Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Moving Ahead, Staying Sane

Companies, non-profits, and educational institutions should hire me as a consultant (or others with expertise in accommodations and supports for cognitive difference) because too many organizations do not know how to hire, support, and develop talented people with personality traits outside the accepted norms.

Readers of this blog know that my experiences in the "tolerant" world of academia demonstrate that "tolerance" is not acceptance or support. I don't want to be "tolerated" (you tolerate bad weather, you tolerate an annoying relative). People with cognitive difference want to be appreciated, listened to, and supported.

This post uses the first-person "I" but it likely represents the "we" of many people with differences society hasn't embraced.

I'm not going to settle for being tolerated. No thank you. Like many advocates, I do not want your pity or your tolerance. I want to be an equal, not a token.

Moving on from a difficult situation seems to be a recurring theme in the lives of many people. For autistics, moving on isn't always a choice so much as the result of being nudged and pushed out of workplaces and organizations.

In late March, I learned that my employment would be reduced from full-time status to part-time for the 2015-16 academic year. Technically, I was a temporary visiting professor this school year following a retirement and a resignation — someone had to cover the courses on short notice and I was available. I did interview for the 2015-16 post, but another applicant was selected and life goes on.

Did my autistic traits contribute to the decision of the hiring committee? I believe they did.

The interview process was a complete puzzle to me, and I considered several aspects unfavorable to my nature. I knew following the interviews (one-on-one and group), if not before, that the odds were against being offered a contract extension.

Hiring has little to do with job skills. Hiring is about cultural fit and some, generally pointless, "behavioral" interview techniques. Plenty of research exists to demonstrate that silly pseudo-psychology exercises seldom result in better hiring.

Word association games? I'm sorry, but what a waste of my time. And I'm sure the professor (not a psychologist) was relying on some text he read to determine what a "good" candidate should answer. Whatever. How about asking me how I teach my courses?

Telling me how great your students are and asking me what makes them special? Get over yourself. I'm not going to tell you why "you" (a graduate of the university) are great, by way of praising the student body. And did you need to insult state universities? My wife and I attended respected state universities, unless you somehow imagine the University of California system and the University of Minnesota are not great research universities? Yes, I also did attend a California State University, in a program that featured nationally and internationally respected poets, essayists, and novelists.

Don't tell me how important you could have been. You sound petty and bitter. Don't tell me how much money you could have earned. Don't whine to me about how much you gave up because you work for the university. If you don't like it, LEAVE. Leave now and make the university a better place.

If these are more "behavioral tests" to see how I reacted, they are dumb. Do not lie about what you think of a workplace. However, since I have heard some of the committee make similar comments in other circumstances, I assume you were being honest. You hate a lot about your jobs, but are proud of where you teach. Status is everything to at least some of the interview committee, or they wouldn't have mentioned rankings and money and famous people they know.

Telling me how much you dislike the university where we work? Stupid. Just plain stupid. How can I respond to that, before or after the interview?

Scheduling my interview for mornings, when I told the committee I was having motor control issues? Whatever. I gave up and accepted a morning interview, knowing I would be in severe pain and have to "fake" my way through the formal process. I threw up afterwards, from the pain. Thank you for listening closely to my needs.

Don't ask me if I'm up to a job I have been doing for much of a school year. Obviously, I am up to it — despite any physical discomfort or limitations. You are crossing a line with this question, and you should know that it isn't a proper question.

Don't tell me that I need to be flexible. You think I don't know that good workers need some flexibility? Telling someone with cognitive differences to be flexible is inherently insulting. After explaining my need for routines, you then insult what is a neurological difference? Thank you for (not) listening to what I tried to teach you.

Don't ask for copies of my research, which is auto-ethnographic and addresses cognitive and physical challenges, and then say you didn't realize I had special needs. Seriously, if you read even the introductions of the two papers, you knew my physical and cognitive limitations. If you didn't read my papers, then I'm even more disgusted by the hiring process.

There's more, but readers will get the idea. It wasn't a good process.

