Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Software company stereotypes those with autism and says it's okay to exploit them

As originally reported on the autism jabberwocky blog, The Los Angeles software company, Square One, is in the process of trying to help three different autistic people find employment as software testers. They have a pilot program in which these three people will be trained.

This has been reported in a business week article.

The article starts out with the annoying stereotype of all autistic people having intellectual superpowers and having savant skills and memorizing train tables and having Jerry Newport type calendar skills where they can tell you the day of the week you were born on.

Square One's efforts, however, are not unprecedented. The Danish company Specialisterne has also trained autistic people to be software testers. Another company in Chicago, Aspiritech, has employed persons with autism to test smartphone applications.

The difference lies in the fact that in socialist Denmark, which enjoys high revenue from Northern sea oil drilling, the funds were provided for this company. It is improbable that the U.S. government would fund an upstart like this. Aspiritech is currently a nonprofit company.

Square one aspires to be the first company to make a profit from the labor of exclusively ASD software testers. Is anything wrong with this? After all, it's the American way we're told. This is what happens in a capitalistic society such as the U.S.A.

However, CEO Chad Hahn states:
A lot of software testing is done overseas by workers in India. The case Hahn makes is that his software testers will work for $15 to $20 an hour—pay comparable to, or even lower than, that of software testers in India, but right here in the U.S. After all, he points out, people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.
When Hahn was asked if he sees this as exploitive the article states:
he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.
“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”

The comparison between Indian software testers and American autistics who do the same thing is moot. The standard of living in India is lower than in the U.S. The Indian making $25/hour can probably live like the $75-100/hour American.

It's these kind of bigoted stereotypes and attitudes that it's okay to exploit people that help make things worse for those of us on the spectrum.

As a person on the spectrum with no intellectual superpowers or savant skills, I find the stereotypes from the article offensive.

The article stated that Hahn's wife does some sort of work with developmentally disabled people. Are the Hahns doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, or do they see some easy way to make money off the backs of those less fortunate than themselves?

I wonder how much they understand about the problems of the developmentally disabled in the workplace. Are non-handicapped employees going to put up with bad behavior and social skills. Or maybe this is a test of Ari Ne'eman's theory that social skills in the workplace don't matter.

Time will tell if this plan pans out for Square One.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

New autism genetic brain growth study may refute some urban legends

I read with interest (albeit admittedly with limited understand)
the new article that demonstrates evidence for a genetic etiology for the abnormal brain growth and other anomalies in autism. Scientific American has published an overview of this work that's more understandable to the lay person (myself included) than the primary source, which I've also linked to above.

One finding that I think at least some labs have replicated is abnormal brain growth in autism. Eric Courchesne recently published a study demonstrating abnormal brain growth in the prefrontal cortex of postmortem autistic subjects and finding autistic brains have 67% more neurons in this area than normal controls. I've written about this elsewhere.

This study examined genetic pathways and defects in postmortem brains of both autistic children and adults as compared to age-matched controls.

One of the striking findings of this work was the fact that the genetic defects and how they affected the brain were qualitatively different in the adult group than in children.

The last sentence in the conclusion section of the article is particularly compelling: Further knowledge of the specific developmental neurobiological mechanisms behind the age-dependent anomalies reported here could point to distinct early developmental processes that lead to autism, uncover mechanisms that respond to early pathologies in the mature brain and suggest novel molecular targets for prevention strategies and treatment over the course of the disorder .

This study may have relevance to two well-known tenets in the autism community: 1. Early intervention makes a difference in the outcome of autistic children. The earlier the treatment is started the better the prognosis. 2. One of the main arguments of the neurodiversity movement that the term "prevention" is in reality a codeword for abortion and that genetic research in autism will only lead to widespread termination of pregnancies involving autistic fetuses. The ND movement gives the oft-cited statistic of a more than 90% abortion rate of Down's syndrome children as evidence for this. There are probably a number of problems with this argument, but that may be the subject of a future gadfly blog post.

Though the "early intervention" mantra is repeatedly chanted to parents of small autistic children by entrepeneurs financed by the IDEA law (ABA practitioners and others), to the best of my knowledge, no studies have been done linking age of intake to a more favorable prognosis or outcome.

