Is learning different for people with autism?

That people with autism think differently was discussed in a previous blog and that this obviously has consequences for the learning ability. I want to elaborate on that a bit more in detail.

The processing of neurological and cognitive processes sometimes proceeds differently than with neurotypical people, and the picture that was published in the Dutch Volkskrant on 28-2-2013, and is shown below, gives a good impression of these differences.

On the one hand, we see on the left, an autism dominant brain, that the lines of connection between the different brain areas (associations) are rather infrequent, and compared to the results of a neurotypical person on the right, these signals show more coherence. Thus they are better interconnected. What does this mean in practice and in particular, for learning?

Many people with autism, especially from the high-functioning group, often indicate that they need more time to learn new things. Considering the picture above, that seems pretty obvious. Before the correct connections are made and consolidated, more time is needed until all relevant information has been incorporated and processed. 

Practical situation: Where a neurotypical person is well able to come up with a solution or answer to an ad hoc question or assignment, someone with autism can have a lot of difficulty with this and this can even lead to a blockage or panic in this person. It may seem as if the latter does not know an answer to the question asked, but that certainly does not have to be the case, he just needs more time.

I can describe the consequences of this learning mechanism as follows:

Someone with autism does not usually learn a little every day but learns with leaps and bounds. The interval depends on the individual and on the context or situation. For example, it may seem that that person does not apparently seem to be gathering information for days or maybe weeks, but then suddenly she shows that she knows and understands much more than you would expect. This process continues and under good conditions, and with the right support, the knowledge gained remains and serves as the basis for further expansion. Further accumulation of knowledge will most likely speed up as soon as a solid base has been established.

Learning styles are strongly linked to the communication style of the individual. We know three dominant styles, visual, auditory and finally kinesthetic (touch). With neurotypical people there is a preferred style, in people with autism the dominant style can even lead to the exclusion of the others. If someone is visually oriented, it is possible that the narration is heard but is not registered and therefore not remembered. Not only teachers must take this into account, but also work supervisors and buddies who support a new employee.

So there is work to be done, the result is astonishing.


Circles and squares ... a plea for the acceptance of neurodiversity

In my previous blog I described the successful business trip to Japan and the reason why it was successful. Good preparation and deepening in their culture and typical communication aspects contributed greatly to this. In essence, we familiarize ourselves with what distinguishes us. We are concerned with cultural diversity and apparently we find this very normal.

The step to neurodiversity is then small when we accept that there are different forms of thinking and communicating. I wholeheartedly support differences such as autism and ADHD which in my view are the result of a normal variation of the genome. When you accept this approach, you see that traditional viewpoint is pathologizing in nature, that is, this kind of diversity is considered a deviation, or in other words, a defect.

People who embrace this concept of neurodiversity assume that dissenters cannot, and need not, be cured. There is nothing to cure.

According to John Elder Robison (2013), this group of adherents views neurodiversity as follows:

  "They look at the pool of diverse people and see - in the center - the range of different ways of thinking that have enabled humanity's advancement in science and the creative arts. At the edges, they see people who are functionally crippled. because they are “too diverse.” When 99 neurologically identical people don't solve a problem, it is often the 1% other person who has the key. Yet that person can usually or always be disabled or disadvantaged. For proponents of neurodiversity, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve; not because they are sick or broken. "

Beautiful right?

In our society we have a variety of shapes, triangles, squares, circles and more. Our education system and society is set up for circles and you will become a circle. The problem with fitting a square into a round hole isn't so much the amount of time, effort and frustration it takes to get it to fit ... but more that you damage the square in the process.

People who think differently, on the other hand, deserve space, respect, appreciation and, where necessary, help and support and not pills, inhibitors, oppressors, adapters, drowsers and other burdening means. Yes, it is often done with the best of intentions but it is short-sighted and narrow-minded and yes, the lack of financial resources or the improper use of these resources, unfortunately greatly contributes to the maintenance of this approach.

The majority of people in our western society are “circles i.e. neurotypical and our social order is based on these hormone-driven principles albeit with a touch of logic and straightforwardness. And, because neurotypicals have the upper hand, they set the rules.

What if it was the other way around?

Finally, my favorite quote, from Steve Jobs. Perhaps not charming in character, but a real game changer:

"Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Here, here Steve!


Autism: Medical versus Social Approach

There are many discussions in the medical world about the possible causes of autism. I will mention a few: poor bonding with the mother (seriously?), as a result of vaccination (no, is polio preferable?), hereditary burden, fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU).

