Autism and Engineering: Hope to Bridge the Employment Gap  

engineering with autism

As this blog and many others prove, autism is being researched and reported on every day. Most of the time this research focuses on treating this condition which is often described as an ‘epidemic.’

Articles that place autism in a positive light are often written by a parent or guardian introducing the public to their child. Not to say this subject matter is bad- autism is still very mysterious so it helps to raise awareness. But very few achieve what Ivan Zytynski has in his article, “A Waste of Talent, Making Space for Autism in Engineering.” The writer does this by pointing out that people with autism are valuable in a skilled working environment, not just to who know them and about their condition.  The author isn’t just a parent but also an employer, and one who is excited about the possibility of hiring someone with autism. This perspective be refreshing and motivating in itself.

In essence this is a piece that explains just how valuable someone you know may be in the sciences especially engineering. The writer discusses the possibility that famous scientists, including Einstein and Newton, may have had autism spectrum disorder. He also discusses the life and success of Temple Grandin, an influential animal scientist who has autism herself. The reason that the engineering field should have places for skilled workers with autism has to do with the unique autistic brain capabilities.

There are three qualities Zyntynski mentions that make an autistic person an asset in this field. First, a person with autism tends to think very visually. They can ‘see’ an entire design in their heads before sketching it out. Secondly, employees with autism see the world differently, so their perspective can help the average engineer approach challenges from new angles. An intense ability to focus can be another huge asset as long as the workplace is willing to be accommodating.

With the number of companies already who have telecommuters, it is becoming easier to create flexible with working hours, while and giving employees clear directions and the freedom to think for themselves. However, people with on the autistic spectrum (and the special community in general) are greatly underemployed and many do not hold jobs at all. If you had a brain like someone with autism and you happened to be ‘normal’ yet weren’t able to use your abilities no one would question what an asset a company would be missing. With a few small changes to a working environment, everyone can benefit disabled and normal alike. Doesn’t that give you hope?

Melanie L. Reach

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Olathe, KA Gets a Little TLC For Autism Families

tlc for autistics

Everyone emphasizes the importance of education, intervention, and therapeutic communities for those with special needs. Unfortunately, many of the people who most desperately need these things are unable to access them due to their costly prices. For residents in Jackson County, Kansas, this is something that is changing.

Located just off Interstate 35 is a series of buildings: administrative offices, gyms, classrooms, residential spaces, and therapy rooms. This collection encompasses the nonprofit pediatric health center known as TLC, which fields thousands of patients a year.

TLC (Temporary Lodging for Children) first began as a haven for at-risk youth. Over the past many years, however, it has expanded its accommodations to assist families in crisis, specifically as a result of psychiatric and developmental problems. They provide outreach and treatment to both the under and uninsured families of Jackson County, KA.

Since 2013, TLC has concentrated new efforts into reaching families affected by autism. It is just one of the many disorders that too often require pricey treatment that not everyone can afford. The number one treatment for autism is uncontestably intervention; without this, many of the persons affected spiral into their symptoms, diminishing their relationship to the world around them. For those people unable to provide the money for therapy, TLC proffers a great alternative.

Though it is still developing, TLC’s expansion into autism treatment since 2013 has grown to include speech, social, language, and occupational therapy services across a broad spectrum and age range. It also promotes parental education and encourages parents to observe their children’s therapy sessions so that they might optimize their experiences at home.

Despite its recent introduction to the world of autistic services, TLC has received a lot of attention for its autism center. Over the past few months, its enrolled 60 kids in the program, not including the many on wait-lists. Clearly its accomplishments are far-reaching; however, perhaps its greatest success has been in its mindset of serving the underserved.

 Sara Power, Fordham University

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Person-friendly Language: Autism Terminology

autistic terminology

There are a lot of different ways to express a very common idea. Expressing such ideas in a people-friendly manner, however, can be difficult.

With the onslaught of attention autism has received over the past several years, it is more important than ever for health care professionals (as well as laypeople!) to learn amicable conversational patterns over what can be very controversial topics. Often, the best way to do this is by looking at specific terminology. Consider these examples:

“Autistic Person v. Person with Autism”

There is no unilaterally correct way to deliver this terminology. Its reception depends on the individual and how they see their situation. It is of tantamount importance to first establish which term an individual relates to in order to maximize their experience in treatment.

“High v. Low Functioning”

Though these labels appear practical because they establish a supposed spectrum, it implies that every person affected by autism is on the same scale. This is not the case. Functionality depends not only on the individual person’s circumstances, but also in terms of what they see as being a success or failure in their day-to-day lives. This results in a multivariate understanding of functioning that simply cannot be contained by this limited, but oft-used label.

“Talking Down”

Imagine being a fully-grown adult who is spoken to as if you were a child. Such is the reality for too many individuals with autism. At times, simpler language may be necessary to productively communicate, but a patronizing tone is not the avenue to get there.

“Suffers From”

Being autistic is not necessarily good or bad. It just is. To say that a person suffers from autism is to imply that they are in extreme pain or discomfort. Autism may not necessarily be a gift, but it does not have to be an affliction. Using positive language when speaking of autism is a powerful tool to redefining the way we view disabilities in our generation.

