this make me an expert in autism. Well, an expert is simply someone who knows a lot about a subject. I have done a great deal of research on autism–and you need to keep in mind that my idea of research is formed by my degree in biology and my Ph.D. in the humanities. I don’t just read a few popular books on autism, but rather have read a great many scientific articles on it. I would be willing to put my knowledge and understanding of autism up against anyone with a Ph.D. who studies autism. More than that, because of my expertise in complex network processes, I can bring that knowledge to their knowledge and expand on it–as I indeed have. More, I can take all of this data and interpret it through my own experiences, explaining what the data really means.

Many people desperately need the kind of information I can provide from my expertise. Scientists who study autism certainly do, because I think a great many misunderstandings about autism are promulgated because a behaviorist approach is being taken to study autism. Special Education teachers especially need to understand their students from my perspective. Perhaps especially those who are dealing with nonverbal students.

For example, I have been substitute teaching lately, and I almost always pick the SpEd positions. Which keeps me working. Of course, these positions are always with either a teacher or a paraprofessional in the classroom, so I am really mostly backup for the person who knows what they’re doing with that classroom. Taking these positions means I have gotten to observe students across the spectrum as well as what happens in SpEd classrooms up close and personal. While everyone working in the SpEd classes I’ve been in are doing their very best, their very best does not have a foundation in a real understanding of their students–perhaps especially their autistic students.

A recent example of this involved a non-verbal autistic girl at a high school. The teacher (I was subbing for the paraprofessional) said she thought the girl should get her hearing checked because when she was watching a video on the computer with the headphones on, she would always turn the volume way up. I pointed out that autistic hearing is actually backwards to neurotypical hearing. For a neurotypical person, the brain turns down the volume on background sounds in order to hear the foreground sounds better. This is sort of the very definition of focus.

With autistic hearing, there is no distinction between background and foreground–and often, we hear the background better than the foreground sounds. To hear the TV when everyone is at home and making noise, I have to turn the TV up to around 80 (out of 100), but when everyone is in bed and there’s no noise whatsoever in the house, I can hear the TV perfectly at 23. Daniel’s hearing is so sensitive that, when he was around 4-5 years old, he would cry that he couldn’t go to sleep because he could hear the airplanes overhead. While we live in the Dallas metroplex, we don’t live anywhere near either of the airports. You wouldn’t hear them.

Once I explained these things to the teacher, she understood what was going on. And she further told me that that explained a few other things, though she didn’t go into detail about those other things with me. Indeed, understanding the autistic experience of the world does go a long way to explaining many of our behaviors. Those experiences are fairly universal, even if they are on a spectrum. But if you understand even the cases that don’t result in someone who is non-verbal and not potty trained as an adult, you will understand many of the behaviors of those at the most extreme end of the spectrum.

So yes, I am an expert in autism. I am the kind of expert people ought to be searching out precisely because my expertise isn’t just academic, but equally experiential as well.

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.

Research on Autism in School and Work

SRI International reports some recent research on work, schooling, and autism. They note that although people on the spectrum are particularly strong in STEM areas and the ways of thinking that would make them successful in these fields, we still see too-low college enrollments and too-high unemployment, even among those who graduate.

These are issues we clearly need to address through better education about both the needs and the skills of people on the spectrum. The fact of the matter is that this is an institutional issue. Institutions evolved to meet the needs of neurotypical people expecting to only ever deal with neurotypical people. If we want to change our institutions, we have to change people’s attitudes, understanding about autism, and acceptance of autism.

We need to accentuate the positive even while addressing some of the differences neurotypicals interpret as negatives.

10 Positive Traits of Autistics

Everyone talks about the problems people with autism have–social awkwardness, literalism, various sensitivities, etc.–but few talk about the various strengths people with autism have. Fortunately, there is now a list of the Top 10 positive traits.

We need to talk more about these positive aspects.  Yes, we have terrible short term memories, but we have exceptional long term memories. We tend to think in sounds and images and patterns, have enhanced motion sense, and are highly imaginative. We are detail-oriented, we are extremely creative, reliable, loyal, and comfortable with repetitive tasks. We tend to be less deceptive (likely due to our literalism and strong moral sense) and non-judgmental.

Note that many of these things are traits businesses say they are seeking in a good employee.

What to Teach High-Functioning Autistics

There is a a review of the studies on high-functioning autism (HFA) in the schools that basically comes to the conclusion that more research needs to be done. Of that I have no doubt. As a substitute teacher who prefers taking special education classes, I have seen students literally across the spectrum, from those who could not be anywhere but a self-contained special education classroom just for them (and many who are there simply to give their parents a break) to students that you wonder why they aren’t in a regular class to those in regular classes and just receiving additional services.

Many secondary students with HFA are often not served in self-contained special education classes and may be perceived as difficult, unmotivated or socially awkward. In such cases, when students’ needs are not addressed, they may not be as academically successful as they could potentially be. This could lead to more problems as they exit secondary schools, such as a decreased likelihood to participate in post-secondary education, obtain/maintain meaningful employment and fewer career prospects.

I know when I was in elementary through high school that I was considered difficult, unmotivated/lazy, and socially awkward. And I certainly was not as academically successful as I potentially could have been. In college especially, I did very well in classes which excited me–ranging from my molecular biology and biochemistry classes, organic chemistry classes, and applied and environmental microbiology class, to Introduction to Philosophy and economics, the latter two of which directed me into the decision to go into the humanities–but not so well in any class I either didn’t find interesting or which I didn’t see any purpose in taking (I suspect those two areas overlapped).

While I most certainly did participate in post-secondary education–and did so with a vengeance–I have been unable to obtain/maintain meaningful employment and I have found very few (none, actually) career opportunities. So I certainly agree that more needs to be done. Of course, nobody was going to do anything for me in the 1970s-1980’s, when I was in school, since nobody knew there was anything unusual about me, except my high intelligence. Smart but lazy, gifted but argumentative–that was me. Except, it wasn’t really laziness (I was always working on my projects). My argumentativeness would now be called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, especially since I don’t really recognize anyone’s authority over me (treating everyone as equals all the time is a feature of autism, too).

Autistics need to be taught social skills in the same way all children have to be taught math or reading. Neither math nor reading are natural, so they have to be taught directly, and they have a hard time sticking (which is why few people can write well and why spelling errors persist) and are the two areas more likely to involve “learning disabilities.” For autistics, there’s nothing “natural” about social skills, though such skills are in fact natural for non-autistics and thus the details are very easily acquired by them. We do not acquire them so easily. We often see social rules as arbitrary and we thus don’t see why we should take them so seriously–or why anyone else should.

Any teaching of social skills thus have to take these facts into consideration. It cannot be assumed that autistics can learn social skills the same as non-autistics. In fact, when it comes to learning social skills and cultural traditions and such, autistics come closest to exemplifying the otherwise completely wrong blank slate theory of the mind. A theory completely untrue for the average person turns out to be a reasonable assumption with which to start when it comes to teaching autistics social and life skills. Everything must be explicitly stated, everything must be explicitly taught.