Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why people on the autism spectrum make good workers.

            I just want to let you in on a few things that you may not be aware of. The autism spectrum is much larger than people know. There are people on the spectrum that are some of the leading geniuses of all time. People on the spectrum are already in critical positions that help keep our nation’s economy afloat. Employing people on the spectrum is not about charity; it’s about finding the right person for the job and keeping them there. As a matter of fact, you probably already know people who are doing important jobs whom you were not aware were on the spectrum.
            Autistic people tend to have several characteristics that make them able to do certain jobs better than your average worker. Some of these qualities are: organization, creativity, superior memory, hyper-focus, calculation ability, routine-focus, and brutal honesty. I’ll try to some personal and general examples of each of these. Now, sometimes these extraordinary abilities can come with a price, and I’ll point this out as well.
            People on the spectrum have a need for things to be organized. If I walk into a store and the shelves are messy and disorganized, it truly bothers me. It bothers me enough that unless I am restrained, I will spontaneously start organizing them (my wife would frequently chastise me with the phrase, “you don’t work here,” whenever we were out shopping.) The right person on the spectrum will keep your inventory organized far better than the average worker without having to be asked or reminded.
  • Downside: Organization is often not optional and can be confusingly inconsistent from an outside perspective. Having things out of place can leave a person on the spectrum distracted and confused until things are put in the “right” place.
  • People you may know: If you have run across a person that can keep an entire store or warehouse organized and always seems to know where everything is without having to look, this person is probably on the autistic spectrum, even if they don’t know it themselves.
            Creativity is also a hallmark of people on the spectrum. We tend to look at things from a slightly different perspective than the average worker, which allows us to do things that can really catch the customer’s attention. Eye-catching displays, memorable slogans, more efficient ways of doing things, and even new products and services that add to your business are things that someone on the autistic spectrum can bring to your business.
  • Drawback: Creativity is a very hit or miss thing. Sometimes even the best seeming ideas just don’t pan out. Also, autistic people can sometimes get stuck on an idea that turns out to be unworkable. A frank discussion may be needed to get us to move on.
  • People you may know: Most new products are created by people on the spectrum as well as things like logos and artwork.
      Superior memory is one of the most useful of the autistic “quirks.” People on the spectrum often become fascinated by something and will quickly become an expert in whatever that is. This often leads to an encyclopedic knowledge that can give you your own in-house expert.
  • Drawback: The subject has to “catch our attention,” and this is not really voluntary. It either fascinates us or it doesn’t. This type of memory is also extremely quirky. I can remember amazing amounts of historical data but can’t remember the names of people that I know quite well. Warning! If we start talking about a subject we love, we can talk for hours.
  • People you know: If you know someone who knows everything there is to know about a particular subject, they are most likely on the autistic spectrum.
      Hyper-focus is another ability that can be very useful to an employer. Hyper-focus allows the person to become completely absorbed by the task at hand and to then do it at an amazing rate for long periods of time. I remember doing an inventory once where I got into hyper focus and I started going so fast that the other people could barely record what I was inventorying in time.
  • Drawback: When someone is hyper-focused they stop noticing anything else around them. It’s often difficult to get their attention and they may not notice you even yelling their name in their ear. Another problem is that they can forget about their physical needs like eating, drinking or taking bathroom breaks and have been know to collapse exhaustion or dehydration when in this state. Having a supervisor or co-worker look out for them and make them take breaks nay be needed.
  • People you know: Artists are especially known for getting into creative “moods” where they will go on marathon creative streaks and forget about things like eating, sleeping or personal hygiene, but turn out amazing works.
      Some people on the spectrum have amazing calculation and mathematical abilities. These people seem to eat and drink numbers. Because of this people on the spectrum make some of the best bookkeepers, accountants and auditors around.
  • Drawback: No real drawbacks for this one.
  • People you know: If you know someone who is more comfortable with numbers than people in one of the above professions, that is a good indication that they are on the autistic spectrum, although they may not know it themselves.
      Similar to the need for organization is the need for predictability. This most often manifests itself as a reliance on routine. This can be very good in an employee as they tend to be always on time and get things done in a set predictable pattern, which they never tire of. While most employees might find this boring, they find it comfortable and reassuring.
  • Drawback: People who take comfort in routine predictability have a hard time with unexpected major changes. The more warning they have, the better they can accept the change.
  • People you know: Anyone can get into a rut, but there are people who have no interest in getting out of theirs and in fact, get quite upset if their regular rhythm is disturbed.
            Brutal honesty is also a common trait among autistic persons. People on the autistic spectrum tend to remember things by how facts and images relate to one another. If you ask a question, they will answer with the relevant facts. This leads to a straightforward and literal answer to the question asked (which can sometimes be mistaken for sarcasm or aggression.) The tendency is to say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say. 
  • Drawback: Tact does not come easily to someone on the spectrum. An offhand question that is asked suddenly will usually get a brutally honest answer. Not that people on the spectrum are incapable of lying, but it is difficult to learn and reluctantly used. People on the spectrum do not tend to use subtexts or implications in their speech and do not usually recognize it in other’s speech. (i.e. hints and sarcasm are often lost on them which can lead to misunderstandings.)
  • People you know: People on the spectrum make very good if hard-nosed judges and law enforcement officers.
            All in all, people on the autistic spectrum make very good “niche” workers. They are very common is positions like IT, engineering, and accounting, and are often successful in these and similar roles as well as artistic areas like actors and writers. The one caution is that we are very specialized workers: we can do some things better than anyone who is not on the spectrum, but the price we pay is in generalized abilities and social interactions.
            If we are pushed to do the things that we find painful because “anyone can do this,” then the same thing will happen that would happen if you used a cell phone for a hammer, it would break. It doesn’t mean that the cell phone is defective; it’s just being used for something it’s not designed for.
            Similarly, we have trouble with social pecking orders and socialization. If you push one of us to act “just like one of the boys,” it will end in disaster. We are also especially vulnerable to bullying and social sabotage. I have more than once gone from the top employee to fired because of a new person that was uncomfortable with me began spreading rumors and accusations, and every person on the spectrum that I have talked to has similar stories. All it usually takes for this to stop is a word to “leave them alone and let them do their job.”
            Last of all, I want to remind you that the autistic spectrum is wide. It goes from people like the character “Rain Man” who needed help to be able to survive to people like Temple Grandin, who is a world renowned expert in her field to entertainers like Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah. Not every person on the spectrum has every one of these abilities and weaknesses but put one of us in the right position and these abilities will amaze you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Q&A about official diagnosis.

