Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Aspie Roadmap to Workplace Victory

Kathy Ferrell has written an interesting article "Aspergians can be great employees". It gives us a pretty good model of how Aspies and NTs can work together to make working together good.

As Ms. Ferrell points out, Aspies may have interpersonal issues. But if we work to counteract them by doing things like read books on etiquette and interpersonal communication (maybe also join groups like Toastmasters) and practice what they've learned, we may behave better than many NTs. For examples, Aspies who have had to work at diplomacy generally know better than to discuss things like religion and politics in the example many NTs can learn from.

Also, Aspies who don't like to socialize don't make the mistake many NTs do of forming office friendships which can dissolve and then split their offices.

Many, many NTs also experience serious problems in the workplace due to naivete or other lack of understanding of how human dynamics really operate at work. Aspies who read and apply the lessons learned from good career books like Lona O'Connor's Top Ten Dumb Career Mistakes...And How to Avoid Them will march head and shoulders above NTs who don't.

(I highly recommend this book for everyone: the chapters I've found most helpful include Alienating Your Boss, Having a Bad Attitude and Suffering from a Rotten Image. Ms. O'Connor's practical, nuts-and-bolts presentation provides specific guidance as to what can go wrong and why - and what you can do about it. Aspies may be especially able to make good use of that kind of detail.)

The key is that we have to work at behaving acceptably in the workplace. (We can prove our interpersonal skill by successfully persuading employers of our advantages.) Once we do, employers will find we have an advantage over NTs even in the social department. With our other strengths like attention to detail and ability to master complex areas like - but certainly not limited to - computer technology and math, we can work ourselves ahead of the pack.

What do you think?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Building Bridges with the Police, the Criminal Justice System and Society

As I've observed, autistic people and Aspies are less likely to commit serious crimes, if only because we tend to be strict rule-followers. As I've also made clear, these are tendencies: some of us have such difficulties with empathy and/or judgment as to commit serious crimes. For example, at a recent meeting of the Asperger Adults of Greater Washington, we discussed a young man who so loved Volvos that he took other people's Volvos on joyrides - always from the same parking lot, and he always returned them there, always with the gas replenished. Still, it's generally considered grand theft.

More broadly, we may get into run-ins with the police even when we're not doing anything seriously wrong. For example, some people may be unnerved by our unusual mannerisms and complain to the police. Or, we may fail to grasp someone's subtle signals that s/he doesn't want to hear from us anymore - such as simply not returning our calls or emails - and instead of just telling us straight out, in so many words, s/he may figure we've "already been told," consider our continued calling or emailing to be harassment, and call the police. Or, a police officer may see us, assume by our manner that we're nervous simply because the police are around, and wonder if we're up to something like smuggling drugs or "casing" the area for a robbery.

Or, for that matter, the citizens and the police may see one essential role of the police as discouraging offensive behavior even though it's legal. It's quite likely just because the citizens want offensive behavior suppressed by any means not obviously illegal, albeit possibly (or also) out of concern that if offensive behavior is tolerated, criminals may assume that the same goes for actual crime.

In any case, once a police officer approaches one of us, there is further potential for trouble. For example, many of us, like some epileptics, have serious problems with flashing lights and will do anything possible to flee them and may freeze up if we can't flee. Some of us may have trouble speaking under the best of circumstances, let alone under such stress, and thus may "clam up" when questioned by a police officer.

We are not accustomed to using body language appropriate to our feelings, so either our body language is inconsistent with our pleas of innocence and the officer figures that actions speak louder than words, or we have learned appropriate body language but it does not come naturally to us, and the officer picks up on it and figures we're trying to hide something.

One of the most important areas of common ground we need to build is between autistic people and Aspies, and the police. We need to (1) act as much as possible in ways that will not be serious misinterpreted by citizens and the police (including recognizing, as well as we can, subtle signals from them), (2) accommodate to our own situation in order to minimize trouble should it occur, such as by carrying an autism identification card and practicing showing it to police and (3) advocate for appropriate accommodations by the police, courts and others.

Dennis Debbaudt, an NT with an autistic son, is part of the solution. He has two sites dedicated to his training practice of helping the police work better with autistic people and Aspies...and vice versa.

