Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Find a Place, a Community

A former classmate recently asked me if I belong, actively, to any of our academic communities. The very question reminded me how outside the community of scholars in my academic discipline I am. The word "community" is overused in composition and rhetoric. Beyond overused, I've wondered if it is part of an inside joke.

He clarified, thankfully, by asking which groups of scholars would know my name or my work. I asked why that matters; as long as I'm writing at home with my cats and my wife, I don't need to be known. I wasn't understanding his point.

"To build an academic career, you need to be known."

That makes sense, I suppose. You have to publish papers and appear at conferences to earn tenure. You must be a part of the "community" to reach the top of the field.

I doubt I'm destined for the top of rhetoric or writing studies. I'm on the fringes of the community.

My friend advised me to focus on the communities I would want to be among, the people I admire and enjoy. That is, he wrote, a good way to build the career you want instead of the career people believe you should have.

For the last decade, my scholarship has focused on technology and writing instruction. I'm planning to explore the "rhetoric of interfaces" and "rhetoric of computing" at some point. I'd also like to explore the "rhetoric of economics" and the "rhetoric of theater." There are an infinite number of ways to apply my rhetorical education to the knowledge ("content areas") I enjoy. Writing about "rhetoric of…" should grant me some admission into the community of scholars, but I sense that isn't going to be my path.

Maybe I will write on rhetoric outside academia. I seem to fit better outside my discipline, both by way of my interests and in terms of my personality.

I love so many topics, as I've written many times on this blog, that I don't want to be a specialist. I love being a generalist — always learning a bit more about everything I can.

Currently, I'm trying to give a few hours over to computer programming. It is no humility to state I am a mediocre computer programmer, with rusty skills I am trying desperately to revive. As the least-skilled of coders in the local CocoaHeads chapter, you might imagine I'd feel like an outsider. But, I find programmers generally embrace those willing to learn. They enjoy discussing technology and spreading their passion for coding. I am comfortable among programmers.

I'm far, far less comfortable among my academic colleagues — despite my academic and professional qualifications. It's not bragging to say I have more accomplishments as a writer than programmer, but I always feel like an outsider among my colleagues in English and writing departments. When I work on theater projects, I am as comfortable as when I'm among programmers, so I must conclude this is not techie vs fuzzy. It is a discomfort with some academic disciplines.

Can one find success on the fringes, or do I need to belong to a community to have success? Belonging is more than simply meeting the basic requirements of residency, too. I can live somewhere and never belong to the place. Minneapolis was that way for me — we could live there for 20 years and I'd never "belong" to the city.

I can be "in" rhetoric, but never quite belong. An interesting situation, if it didn't also affect my livelihood.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Writing and Autism: Abstractions

Note: This post is part of a continuing, irregular series on writing and autism. (See: Autism and Writing)

Autistic writers struggle with "abstraction," according to the limited research available. I would love to conduct more research on this topic, since I also dislike abstractions in writing — yet I am a creative writer. The signs of this challenge with abstraction include:
  • Using figurative language poorly or incorrectly, an issue associated with "undeveloped" metaphorical thinking (and second language learners)
What does this reveal about autism? More importantly for students with autism spectrum disorders, how can you pass required writing courses if you don't even understand what writing processors consider "mature" writing? Based on my experiences, most writing teachers cannot appreciate how autistics experience written language.

What's an Abstraction?

An abstraction is any thought that cannot be readily converted to a concrete metric or representation. Concepts like love and friendship are abstractions. The idea that "knowledge is socially constructed" is the biggest abstraction that I've encountered as an academic — and something I still reject as an absurd statement. How we express knowledge is a human process, but the factual basis of knowledge? That's concrete to me. This might be a "humanities" vs. "sciences" perspective. Science "discovers" knowledge, meaning it reveals and studies, but does not create facts. English professors talk of "creating" knowledge. That's an entirely different perspective, and one I don't like. It makes me physically uncomfortable.

Here's the difference, using language as an example:

(Yes, I am simplifying a complex debate for this example.)

I believe grammar is descriptive. Humans with no concept of nouns, verbs, or adjectives communicate using words or symbols that might be classified using a grammar. We happen to use the word "noun" to as a category marker: these words refer to things and concepts. Humans did not create nouns, we merely discovered the pattern and assigned words to various categories.

