Ask an Autistic

Hi all,

This is an open invitation to ask me whatever you'd like to ask, anonymously. It doesn't actually have to be about life with autism, it could be anything. I put that up there because I know that I talk about autism a lot and it's possible that some folks might have questions that they're hesitant to ask. So I created this anonymous form so that you can ask whatever you'd like without having to worry about me or anyone else criticizing you for it.

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=PU3pnI_2brEXe_2b_2bVaCpQNslA_3d_3d

Speaking of Asperger Syndrome and Autism, I also recently discovered this case study that was published by Harvard Business School in early 2008 highlighting the benefits of the business model of the Danish software company Specialisterne, who hire mostly people with Asperger Syndrome and other ASDs. And I only discovered that after having published my own article about the Autelligent Laboratories project, darnit! I'll have to go back and edit my article once I've had a chance to read the case study. :) The article there isn't actually the case study, it's an article about the case study. But either way, it's very good news! If you haven't read it yet, my article about the AutLabs business model can be found here:

http://www.autlabs.com/autlabs/autlabs_employment_strategy.pdf

The onTap Framework is Ugly!

The onTap framework is ugly. Yep. You heard me, I said it. The onTap framework is ugly, and I don't mind admitting that...

As a programmer I spend a lot of time thinking about the "most elegant" way to solve a problem. Although in reality it's not really the most elegant way, it's just what I feel is the most elegant way that I can think of and that's currently available to me with my resources. It's always possible that someone else might have thought of a more elegant solution, or that there might be a more elegant solution that's simply not available to me, often due to financial constraints. The release of recent versions of ColdFusion and the addition of application-specific mappings actually resolved a number of ongoing issues I had personally with code I felt was "ugly" or "inelegant". And that's not the only time a ColdFusion upgrade has helped me to clean up something I had always struggled with. The addition of onMissingMethod made possible a long time dream for me of having a lazy-loading function library that could load utility functions on-demand. And don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say "long time dream" -- I was trying to accomplish that with ColdFusion 5, immediately after CFSCRIPT was introduced and made custom functions possible in the first place. Yet with all the advancements to the core language, I still routinely struggle internally with this notion of "elegance".

Part of the problem is the way that people think. Scientists used to believe that humans followed a "path to action" like this: think -> do -> feel. So in this model, you would think about what you're going to do, do it and then afterward you would decide how you felt about that action. Was it good or bad? Should you do it again? This is a very logical way of handling the world, however, it turns out to be the opposite of the way we actually behave. Our actual paths to action (and this includes us programmers) looks like this: feel -> do -> think. This path is not rational, but it is very, very efficient, which is why our brains evolved this way. It's also the cause of what I've called opinion driven development (ODD). Andre Marquis explains how this works in this video here. In this model we have an emotional desire to do something like eat or play a game, we do it, and then afterward we rationalize that decision. Usually we create a "logical" explanation for our actions which is incorrect, because it assumes our actions were inspired by reason instead of our emotions. Even the belief that we behave rationally is inspired by our emotions -- it's uncomfortable to us to think that we might behave irrationally, regardless of how strong the empirical evidence is. And it's that discomfort, that very emotional discomfort, that makes it difficult for us to admit to irrational behavior. Although we can develop ways of thinking about things that allow us to entertain these ideas without that discomfort, specifically by developing a "growth mindset".

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Equality and Autism

www.AutLabs.com

If equality is near and dear to your heart, like it is for me, you can also help by putting this video on your FaceBook or MySpace profile.

God bless.

April is National Autism Awareness Month

So I've decided to give up computer programming to seek enlightenment in the Himalayas...

Heard that one before eh? Yeah, I know, yesterday was April Fool's Day. How ironic then that today is World Autism Awareness day or much less that the month of April is National Autism Awareness Month here in the US. I say it's ironic because people with Asperger Syndrome generally dislike practical jokes. ;) Anyway you're likely to hear a lot of talk about autism in the next few weeks. My recommendation? Talk to some folks who are autistic, who live with the condition every day. Find out how they feel about it and what they would like you to know about it. A lot of them will help you out here by blogging - including me. :)

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Help Autistic Workers Excel!

