intelligence

Measure What Matters: Redefining Neurotypical Intelligence Standards for Autistic Individuals

I’ve written previously about how we misunderstand the intelligence of people on the autism spectrum. We evaluate their intelligence with tests and observations that measure a narrow slice of the intelligence continuum and then judge them by their ability to socialize with us.

Neurotypical vs. Autistic Culture
Neurotypical people—a term for individuals without autism coined by people with autism—living in a neurotypical world, consider our present culture and socialization methods to be “correct,” and never pause to think how woefully we socialize with autistic people based on those standards. For example, we may become flustered while conversing with an autistic person when they fail to make eye contact with us. They might just as easily perceive us as poorly socialized when we insist on staring at them during a conversation.

Neither group is wrong; we’re just different. In order to better help autistic people navigate the neurotypical world, perhaps we ought to re-shape parts of that world to conform to their differences. This is precisely what we’re doing when we build ramps for people in wheelchairs or post signs in other languages for foreign visitors.

I’ve spoken about this at length with Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson, a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences. She has done significant research on intelligence and socialization of individuals on the autism spectrum. Her conclusions reverberate with me and my experiences in the field.

Some Simple Adjustments
An autistic friend visited Dr. Fletcher-Watson for dinner and asked in advance what time she should leave. She knew that she would not be able to read the subtle cues neurotypical people understand as indicating it is time to go. Armed in advance with a time to leave, her departure avoided the awkwardness that might otherwise have ensued.

Dr. Fletcher-Watson has proposed involving autistic people in designing environments for others like them. She is also developing peer support models that match newly-diagnosed autistic adults with those who have learned how to accommodate their autism to the neurotypical world and pairing parents of autistic children with autistic adults.

Dr. Fletcher-Watson described for me how that might work: “Just imagine having an autistic guy come ’round and look in your house and say, ‘The hum from your fridge is very loud for me, so maybe you can find a way to make that quieter.’ Or, ‘These lights are very harsh.’ Or, you know, ‘This fabric feels uncomfortable.’ Articulating all of those things that maybe a child would not be able to articulate.”

Let’s Measure What Matters
Greater dedication to the real-world needs of autistic people might lead us to a different set of metrics. Maybe reading and writing aren’t nearly as important for some autistic people’s ability to function in the world as other skills and areas of learning. For example, a young man I know runs a food delivery business. He takes orders from various companies, reliably gets the orders right and makes correct change, and generally possesses the skills necessary to complete the job.

As a boy, he was removed from public school because of his behavioral issues. When his parents brought him home, they eliminated many of the sensory inputs in his home environment and were able to foster his learning and independence through different therapeutic approaches. Now, with a little support and mentoring, he has a job, a girlfriend, a roommate, and a self-determined life. Maybe he can’t check all the right the boxes on an assessment test of skills that measure standard conceptions of intelligence, but he is functioning well in the neurotypical world.

A more strategic approach to analyzing how we measure success for individuals with autism is indicated, to replace the rudimentary box-checking now in place. It must take into account real-world skills that accrue to the long-term benefit of those affected. Accomplishing this would be one small but significant step forward in their care and education.

 

You can find further reading on this and other subjects in autism services in my book, Autism Matters.

autistic individuals

The Social Intelligence of Autistic Individuals, Part 1

If a perfectly intelligent American were to find themselves catapulted into a foreign world with its own traditions, customs, culture and language, all totally unfamiliar to the person transported there, it would not be surprising for the people of this world to consider their visitor unintelligent, viewing intellect through the narrow lens of their own experiences.

Not only would our American visitor be unable to communicate verbally, but he or she also would not be particularly adept socially, unfamiliar as they would be with the cultural norms of this utterly alien place.

There is a certain analogy here with individuals along the autism spectrum. In my recent interview with Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, she noted we often evaluate intelligence via a test that measures only very specific functions that don’t play to the strengths of those on the spectrum. But how would we view people with autism differently if we employed autistic-centric criteria?

Fletcher-Watson and her team of researchers conducted experiments using a familiar tool – the game of telephone, where a story is passed orally from one person to another down a chain of people until it hardly resembles the original story. This is called a diffusion chain and the rate of degradation in the story is fairly predictable.

The researchers conducted this experiment with a group of neurotypical subjects and with a group of autistic subjects and the rate of message degradation was the same for the two groups. But something very different occurred when the neurotypical and autistic individuals were mixed. The story degraded at a much faster rate.

For autistic individuals, “the issue is not that they don’t have social skills. It’s more that there’s a mismatch between their style of sociality, and the style of the kind of neurotypical majority,” Fletcher-Watson told me.