“The Norm”

What is normal is entirely a construction. Being autistic doesn’t make you abnormal; it simply means that you have a very unique concept of the world around you. No one person is “normal;” this is just a social construct people have developed so as to categorize their very complex world into oversimplified terms.

These are just a few of the many ongoing debates about terminology in autistic communities. For the sake of proactive discussion and interaction, it is important that persons define what terms/phrases they are comfortable with before engaging with and educating others.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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California Research with Foals Provides Insight for Autism

Autism and Developmentally Delayed Foals

At the very core of things, humans and animals have much in common. We may have enlightened consciences and higher-order methods of thinking, but at the end of the day, we are alike in a myriad of ways. A research project going on at the University of California, Davis proves just that.

Recently, Dr. Isaac Pessah of molecular biosciences and Dr. John Madigan of the veterinary school, have begun to look into the relationship between autism and a developmental disorder in newborn horses. The foals with this disorder exhibit social detachment and fail to recognize their mothers. This disorder, known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome (also called dummy foal syndrome), was originally attributed to hypoxia at birth. However, researchers have since identified that this disorder’s origins lies not in the birth itself, but the circumstances surrounding the birth.

In utero, foals are kept quiet by naturally occurring neurosteriods that sustain the pregnancy. Typically, at birth, these calming steroids are switched off as the foal readies itself for survival outside the womb; however, for some this simply does not seem to happen. Researchers believe that in some births (specifically rapid births and emergency C-sections), these affected foals do not have the time for their neurobiology to adapt to the new circumstance and switch off the neurosteroids. As a result, they seem detached, if not entirely asleep.

Madigan recently came up with a method for decreasing the symptoms of neonatal maladjustment syndrome in foals. By looping the foals’ torsos several times with a soft rope and squeezing them, veterinarians are able to mimic the feeling of birth for the foal. After holding the foal in this position for twenty minutes, they’ve found that some of the foals have recovered from their previous symptoms.

Owing to the nature and symptoms of neonatal maladjustment syndrome, Pessah and Madigan believe it may be a strain of autism found in animals. Currently, they attribute this social maladjustment to some sort of disruption in the transition of fetal consciousness. To further study the matter, the two researchers have teamed up with other veterinarians, physicians, epidemiologists, and basic science researchers at Stanford. They meet under the name of the Comparative Neurology Research Group and hope to contribute what they can towards a better understanding of autism roots and causes.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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Robots Helping Children with Autism Diagnosis and Treatment

robots treat children with autism

Technology is expanding at exponential rates. Smartphones are already making it possible for some children to communicate. But the world never stops turning and neither do the minds of researchers who study autism. The minds of Dan Popa and researchers at HansonRoboKind in Texas have created an intelligent group of robots who are already working with a small group of children with autism. Although they are still starting out, the researchers project’s diagnostic and clinical ‘abilities’ look promising.

These robots, Zeno, Milo and a few international versions can use synthetic voices to communicate with and instruct children in three modes with varying degrees of robotic autonomy. These modes can allow teachers and therapists flexibility when working with their student. The robot can grow with the child, but because it has the more advanced modes it is not limited to young children or by level of functioning.

The roots are able to interact and engage with children in a manner that doesn’t seem like work for the child. It was reported that children who had never spoken with adults felt comfortable talking with the robot.  The robot’s look in a photograph may be slightly imposing to some people, but knowing that the brain of someone with autism works differently, this might be an advantageous aspect as it may help the user distinguish the robot from a person.

What makes this family of robots appealing to the autistic community is their degree of non-verbal expressiveness that can set an example for children who may find a mechanical robot less threatening than a human teacher. At the time of this article’s publication the family featured had only had  preliminary sessions with the robot, but the mother was quoted as saying her seven year old was responding well to sessions and thus she is hopeful for the future.

The future does seem bright for these robots and thus the people with autism that may use them. The researchers seem active in improving their technology all over the world. IPhone’s Siri robot may soon be surpassed.

Melanie L. Reach, Wright State University

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Treatment May Improve the Outcome for Autistics by Age 6

autistic kids who show improvement

 

 

1 in 68 children in the US is affected by autism. According to a new study in Canada, more than 10% of these children will remarkably improve by age 6 while nearly 20% will make significant gains in everyday functioning.

In their study, Canadian researchers followed the lives of 421 children from the onset of their early diagnosis until their sixth year of age. They tracked the improvements and setbacks each child displayed in the hopes that they would be able to identify precisely how many autistic children could improve by the age of 6.

Though the study succeeded in identifying a rate, it struggled in terms of operationalizing just what “improvement” was. For some children, this meant an increase in adaptive functioning; for others it meant an improvement in their symptoms.

For the children whose symptoms improved via communication and socialization, they did not necessarily decrease non-adaptive behaviors such as hand flapping. Meanwhile, for some of the other children whose symptoms did not improve (i.e. were nonverbal or antisocial), they were able to learn to suppress behaviors like hand flapping. The significance? Clearly there needs to be more research.