One example of reforms for which we can lobby: training for police in recognizing and dealing with autistic people and Aspies. This year, Illinois joined a growing number of states (Florida, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) which now require at least new police officers to receive such training. In fact, some communities in Illinois are going further than that: for example, in the wake of an incident in Wilmette in which an autistic teenager took food from a market just as if he were at home and could not respond to police questioning, police there now carry flash cards to communicate with autistic people.

We should certainly press for police to receive appropriate training in dealing with autistic people and Aspies. One example Debbaudt gives is avoiding figures of speech like "What have you got up your sleeve?" because an autistic or Aspie individual is likely to say "my arm" - and probably be perceived as a defiant smart-mouth.

Trust me, if a police officer is talking to you on an official basis, you do not want him or her to have that image of you.

We should also press for due process on all levels of the system, from the initial stop and questioning by police to detention, release on bail and consideration of the evidence in court. While obviously any individual case needs to be handled on its merits by the appropriate defense attorney, we tend to do much better the less the police, magistrates, prosecutors and judges are swayed by personal perceptions and sympathies (their own or complaining citizens') and the more they stick to the law. We tend to master the details and stick to the rules, so once we know in black and white what's expected we can walk the walk and talk the talk.

However, the more people assume that the police should have discretion to stop and question anyone who "makes them [or citizens] nervous" because the police necessarily have good instincts and good motives, or that because Mary complains about John, he must have done something wrong to her, or because many people complain about John "when there's smoke there's fire" or that because the police decided to stop and question or even arrest John that he must be guilty, the more of us are going to get into trouble. We, like any unpopular minority, need to rely on the protections of the law. Being in other people's good graces is not our strong suit, generally speaking.

But - it's not a one-way street.

For example, Debbaudt's sites include advice for us as well as for police. For example, if approached by police, we must not attempt to flee. We must also avoid any sudden movements, because the police will assume the worst - that we are reaching for a weapon or about to flee. The less cause we give police to be nervous, other things being equal the better off we will be.

We, like all other citizens, have rights, and those rights have sprung in large part from the experiences of other unpopular minorities in the past. We must not be inhibited from exercising those rights even if we need them disproportionately. After all, people with unusual political views or religious beliefs should not be inhibited from exercising their rights even though they will need them much more often than those with much more conventional mindsets. We do, as a society, believe in large part - even if we haven't always honored our own credo in practice - that we must protect the rights of the unpopular and the nonconformist if we are to protect the rights of anyone.

But we also have an obligation to the larger society to make our exercise of our rights less burdensome whenever possible. We must also recognize, and limit as much as possible, certain traits of ours that give others good cause to be apprehensive even when we mean no harm, not to mention those which, if unchecked, could indeed cause harm.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Snap Out of It!": The Savage Corollary

Great insta-cure for depression, isn't it?

Seems to work just as well for autism, at least according to radio host Michael Savage, who claimed that "99%" of autism cases were a matter of overly lenient parenting and said that autistic kids need to be told “Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.” (He later said that the 99% figure was an exaggeration for effect.)

The insurance giant AFLAC has announced that it will no longer sponsor Savage's program. Other advertisers may follow suit.

Let's start with the grains of truth. Since there are professionals dedicated to working with and treating autistic children and adults (there really is, at least presently, no cure for autism), there are people with an interest in expanding their clientele. Very few of them, to be sure, would knowingly give a false diagnosis to a child. But we all know about biased judgment and shifting perceptions and hammers and nails.

The same has been true of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I was one of those children diagnosed as "hyperactive" and given "school medicine" - Ritalin. Unfortunately, it didn't help. No doubt the doctor who prescribed it had only the best of intentions - we need to help ADHD children adjust to school as quickly and completely as possible, and we want to avoid neglecting any ADHD child. So, I got the diagnosis and the medicine. My parents and teachers got the false hope.

So, let's admit from the start that we need to guard against mistaken false positives.

Autism, and particularly AS, are difficult to diagnose conclusively. My own diagnosis was based on my work and relationship history (very many and very few entries, respectively) and my own knowledge of AS. There was no brain scan, blood test or any physical test - any more than for, say, clinical depression (which I have also suffered, though I have been symptom-free for a decade and a half now).