Another issue that those with autism face is the inadequacy of average. A neurotypical person with average intelligence is simply viewed as average, just an ordinary person with friends and loved ones, weaknesses and strengths.

Because people with autism are often stigmatized as anti-social savants, those lacking the savant element are simply stigmatized as anti-social, when in fact, they have much more in common with ordinary people of average intelligence.

In fact, high-functioning, highly-verbal autistic individuals are in some ways the most debilitated. Autistic individuals who can navigate the intellectual world but come unglued in overwhelming sensory environments might score high on an IQ test but would have difficulty navigating life without support. Indeed, highly verbal adults with autism have a suicide rate eight times the average for neuro-typical adults.

When we take an asset-based approach and focus on the strengths of autistic people and their ability to function on their terms, we give them a much greater opportunity to succeed.

“I know a man who doesn’t speak. He’s in his 30s. He doesn’t read or write, but he owns his own sandwich-making business,” Fletcher-Watson told me. “Everyone buys those sandwiches from him for lunch, and he makes a good living, and obviously he has someone to help him with the paperwork.”

“But, you know… he passes his hygiene inspections because he’s very good at following rules.”

 

You can read further on this topic and more in my book, Autism MattersAnd make sure to connect with Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson for more of her expert insights and updates on her work!

 

autism

Individuals with Autism Need Love Too

One of the most persistent misconceptions about people with autism spectrum disorder is that they are automatons without emotion. This arises from the fact that autism is at its core a communication disorder. People on the spectrum often struggle to show emotion, which can give the impression that they are uncaring.

Studies have shown that people with autism can have even more capacity for feelings than neurotypical people but lack the ability to express them.

In fact, the desire to connect with others and build satisfying relationships is universal, even for those whose style of communicating is not typical.

For adults on the autism spectrum, dating and romance are fraught with challenges. Dating is a complex, abstract dance whose rules are sometimes irrational and difficult to understand. For people already facing difficulty communicating and reading social cues, it can be maddening.

In addition, some of the subtle social cues – and even some of the more overt – can elude an individual on the autism spectrum. They might not realize that it is inappropriate to pursue a romance with someone already in a relationship, or who has expressed that they are not interested, or who is in a teacher or caregiver role or is under 16. The result can be humiliating and confounding.

Movies, YouTube tutorials, and websites dedicated to dating and romance for people with disabilities like autism spectrum disorder proliferate on the Internet. Among the most searched autism-related questions on the web is about whether people with autism can get married. (Of course they can, and many do.) At UCLA, a program called PEERS teaches social interaction skills to teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Despite this, most autism services are aimed at early intervention. Very little formal treatment addresses the topic of dating and romance for people on the spectrum, even though this is an essential part of a happy life.

Because the young adults targeted by the PEER program think concretely, many of their lessons lay out step-by-step guidance for how to act in various situations, including dating. Covered topics include how to ease into conversation and establish rapport before proffering a date request, and how to smile an appropriately coy smile, rather than a toothy grin when flirting.

Many individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to touching, though this varies widely from person to person. For many neurotypical adults, it would be difficult to date someone unable or uninterested in physical displays of affection.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, let’s not forget that people with disabilities possess the same innate need for love – platonic and romantic – as the rest of us. They may just express it differently.

To read more about the challenges facing the autism services industry plus ways we can advance care and improve outcomes for these individuals, check out my book!

with autism

Public Awareness and Understanding Create Safer Environments for Individuals with Autism

Most of the intellectual, emotional, and physical energy devoted to people with autism spectrum disorders focuses on their behavior and their understanding of the world. There is another component.

Our behavior and our understanding of them.

Imagine you were just as intelligent as everyone around you but functioned differently. You lacked the ability to communicate, to read social cues, or relate to others. Imagine that commonplace noises caused you physical and emotional distress.

Now imagine that, instead of removing those noises, or allowing you to escape them; instead of treating you with compassion for your deficits and disabilities; instead of making an effort to help you communicate your needs, people ridiculed you, shunned you and forced you to endure what causes you pain.

For many people with autism, that is their daily life. In my book, Autism Matters, I tell the story of Jared, a young man tormented by schoolmates. He complained, “They said I had poor social skills, but what about the kids who were bullying me; don’t they have poor social skills?”

More than social skills, many mistakenly assume people with autism have intellectual deficiencies. Some do, just as some neurotypical people do, but many autistic people are extremely intelligent. They must contend with that stigma on top of the challenges of their condition. “I have to work 10 times as hard as you,” Jared noted, “to be taken seriously.”

There are many examples of eminent scholars who have autism spectrum disorders, the most famous of whom is Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a renowned consultant to the livestock industry. Dr. Grandin has been the subject of books and movies, but she is hardly alone among people with autism in her intellectual accomplishments.

