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
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/opinion/sunday/why-some-teams-are-smarter-than-others.html
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
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-007-0486-x

Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism
Simon Baron-Cohen, et al
Published: September 12, 2007
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000883#pone-0000883-g006

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
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-006-0197-8

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
http://corticalchauvinism.com/2015/01/05/the-neurodiversity-movement-lack-of-trust/
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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Home for the Holidays

Sitting at home, with our cats, is where we will be this holiday season. It beats being out and about this week, as Christmas approaches. I have no desire to be among crowds of people or driving in heavy traffic. Peace and quiet are what my wife and I both want.

Books, movies, the fireplace, the cats. That's a good holiday week.

There are people who love the holidays, the lights, the sounds, the shopping, the large gatherings and parties. Not us.

A new year approaches. There's no optimism, or pessimism, only acceptance that the year will be whatever it will be. As you get older, the holidays are memories of the past and recollections of what we once dreamed the future might be. What is doesn't quite match the what we hoped would be.

What I do like about the holidays: cookies. Okay, I like cookies all the time. Still, the holidays are a reason to bake extra cookies and try new recipes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jerks are Jerks

Your disability does not give you the right to be a jerk.

This isn't going to please some advocates, but I am tired of people willing to exploit their challenges to get their way and push others around in the workplace, in school, or in public settings. Jerks exist, with and without special needs, and I am convinced that a jerk is a jerk, period, but one willing to use a challenge to gain leverage does harm to the cause of advocates and other disabled people.

I'll be the first to admit that some people will judge those of us asking for any accommodations as jerks. I've been told that it isn't fair or isn't reasonable if I ask for a trackball instead of a mouse or if I ask for an office lamp (or bring my own) so I can dim the overhead fluorescent bulbs. I get that asking for anything different leads some coworkers to feel you're getting special treatment. That's also why I believe workspaces should be flexible, so everyone can create whatever space works best for them as individuals. But, I get that asking for anything and receiving anything can be perceived as favoritism.

That's not the same as being a total, complete jerk.

Jerks don't take the time to consider others. They don't pause and ask how an accommodation might affect others. They get adamant and pushy, when patience and educating others should be the first route toward coexisting in a space.

I appreciate that many of us with special needs are tired. We're exhausted by the perception (or reality) that we must constantly ask for and defend accommodations. We get frustrated, and sometimes with good reason.

But, your new teacher, your new coworker, your new boss doesn't know the past. He or she isn't the enemy by default. How you approach people that first time matters, because it sets a lasting tone. If you are jerk, rude and demanding, it will affect the workplace, the classroom, or any other space.

I get that some people are just jerks, too. Disabled or not, they are rude and self-important. They threaten and bully their way into positions and don't care about other people enough.

When you encounter new people and new situations, step back. Make a list of what the new people might not know, but need to know. Decide how to explain your special needs. Do explain your needs, within some personal boundaries, in a simple and clear manner. Maybe show your list to a friend, family member, or support expert to get some feedback before you discuss needs in the workplace or at school.

Pausing, thinking, reflecting. These are steps towards not being a jerk.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Surviving An Overloaded Schedule

As readers know, blogging frequency varies with live events and schedules. This semester, my schedule allows little time for blogging — or even taking much needed breaks to recharge my body and mind.

The list of activities remains long, as always. I've mentioned my to-do list many times on this blog and the list never seems to shorten.

Don't misunderstand: I love teaching and the opportunity to teach extra courses enables my wife and me to pay down some debts and create a little safety net. But, an overload means no time for blogging, creative writing, gardening, or other hobbies. Forget projects I've long wanted to complete.

For any teacher, three or more hours of lecturing and office hours without a break would be exhausting. It is draining to "perform" for 90 students, 30 per class, three days a week (MWF). The classes have personalities, too, which are difficult for me to interpret and address some days. The other two days, I teach one 80-minute class, immediately after office hours.

There are other jobs equally social in nature, and as draining. I'd never want to be a doctor, going from interaction to interaction all day, every day. Sales? No thank you. I cannot imagine walking a sales floor for eight hours a day. Forget call centers or anything else social, too.

I want a break from reading people and trying to align with their communication styles.

When I am not teaching, I'm trying to prepare for teaching, while recovering from the social demands.

After this semester, I'm sure things will be easier. I'll have a much better set of lecture notes, a better schedule, and more confidence.

Forgive the low-frequency of blog posts and know that it is because life is relatively good and the job is going well.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Barriers and Space

One of my personality quirks is that I like clear delineation of "my space" in the world. I don't like fuzzy barriers between the bits of the world I occupy and the rest of (human) world.

I don't mind if my yard leads into a forest. That's great. But I do want to know where my yard ends and the neighbors' yards begin. I want lines drawn, nice and clear lines that clarify my responsibility. Admittedly, I also want others to know… "Hey, I'm not responsible for whatever you see over there!"

The same is true at work. I like my desk to be… mine. I like my desk clean, my filing cabinets organized, and my books shelves by topic and then alphabetical. Don't enter my space without asking, and definitely don't return books to be helpful — other people never seem to place them back in order!

Controlling my space, and wanting it as perfect as possible, is more than preference. It borders on a need — a desire to have a little bit of order and control, when we know control is so limited in life. My spaces are at least something I maintain, along with my equally picky (and sometimes pickier) wife.

I don't like that our house isn't done, that boxes and filing cabinets aren't organized, that we need to organize many things and never have the time to complete these tasks, but at least we are in charge of our spaces.