Many of you are already aware that I received a diagnosis for Asperger Syndrome this past year. What you may not realize is that less than 20% of us diagnosed with the condition are currently employed. This is awful, particularly when you consider that many more of us are not only competent, but develop expert-level skills in our areas of interest. Moreover many of us want to work, yet remain unemployed due to social challenges associated with the condition.

As you've probably guessed, a primary area of interest for me is software. :) I'm now in the planning stages of a new software company designed from the ground up to provide autistic adults with a positive work environment where we can excel! This company will also serve as a model for future companies.

What we need right now is a name.

You can help.

Please answer the poll at the link below, and forward it on to your friends and relatives.

Company Name Poll

Thank you!

Pay It Forward

What's your passion?

Software is one of my passions, but I'd also like to talk about another of my passions... one that's far more important than software.

Films that inspire thought aren't very common in Hollywood. Films that inspire action are rarer still. Today I was fortunate enough to see one such powerfully moving film: Pay It Forward.

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Autism and Feedback

I really don't watch much TV. In particular I tend to shy away from dramas and I've had mostly negative experiences with attorneys (and doctors) so I would tend not to watch shows like Boston Legal. It's not that they're bad shows, they're just not my thing.

Anyway someone just told me that they only know of Asperger Syndrome from a character on Boston Legal. So of course I immediately started google searching for information about the character. Although that was also partly because he asked about how accurate the character is and whether other "aspies" as we're called are offended by the way his character is written.

I haven't found any information about how the character has been received in the autism community yet. I did find this article that mentions the character and thought this snippet was particularly poignant:

However, the trait that causes Aspies the most difficulty in life is their inability to pick up other people's social cues and to respond appropriately. Unlike autistic people, Aspies often are interested in other people and want to make and keep friends. However, they have to learn social interactions on an intellectual level instead of just picking them up naturally the way others do. For example, when a friend is wearing an ugly new shirt but seems very happy about it, most people will lie and say how nice the shirt looks. An Aspie may believe that the friend wants an honest answer to: "How do you like my shirt?" One six-year-old Aspie got in trouble when she told her grandmother that she was too fat to ride a bicycle.

For this reason, Aspies may constantly want feedback from the people in their lives. They may ask, "Did I say something rude?" because they really do not know if they did or not. There is a very endearing character on the television series, "Boston Legal", who is a brilliant lawyer with Asperger Syndrome. He carries around a little notebook with reminders like "Shake hands with your client after the trial," or "Thank the jury if our side wins." He always keeps his hands clasped in front of his body so he does not flap them around.

The wording at the top is a little unfortunate because the author said "unlike autistics". People with asperger syndrome (aspies) are autistic. People who present themselves with symptoms like Rain Man have a different form of autism called Kanner's Syndrome.

However, despite that clarification I think this is important information. This problem of having difficulty reading people and responding "appropriately" has been my biggest challenge in the workplace. In the last week there were three separate occasions on which my girlfriend Tiffany shared something with me and then said "it's funny damnit" because although I appreciated what she was sharing (even thought it was funny), I apparently hadn't outwardly responded the way she hoped or expected. And I hadn't noticed that I hadn't outwardly responded either.

And this problem was also described in two of my recent blog posts where I've been trying to do two things. First I've been trying to make a point of thanking people for feedback, because I'm not sure if I've developed an effective habit of doing that yet. And secondly asking for more feedback (positive or negative) to help me dial-in my communication. :)

Sensitivity

I'd been contemplating writing this article since I woke up this morning. I wasn't sure if I was going to. What convinced me to go ahead and write it is because it's about a conversation I'd been having with a fellow colleague in the ColdFusion community and I believe they decided to stop talking to me because of my opinions on the subject. So although this isn't even remotely about ColdFusion I'm going to go ahead and open this up to broader discussion here since this is my blog and I'm interested in hearing others' opinions.