Despite this murky definition of “improvement,” the study does show some promise for children with severe early onset autism. Though the percentage of improvements was low, it signifies that perhaps early treatment can in fact make a significant difference.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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Google Genomics and the Way of the Future

Google genomics

Autism is not an isolated problem; it occurs globally. With such a vast proclivity, it is no wonder that researchers have struggled so much to firmly conclude some of their studies. There is simply too much variability between subjects. Google is about to change all of that.

With their initiative, Google Genomics, the company hopes to foster international research via a mass base of data, provided by their Cloud engine. In doing so, they are revolutionizing research because data regarding the same subjects can now be accessed for multiple studies. As a result, researchers will not have to spend as much time worrying about gathering subjects and can instead focus on the research itself.

This effort is sponsored through the funding of a group called Mssng. This group currently sponsors a multitude of genomic studies in the hopes that compiling genetic data will decrease the time it takes to diagnose, thereby maximizing treatment efforts.

This past month, the GoogleDrive for this project released its first 1,000 genomic entries. Soon, they intend to bolster that number to 10,000. With the recent increase in genetic studies regarding autism, this mode of research could be key to identifying autism’s interplay within families and decreasing its future inheritability.

Though this project is new and has a far way to go, representatives at Google strongly believe that “this will enable us to make discoveries and drive innovation faster than ever.”

Sara Power, Fordham University

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Special Savings Accounts Law Created for People with Disabilities

disability laws autism

President Barack Obama signed into law the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE Act) on December 19, 2014. This is a tax-favored way for families and people with disabilities to save money for future expenses without being disqualified from federal benefits.

Previously, to qualify for S.S.I, a person could have no more than $2,000 in assets. The new law allows for an annual contribution of up to $14,000 and can grow to $100,000 without threatening S.S.I. benefits, although some states may have contribution limits that are higher.

When speaking with the NY Times, Ms. Weir, of the National Down Syndrome Society, described the law as the most significant piece of legislation affecting the disabled since the passage of the American with Disabilities Act was passed July 26, 1990. “This sends the message that people with disabilities can work and save money, and be as independent as possible,” said Ms. Weir.

Qualification requirements for the 529 ABLE Act, a beneficiary must have been entitled to S.S.I benefits, blind of disabled before the age of 26, or have a doctor’s certification of blindness or physical or mental impairment with results in severe limitations on function.

In addition, a disabled person, relatives or friends can make regular or one-time contributions that can be used for qualified expenses which includes education, housing, transportation, etc without being subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.

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Film Director Casts Actors with Autism for Authenticity

actors with autism

Director Jesse Cramer is not only opening the world to new perspectives on autism in his movie “Circles,” but also an incredible opportunity: professional acting for children with autism.

Cramer, who has worked with children on the spectrum for the past several years, wanted to add a new layer of authenticity to his script, which centers itself on the emotional experience of a young boy whose friend is moving away. The main character has trouble expressing his feelings, which is a trait common within ASD.

Sam Seidel plays the main character, Ollie, in “Circles.” Sam, similarly to his character, was born with autism and faces obstacles on a daily basis. He was one of more than 100 kids that auditioned for the role. Of those chosen for the cast, nearly all of the the film’s actors are autistic.

On working with such a unique cast, Cramer has said that “The entire crew keeps coming up to me and saying these actors are the best actors (they) ever worked with because they want to be here so badly.” Part of the reason they are so good is because they are essentially acting out their own experiences. What occurs on camera seems real is because it is real: a unique element few directors can claim about their movies.

There is no official date for the film’s release but its message about the struggles with autism and emotions is sure to leave quite the impact on audiences.

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The Significance of Synchrony

synchronicity

Scientists have long-awaited the day that they can come up with a concrete diagnostic tool for early detection of autism. Though they are still working on this, current research has brought them one step closer.

Over the past several years, there has been a lot of debate about patterns of synchrony within the autistic brain. It was once believed that they were underdeveloped; however, new research indicates that the problem could in fact be over-synchronization.

Studies by Professor Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University demonstrate a significant difference between the brain profiles of normally developing individuals and those with autism. She and her team of researchers have investigated data from fMRI tests taken from subjects of both cognitions during a period of rest. During periods of rest, the brain elicits spontaneous patterns unrelated to specific stimuli; therefore, researchers are able to detect brain patterns as they naturally occur and synchronize.

“Synchonicity” refers to the the connections between different parts of the brain. There is a wide variance in the degree of connectivity in autistic brains- some are under-synchronized, while others are over-synchronized.

Results demonstrate that while normally developing brains follow very similar patterns of synchronization, autistic brains follow a distinctly different pattern. In fact, this pattern distinguishes itself by the very fact that it follows no pattern. Rather than conforming to one norm, it is idiosyncratic. As a result, each person with autism experiences the world in a very different manner, which could explain their behaviors and reactions to their environment.

The variations between the brains of those with autism causes many scientists to use the term “autisms” instead of the singular “autism.”

Researchers still have a long way to go before they can definitively state that they can diagnose autism based strictly on brain imaging devices. However, this discovery could lead neuropsychologists down the path it takes to get there.

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