Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Random Personal Updates

I like to tell myself that sometime after this summer my wife and I will have a nice routine again. That is unlikely, but I can hope that things settle down a bit by the end of summer.

1. The dieting and exercise routine now has me down to my lowest weight since leaving California, more than five years ago. We are walking at least three nights a week and counting calories. In a few months, I'm sure the exercise routine won't seem to be "disrupting" my schedule. It will also be nice as the weather changes and we can walk outdoors in the park as weather permits. (It rains a lot here, so weather might not permit.)

2. The new house is going to be ours on Friday, April 13. That means another move, another few months of disruption, and then work on the current house to get it on the market. There are so many things that will need to happen during April and May that I get tense thinking about them. The new house will not be "done" when we are handed the keys, but the homebuilder will be done.

The current house is going to require everything from new carpets to driveway repairs. The list of things we need to fix before placing it on the market is long, but at least everything we do will improve the value. Still, working on two houses at once means even less time for my writing and academic projects.

3. I am planning to teach summer school. See the items above and you'll understand why. We'll be contributing our share to the local economy.

4. The university is now developing two writing programs: creative writing and technical writing. I'm the chair of the curriculum committee and I'm the coordinator of the writing programs. More reports and more meetings are in my future.

5. Our little orange tabby, Pumpkin Kitty, hasn't been well for several months. The move, the loss of J.C. (the one cat he seemed to like), the constant work on the house thanks to water issues, and many other things have overwhelmed his delicate systems. PK is on two meds to help him relax, but they aren't working as well as hoped. I've thought for months that he might have something physically wrong, too. I'm hoping nothing serious, but something is causing him discomfort.

6. The Jeep is getting tired. With 160K miles, which isn't bad, the Jeep is acting up a bit. It heads in for a general check-up and routine maintenance on Tuesday.

Notice that everything costs money? Cats, cars, and houses all cost money. Even our reduced calorie diet means buying slightly more expensive food.

Those are the random thoughts for now. There is a lot happening. There's one big project I'll discuss in another post later this week or early next week.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Artistas Cafe in Tampa, Florida

As readers know, I have promoted or linked to products or services only a few times. If I wouldn't use, purchase, or support something, it isn't going to be on this website. And when I do disagree with a product or book, I don't hesitate to state so. 

When I received the following note, I wasn't sure if I'd view this merely as a promotion for the car dealership or if it was something more. Of course, something can be both a good idea socially and commercially. This might be one of those instances:
Hi Dr. Wyatt,

I stumbled upon your blog and think you'd be very interested in a doc style project I recently worked on. The Mercedes Benz Tampa dealership currently houses a cafe that is completely staffed by individuals diagnosed with Autism. Artistas Cafe provides a place that allows these baristas constant human interaction that they might typically shy away from, while also breaking down stereotypes and misguided assumptions others might hold.

I invite you to watch the spot, and share with your subscribers.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Binta Jalloh
It seems to be a genuinely good thing and smart business.

If you know of a business reaching out and teaching life skills, let us know. Parents and support providers want to know these success stories.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Loving Lampposts | Watch the Documentary Film Free Online | SnagFilms

Though several readers have asked me about Loving Lampposts, I must admit that moving and starting a new job meant I haven't had much free time. People have mentioned this film to me and not too long ago the distributor asked if I would consider a link to the online streaming version.

Loving Lampposts | Watch the Documentary Film Free Online | SnagFilms

I'll let visitors watch the film and offer their opinions. Hopefully, I'll have some time to add my own thoughts in coming months.

Feel free to share your reviews in the comments.
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Monday, February 20, 2012


A concerned mother asked about friends. She was worried because her teenager only had one close friend.

Do I have friends? An interesting question, and one I doubt most people can answer easily. My wife and my family are my close friends; there is no one else I communicate with at least monthly on serious matters.

I have friends, people with whom I discuss matters of minimal consequence. Online contacts from my "real life" are generally of this sort. We communicate, but seldom about personal matters.

From Discovery.com:
In 1985, the average American claimed to have three close confidants (which could have included spouses or family members, in addition to friends), but by 2004, the average American had only two close confidants. One in four people reported having no one to talk to at all.
This isn't an "autism" or "introvert" or "gifted" issue. This is a social crisis much larger than any labels could explain. Most of us don't have many close friends. I've read estimates that most people have from two to five close friends. Numerous studies have also revealed a human limit of 150 (roughly) "acquaintances" before we are overwhelmed by the data required to maintain social and emotional connections.