And yet, I love the university and its students. It was the first place in many years where I felt like I belonged. The students are wonderful. Most of the academic programs are outstanding. I love the campus, however weird it can be and hard to navigate for someone with mobility issues. It is a special place, overall, and most of the people with whom I've interacted have been professional and supportive.

But, the interview process was horrible.

Not accepting the part-time offer for next year was easy. I tell my students, if the people interviewing you don't like their jobs, don't seem interested in you, and have negative answers to your questions, don't accept a job offer. Walk away.

Did I want the job, even after the horrible interview? Sort of. I wasn't sure I would accept, if an offer to renew was made, but I also know I'm going to miss teaching the courses I designed.

Disclosure didn't help. Asking some colleagues for help didn't work. I should have contacted human resources and disability services early in the semester; I didn't because I was sure that doing so would be viewed as putting the interview committee in difficult position. Getting HR involved in my situation earlier would have been awkward, certainly.

And so, I am moving on. Maybe I'll never have a tenure-track or full-time teaching job again. Time to move forward by moving back to writing at home for a time.

Yes, writing this blog post violates basic advice I would give my own students and other people with special needs: never talk ill of an employer or coworkers. But you know what? The system is broken. It needs to change. People need to change.

I'm tired of having to pretend to be someone I'm not and I'm tired of stupid "tests" in workplaces. If I have to be anything and anyone other than myself to succeed in a workplace, that isn't the right place for me.

When an organization does more than tolerate difference, it benefits a much larger community.

So, if you want to be part of a better organization, listen to self-advocates and experts. Hire us to help you become better employers. Listen to us.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Autism Awareness Month... Blah

April compels me to offer my standard reaction to "Autism Awareness [Day, Month]" and a short thought or two.

Reaction: Blah.

Thought: Great. We get to endure a month of "inspirational" stories on families raising autistic children, a few successful autistics will be profiled, and then people can congratulate themselves for believing that acceptance (whatever that means) is sufficient.

Feel free to read posts from past Aprils. I'm sure my opinion hasn't changed much.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Career Anxiety

It is that time of the year when I check the job market with the goal of being employed after the school year ends. The anxiety is accompanied by the self-recrimination for not obtaining a STEM degree to qualify for the jobs I know I could do, including teach in those fields.

The disappoint in myself never fades, though it should. I'm a success, by many measures, with a great wife, good (feline) kids, and a nice house. But, I always know I could do more, and could have done more, with my skills.

I lacked discipline, I suppose, along with people skills.

Given a chance, I am going to fix things… somehow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Research Project

Research participants needed! A graduate student at UMass Amherst is interested in your experiences regarding your education, employment, hobbies, and interests. Your input is very valuable and will help the researcher gain information about daily life of adults with Autism. To participate in this confidential survey, we ask that you are over 18 and diagnosed with Autism, or Social Communication Disorder. This survey will take no more than 10 minutes and can be found at http://bit.ly/MoroneySurvey. Your response is confidential and will be used only for research purposes. Participants will not be paid for participating.

For more information, please contact Katharine Moroney at kmoroney@umass.edu.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Autism and Workplace Teams

As is often the case, I write a blog on a topic I'm not currently exploring in my research… only to discover that I'm about to delve into the depths of that exact topic for an academic article or presentation.

Only a few weeks ago, I confessed that I had not maintained an active awareness of research on cognitive empathy and business communications. Much business scholarship on empathy studies "normal" (statistically representative and generalizable) groups. Seldom do I stumble upon detailed discussion of autistic traits in the workplace and the challenges those present. Those discussions more frequently appear in psychology journals or publications with a narrow focus on autism.

Having acknowledged my lack of awareness, being steeped in the rhetoric of economics for a potential book project, today I stumbled right back into autism while preparing for an academic presentation. 

My Carnegie Mellon University colleague Anita Woolley, along withThomas W. Malone (MIT) and Christopher Chabris (Union College), has been studying cognitive empathy and ToM, publishing excellent scholarship that directly addresses how autistic traits negatively affect collaborative teams. 