Savage seems to be concerned that some of us may be acting up and using it as an excuse. Fine: let's make sure diagnoses are as accurate as possible and give those diagnosed a definite treatment and adjustment program. Accommodations are necessary, but they cannot be excuses for misconduct and they may be tied to restrictions in privileges.

For example, if we believe that a given autistic or Aspie child would find it too difficult to behave well on an overnight trip (perhaps especially if it includes both sexes), we can, for example, give him strict monitoring and rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad behavior. Or we can simply exclude him from such trips until he can learn appropriate behavior - and make sure he knows what's going on and why.

Let's keep in mind, by the way, that we are quite often victims, not (or not only) perpetrators. We are bullied, insulted, assaulted, slandered, stolen from, etc - and not just by fellow students, either. That definitely happened to me until my early years in high school. (I might add that it stopped only after a couple of fights on my part, one of which left my unlucky opponent hospitalized.)

Even many of the misdeeds we're accused of, such as disorderly conduct, harassment or stalking, may be matters of ignorance of social norms or subtle signals, or lack of judgment, rather than intent to do harm. We certainly need to be taught firmly what to do and not do in various situations, but taught the facts on what is accepted and how to read various situations, not "taught" manners as if all we need is motivation to do good.

We (perhaps especially Aspies, since we are more functional and tend to go out more without close supervision) tend to attract disproportionate disapproval because our issues are out in the open. We're tactless and blunt to the point of rudeness. We find it difficult to tell what someone else wants in a given situation, so we act in ways that others perceive as either selfish or condescending. We tend to bore and annoy people by talking on and on about our own special interests. We stare at and follow people around, understandably causing upset and even fear.

On the other hand, let's keep in mind that we tend to very strictly follow the rules. That can be annoying at times for those who work with us and just want to get the job done (though many jobs focus on following regulations). But you can be sure that we are less likely to engage in serious crimes or do things like cheat on our mates.

Sociopaths, who freely hurt or even kill people with no regrets whatsoever, tend to have very good PR as individuals. They are very difficult to detect precisely because they have the interpersonal fine-tuning, self-control and lack of conscience needed to present a very pleasing exterior. Specifically, they can be very charming, they are manipulative and they lie as easily as they tell the truth - whichever serves their purposes at the moment. (Ironically, misinformed people, irritated at our aberrant behaviors, may confuse us with sociopaths. Many of us do have some difficulty empathizing with others, but sociopaths by definition have no empathy, and hence no love, remorse, guilt, etc.) I respectfully suggest that almost anyone would rather have a classroom full of Aspies on her block or in her workplace than one sociopath.

I respectfully suggest that talking to autistic children and Aspies - or even NTs - in the manner Mr. Savage suggests is a form of bullying. Maybe that's how things are done in the military, but the family home and the school are not Parris Island. I can tell you that if that kind of talk worked, I would have been perfectly adjusted by the time I entered high school. Parents and teachers certainly get frustrated sometimes, perhaps especially by autistic kids and Aspies, but verbal abuse is unacceptable.

I'm sure Mr. Savage wanted to just stir up a little discussion. He just has a little difficulty empathizing with us and our families and other loved ones. Maybe he could also use a little training in how to communicate his concerns so he can please people, not annoy them.

Heck, he could be a repressed Aspie himself....:-)/2

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Asperger Syndrome and Leadership

Robin of Bent Society recently asked an interesting question: Does British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have Asperger Syndrome, and if so should that disqualify him as a leader?

I don't have any opinion of him as a politician or a person. When I was in London last fall, I read some articles accusing him of being indecisive, but if even if that's the case it's not a basic feature of AS.

Let's be clear: Aspies do have some hurdles to deal with in regard to working with people, much less leading them. Aspies are not sociopaths, who cannot empathize with others, and thus cannot feel shame, guilt, love, remorse or similar emotions. Aspies do have difficulty empathizing with people, especially if we have never been in the other persons' shoes. For example, a young Aspie may find it especially hard to empathize with older people. (On the other hand, many Aspies, including myself, have tended to seek out older people as friends from an early age. I like to tell my wife that when I was 18, I wanted to marry a 26-year-old. It took me some 17 years but I finally did it.)

Aspies need to make special efforts to communicate the empathy we do feel. Partly that's because we tend to speak and write very logically, even pedantically. (You might find that I'm one of them.) So when we talk, we seem very dry and detached, and then it's hard for others to want to follow us. Thus, we need to try more to talk and write like neurotypicals, or NTs, do.