What I'm looking for in diagnosis
There are some things I want help with:
1) I want to figure out whether I can learn to drive safely, and if I can, I want help doing it. Because I don’t think I can do it in the standard way — I need to develop coping strategies.
2) I’m in a people-oriented profession, and there are skills I want to develop without losing other skills. I think if there are professional people who are cluefull about such things, I could really use their advice.
3) I want to be able to rely on having a laptop in classes when I need one, and not ever having to write anything out longhand.
4) I want to be able to talk about issues of inclusion and respect. I want to be able to be open about who I am. I want to be confident that I am using the right words, and I don’t want to be dismissed as not-really-autistic. I don’t want to be afraid that I deserve to be and that I’m appropriating a word that isn’t mine.
5) I want to keep taking medications that help me, even if I no longer need them for what they were originally prescribed to treat.
Does getting clinically evaluated for autism help with any of that?
Getting a clinical evaluation could help with some of these things.
1) I want to figure out whether I can learn to drive safely, and if I can, I want help doing it. Because I don’t think I can do it in the standard way — I need to develop coping strategies.
This depends entirely on where you get your driver training and what you can afford or what your insurance will pay for. If you are getting training through a public school or university, they are required to give you accommodations if you have a diagnosis.  An autism life coach could help you, if you can afford it or your insurance will pay for it. If you can find an autistic friend who can drive and is willing to mentor you can provide the same help, but a diagnosis won’t help there.
2) I’m in a people-oriented profession, and there are skills I want to develop without losing other skills. I think if there are professional people who are cluefull about such things, I could really use their advice.
An autism life coach could help you here too, if you can afford it or your insurance will pay for it. There also might be government job training services that could help, but these are extremely rare.
3) I want to be able to rely on having a laptop in classes when I need one, and not ever having to write anything out longhand.
This is the easiest one, if you have a diagnosis. This falls under “reasonable accommodations” that most schools are used to giving out now.
4) I want to be able to talk about issues of inclusion and respect. I want to be able to be open about who I am. I want to be confident that I am using the right words, and I don’t want to be dismissed as not-really-autistic. I don’t want to be afraid that I deserve to be and that I’m appropriating a word that isn’t mine.
This one is both really easy and really hard with an official diagnosis. With an official diagnosis, you have protected legal status as a disabled person. Unfortunately, your legal status will not matter to a jerk. It does help, but it is no guarantee that people will treat you with respect. Try not to let the occasional jerk keep you from appreciating the people who really want to help.
 5) I want to keep taking medications that help me, even if I no longer need them for what they were originally prescribed to treat.
This one depends on if you can find a doctor that understands autism and is willing to treat you with respect. A official diagnosis from another professional will often help with a doctor, but it depends on the person.
Overall, a clinical diagnosis can be a useful tool, but it is not a panacea. An awful lot also depends on what services are available in your local area and what the local attitudes are. The good news is that things ARE getting better, but there is still a long way to go.
John Mark McDonald