Online, we have hundreds of "friends" that are nothing more than occasional (or never) commentators on our "walls" and "pages" thanks to social networks. I don't really know many of my "friends" and I prune the lists from time to time. We've confused the value of collecting friends, treating them like prize tokens at an arcade, with the value of maintaining true friendships.

My wife and my immediate family are the people I interact with daily and weekly. Those four people are my friends. That's not a bad number, according to researchers.

So, to the concerned mother I say, "Don't worry. Having one close friend is good."

I appreciate my acquaintances, including coworkers past and present, but friendships are rare. Celebrate each one, knowing it is special even according to researchers.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not Caring versus Not Obsessed

I would be lying if I made any claim to understanding the people for whom a particular trait or set of traits is an obsession. I do not relate, and I cannot "put myself in X's shoes" to comprehend such views of one's self.

When an autistic self-advocate wrote to me that I didn't take autism seriously enough (that's a paraphrase), I wasn't sure how to respond. I believe my wife would say I take everything too seriously, and that's the problem.

The next question, and maybe this is the revealing one, was: Why don't I tell my coworkers, students, and others that I am a diagnosed autistic?

It doesn't seem like that would help anything. In fact, I could see it causing problems. Plus, "autistic" isn't a label with which I was raised and it isn't a label I consider that often.

Actively being an "Authentic Autistic Advocate" (some sort of service mark or trademark must apply) would be distracting. I'm already busy being a professor, a writer, and a programmer. You also want me to focus on being something else?

If anything, I struggle with being "too many things" instead of one or two things, which seems to be the expectation.

Professionally, I don't know what I am. I love creative writing, I enjoy teaching, and I am a decent computer geek (though my skills are currently out-of-date). If I could study typography, graphic design, art history, economics, philosophy, comparative religion, fashion design, film production, music, physics, geology, biology, cooking… I'd study it all. There isn't enough time in the day to read everything I want to read and learn. I don't have time to practice the skills I wish I could master. And, obviously, I lack the focus to select one thing, one discipline, to master above all others.

My dream as a writer remains the ultimate trifecta: a Tony for best play, a New York Times bestseller, and an Academy Award nomination for a screenplay. Now, that would be amazing. Unlikely, but that's the nature of dreams.

As a geek? I'd just like to spend some time coding a few little iOS apps my wife and I would use. I haven't had time to master Objective-C and the Cocoa frameworks. I'd like to attend one of the Big Nerd Ranch bootcamps, but I'm too busy. I'll simply need to set some time aside to code.

As a hobby artist, I'd like to learn more about painting so I could actually hang my artwork in my office and not be embarrassed.

My ideal lunch with someone famous? Professor Michio Kaku. Could I also ask Neil Gaiman along? Oh, and maybe Yo-Yo Ma could join us. Imagine that trio of brilliant people talking about the role of knowledge and curiosity in creativity.

I'm sure the point is clear: I am too scattered to focus.

It is not that I don't care about being an autistic advocate. I simply happen to believe that doing well and succeeding is something of an advocacy for myself and others. If I can succeed, that's a sign that others can, too, in their own ways.

I have to focus on my projects to complete them and to succeed. I cannot dwell on what is different about me. If I start reminding myself what I cannot do, I will become paralyzed, emotionally as well as physically. It's odd, but when I remember my right arm doesn't quite work properly is when I have the most trouble with the arm and hand. I do best when I ignore my limitations.

Writing The Autistic Me is useful because it does remind me that I have odd limits. I worried tonight that the restaurant noises, especially some children running about the tables, would force us to leave. I worried while shopping that I might not be able to handle the lights, which were flickering in a snowstorm. But, knowing my limits doesn't mean embracing them. I want to learn the limits to work around them, and then ignore them.

Once I ignore my limits, I can focus on being all those other things I love being.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pain and People

I'm in a lot of pain lately. Extreme pain, causing a noticeable limp, slouch, and squint. I've already been to a doctor and know what the issues are. I have two bone spurs in my left foot (sole and ankle) as well as a "wrinkle" in my right eye (again). The eye is out of focus, even with my glasses, and hurts. The result is headaches and migraines, which cause lights to seem yellow and other strange tricks on my mind. The foot is like having nails shoved to the bone.