We need to look no further than the very first person diagnosed with autism to appreciate the power of a compassionate community. Don Triplett, now 86, had the good fortune to be born into a prominent family in a small town. As autism’s Case 1, Triplett attained some notoriety and the support of the townspeople of Forest, MS, where everyone is his friend, and more importantly, his protector.

Others of that generation who today function in mainstream society are beneficiaries, like Triplett, of parents who refused to institutionalize them and instead demanded that they are treated like people.

That kind of compassion and understanding can alter the life of a person with autism, but it requires that neurotypical people rise above their basest instincts and find the best of their own humanity.

We have come a long way in science and in the general public in our understanding of autism and we have a long way to go. On both fronts, we have a responsibility to improve our knowledge so that the next generation of Jareds don’t have to endure the outrages he suffered. For the autism services industry, increasing community understanding of autism will be a continuing challenge going forward.

There have been many examples of community members or public officials reacting to with ignorance to people with autism – whether to a meltdown or a lack of communication – with disastrous results, even as disastrous as death. These represent the glass half empty side of the equation.

On the glass half full side, I detail in my book the story of author Russell Lehman, whose emotional outburst in response to flight delays at an airport drew a sympathetic response from an American Airlines ticket agent. Witnessing Lehmann’s tantrum, the agent comforted him and helped him calm himself, board the plane and reach his destination.

I look forward to the day when that is the norm and not a remarkable story worthy of inclusion in a book.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

The Benefits of Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Large corporations such as SAP, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Ford, IBM, and others have recognized the competitive advantage of neurodiversity and begun to utilize the special gifts and talents of individuals with autism and other neurological differences to improve the workplace. Small businesses as well can and should utilize these benefits.

 The Rising Tide carwash in Parkland, Florida is not your typical carwash. Customers laud their attention to detail and exemplary service.  Rising Tide’s primary mission is to employ adults with autism.

“We view autism as one of our competitive advantages,” says the company’s COO Tom D’Eri. “[Our staff] have a great eye for detail.”

In 2013, Tom’s father, John D’Eri, founded Rising Tide. His hope was that the car wash would provide his then 24-year-old son, Andrew, with purpose, fulfillment, and the ability to live an independent life.

Like many parents of individuals with autism, John was afraid of what would happen to Andrew once he was gone.

“I don’t want him to sit in a room, taken care of by others once I’m gone,” John says in this video report on the Rising Tide carwash. “I want him to have a job, I want him to have friends.”

The carwash has fostered purpose and independence for Andrew as well as many others. The company’s staff is almost entirely made up of autistic individuals; something which Tom believes gives them a competitive advantage:

“There are really important skills that people with autism have, that make them, in some cases, the best employees you could have.”

What John and Tom understand is something many small businesses could benefit from: the value of neurodiversity in the workplace. This is something that many large corporations are already using to their advantage.

In 2015, Microsoft announced it would begin hiring more autistic people. Corporate vice-president Mary Ellen Smith stated that “People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft.”

A company like Specialisterne, for example, is a big reason why hiring neurodiverse individuals has become more and more common for large companies like Microsoft. The worldwide social innovation enterprise is dedicated to helping neurodiverse people enter the workforce at high levels. According to the company’s website, Specialisterne has set the “gold standard” for neurodiversity employment, working with companies like SAP, IBM, and PricewaterhouseCoopers to find placement for people on the autism spectrum and other neurodiverse individuals. Specialisterne’s Irish branch, hosted by SAP, is helping the software giant increase its number of neurodiverse employees from seven individuals to one-percent of its global workforce (roughly 650 people).

Individuals with autism see the world differently than neurotypicals do. They have unique talents, perspectives, and skills that can be tremendously beneficial to businesses and society. The problem is that autistic individuals face stigma rooted in misunderstanding and ignorance. Additionally, individuals with autism often have eccentricities, lack social skills, have sensory intolerance issues, and can be blatantly honest. Because of these traits, individuals with autism often have trouble getting past the interview stage for a job or maintaining a position once they are hired.

All businesses looking for dedicated employees should strongly consider what neurodiversity can bring to their organization. John and Tom at Rising Tide carwash are just one example. They’ve now opened a second location, and have started Rising Tide U, a training organization that provides a blueprint for families who want to start a business to help their loved one with autism gain purpose and build a future for themselves.

While it is tremendous to see large corporations recognizing the value of neurodiversity, Rising Tide shows the potential for small business to do the same with their workplace. Not only does an autistic staff with an extraordinary attention to detail provide a competitive edge for the company, it is also a powerful way to change people’s perception of individuals with autism while also providing employment opportunities to a sector of our population who deserve the opportunity to contribute to society.