Monday, July 2, 2012

About sensory issues and stimming?
I have been trying to get better information on adults with autism and Asperger’s. So far, all I have had to rely on is my own experience and that of my kids. The stuff written by the “experts” is often wrong or misleading. So, I’m turning to the online community to let me know what your experiences are. I have both Asperger’s syndrome and a degree in psychology and I really want to understand this from our perspective.
My first question is: Does everyone on the spectrum have sensory issues? (For my overview of sensory issues go here If you do, could you give me an overview about some or all of them. Stories welcome. Are there any people on the spectrum who don’t have sensory issues? Feel free to reply in the box, sent me a question, send me an e-mail ( Anonymity will be protected upon request. 
I am not trying to publish anything right now (other than a blog) and am only associated with a local autism advocacy group (REACH for a difference of Abilene, TX). Any responses will be appreciated, even if this post gets old.
John Mark McDonald

Friday, June 29, 2012

Civil Discourse

This is a post for my local autism advocacy group in Abilene, TX: REACH for a difference.

Words are powerful tools. As with any tool, they are not inherently good or bad. It all depends on how they are used. Any particular phrase can be used to help or to harm. I have watched a word or phrase that was meant to be helpful or neutral become an insult more than once in my lifetime. It seems like the average 8 year old can turn any word of phrase into an insult with just a little verbal twist and flick.
So when I see people drawing lines and taking sides over words, I tend to sigh to myself and shake my head sadly. As a writer I know just how powerful words can be. On the other hand, as on observer of the human condition, I know just how quickly meanings can change. There is no such thing as a safe word that is inherently good and respectful and there is no such thing as a word that is inherently bad or disrespectful. If you don't believe me, look at how easily and playfully the black community uses the word nigger among themselves. The problem is not the word, but with who uses it and how.
I urge you to think about this before you draw a line in the sand about a particular word or phrase. The important thing is how you treat a person. Words are only a tool in doing so.

John Mark McDonald

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sensory Issues in Autism

Sensory Issues in Autism

An important thing to remember for people with autism of all ages is sensory stimulation issues. It is well known in the autism community that people with autism can easily be over stimulated by certain things. After that, things get a bit fuzzy. I have heard it said that autistic people can be over or under simulated by certain types of stimuli. From my own experience, autistics tend to need a small amount of sensory stimulation of the right type (sensory seeking) and shielding from stimulation of the wrong type (sensory overload) or overwhelming amounts of stimulation of any type. To make things more confusing, what kind of sensory stimulation is bad and what is good can be different for each autistic person.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can be especially disabling for people with autism. The symptoms of sensory overload vary from person to person. Some of the common effects range from confusion, anxiety, irritability, shakiness, and restlessness to more serious effects like panic attacks, physical pain, physical illness, migraine headaches, aggression, paralysis, meltdowns, and breakdowns.