Obviously, it is hard to be "fun" and people friendly in such discomfort. To be blunt, I don't want to deal with anyone right now. I want the pain to go away.

It isn't easy to teach, standing for 90 minutes, while wanting to scream in agony. Walking from my Jeep to my classroom and office is a miserable journey. I'm taking painkillers, but they wear off about mid-class.
Maybe things will be better in a few months. I need to get into the doctors and address these issues over the summer break. In the meantime, I'm trying not to scream at too many people.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Diet Progress and Autism

So far, counting calories has helped me lose about five pounds. At the same time, counting calories reinforces the fact that bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes are evils I need to resist a bit more. Since my favorite foods are Italian and Mexican, I'm not sure how to avoid bread, rice, and pasta. The potatoes, I can do without. Bread? Pasta? Those will be a challenge.

One of the things my wife will attest to is that when I get a craving it is specific and nothing else will do. It isn't that I'm a picky eater, overall, but that I am struck by cravings. There are days when some foods aren't appealing, too.

Parents and teachers tell me that some children and teens with autism are much, much pickier. One mother told me her autistic son went through a period when he would only eat the "blue box" of macaroni and cheese for lunch. Nothing else was acceptable for the young boy. When the mother tried to add anything to the pasta, he wouldn't touch it.

A diet of cheese and pasta? I can foresee a weight issue if the boy isn't active enough. Maybe a multi-vitamin would help, but how does anyone get a balanced nutritional intake from Kraft instant Mac n' Cheese?

I'm wondering if all children don't go through food stages. My wife says she did. I've seen this among the children of friends and coworkers, too. Some children won't eat vegetables, others won't touch pudding. Seriously, how can anyone not love pudding? Especially tapioca or dark chocolate. (I also love the seasonal special flavors, like pumpkin spice pudding and peppermint chip.)

Schools don't have many choices at lunch. You get what they have or nothing. How does an autistic child deal with this? I'd eat most things in the cafeteria. I volunteered for cafeteria duty because you could have extra of some things, like the "shoe fly bread" or whatever it was called. I have to admit, I even liked the deep-fried beef and bean burritos. I didn't care for what they called "pizza" though. It wasn't pizza.

At least as an adult I can choose my meals. Today, we had pizza for lunch. The lunch was under 300 calories, too. But, I wasn't that impressed with the pizza crust. I believe it was made in the same factory that must provide the school lunch pizzas.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Asperger's Syndrome as Trendy

I know this topic is a minefield, but I happen to agree with two recent column in the New York Times. "Autism" as a label and diagnosis is being applied to too many people, especially the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. My experiences are purely anecdotal, but when I speak to groups about autism it is common that one or two young adults and/or their parents approach me to tell me that they have self-diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome.

Self-diagnoses are not official diagnoses. You should always work with a clinician to determine something like an autism diagnosis. What if the individual actually has a social anxiety disorder and not an ASD? What if the individual has mild depression? There are so many "what-ifs" that I must always recommend a professional evaluation.

Teachers even come to me and say, "I believe I have students with Asperger's in my class." In general, these teachers end up describing what we might call "geeks" or "nerds." Sometimes, they also describe the shy, quiet bookworm like my wife. My wife is simply an introvert, but people ask me, "Is your wife on the spectrum?"

My wife, and many of the people I know, are introverts who appreciate quiet time to read and explore knowledge. There is no need to find hidden pathologies. My wife isn't shy, and doesn't have social anxiety. She simply wants to be left alone.

The first column in the NYT with which I found myself agreeing, at least to some extent, was this one:

January 31, 2012
Asperger's History of Overdiagnosis
Asperger syndrome and Aspies — the affectionate name that people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome call themselves — seem to be everywhere. 
Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome has become more loosely defined in the past 20 years, by both the mental health profession and by lay people, and in many instances is now synonymous with social and interpersonal disabilities. But people with social disabilities are not necessarily autistic, and giving them diagnoses on the autism spectrum often does a real disservice.

The key point in the opening is that some people with social "disabilities" (and I believe even people who have no disability, only introversion) are being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. I know that's not popular to state within the autistic community, but it is true. Maybe it is only a fraction of the diagnoses, but it is happening.

Isn't every "official" diagnosis based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA? No. Even with a revision, broader autism criteria will remain enshrined in state and federal regulations for years to come.

The DSM criteria are not the only guides to assigning the autism labels, but the DSM-IV and upcoming DSM-V do set the standards.

