Thursday, June 23, 2011

Discrimination




The continuing discussion about my thoughts on discrimination and accommodation got me to thinking . . .

I am absolutely in favor of laws that make it illegal to fire people for being gay, Jewish, black, or anything else except incompetent.  That’s discrimination, and it’s wrong.

I do my best to live that way, myself.  That means I do my best to treat every person who walks in the door of my company the same way, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever.  I really don’t care about those things.  If someone is nice, I try to be nice.  If they are nasty, I throw them out. 

I suspect my own Asperger’s makes me oblivious to many of the differences in people that are allegedly the basis for discrimination elsewhere.  Therefore it would be more accurate to say I have no idea if a person is gay or straight (unless they say so) than it would be to say I treated them the same because they were one way or the other.  However, I don’t know if I would be any different even if I knew.  The differences ethnic/racial/sexual differences others may remark on generally do not matter much to me.

But that’s just me.  I think other people have a right to their opinions, even if I disagree with them.

For example, I also believe in an employer’s right to let someone go if he does not fit in with that person’s team.  That, to me, is the essence of what we call employment at will, a management tenant which prevails in the USA.  In a small group, everyone has to fit together, and you inevitably have situations where one person does not fit, even though they may be technically competent.

I don’t think it’s wrong to let someone go, in that circumstance.  My company is small, with a dozen employees.  One person with a bad attitude can drag everyone down in a little place, and I think it’s wrong to force us to tolerate the person.

So what if the reason the person doesn’t fit is that they have autism?  That makes it a hard question.  I don’t know if a blanket answer for that circumstance exists, at least for me.

Being a large white heterosexual male, I am (at least superficially) one of the least likely sorts to suffer discrimination.  The only time I really felt discriminated against was when I worked briefly in a Japanese-run company, where it was made abundantly clear that people like me were lesser animals.  Finding that attitude among engineers was shocking at the time, but I know many other folks experience the same thing every day.

So what did I do?  I left.

Could I have been discriminated against because my Asperger's caused me to act in unexpected ways, and I was therefore excluded from a group I might otherwise have been welcomed into?  Sure, that has undoubtedly happened, but I would not necessarily even know.  If they didn't want me, that is enough for me.  I don't want to be there either.  I am very sensitive to that.

As much as I favor laws against discrimination, I am realistic enough to know laws don’t change how people feel.  If my co-workers don’t like me for some reason, I have never been inclined to force my fit in an organization.  I don’t want to be where I am not wanted.

I feel like fighting discrimination often places the fighter in the role of being a victim.  That is the essence of the thing . . . someone done me wrong, and I want to change the world so they cannot do it again.  In that role, one is powerless, and hoping to gain power.  While discrimination fighters have accomplished great things, I feel like I want to act in a more immediately positive way in my own life.  That means I support the fight against discrimination but I choose a path where I am accepted, because that make me feel ok right now.

In my world view, when someone does me wrong, I change the circumstances of my life so they cannot do it again.  My focus is on me, and what I can change in myself or my life circumstances.  Those are the only things really under my control

When I express this view, some autistic people say it’s easy for me, because I have always been able to find work.  That’s true.  I am lucky that way.  What do I say to someone who stays in a job where they are disliked for being who they are, yet they are terrified they cannot find another job?

I don’t know what to say to that.  I have always been so stubborn that I have not been able to stay.  Even when I had no place to land, I always jumped.  I did that in music, cars, electronics jobs, and even publishing.  It’s always worked.  By worked, I mean I have always been able to find a new and better direction.

One consequence of my recent essays is that I’ve been criticized for suggesting that people in a minority group (like autistics, 1% of the population) are more likely to achieve success in nypical society if they make certain changes to fit in.

I think I’ve made it clear how we may change to fit in while still being true to ourselves and out values. 

That does not mean I think society should not be more accepting.  Of course I favor greater acceptance.  I’m just trying to be realistic.  I can’t make other people change.  I can only change myself.  So that’s what I advocate.

I’d be interested in other views on this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Accomodation


Should we change, or should others change for us?  Should workplaces change for us?

We (by we, I mean anyone) must be able to present ourselves in such a way that the people we engage think we are nice/interesting/capable or whatever they need to continue the interaction.  If we fail to do that, we will not move forward in a relationship with that person.  That may mean we don’t make a friend, or we don’t get a job, or we don’t get admitted to a school.  Whatever it is, it’s a lost opportunity.