Recently, Woolley and her collaborators published a paper revealing that successful online teams reflect the same high levels of cognitive empathy and ToM awareness that face-to-face teams demonstrate. For an autistic worker, this could explain workplace experiences and identifies a challenge we must address, somehow. 
Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others
In a new study that we published with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we replicated these earlier findings, but with a twist. We randomly assigned each of 68 teams to complete our collective intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.
And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.
*** This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as "Theory of Mind," to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe. *** 
A new science of effective teamwork is vital not only because teams do so many important things in society, but also because so many teams operate over long
periods of time, confronting an ever-widening array of tasks and problems that may be much different from the ones they were initially convened to solve. General intelligence, whether in individuals or teams, is especially crucial for explaining who will do best in novel situations or ones that require learning and adaptation to changing circumstances. We hope that understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively. 
Findings that explain why autistics struggle in collaborative environments help us defend the need for research on ways to address these challenges. Until we prove there is a problem, we cannot research how to address that problem. That's the nature of academic research. Now, thanks to Woolley and her collaborators, we can bridge the Theory of Mind research among autism scholars with the research of business communication scholars. If organizational behavior research indicates success at work correlates to ToM and cognitive empathy, I see openings for research proposals that seek ways to mitigate the effects of autistic impairments in the workplace. 

Autism is defined by social impairments. Assuming we accept the APA DSM5 criteria and the standard assessment instruments, the same traits that reduce team effectiveness define the autistic experience. 


Forgive the non-APA citations:

Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face
David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, and Thomas W. Malone
Published: December 16, 2014. [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115212]

Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. [http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.full]
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone.
Science 29 October 2010: 330 (6004), 686-688. 
Published: 30 September 2010 [DOI:10.1126/science.1193147] 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Writing and Cognitive Empathy

Since completing my doctorate, I haven't had a compelling reason to read much about the psychology of autism.

When I read scholarly articles in psychology, they tend to be connected to economics or politics. You might imagine that economics and policy, so connected to rhetoric and persuasion, would delve into empathy with some depth, but most behavioral economics I read is macro in nature. Even psychology texts about business, including suggestions that traits of sociopathy are common in banking, don't discuss types of empathy in great detail.

Recently, though, a comment posted about writing fiction and autism led me search out scholarship on cognitive and affective empathy.

The research I located indicates cognitive empathy is impaired among study subjects with autism, and self-cognition is also impaired. Emotional, affective empathy is the same as or more entente than that of control subjects in some studies, too.

So here is the challenge with writing that I was trying to explain, in light of reading what few good peer-reviewed articles I located….

Dissociation of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Adults with Asperger Syndrome Using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET)
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
March 2008, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 464-473
Date: 08 Nov 2007

Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism
Simon Baron-Cohen, et al
Published: September 12, 2007

Who Cares? Revisiting Empathy in Asperger Syndrome
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
April 2007, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 709-715
Date: 12 Aug 2006

I do not understand the why, the motivations, behind some actions. Therefore, I have to study and analyze what people say and do. I try to find patterns, something that might help me solve the puzzle behind why one person attacks when insulted and another cries. What series of thoughts leads to different reactions to external events?

Like many people, I cannot understand why humans fail on massive scales, like not stopping various genocides throughout history. What were/are people thinking?

At the same time, when I think about situations, I get overwhelmed. I get angry watching movies. Recently, I watched the animated film Thunder and the House of Magic. It opens with his "owners" tossing a jingle ball from a car, tricking Thunder. Then, they drive away, leaving the kitten by the road. I stopped the movie twice.

How in the world could anyone abandon an animal? That's how my wife and I assembled our feline family. People are cruel and stupid, in my mind. But, what if people have "good" reasons for what brings me to emotional collapse? I just can't easily think "like" other people.

For a writer, this explains why I use interviews and research to compose fiction. I have to base characters and action on things that have been explained to me.

I might never get instinctively what motivates people, but that does not mean I lack empathy. It means I struggle with the cognitive aspects of inferring or (from my perspective) guessing what other people are thinking.

