Terrific Boston Globe op-ed on Autism

Today’s Globe features a column that is a wonderful explanation of the recent work of Dr. Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal (which, thankfully, has gotten a lot of press in recent days; e.g. see this mention in Science Daily of November 2).

The Globe columnist, Gareth Cook, writes to tell us “The truth about autism” and he does so with kindness and a rare appreciation and understanding. This column is a breath of fresh air, and will be greatly appreciated by the neurodiversity movement.

His conclusion is “There is, of course, a strong ethical case for change. But there is also another way of thinking about it, which Americans, in particular, should understand: Tapping unusual minds provides a competitive advantage to companies – and to nations. Recognize the hidden strengths of our people, and we will all be the richer for it.”

But read the entire article; I found it quite compelling!

My appearance on “Where We Live” on WNPR November 2, 2011

Update on November 5:

I have now listened to the replay, and am totally favorably impressed with the job that John Dankosky did in directing the conversation. He was able to involve many callers in the discussion, and gave each panelist a chance to respond. I, of course, am not a totally unbiased observer, but I do believe the professionalism on display here deserves some kudos!


I haven’t yet had time to listen to this radio show from yesterday, which was a lot of fun for me.

There were three other panelists (as well as a call-in participant), and the host, John Dankosky, did an excellent job of fielding call-in questions and farming them out to the four of us.

I’ll have more to say once I have had time to listen and to read the comments that have been made.


The Massachusetts Cross-Disability Advocacy Coalition (CDAC)

You will be hearing a lot more about this coalition from me (that’s a promise, not a threat!). We are just getting organized, and are noodling out ways to expand from our original core group into a truly state-wide and inclusive coalition. We are talking about doing 8 outreach gatherings in various places around the state over the next few weeks.

I am representing the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE) as a self-advocate, and there are representatives of many other groups involved in this start-up, which is funded by a federal grant through the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council (MDDC), and administered by the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts (DLC).

Tomorrow (November 1) we will be discussing how we can get involved in the issue of transportation in the state for people with disabilities. In April of this year, Governor Patrick issued Executive Order 530 to establish a Commission to study this issue. In keeping with the Disability Rights Movement motto “Nothing About Us Without Us!” we want to be sure that we voice our opinions.

At our last meeting, we finalized our vision statement.

Vision Statement for CDAC:
The Cross-Disability Advocacy Coalition will become a strong, united voice for people with disabilities and lived experience. The Coalition will be engaged and form partnerships that identify common denominators and build a powerful constituency influencing legislation and policy change that improves the lives of our community and ensures full inclusion.

Marc Rosenthal on Yoga

My friend Marc Rosenthal had a full-page spread in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I met him through yoga, and he and I practice in the same studio. It’s clear that the studio’s logo inspired part of his drawing.

Yesterday in class (he wasn’t there), people were speculating on who his model was. Clearly it wasn’t me (I have a beard!), but my guess is that it is an artist’s composite. So, I don’t (yet) have an autographed copy to show you, but here it is:

Book Review: Social Thinking At Work

Here is a review I wrote for publication in the AANE Journal. I don’t know if it will appear in the next edition, or a subsequent one. And, of course, it could be edited for length or content.

In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to some people to have access to my thoughts, because I do believe this to be a very useful book.

A pdf version of this review is available here.

Book Review: Social Thinking At Work

by Michelle Garcia Winner

and Pamela Crooke

North River Press 2011


Disclosure: North River Press has agreed to publish a book authored by me (on a different topic). That said, I have no financial interest in the publisher, or in the book being reviewed here.

©2011 Michael Forbes Wilcox

Transformation Through Comprehension

Social Thinking At Work offers an exciting exposition of how the human mind processes social situations. Exciting, because clear understanding is the first step toward behavior modification. For people who, like me, have experienced a delay in acquiring social comfort, this book can serve as a guidebook along the path toward improved performance on the job.

As the title suggests, the examples and advice in this volume are geared toward readers who are in or entering the workforce. Its lessons, nonetheless, will be valuable in all sorts of social situations.

The authors chose the term “Social Thinking” because it is the process behind the resulting “social skills” that are perhaps more commonly taught. (Psychologists call this process “social cognition.”) By trying out the tips given in this book, you can learn an approach to social understanding that will serve you well even as you encounter new and unfamiliar situations.

Exciting, also, because it is not only the target audience who can benefit from the clarity provided by this book. That audience, of course, is comprised of people with Asperger’s syndrome, other related learning differences, or whom for any reason at all have had trouble learning how to be comfortable socially. Others who will gain insight here are people who provide a supporting role. Family members, friends, clinicians, and coaches of all descriptions will benefit from the explanations given on these pages.