Obviously no one can succeed with every engagement of another person, but each of us must look at our total tries, and our success rate.  If the success rate is low, we have to ask ourselves why. 

In my last post, I talked briefly about Asperger people who fail to get jobs for whatever reason, and then allege discrimination.  Some neurodiversity voices ask for an end to that discrimination, and for greater acceptance.

I have asked for greater acceptance myself.  I think that is a noble goal, but not one we will see attained anytime soon.  When I look at how I was treated in childhood, how my 21-year old son grew up, and what I see today I see some change but not much.  It leads me to wonder how much acceptance and accommodation we might reasonably expect.

I think what happens is that the philosophical desire for more broadminded treatment flies in the face of evolutionary human development.  We have thousands of years of experience that tells us a person acting a certain way is a bad person; a threat.  We are conditioned to reject people who exhibit those behaviors.  What are those behaviors, you ask?   There is no single, simple answer.  We just seem to be programmed to pick up certain unspoken cues and interpret them that way. 

The problem folks like me have is that our Asperger’s causes us to exhibit innocent but non standard behaviors that get interpreted as bad.  I’ve written on this before, urging people to think twice when a person says or does something unexpected.  I think that works in some situations, especially with people who are exposed to kids with differences or AS in the family. For the great majority of people, though, the message does not get through or it gets ignored.

That’s why I say we are 1% of the population and we can’t expect the other 99% to change for us.  Laudable as the goal of change may be, they just don’t care.  Note than I am not saying the 99% are normal and we are abnormal. I understand the 99% have many issues of their own.  I’m just observing that the odds are stacked very heavily against us, when it comes to getting them to change in all their collective diversity, indifference, ignorance, and whatever else.

What about discrimination?  I won’t say there are not people who discriminate against autistic people.  I’m sure there are.  That said, when we fail to get a job or make a friend, I still maintain that failure usually stems from our behavior (unexpected or unacceptable), and not from arbitrary discrimination against the underlying cause (Asperger’s.)

I cannot control what other people think about “my kind.”  Prejudice or discrimination is something I cannot change, and frankly, I would not want to do it for my benefit through force of law.  Why?  Because if someone does not want me around, that is enough.  I am out of there.  I am not going to stay where I am not wanted.

I want to be in control of my life.  That means I work on changing my behavior as needed to fit in.  I have full control of my actions, so I know success is achievable for me by that route.  I don’t wait around for others to change, because that is frustrating and often unsuccessful. 

What about accommodation for sensory issues?  Several people asked my thoughts on that.  Examples might be moving to a quieter work cubicle, or getting different lighting.  I think many sensory accommodations are reasonable and doable for employers.  I am absolutely in favor of any subtle changes in the workplace that make folks like us more comfortable.

At the same time, I recognize that kind of accommodation has its limits.  If the accommodation would require major changes in the workplace, and that same workplace is acceptable to everyone else, I’d get a different job.  But that’s just me.  Through my life I have chosen to vote with my feet in situations like that.  Others would fight for change and I can respect that, even though I would not do it myself.

In our society, we have chosen to let government dictate the tradeoffs by which some people are inconvenienced for the benefit of people with disabilities.  An example of that would be handicap parking spaces.  By having those spaces we allow those who need them to access facilities they could not otherwise visit. But the non-handicapped person who needs a space pays a price for that accommodation even as it sits unused and he has nowhere to park.

Disability rights advocates fight those battles on many fronts.  I applaud their efforts and successes, but I do not wait for such accommodations to improve my own life.  Since I want action now, I make my own way as best I can.  That is the sometimes hard reality we all face, every day.  We can hope and work for societal change, but we still have the chance to make the best of the life we have today, because today will never come again and I don't want to spend it waiting.  I want to be acting.



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some thoughts about the Steve Silberman interview


















A couple of weeks ago my friend Steve Silberman posted an excellent interview of me which attracted some deserved criticism with respect to my responses. I would like to address some of the points of that interview here.


Silberman: Are there any ways that society could be reformed to make it a more comfortable and supportive place for autistic adults?