I've had school psychologists tell me they have "diagnosed dozens" of students. In some states, schools can classify children without independent evaluations; laws vary state to state. In California, you can be officially diagnosed by a neuro-psychiatrist and not qualify for supports unless and until the state decides your impairment affects daily life substantially. And the state can also label you "autistic" without an official diagnosis.

What happens when someone is misdiagnosed? That person fails to receive appropriate supports. And when we diagnose someone without a "disability" we are misdirecting resources.

[Children] and adults with significant interpersonal deficits are being lumped together with children and adults with language acquisition problems. Currently, with the loosening of the diagnosis of Asperger, children and adults who are shy and timid, who have quirky interests like train schedules and baseball statistics, and who have trouble relating to their peers — but who have no language-acquisition problems — are placed on the autism spectrum.

I've stated repeatedly that I know the new DSM-V won't change my life. I am disabled and that isn't going to change, with the "autism" being the least of my personal concerns. My physical injuries dating back to birth place far more restrictions on me than my inability to deal with social situations. Still, I'm unlikely to "fall out" of autism, too. I'm not merely socially "different" — I rock, I tap, I'm sensitive to stimuli, I'm repetitive, and so on.

One of the odder trends is to "retroactively" diagnose famous people so we can all "take pride in autism" for some reason. I don't take pride in being unable to deal with people. I don't take pride in my flapping arms and stuttering speech. And I don't need "role models" to make me feel better. I'm not going to be Einstein or Bill Gates.

Labeling people without a real diagnosis is just plain reckless. What if those people had other issues? And, why do we care? I want to celebrate someone's accomplishments, regardless of his or her challenges.

In recent years speculation has abounded that Albert Einstein must have had Asperger syndrome. Christopher Hitchens speculated that his intellectual hero George Orwell must have had Asperger. Indeed, Orwell had major problems fitting in at British preparatory schools — not surprisingly, he hated the totalitarian tenor of teachers and school administrators — but someone on the autism spectrum could probably never have become a police officer in Lower Burma, as Orwell did. Similarly, writers like Charles Morris have noted that Warren Buffett is thought to have a condition on the autism spectrum, presumably Asperger syndrome.

Failure to "fit in" with society is not a neurological disorder. It is a social impairment, but not a disability. Being different is not always a sign of anything except being… different.

Many people, now inappropriately labeled as Aspies, make the world a richer, more interesting place. Their quirky absorptions in, say, physics, baseball stats or investment strategies add enormously to human advancement. […] Their seriousness and singularity of focus fit more compatibly with the interests of older adults rather than the interests of their childhood or young adult peers.

Some autistics make the world a better place, yes, and so do some people who are different. Most people, disabled or not, simply exist. Few individuals have a lasting affect on humanity. Sorry, but that's just how it is. I might affect a few lives, I might not. Autism might influence what I contribute (it probably does) or it might not.

For better or worse, though, Asperger syndrome has become a part of our cultural landscape. Comments about a person's having "a touch of Asperger's" seem to be part of everyday conversations. Even an episode of "South Park" last year was devoted to Asperger syndrome. We can only hope that better physiological markers distinguishing between the autism-spectrum disorders and pure social disabilities can stem this tide of ever more pathologizing.

I do agree we need to stop with the pathologies. Being different is not a disorder.

And then there was this column:
January 31, 2012
I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly.
FOR a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late '90s, I had Asperger syndrome. 
There's an educational video from that time, called "Understanding Asperger's," in which I appear. I am the affected 20-year-old in the wannabe-hipster vintage polo shirt talking about how keen his understanding of literature is and how misunderstood he was in fifth grade. The film was a research project directed by my mother, a psychology professor and Asperger specialist, and another expert in her department. It presents me as a young man living a full, meaningful life, despite his mental abnormality. 
"Understanding Asperger's" was no act of fraud. Both my mother and her colleague believed I met the diagnostic criteria laid out in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. The manual, still the authoritative text for American therapists, hospitals and insurers, listed the symptoms exhibited by people with Asperger disorder, and, when I was 17, I was judged to fit the bill.

A psychology professor diagnosed her son with Asperger's. How could we not trust such a qualified individual? And yet, this professor later admits to her son that the diagnosis was incorrect. How did this happen? Because we have associated "awkward" and "geek" with "autism" for several years.

