Who am us anyway?

The post Why “High Functioning” Autism Is So Challenging over at About.com’s autism section is a more comprehensive and yet more concise write-up of some of the same ideas I’ve covered in past blog posts, especially the “but you don’t seem autistic” themed posts.

I have all of the issues mentioned to some degree or another but can usually do a good job passing. But not always. Last month on my first week of a new consulting engagement my client’s project manager said there was a “coffee social” going on.  He invited my colleague AJ and I to walk down the hall for a chat and to get some free coffee. I don’t drink coffee but I’ve learned that when the client wants to chat you go chat.

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Can I just be a functioning autistic?

Dani over at Autistic Academic recently posted Why This “High-Functioning” Autistic Really Wishes You’d Shut Up About High-Functioning Autistics.  It’s a well reasoned and provocative post that might make you reconsider how you think and refer to differences in others.

I highly recommend giving the post a read but some of the best parts are in the follow-on comments.  I’ll take some liberties and quote from one:

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I hope it’s casual day

Posted on the inside of the front door at my house is a list of all the things I need to remember before heading to the airport. I’m laser focused on some things like computer security, which is good because that’s my job.  But at the basics of life, I’m totally scatterbrained.  My executive function never was much good and I have to resort to building rigid routines like posting lists on the door in order to compensate.

Many of the items are on the list because I have at one point gone off without them.  If there’s one thing my wife hates, it’s overnight shipping a laptop power adapter to me.  she did it once, then added it to the list.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s seeing how much it costs to overnight ship something to me. When I saw the bill, I invested in a docking station so I never have to use the power cord while at home.  If it stays in the backpack, I can’t leave it behind.

My alternate strategy is to keep multiples of most important things in my backpack in case I leave one behind.

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Open Letter to Facebook’s Monika Bickert and Justin Osofsky

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Product Policy and Justin Osofsky, their Vice President of Global Operations co-wrote this letter about Facebook’s Community Standards. Among the principles they claim Facebook is guided by are:

Keeping you safe. We have zero tolerance for any behavior that puts people in danger, whether someone is organizing or advocating real-world violence or bullying other people. Requiring people to use their authentic identity on Facebook helps motivate all of us to act responsibly, since our names and reputations are visibly linked to our words and actions.

Yet after 1,000s of user reports, the Facebook page Families Against Autistic Shooters remains up. The user ID behind the page is “AutismKills” which indicates the position the page takes. It isn’t against “Autistic Shooters” as claimed but against autistics. There are repeated false and inflammatory claims on the page of a causal link between autism and mass murder. The page openly suggests autistics should be feared and implies incarceration or euthanasia of the entire population as a response to mass shootings.

Families Against Autistic Shooters page

And while Bickert and Osofsky claim Facebook’s real name policy protects users, the page is completely anonymous. There is no accountability whatsoever to the person responsible except through Facebook’s community reporting.

And how did that reporting go? Report after report is met with boiler plate text explaining that the page does NOT violate Facebook Community Standards.

  • Nothing on the page is directed at a specific individual so it doesn’t violate the Direct Threat clause.
  • It falls short of qualifying as a criminal or terrorist group so doesn’t rise to the requirements of the Dangerous Organization clause.
  • The Bullying and Harassment clause requires that the actions identify a specific, private individual.
  • The lack of threats to specific individuals does not trigger the Attacks on Public Figures clause.
  • No overt criminal acts are proposed.

Facebook response to reportBut this page and others like it DO serve to make Facebook unsafe for autistic people. It identifies an entire disability population as the pool from which mass murders are produced. It suggests that if we did away with autistics, we will be able to stop mass murder.

Does the page make autistics unsafe?

  • It causes direct emotional harm to autistics who encounter the page.
  • It fosters open hostility towards autistic people far beyond the source page.
  • It emboldens people to take real-life actions against autistics.
  • It diminishes job opportunities for autistic people by implying risk.
  • It perpetuates a climate of sympathy for parents who murder their autistic children.
  • It dehumanizes autistics as unworthy of any basic human rights, especially that of safety.
  • It diminishes the chance for autistics to participate in society at whatever level they are capable.