Many English professors believe grammar is prescriptive. That means the rules are created and then followed. I've discovered that although English professors might claim to be descriptive, they certainly grade and evaluate on a prescriptive model of language. I've had professors argue that grammar is "socially constructed" and that the dominant social powers set the rules.

Sorry, but grammar seems to be something many animals have. Vocalizations, gestures, and even scents have patterns and meanings among various organisms. Grammar seems to be something "wired" into the brain. We speak and write long before we can diagram sentences. (Most of us with English degrees can't diagram sentences without some effort.)

So, I believe facts exist to be discovered. How we interpret those fact or try to understand them is cultural, but the facts are the facts. Technology is science applied, so it can create new "things" for our lives. But, technology is constrained. Life is constrained by the facts around us. You don't get to create your own facts. That's why I tend to understand people from science, technology, engineering, and math.

Curiously, some of the best artists I know are employed in STEM fields. They have little difficulty appreciating music, painting, sculpture, or other art forms. Most love reading. Yet, they also hated literature and writing courses. Since many (but not all) autistics favor STEM disciplines, could this explain why the traits of autism and requirements of English composition courses conflict?

As readers know, I have two English degrees (bachelor's and master's) and a doctorate in rhetoric — but I struggle with the language and culture of English departments. These struggles represent how different English departments are, even if English professors don't always appreciate how different they are from some disciplines (and students). Abstraction and relativism are part of English department cultures. So are buzzwords and political correctness in ways that don't make sense to some autistics. (This doesn't mean the autistics might not align politically with their professors — there are language barriers.)

People ask me if I "love" my wife. I answer yes, and I assume that is the right answer. I like being with her and we have a lot in common. I believe she's special. But what is "love" and how can it be explained? I have no idea. I certainly don't get the type of "love" in most books. "I'd rather die than be without you!" strikes me as astoundingly stupid.

From my dissertation:
Recall that students with ASDs approach language as a series of patterns to be mastered (Tantam, 1991). Students with ASDs view the language they read as detached from the emotions of the writer (Attwood, 1998; Happé, 1991). Individuals with ASDs who are interested in language are likely to be grammatical and style perfectionists, able to identify even the most obscure errors. They are also likely to be tediously slow readers, having to translate any colloquial language into concrete ideas (Attwood, 1998; Grandin, 2006; Harpur et al., 2004).
The students (and former students) with ASDs I have interviewed tell strikingly similar stories about their writing course experiences. Generally, the experiences were horrible. For more than a few autistic students, college composition or other required English courses (writing or literature) were their last college courses — barriers they could not pass. Imagine being a math or science star, with a genius-level IQ overall, and failing out of college because you struggle with the language used in English courses. You might even be gifted with languages, and yet fail to master the English class.

Let's compare the research to my experiences as a student, which parallels that of the autistics I've interviewed. I'll use the points found in my dissertation research:

1) Language as a series of patterns.
2) Language detached from the author.
3) Grammar and mechanics perfectionism.
4) Reading as a translation process.

Abstraction is a barrier to success because of the four items listed, and probably for many additional reasons.

1) Language as a series of patterns. This is why many autistics, including me, love to learn new languages. It is also why I happen to like computer programming languages, musical composition, and other pattern-based forms of communication. Abstractions often break the patterns, jarring my efforts to follow sentences or paragraphs.

2) Language detached from the author. Abstractions seem to make more sense if you can connect the words to a person. When I read, though, I have to focus on the words. Some autistics do respond emotionally to written works, but I don't and many others do not. I cannot explain it, since I am a creative writer, but words on a page do not "move me" emotionally. Words on a page are just dots of ink or pixels representing letters. That's an appalling proposition for English teachers.

The questions I hated most as a student dealt with abstractions of emotion. "How does Sally feel when she writes that she loves the wilted flowers on her table? What do the flowers represent?" I have to assume she likes the flowers and that's what she feels — because that's what the author wrote. I have no idea what the flowers represent. For a question such as that, I'll need to spend hours tracing the flowers backwards. Other people seem to do this instinctively. "Sally was given the flowers by Walter. They must remind her of him, which is how wilting flowers can trigger a good memory." Really? Seriously? They are flowers. They aren't Walter.

Now, I have things in life that matter to me for "sentimental reasons." Only one is related to a person, though. My wedding ring. Not much abstraction there. It's called a wedding ring. It reminds me of my wife. If I have wilted flowers in the house, they are going into the trash.

