Monday, June 11, 2007

On Job Opportunities

One of the main questions many parents of autistic children have is, "What will my child's adulthood look like?" There are many aspects to this question. Topics such as marriage, children, place of residence, career, education and overall quality of life all play into it. I have recently been thinking a bit on the career side of the issue. The more I look at it, and the more I consider specific items of current research findings, the brighter I feel the future looks for gainful employment of persons with autism.

Those who have taken the time to consider and understand the range of strengths that autistic individuals have I think can agree that problems in employing said individuals are job-related, not so much person-related. Autistic indivudals do not have identified deficits in reasoning or other cognitive capabilities – the differences tend to fall more in the area of social and communicative areas. In other words, given the right employment circumstance, anyone can be productive. I think that, as the digital/information age advances (providing ample technological communication/commerce formats), as global trade barriers continue to erode (forcing issues such as language aside), the opportunity for autistic people who exhibit significant communication differences from NT's will expand dramatically.

Civilization has advanced in the amazing, relentless way that it has in large part due to trade and commerce. Not only has trade been one of the "prime movers" of ongoing development of civilization, it has also been a strong facilitator of progress. For example, look at the Roman Empire. It was built on trade - using economic motivations to expand territory, establish long-range, effective communications, defining legal and political systems in which trade disputes could be addressed, etc. Military might, though more emphasized in the context of history, was secondary to trade in ancient Rome- without the motivating factor of commerce, there would have been no need for expansion and technological advancement, and hence a lesser need for a strong military. The point to be taken from this is that a free economic marketplace is perhaps the most powerful determinant of the success or failure of any venture. Or, applying the same reasoning to autism advocacy, should autistic individuals exhibit strengths in the application or development of new business technologies, the acceptance/advocacy movement will be changed forever. And I feel that some recent research findings relating to Autism, combined with what I perceive to be a subtle, but massive, shift in focus in the world of commerce may just provide a far more level playing field for autists to display their prodigious talents. Trade’s positions as motivator and facilitator may just now be crossing into areas that positively affect autistic people, in other words

While recognizable historical advancements in humans' ability to trade are well-defined (stone age/colonial age/industrial age/space age), only with the most recent major changes have the most basic elements of trade been changed. Historically, a couple of prerequisite attributes which have only recently begun to be understood, have dictated who could effectively perform the front-line duties involved in commerce, attributes which do not continue to play as big a role. These attributes have recently been given labels - Mirror Neurons and Trust-Busters.

Mirror Neurons (MNs), as a quick Pubmed search would indicate, have been closely studied in relation to autism. 16 separate studies are currently listed. Mirror Neurons, in essence, are typical motor neurons that are specially recognized because they not only “fire” when assisting the self in performing an act, but also when observing another individual performing an act. You may have a group of neurons that fire each time you grasp something with your hand – a subset of those neurons, the “mirror neurons”, will fire when observing a friend grasp something with their hand. While it is not currently known if MN dysfunction affects all individuals with ASD, certainly the research indicates that it is prevalent (Williams, JH 2005, Oberman, LM 2005, Ramachandran, VS 2007). It is the MN system that may contribute to some of the most apparent social differenes between autistic and NT people.

Trust-Busters, as they are not yet a subject of research as relates to Autism, are less firmly established but likely also play a role in ASD. The term loosely refers to behavioral tendencies or characteristics which lead one person to a lower level of trust in another. Some examples of this would be: sarcastic tone, shifty eyes, over-urgency of communication, promising more than can realistically be delivered, etc. Trust-busters are built into the neurology of the observer, not the performer. Trust-busters, unlike MNs, are not firmly qualified in the field of science. I have to ask my readers to take a leap of faith with me here, and assume that MN dysfunction can lead to a lesser ability to perceive commonly accepted trust-busters. By not easily perceiving, via the MN system, when a person is clearly lying during an interpersonal exchange, the “trust-busting” system is impaired in function as well.

Business Ethics have, since the dawn of commerce, played an extremely significant role in moment-to-moment, day-to-day transactions. Business Ethics (and, accordingly, the rule of law) largely are in place to avoid the ability of one party to exert their will on another. What has long been obvious by common sense but is now, as discussed prior, being cast in a scientific light, is the role a person’s cognitive attributes play in the ability to successfully negotiate and conclude a complex business interaction. And what’s more, it is obvious that many of the ethics-based actions expected by both parties in business interactions cannot be controlled in an electronic environment. Take, for example the handshake. In western culture, it is traditional for a deal to be confirmed with a handshake. The strength of the handshake, the length, the openness with which it is presented, the direct eye contact while it is taking place, the smile that accompanies it (or doesn’t) – all of these are powerful social cues that leave each person involved with the interaction a clear impression of the results of their efforts. Historically, those who have a lesser ability to perform and understand these social cues are at a tremendous disadvantage in the world of commerce. In a digital environment, the closest equivalent is probably an electronic signature – something that is clear and purposeful, with no room for misunderstanding or hidden meaning; not at all based on social cues, but only on a concrete basis.