The authors provide instructive anecdotes involving people, in specific situations, who may remind you of people you know, or perhaps even of yourself. These examples nicely help to illustrate the points that they have laid out, and to reinforce the essential principles taught in this book.

The authors point out that “…it is natural to seek out people who make us feel comfortable.” And, “…the greatest indirect compliment we can give someone is by simply paying attention and showing interest…” The authors help to drive home the practical meaning of these (and many other) points by the use of their short anecdotes, as well as by giving specific tips and things to try out.

This is a very dense book, and many of the topics are revisited in different guises. I found this to be hugely helpful; to read the same basic lesson, worded in a different form or in a different context. It helped me to comprehend the points the authors were making.

Because there are two authors, at times there can be an unexpected shift in voice. I found this to be a bit jarring, but not unhelpful. Sometimes things were presented as “people who have difficulty with…” and sometimes as “we often have difficulty with…” This was actually a good reminder of the need to be able to do perspective-taking, which is a key lesson to be taken from this book.

The authors define perspective-taking as “the ability to look at things from a perspective other than our own.” Based on my own experience, I would say that the hardest thing for people with delayed social cognition is the ability to see ourselves as others see us. By following along in this book, readers who share that challenge can learn steps to improve their ability in that arena.

The early part of the book is a fairly high-level explanation of the concepts one needs to know. That is followed, in the middle part of the book, by more specific examples of situations in which various challenges might arise. The final third of the book is a summary, with extremely useful lists of “tips and pointers” on how to use the knowledge you have gained earlier in the book.

As already mentioned, my recommendation to read this book extends to anyone who has an interest in helping those who are its primary audience. Educators, clinicians, parents, and others will gain insight into those of us who must struggle to acquire our social thinking. It will be useful in interpreting behaviors that might at first blush seem anti-social, rude, or uncaring. In fact, these actions may simply be thoughtless (in the literal sense) in that they are done without the perspective-taking and other skills that are taught in this extremely useful volume.

In fact, there is probably no one at all who couldn’t benefit from the pointers contained in this book. We are all human; we all need to interact with other people in order to be successful and satisfied in life.

In sum, this book offers a refreshing approach to improving social success. Its basic message is that you can learn to pay close attention to what is going on around you, in terms of social interactions. By doing so, you will come to understand what it is you need to do to improve your comfort level, and your skills, in dealing with social situations.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Otherwise, you would not need a book packed with specific tips, examples, and explanations.

One of the key teachings of this book is that the evaluation of your job performance will not be dependent simply on how well you execute the technical aspects of your job. Equally important in your success will be your ability to get along well with your co-workers, as well as your ability to generate feelings of warmth and trust among all those with whom you come into contact. 


Tonight, snow comes to Alford: time for the season’s inaugural fireplace lighting! [Update: morning pictures]

What started as a gentle wet snow earlier this afternoon is now less wet and more white, and coming down heavily. As the darkness gathers, the still-green grass (we’ve not had a frost yet) is beginning to turn a misty white. I expect when daylight returns, I will see no green, but a white blanket on the ground.

When I had some tree work done a couple of years ago, the arborist told me that the butternut tree near my horse shed was the largest and healthiest one he had ever seen in Berkshire County. The squirrels absolutely love the nuts, and one of its characteristics is that on the morning after the first frost, all its leaves come fluttering down to earth in a cascade of yellow splendor.

My farrier was here at mid-day, and when he saw me he remarked, “You don’t look like a happy camper!” I told him I was not ready yet for snow because my butternut tree had not even shed its leaves. He said, “Get used to it, because the winter forecast, given recent weather patterns, is for twice as much snow as last year!”

Morning update (Friday, October 28): As expected, I awoke to see, at first light, the first pure white covering of the season. Many plants were still in leaf, and even in bloom, since we had not had a frost till last night. Here are a few pictures of how things looked this morning here at Thyme Hill:


It takes one to know one!

He should know!

Was Steve Jobs Autistic?

This has gotten a lot of play since Steve Jobs died. You can also hear the text read in Steve’s own voice in this very moving tribute ceremony. His reading happens about 12 minutes into the video.

I’ve not seen anyone say they think Jobs was autistic, so I’ll say it. He did “think different” and he was often described as “mercurial” and he was creative. He was clearly a genius. Now, that doesn’t add up to a diagnosis, but it sure fits the profile! I’d love to hear what others think!