3) Grammar and mechanics perfectionism. Underneath patterns are rules, stated or not. As I mentioned above, I follow words by anticipating patterns. You break the pattern, you've shattered my reading experience. For English professors, that's literature at its best. For me, it is simply annoying. Follow the rules, please. If you don't want to follow the rules, fine, but don't expect me to read what you write. Don't even try to demand it of me — I'll quit because violating the rules upsets me that much.

A fair amount of abstract writing is "literary" — which isn't going to appeal to me, anyway.

4) Reading as a translation process. I read at a painfully slow pace. Yes, painful is a literal word for me. Reading some fiction or literary works causes horrible headaches. I don't want to be impressed with how obtuse a message can be. When I read, I keep a list of words and phrases to look up later. If my computer happens to be on, I'll use its dictionary and various websites to translate the words.

If I don't have a way to translate the figurative language in a text or some abstract concepts, then I'm skipping and jumping about the paragraphs. It's a lousy way to read.

What about Autistic Writers?

There is limited research on autistic writers. Again, I hope to continue some research in that area, if I find employment at a university again. However, we do know from analyses of "autistic poetry" that the writers tend to use figurative language as other students might use large words from a thesaurus. The figurative is "unnatural" for the autistic, substituted somewhat rigidly for ideas.

If I know that "roses" mean "love" then I can "mimic" the use of figurative language. It isn't a metaphor that simply "comes to me" without conscious thought, though. I have to make an effort to recognize a teacher wants a metaphor. Then, I have to search for a good metaphor. I've memorized a great deal of figurative language. That's how I used to write mediocre poetry: insert metaphor here, add simile, end with hyperbole. For poetry, I stuck to patterns I observed among other writers.

I encourage teachers to read:

Osteen, Mark. Autism and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2007.

In particular, read the following:

  • Chapter 4: "Autism and Modernism A Genealogical Exploration," by Patrick McDonagh
  • Chapter 5: "Autism and the Imagination," by Bruce Mills
  • Chapter 6: "Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets," by Ilona Roth

Instead of calling autistic students "immature thinkers" or insulting their approach to knowledge as somehow inferior, I hope more writing teachers can come to appreciate that autistics do think differently, especially about words on the page or screen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sex, Love, and Autism

Question: You and your wife seem to have a good relationship. I worry that my child isn't going to find love, since he struggles with friendships. He's an Aspie, and says he wants to have a girlfriend. What should I tell him? I don't worry about sex, since he doesn't date, but maybe he will. Any thoughts?

I am not the best person to answer questions about relationships. I don't know what "normal" is for anyone, autistic or not.

I've had brief discussions about this with some of the more well-known autistic adults. Some have said they simply don't think about relationships. They have friends, but they don't really think about connections. If you don't have a desire for friends, I cannot imagine you have a desire for love. Others, however, have indicated they really, really long for a romantic connection. Then, I've met autistics who are hypersexual, but they don't seem to realize that sex isn't love or even friendship.

My first bit of advice: meet people by doing things with small groups. That seems to be how I've met most people who might consider me a friend. Join clubs and organizations that value knowledge and special skills, more than they value charm — though "charm" always matters.

In high school, my wife was involved in math club, science club, and similar groups. I was involved in science, newspaper, and yearbook. Today, I'm active in a local theater group, a programming group, and some other organizations. For both of us, a group with a purpose is better than a group focused on drinking and socializing.

You'll never find my wife or me "clubbing" for fun.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: We attended the same junior high and high school. We were both honors students, not athletic, and not student government types. We were science geeks, and still are.

College was more social than high school. I believe that's because I was surrounded by other honors students. My wife, who attended a different university, was also surrounded by smart people interested in science and technology.

I hosted parties in my apartment, but I liked to stay behind the counter and serve the food and drinks. I still love baking cookies — which were a popular part of some gatherings. Movie nights, hosted by a roommate, were also popular. Parties allowed me to socialize, without being social. I can't say the parties led to any friendships or connections, since the guests tended to be the other honors students I already knew.

(Tangent: As a store owner and manager, I also liked hosting events. Again, I didn't need to do anything. Book a band, hang some artwork, or whatever. The events weren't about me — people came for other reasons. My networking skills are minimal; it is best if I socialize for a "reason" like an art event, live music, or a book signing.)

Q: When did you start dating your wife?

It was after college, in the early 1990s. Our dates, or what I can recall of them, involved a few movies and dinners. Mainly, though, we did free things, like walking in parks and going to the beach. Free was all I could afford.