I still contend that my need to research and carefully study people does help my characterizations and overall writing.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neurodiversity... or Something

For your consideration… a blog entry I found offensive in its delivery, yet correct in some of the points the doctor wished to express.
The Neurodiversity Movement
Neurodiversity is a catastrophic movement for autistic individuals in general. It is reminiscent of the early religious accounts of Jewish people claiming the existence of a Messiah who would take them out of oppression, out of slavery, and restore their rightful life in society. Are they "The Last of the Just"? What gives them the right to carry the weight of the autistic community on their shoulders? By claiming that autism is not a pain or a handicap to some do they change medicine? Do they erase the existence of seizures, mood disorders, impaired attention, learning difficulties, or sensory abnormalities in a majority of autistic individuals?

Dr. Manuel Casanova, neurologist and the Kolb Endowed Chair in Psychiatry and Vice Chair for Research at the University of Louisville.
Readers of this blog know I don't consider myself part of the neurodiversity movement. I simply don't share their rhetorical flourishes nor their certainty that autism can be a good thing. Repeatedly, I've written that I'd be quite happy to be without some of the co-morbid conditions that might (or might not?) be linked to my autistic traits.

However… the rhetoric of Dr. Casanova is absurd, too. And I agree with some of the underlying claims he wants to advance. But, his blog is not the way to bridge divisions or lead autistic self-advocates towards reconciliation with families of the severely challenged.

I am not opposed to finding treatments for seizures, migraines, sensory sensitivity (I just ordered new, darker sun glasses), self-injurious behavior, or any number of (sometimes) autistic traits. To assume that all high-functioning individuals oppose genetic research, neurological studies, or (gasp!) therapies to address social skills, is to further another stereotype about autistics.

My wife knows, and hears me say (constantly) that I do not like much about how I experience the world, and I do not like how it affects her and others around me.

But, I also want to be respected and given a chance to prove myself as an artist, writer, technologist, and teacher. Do I struggle? Absolutely. My social skills stink, my ability to read people is impaired, and I am always searching for ways to circumvent my "executive function" issues. My academic and professional record is proof enough that I don't seem to last long in stressful situations.

We need more bridges, not rhetoric like the doctor's blog.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hours of Solitaire

Solebon Solitaire (http://www.solebon.com) has been my favorite game since buying my first HandSpring Visor, a PalmOS device. Another long-time favorite is Shanghai Mahjong Solitaire (http://www.mobileage.com/shanghai/). These games exist on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro. Simple, elegant, and quick to play when I have a few minutes, these games are the essence of "casual" gaming. Our Nintendo DS cartridge collection also includes solitaire, mahjong tiles, crosswords, word searches, and other puzzle games.

I read about children (and adults) enjoying Minecraft, HALO, Call of Duty, SecondLife, and other complex games. Personally, I don't have the patience to invest hours, days, or weeks in a game or virtual simulation. My ideal games are those that I can start and stop, or that last only a few minutes per level.

Give me solitaire games, pinball, puzzles, and simple arcade classics.

I don't want to shoot people or aliens. I don't want to memorize dozens of controls. The fewer controls, the better, and the less reliant on quick (accurate) reflexes, the better still. That's probably why I play Solebon and Shanghai frequently; there are timers and points, but I don't play for speed or high scores. Even when I play pinball, it is to study the patterns and tricks of the tables.

My favorite "arcade" games remain Tetris, Columns, Collapse, and Luxor. Pipe Dream was a great game, too. Yes, speed is involved, but these are primarily puzzles to solve. For arcade shooters, I still turn to variations of Space Invaders, including Galaga, Galaxian, Gorf, Gyruss, and similar classics. Even Asteroids (the vector-based original) is good for a few minutes.

Solitaire on Windows was probably the most brilliant thing to include with an operating system. How many of us wasted hours with the original version? Microsoft kindly added Free Cell, Spider, and Hearts later. Though I'm not a Windows user anymore, those were my go-to diversions when I had to wait for a printer or a large download to complete. Minesweeper isn't a bad little puzzle game, either.