And that, in my view, is what is changing so much. Digital business environments, due to the need to establish new ways to enforce business ethics, are establishing platforms of trade that diminish the importance of social cues and complex negotiations. Global trade has forced individual cultures to not only force themselves to understand and accommodate the “comfort zones” of other cultures, but also to build ways to conduct business that minimizes the impact of cultural and language differences. As this trend progresses to its logical end – a trade environment free of the necessity to understand the trade partner’s cultural background and that ensures a transaction in which business ethics are guaranteed to be in place regardless of involved individuals disparate abilities to perceive and understand the communication of them – opportunities for autistic individuals to work in fields (such as sales or purchasing) that have previously been difficult for them to penetrate will increase. It is well-recognized (though anecdotal, as far as I know) how over-represented autistics are in certain fields such as software development and engineering as compared to other fields. These are fields that require of their workers many of the strengths that autistics possess. They also require much less of their workers of the skills that autistics tend to be weaker in. Imagine a situation where virtually all career paths are less dependent on high-level social functioning (MNs and trust-busters). This is the direction I see things going in. Take a field such as financial analysis – people who are looking to pay a financial analyst for their services are looking primarily for two things: expertise in the field (evidenced by performance) and a high degree of trustworthiness (evidenced, varying by culture, in social cues indicating that “I understand your need to perceive and can mirror back to you my trustworthiness”). While expertise is not an issue for autistic people who are willing to learn this trade, evidencing trustworthiness can be, due to differences in social functioning. Currently, due to this difficulty, it is more challenging for an autistic person to break into that field than a non-autistic person with equal levels of expertise. Is this fair? No, but no one is “deciding” to shut out autistics – it just happens as a matter of long-established societal expectations of the behavior of this particular professional field. As technology advances, this will likely change, allowing a more level playing field for autistic people in many fields.

This is a complicated topic, and I hope I am doing it justice with a proper explanation. To summarize it briefly: I think that autistic people will have an steadily increasing ability to select careers of their choice in the future, as foundational obstacles that result from social and communication differences specific to Autism Disorder are diminished in importance due to changes in generally accepted business transaction environments.


Another Autism Mom said...

My autistic child seems to be able to do anything - anything he WANTS to do, that is. He has great motor skills, and is able to imitate gestures, drawings (amazing ability for that by the way) and words. But I notice that he doesn't do things if he's not motivated, when he doesn't see the point... For instance, he knows how to pedal a bike, but he'd rather scoot with his feet, and he doesn't care if we tell him that's wrong, or that big boys pedal.

He might have trouble with authority in the future, but then again so did I when I was younger - got fired a couple of times for being too much of a rebel.

Steve D said...

My son is much the same way, AAM. Swimming, for example. We worked for a whole summer wo get him to swim "overhand", but his method was to sink to the bottom of the pool, then push himself forward. So he kind of "jumps" across the pool.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, his little brother was in a floatie and wanted to race him. He was falling behind, and immediately switched - for the first time - to the overhand way of swimming. Instant motivation, just add little brother :)
I do feel, though, that things will become more and more complicated as he grows up in terms of expectations, especially on the social side.

laurentius rex said...

The problem is that when someone reads a popular theory as to what causes autism, they then begin to cast every observance they make in that mould whilst unconsciously rejecting any counter evidence. A well known phenomenon in psychology (if you believe psychology at all that is because it is all subject to the same observer bias and give this whole discussion something of the terrible Goedel incompleteness quandary)

Anyway, if you think autism is about lack of central coherence, that is what you will see; if you think it is about lack of theory of mind' that is the evidence you will find and if you think autism is about mercury poisoning again you will see the evidence you expect to find.

The truth is that nobody knows for sure and skepticism goes out the window when it comes to any theory that has a modicum of authority or "science" behind it.

Steve D said...

Larry -
I absolutely agree. I do not claim to know the cause of autism, nor do I say so in this post. What I am saying is that numerous items of research have found that Mirror Neurons may function differently in ASD individuals than in NT individuals. I am not making any statements about causation - simply scientific observation.
If indeed Mirror Neurons do function differently in some ASD individuals, it is not known exactly what result this would have. I am speculating here that one real-world potential application of this observation is that autistic persons face more impediment to successfully navigating social-based commercial interactions. Not due to their "deficits", mind you, but instead due to the differences in communication expectations that may occur between autistic persons and NT persons.
I agree with your assessment of observer bias and carefully avoid any statements about causation for that same reason. Not I nor anyone else knows what causes autism, despite claims to the contrary.

Alyric said...

Really interesting this and about time people had a good objective look at what makes the social world go round, because absent that, we don't know how best to mentor out autistic offspring. Well that's my theory anyway:)

VAB said...