Q: When did you get serious?

We moved in together. That was pretty serious. It was a nice apartment, except for some ants. We moved to "less nice" place to adopt Fido, our first cat. Fido was living with my parents, but he didn't get along well with the other pets.

Q: What about physically serious?

Beyond "that's personal" — the truth is that we're not as "affectionate" as some couples. We don't often walk holding hands, and we don't "cuddle" much. We both like our space. At night, I sit in my chair and she sits on the sofa with a book or project.

It isn't that we are never affectionate, but it isn't often. We would rather have a nice dinner and walk though a park. We like to be near each other, not touching.

For people with a greater need for physical intimacy, I don't have any advice. I know couples with very different physical needs. It doesn't seem to work well. I imagine that's a problem for all couples.

Q: Do you think autistics should date each other?

I don't know. Some people claim autistics understand each other better, but I think "geeks" understand each other, too. My wife doesn't mind my preference for educational television, especially History and Science. We have similar tastes. That seems important to me.

But, my wife and I are also different. Maybe just different enough.

I doubt this post answers much of anything…

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Job Search Blues

Note: I wanted to leave this post as it was, with some additional thoughts as an intro.

Some of my friends are unemployed, a few are underemployed, and most have struggled through the economic cycles of our lifetimes. I have friends with doctorates, living with family and working retail jobs. It is easy to get depressed when you look around and see so many gifted people wondering if they can survive.

I don't know what is ahead for me, but I'm never giving up — I will write, and write, and write some more. I am a writer. Whatever else I must do to survive, that's okay. I've told my own students that life should be about what you love. I love writing, and I love teaching about writing.

Follow your dreams, but be prepared for the struggles along the way.

Original Post:

I am tired, physically and emotionally drained, from this "go-round" on the job market. I keep arriving at the starting point… I'm a writer, trying to earn enough to live on so I can do what I want: write.

Do I need to use my computer skills to earn a little money? That's okay. Teach at a university? Definitely okay. But, right now I'm wondering if I'll end up stocking pet supplies at PetSmart overnights.

This is not the situation I envisioned when I entered graduate school in 2004. Without a job offer for the 2013-14 school year, I'll have to so something. What? An unemployed Ph.D. isn't an easy pitch to the local retailers. I've applied to the two nearby bookstore chains, an office supply store searching for computer techs, and a nearby newspaper. I've applied to be a school district computer tech.

I have had interviews with nearby universities. Some still haven't made hiring decisions, but I'm concerned. It's hard not to be worried. One has indicated I might be able to adjunct. That's not a bad idea. I'd like to teach part-time and write the rest of the time.

During the summer, if I don't have a contract, I'm going to contact every college and university within 100 miles about adjunct posts. I'm a good teacher (according to my reviews and student evaluations), but there seems to be a glut of good teachers for a handful of positions. A nearby college just sent me a nice note that they had more than 150 applicants for one opening.

The odds are 150-to-1 for that post. Another post had several hundred applicants. Yes, several hundred! It is hard to fathom.

Maybe my plays will be big hits in Pittsburgh and my career as a writer will take off — leading straight to New York or Hollywood. I can dream.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Autism and Working from Home

This semester, I've been working from home on research and projects. That means no driving to campus, no teaching, and no interacting with colleagues on a daily basis. I still respond to email, and I send a few notes, but most of my time is spent alone in my comfy recliner with my MacBook Pro and the television tuned to CNBC or one of the educational channels.

I like this arrangement. Working at home is ideal — something I'd love to do permanently. As a writer, that would be pretty great.

Though I enjoy teaching, my wife and I both notice that I'm doing much better without having to navigate the workplace. I might miss the classroom, but at the moment I'm not missing anything else about the workplace.

My wife also telecommutes. We're both introverts. People exhaust us. I'm positive we're both more productive at home.

I work well alone. Give me a task, leave me alone, and I can (sometimes) focus better than in an office. There are distractions (cats), but I work more hours at home. I can spend ten hours on projects, with the hours split into any blocks I need.

There are days when I need to start later. There are days when I need to take a walk or go skating. If I take a two hour break in the morning, it doesn't matter. As long as I work a few hours later, I'm still doing at least eight hours of work.

Is this an "autism" thing, or simply an introvert thing? I don't know. What I know is that I don't miss the constant anxiety I felt in an office. Commuting was sometimes difficult, too, but not as bad as being in the beehive.