Apple includes chess with OS X. Not that I don't enjoy chess, but it isn't exactly a quick and easy game when you have five minutes to kill. I've wondered by Apple didn't include a handful of casual games. When Freeverse, a storied Mac developer, failed, I hoped Apple would buy the rights to their classic board and puzzle games. No such luck.

I had played more than 600 hands of Klondike on my last Palm device. That's a lot of solitaire. I'm sure many of us have played thousands of hands on computers, phones, and tablets.

Do you have any favorite games? Why are those your favorites?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Signals and Teaching (and More)

Teaching is about reading, and sending, social signals. In some subjects, that's more problematic than in others. Math or science topics would probably be a good fit for my personality. But, as readers know, I took a wrong turn in my studies and ended up in the humanities.

It is one thing to love the media and arts, and I do, but another to teach in them. I enjoy subjects that aren't easily taught -- subjects without clear answers. Granted, I also love science and probably should have pursued STEM fields professionally while keeping the arts my hobbies.

Teaching business communications, I feel like a nonnative speaker. There is always room to improve, at least. I theorize that my struggles do help me teach. That belief helps me get through the semesters.

Reading my teaching evaluations, it strikes me how often students experience something quite different from what I hoped to convey. They miss the humor I imagine is obvious, or hear humor when none is intended. They confuse my being serious with anger. My attempts to reach out to some groups outside my experiences are perceived as favoritism.

Teaching is safest when I lecture. But, that's also not the most effective pedagogy for communication courses. Trying to convey the signals others take for granted, I apparently seem insincere -- even though I try to communicate what I feel.

I assume people mean what they say. Of course, we know that isn't the case, but it is my starting point. In the end, I struggle at work and in social settings because I miss signals. The words people speak and write don't tell us half the story behind the words.

There is science behind communication. Too bad that science hasn't allowed me to master teaching. Watching body language, listening to tone, and detecting what signals I can spot are conscious acts, requiring a significant amount of energy. Is someone moving towards me or away? Is the stance one of a friend or a foe? In fractions of a second, most people judge the intentions of a speaker. I take just a little longer to process the signals, and others notice.

It isn't that people know I am "offset" or "lag" by a few milliseconds. They just "feel" my conversation isn't smooth. It isn't comfortable, for whatever reason. Small delays shouldn't matter, but they do.

And, then there are the instances when I misread someone. Tone indicating sarcasm or facetious intent is missed, or I assume someone is being sarcastic when that's not the case.

I do need to work on the signals I transmit, as much as I need to work on receiving and interpreting the signals from others.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

End of Semester Random Reflections

For the last few months I haven't had much time for blogging, or even quiet reflection on life. This was an overwhelming semester, and I am surprised that I managed to function through the last 16 weeks without total collapse. Partial collapse has followed, though.

This semester was too much.

While enduring a difficult teaching experience, I worried a lot about my wife. My wife is well, but she had plenty of medical exams and tests. It is true that you worry more about loved ones than yourself.

Teaching an overload schedule, with a new course and course I was refining, meant endless hours preparing materials and grading papers, even with teaching assistants and my wife helping. The hardest part was teaching three classes back-to-back, three days a week. It takes a toll on the voice and the mind.

Yes, high school teachers manage. Universities are different, though, so I believe the work evens out. Teaching is tiring at all grade levels.

I managed a few autism-related appearances and continued to work with a local nonprofit organization. I did my best to remain active while teaching. Still, I am not as active in the disability community as others might like. Readers of this blog know that I am not a non-stop activist.

What I needed was not more involvement or engagement, but less. I needed time to recharge and relax.

When I am asked if my life is different or difficult because of my traits, I generally say life is complex, period. My coworkers are at least as busy as I am, and many have families and other obligations. My life is actually pretty routine. I teach, I grade, I write a bit, and I dream of having more time for hobbies.

No more semesters like this. I want change again, but I'm uncertain what that change should be. Ideally, more time alone to create and to learn in peace.