Sensory Seeking

Sensory seeking is being drawn to or calmed by certain forms of stimuli. People with autism are well known for "stimming." The most well-known forms of this are repetitive motions or sounds that are used to reassure or entertain themselves. Stimming probably has the worst reputation of all the autistic behaviors because it sets autistic people apart as being "weird, abnormal, or unnatural." This can lead to stimming issues to be treated all out of proportion of their importance, or even worse being treated with fear and revulsion. Yet for people with autism, sensory stimulation can be needed in order for them to be able to function effectively. Therefore, the goal should not be to eliminate sensory stimulation behavior, but to channel it into more appropriate and productive activities.

Finding a balance

            Being able to balance sensory issues is critical for any autistic person to be able to function in a "normal" environment. In order to do this, you need to identify what the sensory stimulation issues are for any given autistic person. This is especially difficult on caregivers of nonverbal autistics or autistic children that are too young to talk and analyze their own situation. In this case, the only way to figure this out is by observation. Let me give some examples with each sense of both sensory seeking and over-stimulation  and some possible tools that can be used in either case. It is worth mentioning that a person can be sensory seeking and sensory overloaded by the same form of stimuli at different levels.


If an autistic person makes noise, hums, echolalia, repeats things, babbles or screams every time it gets quiet, it may be that they need sound stimulation. Some low background music without words, like classical or ambient, could make a great deal of difference. Another idea is fans or other sources of “white noise” to keep things from being “too quiet” and to mask disturbing sounds. The idea here is for the sound to be truly background. If it is too interesting or intrusive, it defeats the purpose.
 On the other hand, if the person gets upset every time there is a noise (especially sudden ones), this could mean they are being overwhelmed by sound. A pair of headphones that completely cover the ears could be an amazing help to them. I really want to test the effectiveness of a pair of noise canceling headphones with access to both music and a parabolic microphone for controlling audio stimulation.
Beware that some things that appear to be sound-based, might actually be touch or even deep pressure. Loud sounds and especially low tones can often be felt as vibrations. Making noises through banging or drumming can be as much about how it feels as how it sounds.


If an autistic person likes to hide in dark places, or seems reluctant to go out into the sunlight or other bright places, or they shy away from flashing lights or bright colors they may have light sensitivity. A pair of sunglasses, even indoors, can be a real help. Another idea is dimmable lights or indirect lighting. Personally, visual overstimulation is the fastest way to give me a migraine headache.
If they are drawn to the light and things that are brightly colored, they made need more visual stimulation. Another possible indication is if they get stuck, like a deer in the headlights, by visually interesting things like TVs or moving patterns. Bright colors or shimmering, iridescent or spinning things could be very comforting to them. Using videos and educational TV programs might be especially effective in getting things across to them. It is always been especially difficult for me to ignore TV's. Whenever a TV is on, it catches my attention and I am forced to watch it even if the content is uninteresting, distressing, or repulsive.


If an autistic person is constantly rubbing or scratching themselves they may need more tactile stimulation. Even more disturbing signs of the need of tactile stimulation are so-called self injurious behaviors like hitting themselves or head-banging. A sensory stimulation brush such as occupational therapist use could be very helpful. I used to love corduroy pants, embroidered patches, or those old-fashioned 3-D books that had the plastic ridges on them that I could run my fingers over. The idea here is something that is tactilely interesting that they can handle in public and still be considered appropriate. Swimming can be also very useful as it helps to be able to feel as the water goes over the entire surface of the skin.
 On the other hand, it is not uncommon to be overwhelmed by things like clothing touching the autistic person’s skin. Warning signs here are things like constantly taking off their clothes, wearing their clothes inside out or rejecting rough blankets or towels. In this case removing clothing tags and making sure the inside lining of the clothing is smooth and not scratchy can be very important. Autistic people who are sensitive to touch often say that light touches leaves an itching sensation that may last long after the touch is over. My son still likes to wear his clothing inside out as often as he get away with it.
 Another thing to watch out for here is sensitive skin. If they are constantly scratching at her skin until it's red and raw, they may be sensitive to things like the chemicals in fabric softeners or the scents in laundry soaps. I have sensitive skin and it leaves me itching nearly constantly and I have to be constantly aware of whether or not it's appropriate to scratch in public.