As I came into my adult personality, it became clear to me and my mother that I didn't have Asperger syndrome, and she apologized profusely for putting me in the video. For a long time, I sulked in her presence. I yelled at her sometimes, I am ashamed to report. And then I forgave her, after about seven years. Because my mother's intentions were always noble. She wanted to educate parents and counselors about the disorder. She wanted to erase its stigma.

The idea that the psychology professor had "noble intentions" doesn't persuade me to forgive the trend of over diagnosis. What happens to a child or adult misdiagnosed because of a quirky personality?

I wonder: If I had been born five years later and given the diagnosis at the more impressionable age of 12, what would have happened? I might never have tried to write about social interaction, having been told that I was hard-wired to find social interaction baffling.

This is one of the questions I have about myself. I write. But, I also struggle with issues of character motivation. Creating unique characters isn't easy, but it isn't easy for any author. That's why I do like most other authors and base characters on bits and pieces of people I've met in real life or read about in the media.

The column ends with a call to clarify what Asperger's Syndrome, and by extension what the autism spectrum, is.

But my experience can't be unique. Under the rules in place today, any nerd, any withdrawn, bookish kid, can have Asperger syndrome. 
The definition should be narrowed. I don't want a kid with mild autism to go untreated. But I don't want a school psychologist to give a clumsy, lonely teenager a description of his mind that isn't true. 
Benjamin Nugent, the director of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University, is the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People.

A narrower definition might help avoid misdiagnoses. However, I believe it is already too late to reign in the popular definition.

I realize that some people embrace the label of "autistic" and "Aspie" while I don't get that passionate about the words. But, what if some of the people embracing the words should be embracing "social difference" and not autism?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Research Projects NOT Related to Autism

As an "activist" I will continue to speak out and educate on issues of autism and education. But, I'd rather earn my tenure for research that isn't linked to autism. I don't want to be defined by one word.

Leaving "autism" behind as a professor and researcher has been a good thing. Over the last two years, I wrote that I did not want to be the "autistic researching autism" because that strikes me as playing to trends. And yes, "autism" is a trendy word in language research. I've been advised more than once that focusing on autism would be good for my career. It was suggested that I specialize in "disability studies" or whatever the politically correct term might be.

No, thank you. I'm far more content working on other projects that have nothing, zero, zilch, nada, to do with autism.

I'm going to settle in and research wiki usage. I'll study typography and online design. I'd love to study design trends and online reputation management.

No one gets violently upset if you write that a Fraktur typeface and red color scheme are poor choices for a website trying to promote a wildlife sanctuary. No one is stunned when you find that Comic Sans leaves readers unimpressed with the content, no matter how well written a page is. Design and usability is a quiet field, with debates in hushed tones. (There are debates, definitely, but not the angry hatred of being called a shill for Pharma or a fake disabled person.)

This week, another autistic person said I had a responsibility to do research related to autism and communication, since I am a tenure-track professor.

No, I do not have that responsibility. I have to conduct research and publish, yes, but it does not have to be research about autism.

The argument is that at least I have some sort of special standing as an autistic researcher.

Just because I might have a diagnosis of whatever it is, doesn't mean that I am inherently fascinated by all things autism. I have to admit, I don't read many autism blogs anymore and I stopped checking Twitter daily (or even weekly) because I have other interests. My passions are many, but autism isn't really a passion — it's a topic I cannot ignore, but I would rather spend my time on any of a dozen other topics.

Maybe in a few years I'll experience an overwhelming desire to research something about autism and language cognition. For now, I'm trying to head in a different direction as a scholar.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Writing, Speaking, the Brain, and Autism

The brain is amazing. It's both fragile and resilient.

While researching written language and autism for my doctoral degree, I learned a small fraction of what scientists now understand regarding language cognition. The question I had, and one many others have, is why some autistics are good at written or symbolic language communication, but have either limited verbal abilities or are non-verbal? How can someone write and not speak? Why would someone prefer sign language or pictographs to speaking, especially if he or she can speak?

The simplified answer: language is not one thing. Language that is seen is not the same as language that is spoken and heard. Symbolic language and auditory language differ. Braille involves yet another form of language cognition. Somehow, our brains manage to connect and decipher several different "languages" we experience.

Most people can "read" postures, expressions, icons, symbols, colors, sounds, gestures, vocal tones, spoken words, and written words. If you've ever listened to "Peter and the Wolf" you realize that sounds are a language, conveying human emotions and attitudes. Language is so many things that it is astonishing we manage to communicate so efficiently.