This started because I was pretty disgusted and disturbed (although not particularly surprised) by the recent decision of the Bush administration to deploy military troops within the US to supplement civilian police. It's been my impression since I was in my teens, that it's generally considered one of the singular most important events in world history (to say nothing of US history) that the US was created as a representative democracy with the intention of deliberately limiting the power of government. This is essentially the exact opposite of that. This is the short road to a police state.

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Good Information About Autism

I realize that lately it may seem like I'm happy with my new hammer and the horse isn't getting any more dead, however, it's important that I say these things. It's been only about 6 months since I started researching AS or Autism in general and am still not officially diagnosed, although there's a chance I'll have one soon with the money for the diagnosis coming from an outside source. It's a lucky stroke for me because I'm not certain I could pay for the diagnosis otherwise.

For those who might like a primer, here's a recording of some news from the NPR show All Things Considered talking about the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP). I wish I could tell you when this aired, but it's on the GRASP website and I didn't hear the date in the recording.

I'm trying to practice "radical honesty" although that's not the reason why this is so important. Radical honesty is an interesting thing for someone with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or "aspie". There's a lot of talk amongst the autism community about whether or not having an official diagnosis is a good thing, just as whether or not disclosing your autism is a good thing. Although talk of "passing" for "neurotypical" (non-autistic) reminds me of talk amongst the queer community of "passing for straight". People in the queer community are concerned about "passing" for the same reason as autistics, because the members of both communities are frequently bullied although for different reasons.

The murder of Matthew Shepard was a tragic event. Shepard wasn't looking for trouble, he wasn't even in a public place, he was seduced in a private bar by two straight men with the express purpose of beating him. Ask yourself this question: if you had a hobby that you basically lived for -- doesn't matter what the hobby is, say bird watching -- and you knew that for whatever ambiguous reason, there were a lot of people who hated bird watchers, so much so that you couldn't even attend bird-watching groups without there being the nagging fear that the group might contain spies pretending to be bird watchers with the express purpose of beating the crap out of you, how would you cope? Even today there are still people who pretend to be gay to do vicious things to people in the queer community. Fortunately it's not usually so severe, but beatings do still happen. The good news out of Shepard's murder is that it raised awareness about hate crime and prompted social activism for the queer community.

Shepard is a dramatic example. Problems for autistics are much more subtle and much more likely to go unnoticed. I don't generally fear physical abuse (although I might if I found myself in certain testosterone-rich environments). I do fear or have feared quite a lot becoming homeless. I don't talk about that in particular so much -- I certainly don't mention it as often as it flashes through my mind. More often I mention my child support (although I'll omit mentioning the amount of the debt this time). I'm not sure if the average person makes the rather literal connection I do between the child support and either homelessness or sometimes death. I got fired from a job in 2006 and seriously considered suicide. At the time I was living about 50ft from a train. The reason for that is that although I've always wanted to find a place where I fit in (both work and social), to be accepted for my strengths and to be paid on the merit of my abilities, that hasn't really happened. What has happened is that I've been fired from an average of about 1.5 jobs per year for the past 7+ years. (That's a rough average, it's more than 1, less than 2.) I understood it more when I first started working because my fear of social situations at the time was so powerful that I continually made myself sick in the first few years and missed a lot of work. This was on the heels of such intense fear of people as a child that I couldn't buy a candy bar at a convenience store without an extreme fight-or-flight response. Apparently I was afraid the clerk at the 7-11 was going to yell at me or beat me.

I've come a long way from having an asthma attack over buying a candy-bar at a Stop-N-Go to being an outgoing, even extroverted employee of various software companies... and still according to the world around me, it's not enough. Not if I want to survive, not if I want to see my children again (who I haven't seen in 2 years and that for only a couple days and then not for several years before that, all due to finances), not if I want to consider something other than a bullet as a retirement plan.