As a playwright, I can't sit at home all the time. I do have to work with other people. But, the schedule is not 9-to-5 and the process is unlike any office work. One thing I really love about theater: it is an afternoon and evening job. Part of what I dislike about most jobs are the difficult morning hours. I really hate mornings.

I have no idea what I'll be doing in a few months, or a few years. I dream of being a full-time writer, able to set my own hours and select when I work with other people. But, financial realities mean I'll be doing something else until I manage to write the next Broadway smash.

There is also the possibility that my next workplace is a great fit for me. The relief I'm feeling now might not be because I'm alone, but because my cats are ideal coworkers. Especially Misty and Lucy, since they like laps.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Networking and Self-Promotion… Being an Artist

Saturday night, my wife and I attended the "B.U.S. 8" (Bricolage Urban Scrawl) fundraiser at Pittsburgh's New Hazlett Theater. The event supports the Bricolage Production Company's theater season. The theater, and its lobby, were packed with people. That's never easy for me, but this was something I had to do — pure self-interest as an artist.

Why in the world would someone so sensitive to the stimulation that is a city go into Pittsburgh? I find Pittsburgh to be worse for my mind and body than Minneapolis. The streets are confusing and narrow; driving into the city is exhausting. Once in the city, it is one of the worst maintained places I've been. Though Pittsburgh is often listed as one of the most "livable" cities, I assume such reviews are based on the suburbs and higher-end neighborhoods. There are some beautiful spaces and great little communities within the larger city. It's just the city is… a mess.

The city is also home to a thriving performing arts community. A list of theaters on the Carnegie website is overwhelming.


Since I am a writer, a proud dramatist (playwright), I need to network and know the local community. Artistic directors, producers, and the others involved in deciding which works appear on stage are more likely to consider the works of a playwright considered easy to work with and willing to promote events. It is important to me that the local arts community know that I will do whatever I can as a writer and artist.

For a "normal" person, the theater lobby was overwhelming. It was packed, much like the "bus rides" meant to inspire the night's plays. The space was, surprisingly, too small for a small theater company. That's a very exciting problem to have: too many supporters. (Yeah!) But, it also meant that I had to step outside several times to catch my breath and refocus. I was shaking badly, my ears were ringing, and my eyes hurt for some reason. Reading the program was difficult.

My right arm tremors when I'm tired. I worried that I might unintentionally slap a generous patron of the arts. That would have been a bad thing. You don't strike the patrons. I was also sweating badly, from the all-over pain I was experiencing. I worried that I might smell… like a city bus.

But, with the help of my wife, I managed to mingle a little, speak to some of the VIPs, and did okay, overall.

I even managed to stand and wave to the audience when I was introduced as a playwright. That was pretty cool.

One of my plays, The Gospel Singer (or, Religion is a Drag), was selected for Bricolage's "In the Raw" play festival. The dramaturg working with me said Bricolage received more than 80 script submissions; only three new works were selected. A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, and A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, are the classic plays to be featured during the festival. There's something a bit intimidating about having one of your plays listed alongside two of the greatest works in American theatrical history. (Tangent: The 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun is even better than the more famous Streetcar adaptation. Watch it.)

The Gospel Singer will be performed "In the Raw" on May 19 and 20, at the Bricolage Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. The price of admission is whatever you will generously contribute to Bricolage. If you'd like to learn more about "In the Raw" (including The Gospel Singer), visit:


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Random Update and On Malls without People

When I'm a bit tired and stressed, I like to walk around (some) of the local malls. People have asked how I can like malls when I don't like crowded spaces. Well… some malls are "alive" and some are "dead" inside.

Readers know that I do a lot — I have to keep my mind occupied. However, I also get overwhelmed and need a break when I'm tired. I was really tired yesterday.

My wife and I have been painting our house. We signed the closing papers one year ago, April 13, 2012. What I most remember is that our Mimi was in poor health. She passed away three weeks later. Today, we were painting the "kids' room" blue and I thought about how much I loved our kids. Our newest members of the family, Misty and Lucy, were unhappy with the closed door. Lucy managed to chew the corner of a paint drop cloth, tugging at it with her claws under the door.

Tangent: Misty Kitty is sitting with me as I type tonight, and Lucy is on the top of their new cat tree. The girls love high places. I miss Jordan and Mimi, and I am glad we have two new little princesses who each adore us. I tell the girls, they deserve a pretty house.