Language cognition involves several regions of the brain. Two major regions involved are the Exner and the Broca. These two regions demonstrate an ability to work separately, but in most people they work together to aid in spoken and written language communication.

The Broca is about an inch from the surface of the left frontal lobe, where it is well protected. The problem is that head trauma often does affect this small, delicate region and speech is adversely affected.

From Brainmind.com is a good explanation:
The importance of Broca's area and the left frontal lobe has also been demonstrated through functional imaging. For example, the left frontal lobe becomes activated during inner speech and subvocal articulation (Paulesu, et al., 1993; Demonet, et al., 1994). The left frontal lobe also becomes highly active when reading concrete and abstract words (Buchel et al., 1998; Peterson et al., 1988), and when engaged in semantic decision making tasks (Demb et al., 1995; Gabrielli et al., 1996). Moreover, activation increases as word length increases and in response to long and umfamiliar words (Price, 1997).
Recent scans of infants have shown that those later diagnosed with autism do have different connection patterns from the Broca region to other parts of the brain. Most importantly, the Exner region is poorly "wired" to the Broca. One of the most amazing things about the Broca is that it seems to contribute to recognizing a sense of "self" and "other" when communicating. As a report in National Geographic stated:
But as scientists are learning about all higher cognitive functions, they're discovering that a sense of self is not a discrete part of the mind that resides in a particular location, like the carburetor in a car, or that matures all at once, like a flower blooming. It may involve various regions and circuits in the brain, depending on what specific sense one is talking about, and the circuits may develop at different times.
The Exner region sits sort of above and behind the Broca region. They are normally connected and interact. That's why many children read aloud at first, then slowly decrease the "aloud" until there are no vocalizations. Most humans process speech easier than written words, so the speech region "helps" the symbolic region translate symbols into meaning. In *some* (and only *some*) autisms, the process is "short-circuited" (literally) and the speech area is unable to assist. However, the symbolic and pattern-based area of the brain excels. The autistic might excel at pattern recognition and rules-based systems, which is the core of written language. Writing is more pattern-based than speaking.

How do these two relate? Again, from Brainmind.com, is a good explanation:
Exner's Writing Area is located within a small area along the lateral convexity of the left frontal lobe, and is adjacent to Broca's expressive speech area, and the primary and secondary areas controlling the movement of the hand and fine finger movements. Exner's area appears to be the final common pathway where linguistic impulses receive a final motoric stamp for the purposes of writing. That is, Exner's area translates auditory-images transferred from the posterior language areas, into those motor impulses that will form written words and sentences. Exner's area is very dependent on Broca's area with which is maintains extensive interconnections. That is, Broca's area also acts to organize impulses received from the posterior language zones and relays them to Exner's area for the purposes of written expression.
Imagine what happens when the Exner and Broca regions do not "interface" properly. Even a minor disruption or delay in the connections between these areas of the brain can cause impaired language development and cognition difficulties. In many people with seizures, this is precisely what happens: the auditory and the symbolic don't connect. Abstractions are lost. Metaphors and figurative language are reduced to memorization, not the instantaneous decoding that most people perform subconsciously. Anything that isn't a concrete, exact thought has to be thought about as a puzzle to solve consciously. The delays required impair social communication.

As scientists conduct more and more research on language and the brain, we are likely to find some keys to some forms of autism. Language cognition is a significant factor in social connections and human interactions. When language fails us, or at least challenges us, we are likely to be challenged in countless other aspects of life.

Consider this, also from National Geographic:

Fifteen-year-old Tito Mukhopadhyay squats beside his mother on his bed, rocking, his hands flapping wildly. The gestures are typical of a severely autistic individual, as are his avoidance of eye contact and his unintelligible grunts and moans. But Tito is far from inarticulate. A visitor asks him why he is moving about so much. 
"I know it looks different," he answers, using a pencil and paper to scrawl his reply. "But I got into this habit to find and feel my own scattered self." 
Initially diagnosed as mentally retarded, he was dragged from one doctor to another in his native India by a mother desperate to find the cause of her son's abnormal behavior and language impairment. Through relentless, sometimes unorthodox, training she broke through the barrier of silence, teaching Tito to add and subtract, to enjoy literature, and eventually to communicate by writing, at first by tying a pencil to his hand. Because of her efforts Tito, rare among low-functioning autistics, can describe with powerful clarity what the condition feels like from the inside. 
Tito's vivid autobiographical reflections reveal a sensibility and intelligence greater than his years. In Beyond the Silence, written between the ages of eight and eleven and published in England in 2000 (published as The Mind Tree in the U.S. in 2003) he chronicles his early attempts to cope with the cacophony of disconnected information arriving through his senses and his profound struggle to control his own body and behavior. He wrote of two distinct selves, a thinking self "which was filled with learnings and feelings," and an acting self that was "weird and full of actions," over which he had no more control than if it belonged to another person altogether. "The two selves stayed in their own selves, isolated from each other." 
"Tito's remarkable achievements haven't overcome his autism," says Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied Tito. "There is still chaos occurring in his brain." Where does that chaos come from? There is no doubt that genes play a role in at least some forms of the disorder. Also, infants who later develop autism often undergo a period of abnormal rapid brain growth in the first year of life, which may be related to an overproduction of cells that carry nerve impulses in the brain's white matter.

When the brain is "divided" into sections that are unable to communicate between each other, the results is a "divided self" that also struggles. When the wiring between the Exner and Broca is disrupted, one of the many possible outcomes might be the experiences some autistics describe. In Tito's case, there is an "overload" effect that causes "static" when we look at brain imaging. Imagine two or three radio stations too close together on the dial. You always hear a trace of those other stations overlapping the station you want to hear.

The only way we will know for certain how much this neurological difference contributes to autism(s) is to study many, many more individuals with autism diagnoses.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Rise of the New Groupthink - NYTimes.com

Autistics aren't the only people who work best when allowed to work alone. Unfortunately, we are most likely to struggle with The Rise of the New Groupthink.

Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, advocates for solitude and silence. She is the author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Cain is responding to the faddish embrace of the belief that groups are always better than individuals. The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, was published in 2004. Around that time, the idea of "crowdsourcing" took off with various "great minds" embracing this statement:
Specialized expertise tends to be over valued. In fact, large groups, structured properly, can be smarter than the smartest member of a group. On average, the wisdom of crowds will come up with a better answer than any individual could provide.
Thankfully, Daniel Tammet (see the book Embracing the Wide Sky) and others have critiqued this statement. The problem is "on average" — it assumes the crowd will have just enough expert knowledge.

Cain offers another excellent critique of group work gone wild.
The Rise of the New Groupthink
SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
But there's a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They're extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They're not joiners by nature.
I wholeheartedly agree with Cain: we have embraced groups despite the lack of solid evidence that groups are always or even most of the time better than solitary work. I'm sorry, but groups are miserable, lousy, horrible experiences. The only groups that function well are the groups that allow time for individual work. Truly individual work, not monitored groupthink that pretends to allow freedom and creativity.

Why do so many people love groups? Because popular people, those with charisma and a need to connect with others, tend to run our world. In their experiences, groups are wonderful. Basically, the world is often tailored by and for social butterflies.

Cain writes:
Culturally, we're often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs's death, we've seen a profusion of myths about the company's success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs's supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple's creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
The "star" is the man or woman in a team who can stand on stage and wow the audience. Sometimes that star is a great innovator, but often the social leader has a different set of skills. Those are important skills, but the innovator and creator often needs to be left alone to ponder wonderful, crazy ideas.

I've always needed a "star" to front for me. I'm not a social leader, I'm creative without the social skills necessary to promote my ideas and get them into the hands of others. Likewise, The Wonderful Wizard of Woz needed Jobs, a man who saw how to get ideas into the hands of millions.

The open source software (OSS) movement might be populated by thousands of Woz-like men and women. The problem is, the OSS movement doesn't have a Jobs. There are probably many reasons for this, but one of them is that Jobs and other social leaders thrive on extrinsic rewards. Those rewards include money, awards, and other forms of recognition.

Without a Jobs, Woz would have given away his ideas to a few dozen people. Jobs sold the Apple II to millions and changed the world. They needed each other, but Woz needed to work alone.

Woz wasn't antisocial or a hermit. He belonged to the Homebrew Computer Club and enjoyed the company of other men and women passionate about tinkering. Once a month, these individuals would gather and share information about the emerging "personal" computer. When members shared their enthusiasm for the Altair computer, Woz immediately set out to create a more affordable and more powerful home computer. He needed his small group of like-minded creators.