As I've written before, I underwent psychoanalysis beginning the late 1950s. This was the intervention of choice in those days. I went from nonverbal feces smearing to mildly impaired autistic during this time period. Was it the psychoanalysis that helped me? Have ABA and other more contemporary interventions been responsible for at least partial recovery of those with autism? I believe the differences between the postmortem brains in the children versus adults as well as different genetic pathways may account for recovery in some cases. Some persons who had certain types of genetic defects as children, may not have had the as adults. Perhaps the adults without certain deficiencies did not have genes that interfered with patterns repairing neurons etc. Perhaps that accounts for recoveries rather than early intervention. Though admittedly it is speculation, I don't believe this hypothesis is farfetched.

ASAN and other neurodiversity organizations have repeatedly claimed that all research funded by Autism speaks, the Simons foundation, etc. has a goal of finding a way abort autistic fetuses. This includes fMRI studies and studies of TMS and mu wave suppression which do not appear to have any relevance to genetic research to a reasonable person. This paper may be the start of empirical evidence, that in fact, genetic research is our ace in the hole for preventing autism. No, not aborting the autistic fetus, but perhaps finding the genetic mechanisms prenatally that cause this brain overgrowth and possibly other problems the autistic may have. For this reason, I believe studies like this should be funded and it may have promising implications of being able to prevent the fetus from becoming autistic in the first place or even possibly helping those already born.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Does an autistic's higher perceptual capacity translate into a lucrative IT career?

I've just read an interesting post on one of my favorite autism blogs, "M.J's" Autism Jabberwocky. MJ writes about an article that appeared online in Science Daily. Cognitive neuroscience Nilli Lavie has claimed that her recent study has demonstrated that autistics have superior perceptual processing capacity. She goes further in claiming that these strengths can be capitalized on and help autistics in their life activities and possibly be the stepping stone into a lucrative career in the IT industry. She goes further to claim that the findings of her research may demonstrate why so many persons with autism are successful computer programmers, network administrators, etc.

I haven't read the primary source, i.e. Lavie's actual article published in the journal of abnormal psychology, so I won't comment on the validity of her research or even whether or not it has the clinical applications that she's claiming. I'm still awaiting a single example of an autistic person who was helped by this type of research and any studies showing a benefit. This is particularly true of rogue physician and scientist Laurent Mottron who has made similar claims yet has provided no evidence of persons who have been helped by treatments based on this research, particularly an autist who made it in the IT biz. This is particularly germane given the fact this was the rationale given for Mottron's half a million dollar research grant from Autism Speaks.

I am curious as to exactly how many individuals with a bonafide autism diagnosis actually have been successful in careers in IT. I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that though there may actually be some individuals who fit the bill, they are very few and far between. I still remember my unsuccessful attempts to get into this profession, but more about that later.

One striking statement in the science daily article was that the numbers of autism diagnoses tripled in the silicone valley during the 1990s. The author of this article quotes Steve Silberman's wired piece as a source. As I said, I haven't read Lavie's article so I don't know if she herself wrote it to bolster her case and it's been a few years or more since I read Silberman's piece so I don't remember exactly what he said either. Even if there were significant increases in the rates of autism in the silicone valley, were they unique as compared to other parts of California. According to figures from the CDDS The answer would appear to be no. Though between July of 1992 and July of 2007 the number of autsitic clients the San Andreas regional center served increased from 213 to 1,798, a 8.4 fold increase, rates in some other parts of the state were no different or significantly larger. The Frank Lanterman center's number went from 209 to 1,962, a more than 9.3 fold increase. North Los Angeles Regional Center's numbers were 437 to 3,708-a fractionally greater increase than San Andreas. East Los Angeles, a relatively poor area with no IT industry went from 150 to 2,040 clients, a 13.6 fold increase. This is more than 1.5 times higher than San Andreas. Valley Mountain regional center went from 68 to 1,178 for a 17.3 fold increase or more than double San Andreas. It would appear, compared to other parts of the state the Silicone valley was hardly a bastion of growth due to IT genes or any other factor. I believe this sort of puts a gaping hole in the argument purported by those who want to use autism prevalence figures to argue for autism increases being caused by an aptitude for computer programming.

I still remember my own failed attempts to become a computer programmer. I took a variety of computer programming courses on and off in the 1980's and 1990s. Though I did learn a bit, it was nowhere near enough to become a professional programmer. Unlike the autistics in Dr. Lavie's and Mottron's studies, I was unable to concentrate or pay attention to details at anywhere near the level of a neurotypical person. Though I worked intermittently in other professions, I was fired from multiple jobs and had to quit working early on in my life.

Therefore, I don't think it's helpful for Drs. Lavie and Mottron to put up simplistic solutions to difficult problems such as that of the many autistics' inability to make a living.