On the MN thing, I think it is interesting that our guy has a problem when younger that could conceivably be caused by over function of MNs. When he saw things happening to another person, he would claim they were happening to him. And, for example, if he saw someone fall off a bike when he was riding a bike, he would fall off too.

But I definitely agree with Larry.

Steve D said...

Interesting, VAB. I wish I knew enough on this topic to confirm or deny that your son's behavior resulted from MN's, but I don't.

My understanding, though, is that the existence of MN's is pretty well established. Their functioning is not. There is a fair amount of research relating them to autism, some of which looks pretty interesting. Certainly not the whole picture, but I think it may shed some light on some things. In the research studies I read, samples were very small, but control groups were closely matched. Not enough solid info to draw serious conclusions, but enough to warrant further invesitgation in my view.

laurentius rex said...

Mirror neurones be damned, what brought things home to me today about my own autism was during the teaching course I am doing, when the talk was of observing the body language of students, with photographic illustrations. I might well have gone through SBC's software course but it still seemed like Greek to me in a real life situation.

I think I could make a good teacher, but there are certain things I am going to have to bluff my way through to survive.

Club 166 said...

In terms of technology and opportunities, I think we are in a golden age for those who have difficulties in social interactions in F2F (face to face) interactions.

Unfortunately, this age may rapidly pass as e-mail interactions go by the wayside, pushed out of the way by instant two way video conferencing. Bandwith, computer speed, and cheaper memory (as well as better codecs) are making this option much more viable all the time. I am afraid that the visual impression one makes (with instant video 2 way interaction) will bring us back to the visual cues becoming more important than the message.


Steve D said...

Interesting, Larry. I think that may play into the MN system somewhere, but as you say, when it comes to real-life, who cares? It is what it is, I guess. Are you earning teaching credentials? If so, what subject do you plan to teach?
Joe -
I agree that is a concern, but more for day-to-day interactions. I am referring more to business platforms. for example, I work in the fresh cut flower industry. Last week, a group got together in Miami to explore use of GTIN technology. This new terchnology defines a "language" to which all cut flower growers must conform when labelling their boxes. Right now, it is a challenge to retain good salespeople for us due to the mental agility required to switch terminology based on product origins - we import from Mexico, Canada, Holland, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Each country has their own ways of itemizing product (by stem, by bunch, etc.) and ways of referring to colors (is it pink? hot pink? fuchsia? Light Red? Mauve? Lavender?) which is complicated even more by language (I speak in two languages every day, about a 70/30 split). If the GTIN initiative goes through, colors and units of measure, as well as qty's per box, length, and other considerations will be universally established. So, if I am ordering from Israel, I may be doing so via EDI interface, in the universal flower language, via internet, in a tightly encapsulated format. The skills I currently used will be less important (for example, bilinguality), and others will gain importance (for example, typing speed, mathematical calculations, etc.). This is one specific example of how I see skillset values changing.

laurentius rex said...

I am doing a City and Guilds 7302 course in delivering adult learning. It is doing me a power of good in terms of translating my skills into the ability not so much to teach them , but how to structure courses and write lesson plans, so much I would not have thought of before.

I guess I am ideally qualified to teach video, photography and semiotics.

There is a world of difference it seems between the ability to make presentations and lectures and the ability to interactively and responsively teach. Clearly no one within the autism enclave of the school of Education at Birmingham University has the first idea of how to practically teach what they preach is what I have learned so far :)

Steve D said...

Larry -
I, like you, am probably smart enough to teach, but I lack the skills to do it effectively. I don't seem to have the ability to anticipate what "gaps" of knowledge in a student/trainee must be filled before the next level of information is able to be effectively absorbed. I move too fast through subject material, and my expectations are too high. Ah well, as long as I recognize my (many) shortcomings, it is easier to navigate around them :)

Club 166 said...

Okay, Steve, I think I see where you're coming from now.

I guess I was thinking on the whole global sales development thing, where you're looking at this from more of a day to day operations thing.

I can see where such global standardization would make it easier for those who are technically adept to flower. :)

Anonymous said...

the message I read in your article was simple, unwavering optimism regarding your son's future. I needed that today, as I struggle to figure out which program is appropriate for my son next year. Summer always brings more stress, with another year behind us, changes in services and changes in school programs. Thanks.
Terry H.

Steve D said...

You're welcome, Terry. If my optimism comes through, it is only becuase I have been blessed with 3 great kids.

Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Larry said: "(if you believe psychology at all that is because it is all subject to the same observer bias and give this whole discussion something of the terrible Goedel incompleteness quandary)"

YES! I'm glad you said that. My dad always taught me that psychology was quackery. I didn't get it until Adam and I were subjugated to psychologists for the purposes of getting dx and "services." It's exactly this bias that I could see immediately and lead us on a different course.

Steve, I really believe that there are so many opportunities for our kids. It's a matter of attitude, access and helping to make it available for our children.