People with autism fall through the cracks. We're obviously smart when it comes to our particular interests, like software in my case, we can quickly fit together puzzles that have other people scratching their heads (physical puzzles have actually been part of the diagnostic criteria). So it's natural for those outside the autism spectrum to think that there's an overall effect of our "Intelligence Quotient" (IQ) that applies to all areas of our lives. I.e. you're smart, therefore, you must be perfectly capable and just not want to hold down a job!

My natural, gut response to the "you must not want to hold down a job" comment is to be very snarky and say something sarcastic in response... I'll suppress that urge here. No, desire has nothing to do with it. The reality is that IQ doesn't really mean much. As a matter of fact, people with Asperger Syndrome typically score better on IQ tests as they get older, which is interesting because part of the way that IQ is measured is by age. This inclusion of age in the IQ test is supposed to compensate for the average amount that a person learns from year to year, so a person with an IQ of 100 who learns what the average person learns per year should take the same test and still score 100 a year or three or five years later. People with AS supposedly actually become smarter with age. Although ultimately imo that just goes to show how ridiculous IQ tests are to begin with. Intellectual capacities can't really be quantified that way. There's no correlation between a person being good with math or spacial puzzles and being good with social situations.

No matter how much I work at trying to figure people out, I'm constantly, neurotically second-guessing every word out of my mouth for fear that I'm going to unintentionally offend someone. The same is true of my contributions to mailing lists, blogs, etc. Aside from being a very distracted individual, that's another part of the reason why my blogs end up being so freakishly long (in comparison to others). This blog was intended originally to be a lot shorter. :) Though I'd also like to briefly address the other complaint I hear people make frequently (after the "you're just not trying hard enough / just don't want to work" comment), and that's the "you're using x as a crutch". Quick question. If someone is using something as a crutch, do they generally go around telling people it's a strength? Or do they just look for ways to be incompetent in every area? Do people who're using something as a crutch generally spend nearly 24-7 working in the hopes of succeeding in an entrepreneurial endeavor? In my case I have volumes of work that's generally available to the public for anyone who's interested in seeing what I've been up to. (Potential employers have all but flatly refused to consider the work I've done as evidence of my abilities, up to and including Fig Leaf.)

I wanted to post this article because I want people to know about not just my situation but I want people to know more about autism in general. I wan't people to understand that Amanda Baggs is a very intelligent woman, who through a quirk of neurology, can't speak any language understood by humans. For this reason she's always been referred to as a "low functioning" autistic. Yet she's a prolific blogger.

I'm also going to go out on a limb here in keeping with the notion of "radical honesty". As I said, it's an "interesting" prospect for someone with AS. People with AS generally speaking don't do "ulterior motives". We're not good liars. We may at times be decent actors with practice, but for whatever reason, most of us find lying almost physically, palpably uncomfortable. I myself find it almost physically challenging to just "shut up" when I see or hear someone say something on a subject that's important to me (and there are many), particularly when I disagree with the "conventional wisdom". So for many of us "radical honesty" is less an ideal than it is a natural state (although it is also an ideal for me). I've known this about myself for a very long time. Many months ago, before I had started researching Autism, I tried to explain this phenomenon on the Extreme Honesty forum on Tribe. And true to form, the experience is so foreign to the average person that several of the people on that tribe called me a liar! Did I say "foreign"? I meant "alien" as in "extra terrestrial" as in Wrong Planet -- the most popular website for autistics currently.

But I do try. I make a herculean effort at times to keep quiet... When I shouldn't need to really... I agree with Adlai Stephenson that a free society is one in which it is safe to be unpopular and unfortunately that's not true here in the US at least not yet. I was watching just recently some video of several of the leaders of Exodus International (part of the ex-gay movement) who had resigned from the organization, apologizing for the damage they had done and admitting to complete and total failure after years of effort at the objective of altering the members' urges. One of them mentioned a young man who under the pressure of the judgment that his sexual orientation was "wrong", chose to cut up his genitals and poor alcohol into the wounds as a form of penance for his "impure thoughts".