Robison: I don't think that's a realistic question, Steve. We represent one percent of the population. Asking what 99 percent of the world should do to make it a better place for that one-percent member --- that's verging on science fiction and fantasy. People who get into that way of thinking become militant about demanding their rights and thinking about what the world owes them. Frankly, I don't think the world perceives that they owe us one single thing.

If you're a guy with severe autistic disability and you can't talk, you cry out for compassion by your very existence. It's obvious when people look at you and listen to you. If you're a person in a wheelchair, nobody can reasonably argue that you should just get your ass across the street. But when you're a person like me and your disability is principally with social functioning, and at the same time you have good language skills, people are going to dismiss you as a jerk if you don't learn to fit in. That's the hard truth. To suggest that someone like me should ask for accommodations is, in my opinion, setting that person up for failure. Because when your language skills are good, there's no external sign of disability, and you act weird --- and then you make demands on people for how they ought to change to accept you? That's a non-starter.

*

People were troubled by my response in that passage, but I believe it remains essentially true, however unpleasant it may seem to people.  Remember, I am not saying I think this is how things should be.  I am saying this how I believe our society works, like it or not.

If you look and sound “normal,” indeed if you present yourself as intelligent and articulate (like many Asperger people) you are going to have a hard time asking people who don’t know you for special accommodation.

They are going to look at you and say, Why?  You look normal to me.

If, on the other had, you have some visible disability, people are cued that they need to be open to different expectations for how you might act or what you might need. 

I’m not suggesting people will take pity on us, or respond on that basis. I am simply suggesting that visible evidence of disability sets the stage for a wide variety of accommodations, freely given.  Taking pity on us has nothing to do with that, though other people may or may not feel that way.

When I suggested that some people perceive us as jerks when we say inappropriate things, I am not passing judgment on those people.  I am simply repeating what has been said to me by countless folks on the spectrum, and others who have interacted with them, successfully or not.  You may not feel comment that applies to you, and if so, that’s great.  Just remember that a defining characteristic of Asperger’s is a difficulty in reading the unspoken messages of other people, and that deficit naturally leads to misunderstandings, some of which will inevitably be interpreted wrong by the other parties.

Then we had this exchange . . .

Silberman: But other minority groups have demanded reasonable accommodation from society, such as laws against discrimination in the workplace. Black folks did it by launching the civil rights movement, many other disabled groups have done so, and gay people --- like your brother Augusten  --- have done it, too.

Robison: The race thing is completely different. You can look at someone and right away know if they're black or white. There's been a huge gay rights movement, but look at what there is already for gay accommodation. I don't think there was ever an issue of people refusing to hire gay people in most workplaces.

Silberman: Well, that isn't true. I'm not trying to argue with you ---

*

OK, I don’t know what I was thinking when I there was never an issue about hiring gay people.  I was totally wrong.  Certainly there are people who say, I won’t hire gay workers just as there were people who said I wouldn’t hire black people, or no Jews allowed here.

And indeed that sort of thinking surely still exists but it’s against the law.

One reason it’s against the law (among other reasons) is that black or gay or Jewish people are not inherently unable to do jobs simply because they are black or gay or Jewish.  That’s why it's called discrimination.

Asperger people are indeed often unable to do certain kinds of jobs because we are Aspergian and act differently in certain circumstances.  Therefore, when we are not hired for those jobs, it’s not clear to me that we are being discriminated against.  I think it’s much more likely that our differences cause us to fail the screening exam, and it would be our behavior that kept us from the job, not our statement that we have Asperger’s (if indeed we revealed that at all.)

To take another example, it is not discrimination to say we won’t hire you because you are too short if you have to be six feet tall to operate a certain kind of machine.  That’s not discrimination either; it’s a legitimate requirement of a particular job.

In my experience, Asperger people who have employment issues tend to get into trouble for saying the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong time.  That includes telling bosses or customers they are stupid, or pointing any number of deficiencies in the employer, other workers, clients, or whatever. 
We may also get fired for not following directions (because we think we have a better way) or for any number of reasons that ultimately tie back to our differences.

When we get fired, it is not because we have Asperger’s.  It’s because we acted inappropriately in a specific instance.  That is not discrimination.