This last is doubly unfortunate because many in the autistic community make their closest bonds online. Some are non-verbal, others socially anxious to the point of disability. The ability to compose posts at one’s own pace fosters a dialog between autistics, their community, and the rest of the world. If there is one place autistics can function as part of a community, it is online in the digital world.

Except that this is also the venue within which bigots can organize communities of hate against autistics. The truth is that autistics are far more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it. I nearly lost my own life to school bullies on two occasions. They were supported by a climate of acceptance which saw their actions as acceptable. This Facebook page perpetuates and amplifies that very climate of tolerance of violence and discrimination against a vulnerable population.

Ms. Bickert and Mr. Osofsky, you have failed to live up to the promise of zero tolerance for behavior that puts people at risk.

Your policy of narrowly defining risk as that which applies to specific named individuals has utterly failed the autistic community.

Your Real Name policy has failed us by allowing the page administrator to post anonymously with complete immunity from consequences.

Your narrow definition of bullying, hate speech and Zero Tolerance has failed the world’s entire autistic population all at once.

Your Community Reporting Mechanism has failed us this weekend by the thousands.

You say that “our goal is to create an environment where we don’t need a lot of rules, and people on Facebook feel motivated and empowered to treat each other with empathy and respect.”

So long as the administrators of pages like Families Against Autistic Shooters have no incentive to treat others with the promised empathy and respect, then you, personally Ms. Bickert and Mr. Osofsky, have failed us.

As an autistic person whose job prospects and safety both online and off are directly harmed as a result of this page, you have personally also failed me.

I hope that you will consider how Facebook’s Community Standards might be improved to cover bullying and harassment of vulnerable groups in addition to whatever protections are now afforded to individuals.

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Out of my Gourd!

Out Of My Gourd coverThis blog and it’s sister The Odd is Silent are coming soon as a book!  I have a request for my author readers and friends.

I am trying to learn about the mechanics of publishing books and, as you may have picked up, I tend to learn best by doing things hands-on. With this in mind, I undertook to self-publish a collection of blog posts from The Odd is Silent and Ask An Aspie, focusing on those that are humorous and/or about autism.

As you may have also picked up on, I don’t do anything without an element of fun, and often that fun comes at my own expense. Which is how you can help. I would like to have quotes about the book from other authors to put in the “praise for this book” section  – these will be anything but. For example:

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Overcoming social anxiety

There are many Aspie groups on Facebook and naturally I’m in a couple of them.  The following question showed up in my feed and my response sort of outgrew Facebook.

My 18 year old daughter is high functioning autistic and about to graduate high school with high honors. She does NOT want to go to graduation. As she so reasonably says, she will get her diploma anyway so why go through the anxiety of the ceremony. I am torn on how much to push her. The school is wonderful about making accommodations for her. Any thoughts about this?

My immediate response was to let the girl decide.  But then I thought about how different I am today than the unemployable, abrasive, and socially inept teen who preceded me.  So I still say let the girl make a decision and abide by it, but also approach it with a specific strategy.

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Intentcasting…to a roach?

OK, so it’s a robot and not a roach. But it is a robot that *looks* a lot like a roach. Researchers at Bielefeld University are experimenting with emergent behavior on a robot platform they named Hector. Their software thus far has been reactive. The new software aims to give the robot “what if” capabilities to solve problems it has not been programmed for. This would imbue the robot with independent goal-directed behavior – i.e. robot intentions.

But beyond that, “they have now developed a software architecture that could enable Hector to see himself as others see him.” In other words, they gave it theory of mind and their ultimate goal is for it to be able to sense the intentions of humans and take these into account when formulating responses and actions. They want it to be self-aware. Though the rest of the world will probably see in this the parallels to Skynet of Terminator fame, to me the more interesting part to me is the notion that it will sense human intention.