Yesterday, we painted the front room of the house and touched up the stairwell to the second floor. I knew it would take several hours. By 4 p.m., my wife and I were both exhausted and hungry. When we finish a big day of work, we celebrate with an affordable (cheap) meal.

We drove into Boardman and ate at Golden Corral, a family buffet. We both like the food, but you can never predict the other diners. Sitting behind us were two loud high school girls. They were talking on cell phones to friends about the upcoming proms. I was already tired and sensitive. The loud girls were a bit much for my nerves. I had to sit and drink lemonade slowly, concentrating on "nothing" — it is like meditation. I try to find other sounds, so I stop hearing every word of the loudest people.

I asked my wife if we could walk around the Boardman mall before driving home. Though only 30 to 40 minutes, the drive was going to be through light rain and potentially high winds. I needed to decompress.

Walking helps me relax. Pacing around the house drives me (and my wife) crazy. I've learned that malls are great for walking. When you live in a place without snow or rain, you can walk outside most of the year. I used to walk and cycle in our hometown all year, despite the horrible heat of summer. You cannot do that in Minneapolis during the winter (which seems eight months long) and you definitely cannot sit outside in Western Pennsylvania. It rains a lot here. So, the mall becomes the "outdoors" in bad weather. You can walk, sit and write, and get something to drink.

The Boardman mall is one of those with lots of "dead" spaces. If you really want to see a dead mall, though, the Beaver Valley Mall near our house is only about half filled with retail businesses — and some of those are odd little temporary stores. The Boardman mall has a little wing without any open store. It seems to have had a restaurant or movie theater. The Beaver Valley Mall has a Sears — which is like having a dead wing.

I'll go to the Beaver Valley Mall and sit near the Sears to write. In that wing, there is a huge empty space where a restaurant was, a senior citizens center that occupies five or six former retail spaces, and a county employment office. Obviously, there aren't any shoppers wandering the vast space. I can walk to the food court (which has three empty spaces and six operating) and get a large diet cola if I need it.

In Minnesota, my favorite mall was Southdale Center, the oldest indoor mall in the United States. It has several "dead spaces" where I could sit and work. Yet, it also had an Apple Store and some of the best chain restaurants. It was like two malls: a dead mall and a thriving mall. The "Mervyn's" end was dead (the department store chain is no more) and had several nice places to sit.

Yes, I liked the Mall of America — when I wasn't tired. The trick there was to head to up to the top floors. As you go up from the first floor, the traffic decreases. By the time you wander the third floor, you are circling quiet stores and two food courts. The fourth floor is only on two of the four sides. When we lived there, most of the restaurants were empty on that floor, so you could sit in peace and work. Get hungry? Go down one floor. Want peace? Back to the fourth floor, outside the theaters.

Walking the Boardman mall with my wife, we know where the popular spots are and where the dead spots are. We know the best restrooms (Macy's and Dillard's) and the best place for a treat (Bonnie's Toppings Self-Surf Yogurt). There is a new and used bookstore and my favorite interior decor store (Kirkland's).

When the weather is nicer and our patio installed, maybe I'll sit outside to decompress and write. I'll walk around the neighborhood when it isn't raining this summer.

Malls don't have rain, snow, sub-zero temperatures, or mosquitos. Trust me, that last one is important in the Midwest summers. Some malls also don't have many people. (I know, an empty mall might not remain open, so I hope for "just enough people" for the malls to survive.) Malls do have cold drinks and restrooms — and I can pace when I need to be moving to clear my head.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Autism Acceptance Month

It is that time again. It's that time of the year when I see a spike in traffic to some old blog posts on puzzle pieces and autism awareness. It is either Autism Awareness or Autism Acceptance month, or something along those lines. I get messages asking if I'll discuss "promoting autism awareness," which seems a bit odd to me by now.

Awareness? Who isn't "aware" of autism? The media (including some celebrities) have done a great job promoting "awareness" of autism. There are plenty of news stories and events promoting the ideas of an autism "epidemic" (which implies a contagion, but that's a rhetorical debate), various possible causes, and the "suffering" of families, especially parents. I don't know how anyone cannot be aware of autism.

Acceptance? At least it sounds better than tolerance. I don't want to be "tolerated" — I want to be included and accepted for the person I am. I can support a campaign that features inclusion and acceptance.

The stories in local media discuss the costs, stresses, and possible causes of autism. These are the nightly news stories that are "teased" during my crime shows. "How one family is coping…" or "What's causing autism in Pittsburgh? More at 11." There are also the runs, walks, bake sales, and other fundraising efforts for national and local advocacy groups, often meriting a sentence or two after the "shocking story" has aired.