Let's face it, we don't know. 50 years ago we didn't even know about the existence of autism. Autism has now been included in the manual of psychiatry, namely DSM, since May 2013 in the version DSM 5. Since this version, there has been an Austism Spectrum Disorder, a disorder.

Where is the problem, it is in the word "Spectrum". This word indicates that there is a range. On the one hand, it relates to people with a form of autism who cannot or hardly function independently and need a lot of care and, on the other hand, people who only need light guidance to survive in a regular environment. Until DSM 5 this last group was called the group Aspergers and people with PDD-NOS, more generally know as high functioning people with autism.

I do not think it necessary to give the latter the predicate "Syndrome" or even "Disorder" as this is a medical indication and therefore defect-oriented by definition. Disorder refers to a maladaptation to a neuro-typically defined society. That is up for debate as far as I am concerned.

When we place this group of high-functioning people in a social context, we see that the behavior displayed can at most be regarded as socially "different". How many people are different without having a disorder or syndrome? Hmmm, interesting because that would imply that there was an accepted norm against which this can be compared. Are people in Japan different? Yes right? At least from a Western-oriented perspective and standards, this is apparently the norm. Do they all have a disorder?

We do sense what is regarded as normal (neuro-typical) in our Western culture, but here too the bandwidth that is accepted is getting narrower. As a society we are becoming more exclusive, painful but unfortunately true. No, not that we want that, we want to be inclusive, but yes, that takes more resources and investment, and in this time of austerity ..... well, fill it in yourself.

Personally, I think this is rubbish, it is a matter of looking differently and appreciating this group for who they are and what they do and above all, give them a chance, an opportunity they deserve but above all an opportunity that we as a society deserve ... or am I wrong?


Autism, Another Operating System

Every now and then I give a presentation or lecture on "Autism from a Different Perspective” that discusses how people with Asperger or PPD (NOS) usually think and learn, about the communication styles they use and how we can best deal with this in the workplace. Before I actually start with this, I take the participants for a company outing to Japan and I ask them to prepare this as well as possible. The answers to the question, "How do we make this company successful?" I then write it down on a flipchart or whiteboard. Invariably, "Delving into their culture and their communication" has been cited as very important, if not crucial, contributions.

Hmmm ... apparently we find it useful to take into account that people from Japan have a hard time with the word "No" and that it is insulting when we carelessly tuck their business cards away in our jacket pocket.

Isn't this effort also essential for our people with autism who also have their specific styles and follow autism-related culture rules? Are there differences in principle?

Let me now focus on my IT savvy reader. Which is the better operating system, Windows, Linux or OSX? Well, you can't answer that 1-2-3 because one of the first questions should be, "What should it be for?".

When I want to run my web server in a cluster in a data center, it is not my first thought, use OSX or even Windows for this, in practice it appears that Linux functions well as a platform in this environment. To compensate, if my mom wants to play her bridge game on the computer then chances are Windows or OSX supports it, Linux won't be the platform of choice.

Obviously, it is not my intention to start fierce discussions with these statements, that will be clear.

What I'm saying here is one operating system better than another? Yes, but this depends on the context and what this operating system should do.

You already feel it, are people with autism also not a different Operating System? We usually judge people based on their user-friendliness, their flexibility and versatility, their friendly interface. Yeah, let me just say it, Windows, right? But when we have tough jobs that require special talents, then just another Operating System, one that may not be able to chat with you at the coffee machine, but can explain to you in detail what the String theory entails. However?


Let me do it anyway 

Start a blog about people with autism who have a passion for IT. Yes, IT and not ICT. Communication is not the strongest side of people with autism. What do you say? Communication, the "C" in ICT relates to the technical aspects of communication and communication protocols, well, of course. Nevertheless, I’ll omit the "C", just nice and plain "IT".

I do not want to talk about those guys* who have an established place as SMEs or as technical experts at some IT company, but I focus on those other champs that are at home and cannot be found because of our exclusive society. Not because they can't, but because they don't fit, because they are different.

Smart, talented, lots of potential but different. Square pegs in round holes. Our society wants round holes, we are completely set up for that, our education system, our mental health system and of course our work system.

I will mainly use this blog to give a voice to the large group of high functional Assers who are crazy about programming, networks, IT infrastructures, databases, BI, cyber security, (ethical) hacking and more. 20,000+ people with a HBO or higher potential who see no chance of making a place in our neuro-typical world.

That can't be true, what a waste of talent and let's face it ... what a massive waste of money.

* I will use the male form but in a generic sense. Of course there are females in the IT sector and I would love to see a lot more.

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