Perhaps this is because the current crop of “smart” devices seems very autistic to me. Though they have a wide range of apparent intelligence, they respond only to what they can directly sense, and only within a context of which they are the center. The inability to make inferences about humans, and in particular to understand their intentions, is a typically autistic cognitive deficit. While it is possible to emulate this to some extent, it is often perceived as inauthentic and creepy, which may be why I write about it so much.

Bielefeld University's Hector robot

Bielefeld University’s robot Hector is close to being self-aware

The quest by the marketing industry to provide targeted messaging tailored to your specific interests and intentions very much parallels the autistic experience. Any given product or brand seeks to better understand how it is perceived by humans. Or to put it another way, products and brands lack theory of mind and the ability to infer human emotions and intentions from non-verbal communication. They lack cognitive empathy

Like any autistic person, they attempt to mitigate their cognitive deficits by gathering data, observing reactions, forming a model of human behavior, calculating appropriate responses, then improving data sources and refining the model over time. When humans do this we call it vocational training and independence skills. When vendors do this we call it ad-tech. Both groups tend to wonder why people at large often perceive it as creepy.

But it is worth wondering whether this is appropriate.  Certainly it is intuitive because in a world where as much as 90% of communication is non-verbal, the expectation is not to have to accommodate those with cognitive deficits, but rather that they learn to overcome the deficit.

Body language is an oxymoron

Body language is an oxymoron

But if you are autistic or know someone who is, how often have you said or heard “why don’t people just say what they mean?”  But in neurotypical society the first rule about the rules is you don’t talk about the rules.  Among neurotypical people, telling people what the rules are destroys authenticity.  It creates the assumption that the person’s words and actions are merely a reflection of what you want from them.

But that need not be the case with commercial transactions.  As Doc Searls explains in his book The Intention Economy, using brute-force computing power to analyze your behavior in order to guess your intentions is grossly inefficient.  It would be easier to implement a system in which you can just broadcast them.  Or intentcast them, as he dubbed it.  Vendors are starting to embrace the concept and discovering it actually works.  Let us consumers tell you what it is we want, gather that info en masse to minimize sampling error, and then go produce and deliver it.  That works.  Who knew?

Hector the robot at Bielefeld University is essentially autistic. With the addition of self-awareness and the ability to infer human intentions, Hector may cross the line to creepy. We’ll find out shortly.  Much will depend on how he is architected and what our expectations are in terms of robot authenticity.  Is that even a thing?  Can a robot be “authentic” in the sense that humans are expected to be?


JT (Jibo Terrestrial) phone home!

The consciousness of most of our iconic sci-fi robots like C3PO and Robbie was modeled after that of humans – it was self-contained and part of the robot itself. Even though the Star Wars bots could access the networked world, they didn’t send their sensor data back to a central mother ship to be interpreted, processed, and turned into instructions for the robot to follow, then transmitted back. Everything happened locally. Contrast this with our real-world robots that use the mother ship architecture. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google [x], Jibo, Pepper, etc. all phone home more often than ET. If you use these products, their vendors have access to all the data they send back to the mother ship. Because that data is potentially very valuable, it would be naive to believe that it will be discarded once its benefit to you the user has been realized.

It remains to be seen how the software coming out of Bielefeld will work, but one hopes that some aspect of self-awareness will be so incompatible with processing latency as to strongly favor local processing. If that is true and the new robot architecture is more like science fiction of yesteryear than the science fact of today, there is some hope that someone, somewhere on the planet will finally use intention detection in a non-creepy way that primarily benefits the individual and not the vendor. It might also give us insights that will improve the lives of autistic people by helping us learn to infer human behavior in non-creepy ways.

On the other hand, if you ever read about Hector in Ad Age, we are all doomed. Skynet will have awoken. And it will have a really good deal for you.


This is cross-posted from my business blog at IoPT Consulting because of the autism connection, and edited slightly to explore more of the autism topics.  The original is posted here.

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