Aspies need to use our special eye (and ear) for detail to pick up on NTs' communication habits, such as body language, posture, tone of voice, connotations things like that. For example, it helps to know that when someone has his arms crossed across his chest and is standing back from you frowning, he's probably much less receptive than someone whose arms are open and who is standing close to you smiling.

We also need to understand tact: how to decode it from NTs and how to encode it for them. (In fact, tact helps to a smaller extent even with other Aspies, though Aspies and NTs alike need to be more straightforward when talking to Aspies.) For example, instead of saying "You fouled up this project" - even if that's the case - often (not always, but often) it's best to start with "This project did not receive the attention it needed, and as a result we had more defects than we should have had."

If we can do those things, I believe we Aspies can be leaders. We may even some advantages in that case; besides the detail orientation I mentioned, Aspies often have a great deal of difficulty lying. Aspies as a group may therefore have more credibility. (For example, one of my friends has told me that the one quality of mine which comes across the most is my sincerity.)

I've been a Toastmaster since June 2007. Since then I've learned a great deal about communicating with and leading others. I've since won multiple speech contests and earned the Competent Communicator award, and now I'm an Assistant Governor of an area of four clubs and Education Chair of a division of four areas.

To be sure: I've been lucky. Since my club was very new, our District Governor and Area Governor both visited frequently, and noticed me. They mentored me and gave me strong advice. Not always advice that I wanted or even expected to hear, mind you. But strong advice and guidance. I also got to meet our Assistant Division Governor (now Division Governor), who also belongs to our club, and I've met many other leaders at Toastmasters events.

And I'm not the only one. Lisa Bishop, another Aspie, is a Toastmaster. She's about to become a Competent Communicator herself, and meanwhile she's already Vice President for Public Relations for two clubs. She says Toastmasters gave her the courage to go back to school, where she has since earned her Bachelor's in Mental Health and Human Services. She also said that her relationships with her husband and children have improved, and she's become more assertive at work. Lisa Bishop is a true success story.

So, can we do it? Can we use our distinctive strengths, plus a good deal of hard work and practice, to leap our distinctive hurdles and be good communicators and leaders?

Yes we can!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Where I'm Coming From


I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) just over a year ago, in May 2007. That makes me an "Aspie". AS is in the autism spectrum, meaning that it's not as severe as full-blown autism but has many of its characteristics. Aspies may also be said to have "high-functioning" autism, which means they can often live on their own, go to school, handle money and pay bills, drive cars and possibly even maintain relationships and hold jobs.

You don't have to be officially diagnosed to call yourself an Aspie, as long as you think you may have it. However, I believe getting an official diagnosis (dx) really helps in many ways.

I'm happily married; that in itself makes me more fortunate than many Aspies (especially men, who are believed to comprise the great majority of Aspies). My wife does not have AS; as a non-Aspie she is a neurotypical, or NT.

I met her when I was 29 1/2, and at the time I had never had a girlfriend. My total number of dates could have been roughly counted on my fingers. Aspies (again, especially men) tend not to marry early, or even at all.

Aspies also tend to have few friends. Even granting the fact that I define "friend" much more narrowly than I believe the average American does, my friends can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I made my first real friend - who was also my very first date - in my second year of college. (Also, after my first semester of college, I never had a roommate.)

Aspies also tend to be unemployed or underemployed. According to one estimate, looking only at those Aspies who do have jobs, maybe 2% (that's right, 1 out of 50) work in those fields related to what they studied in school. I'm no exception to that rule; the great majority of my jobs have not required even a college degree, even though I first attended American University and then earned my BA in Government from Cornell University and my MA and PhD in Economics from George Mason University (where, incidentally, I met my wife).

There are reasons for these things. While full-blown autists may never want to socialize, Aspies often would love to be with people but have no idea how to go about it. We Aspies have great difficulty establishing personal relationships and working and living close to others.

Aspies also have distinctive strengths, including the ability to focus, step back emotionally from tough situations and pay close attention to detail.

Let's understand some more about what Aspies do and what makes them tick, compared to NTs...and vice versa. Hopefully, we'll all be able to love, work, live and play together better!