It seems fairly often people choose to hurt us, thinking that somehow it will help. I may not be mutilating myself physically, although I have in the past contemplated suicide as a direct result of my inability to retain a steady income appropriate for my skills and substantial enough to support my family. When I was arrested for being poor a couple years ago (driving w/ a license that was suspended for child support), my father's response to the news was "I can't help him" (which was a lie), "he'll have to figure it out on his own". According to him, I'm just a deliberate irresponsible screw-up and perhaps similarly to Exodus International that it's nothing a little "tough love" can't fix. We're different, damn it! That is all. It doesn't make us tainted, disturbed, lazy, irresponsible, sick, afflicted or evil. We don't need to be "fixed" - we need people (in my case the state) to have realistic expectations.

So here's the limb I'm going out on. As I was perusing a bit of autistic research today, I came across GRASP and I listened to the All Things Considered clip I posted above and I scrolled down on the grasp site and saw the poster of Sigourney Weaver who's receiving their DNA award for 2008. "the award itself--the physical object--shall be a round peg in a square hole, in reference to the "square peg in a round hole" that we are often referred to as. This acknowledges that our honorees probably didn't fit so correctly into the societal mode themselves." I read the quote, "Not everyone on the autism spectrum wants to be cured." and I cried... I'm sitting in the office at my day job, with just a cheap particle-board barrier between me and the rest of the office and I'm crying. I can't stop... bawling like a child...

So for those who may be interested in finding out more about autism, here are a couple of additional links to sites I'm researching.

And lastly, thank you for reading. :)

Version 3.0 - p.s. I'm not dead.

No I'm not dead, yes I'm still maintaining the framework. :)

Long story short, I had a really rotten year and couldn't afford my dedicated server and had to let it go. A friend of mine parked the domain for me, which is why it looks like it's been "re-purposed". It hasn't, I'm just not using it right now. I plan to put something back up there sooner or later. Although I'll probably continue to host the svn repository, etc. here once the domain is back up.

I just recently realized that Ray set up RIAForge for all the OS projects on Adobe platforms, so while I was reticent before about putting it on SourceForge or Tigris I'm happy to have the project hosted here. (And honestly I think although certainly there may still be some areas that could use improvement, the interface on this site is a phenomenal improvement over those other sites. Kudos Ray.) :)

I've just committed the latest build of framework version 3.0 which I've been working a lot on in the past couple months, cleaning up, removing outdated items, adding support for CF8 features. I've had to lose all the version history from version 2.0 up to now because I didn't want to nag Ray into letting me email him a 6MB subversion dump to import into the RIAForge repository, so that's why the new repository starts at svn version 1 with verision 3.0 of the framework core. I'm also planning to set up the Plugin Manager and the Members onTap plugin here and may create a separate project for the framework sample application. I had at one time created a blog (Blogs onTap) as a sample application, however, due to features unrelated to the framework it became far too complicated to serve well as a "sample" application. Too much complexity in the non-framework parts. So I'm thinking I can convince myself to avoid that trap with a Wiki. :)

The new features in CF8 have resolved some long-standing issues which I think may have been barriers to entry for some people. For example, now that the framework can set up its own default custom tag paths, I've replaced all the instances of <cfmodule template="#request.tapi.xhtml()#"><xml ... /></cfmodule> with <cf_html>. I think a lot of folks saw the original request.tapi.xhtml() tag call bandied about in my code and became overwhelmed.

Thing is, the onTap framework is chocked full of all sorts of things you don't really need to understand in order to leverage the framework. It's just like you don't need to be a Java expert to leverage ColdFusion. It might be interesting to know how Java handles email, but at the end of the day, you send an email with the <cfmail> tag (or your preferred wrapper). And the same thing applies here.