But, once inspired, he worked alone.
The story of Apple's origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn't have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew [Computer Club]. And he'd never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.
But it's also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.
Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:
"Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me ... they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone .... I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team."
My wife and I both work at home. Even when we are "at work" we each spend most of our time "alone" and focused on our tasks. We work with other people, but we work alone. That's something people overlook: you can be part of something while working alone most of the time.

As a technical content architect, my wife uses email and phone calls to verify information about highly technical product designs. She needs other people, subject matter experts, but she only needs them for brief moments. A project might require an hour or two a day of contact with others, or it might require none at all.

I'm a writer, a designer, a programmer, and a university professor. I'm also entrepreneurial. None of those activities requires constant contact with others. I write alone, not on teams. My stories and scripts are written alone. After they are written, that's when collaboration begins. I don't need a "team" until I've created something.

My columns are emailed to an editor, who then turns the text over to a magazine designer. Publishing is a "team" effort, but it is more like an assembly line than people realize.

As a professor, I teach alone. There is a department and a school, with faculty around to help and guide me, but I create a syllabus, I teach the course. I do this alone. Like most teachers at any level, I am not joined by my supervisor in the classroom.

Yet, we gather our students into "teams" and make them engage in group work. Strange, since no group is involved in most of the activities I do at the university. Even collaborating on research is nothing like what we ask of our students.
Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.
What a horrible approach to education. This is collectivism at its worst. The group and consensus are everything; the individual is disruptive and to be shunned. I hate using "consensus" as the ideal of all that must be right and equal. I make it no secret that I dislike groupthink and group mandates.

I'm an individualist. Yes, we should help others, but we must never lose ourselves to the group identity. Leave me alone and I'm much happier.

As a computer programmer, I'm clearly not alone:
Many introverts seem to know this instinctively, and resist being herded together. Backbone Entertainment, a video game development company in Emeryville, Calif., initially used an open-plan office, but found that its game developers, many of whom were introverts, were unhappy.
"It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other," recalled Mike Mika, the former creative director. "We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it — you'd think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody."
My rejection of groups bothers some of my colleagues in education. They can't imagine that working alone is healthy, even necessary, for many people. Rejecting the group? That's politically incorrect, in addition to being strange.

But, I am most productive in my office, alone. I don't feel "energized" sitting around with other people. Interactions are exhausting. Spending an hour or two in a meeting leaves me shaking and anxious. This isn't about me being "autistic" or a "genius" — it is about me being my creative best when I am left alone to think.

Cain writes that I'm not alone. I'm not strange. Many of us, if not most of us, are at our best when we have private spaces in which to work:
Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn't greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.
Yes, the study was of 600 programmers, but I bet the same is true of writers, painters, and many entrepreneurs. We are at our best when we have the solitude to think and reflect. We need time alone with our imaginations.

If I want to brainstorm, outline, map, and spend some time exploring what seem to be random connections… I want to brainstorm alone. Don't ask me to sit and listen to other ideas until I have first developed and defended my own ideas to myself. Let me argue with myself before I argue with others for my vision.

As Cain observes, brainstorming in groups is a special form of torture for many people:
Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. "The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question," Mr. Osborn wrote. "One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets." 
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The "evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups," wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
Having a lot of ideas is not the same as having a lot of good ideas. Also, groups end up being dominated by personalities. I'm not going to fight some people. Personally, I'm more likely to walk away angry and do my own thing after dealing with a group. I've left meetings more than once and I'll leave meetings again in the future.

I do not care what the group thinks. I care what I think and I want to test my ideas.

Yes, I do need someone to help promote my ideas. I'll hire those people or form associations with them, but I don't want to be in charge of promotion. I want to have the grand idea, not the great sales pitch.

Admittedly, I do need people. I need my wife; she is my social connection. I also need the rare, short encounter with other creative people. But I don't want to be on a team that occupies shared space for hours on end.

I am not shy. I am independent.

Cain summarizes the solitary creative personality by returning to the example of Woz:
[Most] humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy. 
To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.
Alone doesn't mean that I am not building on the works and ideas of others. Wozniak read books and attended presentations about computing and the future. He worked among engineers. He simply had the freedom to be alone when he needed that special creative space.

The Internet allows me to read and read and read some more. I can learn a lot from the works of other people. I can do this without sitting in crowded, emotionally draining, meetings.

Please, let me work alone. I'll let you know when I'm ready for the ideas, opinions, and the assistance of other people.