Don't misunderstand, I'm an advocate for anyone and everyone when it comes to educational opportunity and supports. I fully endorse more research on cognitive challenges. We do need more acceptance and understanding of autistic people — and that's much bigger than "autism" because those with an autism spectrum disorder are not a monolithic community.

I never liked "Black History Month" or "Cancer Awareness Month" or any other special month. We should always pay attention to the people around us, and the communities we might not know well. A day or a month? We need every day to be about acceptance, understanding, and inclusion.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Obama to Unveil Initiative to Map the Human Brain - NYTimes.com

I have been debating the potential for computer artificial intelligence to perform some complex tasks, such as analyzing passages of writing. One of my arguments has been that as we study the brain, we learn more about math, engineering, and programming. That's because the human brain is a type of computer.

To my way of thinking, autism is an input/output processing issue. I feel overwhelmed by sensory input. If I could "lower the volume" and "decrease the brightness" of things around me, that would reduce my stress greatly — and my headaches. But we need to know a lot more about the brain before we can address how to redirect or reprogram sensory input.

Now, we have an initiative to study the brain as never before:
Obama to Unveil Initiative to Map the Human Brain
President Obama on Tuesday will announce a broad new research initiative, starting with $100 million in 2014, to invent and refine new technologies to understand the human brain, senior administration officials said Monday.

A senior administration scientist compared the new initiative to the Human Genome Project, in that it is directed at a problem that has seemed insoluble up to now: the recording and mapping of brain circuits in action in an effort to "show how millions of brain cells interact."
Only a few years ago, nobody imagined mapping the complete human genome. A brain, with 86 billion neurons, is exponentially more complex than DNA — though DNA guides the development of the brain. Mapping the brain won't reveal all its secrets, either. At best, such a map will guide further research.

What's most exciting to me is that such a project inevitably leads to new technologies and discoveries. The sheer computing power required to map the brain will lead to new supercomputers and new programming techniques. That's exciting to any geek.
The effort will require the development of new tools not yet available to neuroscientists and, eventually, perhaps lead to progress in treating diseases like Alzheimer's and epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. It will involve both government agencies and private institutions.
Autism falls somewhere in this study, though I have no evidence that autism is of particular interest to the researchers. Still, if they are researching other neurological conditions, autism is a natural candidate for study.

Some of my research on autism and self-perception is connected to military funding. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, to find DARPA is involved in the "BRAIN" project (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies).
Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a "dream team," and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.
As I stated above, the projects will lead to new technologies. This could be our "space program" for neuroscience. Just as the space program revolutionized computing, communications, and even photography, mapping the brain is going to lead to advances in numerous fields.
New technology would need to be developed to record thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurons at once. And, Dr. Newsome said, new theoretical approaches, new mathematics and new computer science are all needed to deal with the amount of data that will be garnered.
Some people will argue that $100 million could be spent on "more important" programs. We have record levels of unemployment and poverty, these critics might remind us. Yes, but the jobs created by this research will affect the entire economy over time. Research facilities will need to be built. Computers will need to be built. The infrastructure means jobs for people. As the research continues, technical job will be created, from computer engineers to software developers.

Plus, this isn't a lot of money — at least not in the world of higher education. Stanford University has a $1 billion endowment. The $100 million is "seed money" to encourage investment and research.
While the dollar amount committed by the Obama administration does not match the level of spending on the Human Genome Project, scientists said that whatever was spent on the brain initiative would have a significant multiplier effect. The Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is contributing money, said Terrence J. Sejnowski, head of the institute's computational biology laboratory, adding that the project would have an impact across the entire University of California, San Diego, campus, where the institute is based.

"One concrete example is that the chancellor has gotten excited about this and has decided that it is a great thing to invest in," Dr. Sejnowski said. "That means hiring new faculty and creating new space."

The project grew out of an interdisciplinary meeting of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in London in September 2011. Miyoung Chun, a molecular biologist who is vice president of scientific programs at the Kavli Foundation, had organized the conference. Her foundation, she said, supports the idea that the next big scientific discoveries will come from interdisciplinary research.
Autism research will benefit from the BRAIN project. I hope Congress finds a way to fully fund this effort and I also hope private foundations contribute. The implications of mapping the brain are beyond comprehension.