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status-quo. 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 people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

On The Financial Page of The New Yorker, October 17, 2011,  added fuel for my fire!  He points out, among other things:

  • As seemingly everyone on the planet knows, Steve Jobs’s defining quality was perfectionism.
  • …  Jobs’s obsession with detail.
  • … he got personally involved with things like how many screws there were in a laptop case.
Obsession with detail and perfectionism are also defining traits of autism.Then, Surowiecki notes, as Jobs matured, “… his obsession with control had been tempered: he was better, you might say, at playing with others …” That last phrase (in the negative) is one that is often used to describe autistic people. As is the attribute of being “controlling.” And, to be sure, there is an element of truth in both of these accusations, but the explanation for them is, I think, not often given correctly. We autistics, in my view, try to make our world orderly so that it is more predictable and comfortable for us. We do this not for the sake of control per se, but to calm our always jangled nerves. We “don’t play well with others” not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t comprehend the world that the other 97% of the people (who are not autistic) live in. So, try as we might, we just don’t seem to be able to do what is expected of us. And, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be too good (yet) at modifying their expectations to take our autism into account.
Update on 30 October:
Judith Ursitti drew my attention (via Facebook) to this wonderful tribute by his sister. Perfectionism and humility shine through.
Update, 3 November:
I saw another NYT article that adds fuel to my fire, without doing so explicitly. The author compares Jobs to Eintein, Gates, and Franklin, and mentions Jefferson in passing. All of these other people are candidates, in the minds of many, as potential examples of autistic people. There is also a very telling quote, “Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers.” This made me think of Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking In Pictures, and reminds me also of descriptions of our way of thinking by both John Elder Robison and me; in his case, in electronics, in my case, finance.
Additional comments, November 4:
I have shared the link to this post on Facebook, and there had the following exchange:

No, I don’t get autism…I get bipolar…but you are entitled to your opinion…
Have you read Kay Redfield Jamieson’s Touched with Fire?

Thank you — I got a brief summary and background online.

I will add that to my (rather lengthy) reading list. Since I was diagnosed (about 5 years ago), I have developed a huge appetite for learning about not just autism, but about neurology in general. The more I study this field, the more I become convinced that autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, ADHD, and other conditions are pretty much the same thing.

This belief was strengthened last week when I attended the annual Research Symposium of the Autism Consortium in Boston. One of the papers presented suggested that all of these conditions (and some others) are genetically indistinguishable. It’s possible that these labels, and differing diagnoses, are simply wrong — an artifice — or, it’s possible that they all spring from the same neurology but develop into different conditions for whatever reason during each person’s development.

As Pierre-Simon Laplace said, “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny, that of which we are ignorant is vast.)


And, in a wonderfully written blog post by Steve Silberman, entitled “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?” I found much to reflect on. He describes Jobs’s spiritual journey, and much of what I read sounds very familiar. Obviously, you don’t need to be autistic to “rewire your motherboard” but if you are autistic, that is especially important (and easy to do, if you put your mind to it).

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from this rather long and worthwhile post:

“To indulge in a little Buddhist jargon, the best Apple products seem like they suddenly appeared in emptiness (Śūnyatā), unencumbered by previous notions of what a “computer” or “phone” or “MP3 player” or “tablet device” should be. They were cosmically clean; avatars of the new.”

“Indeed, Jobs’ commitment to mindfully-crafted excellence extended even to aspects of his products that were invisible.  In Jony Ive’s smart and pointed eulogy for his best friend last week, the design chief reminisced about spending “months and months” with Jobs perfecting parts of Apple’s machines that most users would never see (“…with their eyes,” Ive then tellingly added.) “Steve believed that there was a gravity, almost a civic responsibility, to care way beyond any sense of functional imperative.” “

The first quote relates to the autistic tendency to do what neurotypicals call “think outside the box” (autistics tend not to be able to see any box, or boundaries), or to create things without regard to how things “have always been done” but instead to see a problem and to imagine a solution that does not rely on what has gone before.

The downside (perhaps) to this creativity is the compulsion to seek perfection, as alluded to in the second quotation. In this regard “autistic” and “artistic” become one. Years ago, when I toured Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the tour guide explained that there were works of art that we would never see because they were put in place even though the artists knew they would be hidden from view by later structural work. The reason given was that the artists believed that “God would see them.” At the time, I was amazed at the strength of religious faith that would inspire such devotion. Now, I am more inclined to believe that the artists were simply autistic!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Colin’s Bedtime Reading