It's just that my wrappers *looked* complicated (even though they were simple to use), because I always refused to make people do anything that required access to the CF Administrator to install the framework. And although I didn't realize it at the time, that's even a "great minds think alike" moment with the folks from your favorite editor (not mine), Eclipse. Installation instructions for eclipse: step 1 unzip. Installation instructions for the onTap framework: step 1 unzip. But ColdFusion 8 removed the only limitations that were keeping me from using standard custom tag syntax, which imo is a big plus for this new version.

Longer Story:

Honestly losing the old server may be the best thing. Truth is, I was paying through the nose for a server that essentially couldn't run a game of Solitaire without herniating under the load. It wasn't even half as robust as the notebook I use for development at home, which does a pretty decent job of running the framework honestly except that I don't have enough RAM and so it's constantly garbage collecting, which slows it to a crawl half the time. But I know why that is, and it's not even because of the framework's memory consumption -- it's because the combined basic memory consumption from ColdFusion 8 (and I used to tandem 7 and/or 6), SQL 2005, Dreamweaver1 and honestly Firefox2 bring me up to 50% of the 1GB RAM I have at home, which is more than twice what was available on my dedicated server at CrystalTech (which incidentally also had no L2 cache due to being an older Celeron).

It wasn't until after I had to give up the server that I started researching Autism and have come to discover that there's a very good chance that I am autistic (Asperger Syndrome or something similar). Aside from the anecdotal evidence of having had a lot of similar experiences and having been described by acquaintances as being this way, I score in the average range for people with AS on this online survey.

This is actually good news for me because I've lost a lot of jobs over the years and usually for political reasons. The Wikipedia article mentions the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which lists the diagnostic criteria psychologists use for making official diagnosis. Among the criteria for AS is that people who have it can't keep jobs. Well autism was virtually unknown when I was a child -- heck, it's *barely* understood even now. So at the age of 33, I finally understand why the social / political aspects of work have always been such a challenge for me in spite of how effortless it seems for other people around me.

It has a lot to do with behaviors that you normally don't think about, like eye-contact. For the average person, eye-contact is an instinctual behavior, you don't have to think about when and how to make it, but it's not built-in like that for people with AS. For us we have to learn it the same way you might learn to play the piano. And since we're just learning from scratch whereas you basically had it built-in to your BIOS from day-1, that makes it a real challenge for us to keep up... So for the last 7 years since I split up with my ex, I accrued $10k/yr in child support debt (based on an annual amount that I've never earned and apparently was never likely to earn), which means, unless something changes I'll die in debt3, possibly on the street.

There isn't any medication for AS or Autism (that I know of) and honestly, I'm not certain I would want any... The problem is that while it has its drawbacks, AS is also a good part of the reason why I'm as talented a programmer as I am. It's a good part of the reason why I with only a GED routinely write application code that makes people with 4-year degrees scratch their heads. Honestly I think I just need to find the right non-autistic sales guy to help me sell my own software4 and I'll be okay . I'm not out to be the next internet billionaire, just as long as I can pay my bills and get out of debt and some day retire, I'll be happy. And maybe if I have an official diagnosis I can convince the state to have a realistic expectation of my income (even though a local attorney advocate for autistics here in Portland recently told me that was impossible).

p.s. I'm now in Portland OR. Give me a shout if you're in the area, I'll buy you a beer sometime. :)

Footnotes:

  1. Yes, I use CFEclipse at the office + Aptana + VSS plugin
    1. Yes, I'm trying to convince them to let me migrate their VSS repository to SVN - I remind them of the hoops it makes us jump through on an almost daily basis
    2. I still haven't found anything to like about Eclipse -- the search-and-replace features alone make me want to scream -- okay I take it back, I like the installation instructions for Eclipse - after that point however, it's just constantly getting in my way and making it a challenge to do my job

  2. Firefox - I'm not kidding, check its memory consumption some time -- but it's worth it for the countless hours Firebug saves me in testing CSS alone
  3. roughly $160,000 by the time the kids all turn 18 and assuming I don't die first - accurate figure - (and with no benefit / nothing to show for the debt)
  4. so that I have multiple income sources

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