Smell can also be the big sensory trigger. If they are constantly burying their nose in things, they may be smelling them. In this case scented candles or Glade plugs might be useful. I have also seen small dolls that scented powders put into their stuffing. Conversely, they may be overwhelmed by smell. If they avoid the kitchen or rooms that have just been cleaned or any other strong smells, scents may be overwhelming to them. In this case, Frabreze becomes your friend. Sensitivities to smell can often result in an autistic person getting violently ill in the presence of a noxious smell.


The last of the primary senses is taste. Taste is a tricky one because eating is such a sensory rich activity. Eating involves smell, touch, heat, cold, visual appearance, and deep pressure as well as taste. Teasing what is taste and what is other sensory issues can be a bit difficult. To make things even more complex, taste is divided into five sensations: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and meaty (or umami).  People with autism are notoriously picky eaters. They are often so repelled by certain foods that trying to get them to eat them is like telling them to drink poison. Other times they may get so fixated on a certain food that they don’t want to eat anything else. My son would not eat anything brightly colored for many years. Personally, I can’t eat potato salad because I can’t stand texture of the smooth potatoes with crunchy bits in them. I also love sweet and salty tastes and can hardly stand bitter or sour tastes and can barely taste meaty tastes at all. Just to make things more fun, neither my son nor I can stand hot spices because the burning sensation is completely overwhelming to us.

Other senses

Beyond the five primary senses, there are other senses that autistic people can be drawn to or are oversensitive to.

Balance and Motion

The sense of balance and motion is one I've seen many autistic people to be drawn to. They tend to love to run, dance, or spin and never get tired of it. Rocking chairs come in all sizes and can be very comforting. On the other hand people who are sensitive to motion may get easily carsick and find things like roller coasters at theme parks to be torturous. I remember that when I was a small boy, I used to spin until I got so dizzy that I fell down, over and over, and it never made me feel ill.

Deep Pressure

Another obscure sense is deep pressure. Those who are drawn to deep pressure tend to love hugs and massages in infinite amounts, while those who are sensitive to it can hardly stand more than a light touch. This particular overstimulation can lead to a major misunderstanding about an autistic person “rejecting affection,” when in actuality they just can't stand the sensation of deep pressure. There are therapies involving wearing weighted jackets and ankle and wrist weights to help with deep pressure stimulation.

Warmth and Cool

The sensations of warmth and cool are also senses. When I was young I could not get enough of warmth. I was forever wearing coats on warm days, never wore shorts even 100ยบ+ weather and could not get enough of long hot showers. It drove my poor mother crazy. As for cool, being drawn to a cool breeze, cool water or even an obsession with popsicles might be indications. Just a couple of notes here, warmth and burning are completely different sensations, as are cool freezing: I love the sensation of warmth but hated the burning sensation. Also, just because you love warmth does not mean you'll hate cool and vice versa.

There might be other senses that autistic people are drawn to, but these are all I'm aware of. I would also like to remind you that these are simply examples of personal experience and other people I've seen or read about. There are plenty of other ways in which autistic people show they are drawn to or overwhelmed by sensations.

Combined Sensations

Besides this, they can also be drawn to or overwhelmed by different combinations of sensations. I mentioned that I was drawn to certain rough textures, but this was especially true when I could use them to make a sound that I could hear and could also feel the vibrations as deep pressure. For someone trying to unravel this from outside observation they can be very complex and confusing.

Change Over Time

One last thing to note is that sensory issues can and do change over time and the methods of coping certainly change with growth. An autistic child of four may be overwhelmed by touch to the point of never wanting to wear clothes and spend much of their time spinning. The same person at fourteen may have difficulty with eating any food they consider slimy, but loves to run whenever they find room. At the age of twenty-four, the same person may love to wear light, flowing clothing and have become a professional dancer. Some sensory issues disappear over time while others become problematic seemingly out of nowhere.
In any case, sensory issues tend to be a big deal for people with autism throughout their lives. Understanding sensory issues can be key to understanding how to help an autistic person to improve grow and thrive in their environment.