That is what I was trying to say.  Racial, religious, or sex discrimination happens because one group of people does not like another.  I have not seen a lot of evidence of a big body of people who “don’t like autistic folks.”  What I have seen, is people on the spectrum who have lost jobs over behavior issues, and then called that dismissal discrimination.  Does that mean discrimination doesn’t happen?  Certainly not.  I’m sure it does, but I think the behavior issue is the bigger problem for most spectrumites in jobs.

I’m sorry I confused the issue by poor choice of words.

I’d also like to address the question of the Neurodiversity movement, and its goals of change and accommodation.

I am not opposed to ND or it’s desire for change.  My comments in the Silberman interview and elsewhere simply reflect my belief that the changes I see requested/demanded by the ND community will not happen, or will not work.  I know some disagree with this, and that’s ok by me.  The world will be a better place if some of the changes happen, but I am not holding my breath.

In giving the advice I have, I use my best judgments about how we can be successful the way American society is right not, not how we hope it might be in the future.

I’m 53 years old.  My perspective is surely different from those of you who are much younger.  I’ve had jobs, been fired from jobs, and started my own businesses.  I’ve seen them fail, and seen them succeed.  My advice is based on that experience and my observations of and interactions with people I see in the course of writing and speaking on Asperger’s and autism.


Overall, I think Steve did a great interview and I’m sorry my answers were deficient in some areas.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

America - what went wrong?



Last weekend I returned to Canada for a book event and some media appearances in Calgary, Alberta. I was so struck by the differences in our two countries that I felt compelled to write about them.  There was a time when Canada seemed to follow the United States and we were the free world’s leader.  No more.  Being in Canada really showed me how far wrong we have gone, here in America.

The Culture of Fear

When I was a teenager, I hitchhiked all over New England.  I never feared for my safety, and I never got attacked.  Today, many Americans are afraid to drive cars alone many places, and hitchhiking is asking to be killed.  Yet the statistics show that the chances of being assaulted while traveling are actually lower today than they were forty years ago.

We have a few cities that are deemed walker friendly, but most are dangerous, either in spots or in total.  I don’t know if that is really true, or just a perception, but the perception of Canadian cities is that it’s safe to walk anywhere, any time.  And enough people do it that I think I’d know if reality were otherwise.

I got lost on one of my walks, and strolled into a Calgary police station to ask directions.  When I walked in the door I found a broad counter, with an officer at a computer terminal, helping someone else.  When he finished I asked for directions to the freight yard, and he went to Google Earth and printed me directions.

I was struck by his friendliness, and his accessibility.  In an American city, the desk cop would have been hiding behind inch-thick bulletproof glass.  My own town – population 20,000 – is like that.  What are we afraid of here?  Do we perhaps invite attack by such unfriendly facilities?

The difference between the feel of the Canadian police station and similar places in the US is striking.  Individual cops may well be the same, but there is an institutional accessibility and friendliness in the Canadian structure that surely influences every interaction within. 

I asked the cop if it was safe to walk there, and he looked at me in surprise.  Of course, he said, it’s safe to walk anywhere.  Just watch out for cars!  You would never hear that in a big American city.  Why not?  Is it all attitude?

I saw that same friendliness in most everyone.  Business people, waiters, people on street corners, kids on skateboards . . . all welcomed me.  

And then we have the airports . . . 

When you walk through any American airport you are assaulted by endless recorded messages.  The threat level is Orange.  Do not let your bags our of your sight, lest someone stuff dangerous objects into them.  And on and on.  What has all that achieved, besides making air travel a lot more uncomfortable?

Walk through any Canadian airport and the lack of threats and warnings is refreshing.  It’s like walking through an airport here, twenty years ago. 

The costs of our airport security are obvious.  Where are the benefits, as compared to other countries?

The economy

Right now, Canada’s published unemployment rate stands at 7.6%.  That’s quite a bit better than our rate of 9%, but that one number does not tell the whole story.  Canada’s rate has averaged just over 8% for the past 35 years, whereas our unemployment skyrocketed from 4.5% to 10% when the economy collapsed a few years ago.  They do not seem to have the ups and downs we have here.

And the other part of that story . . . taxes in Canada average 10% higher than what we pay here, but in exchange for that Canadians get health care and security that we seem to strive for and never attain.  For me, the $14,000 I pay for health insurance alone would more than make up any tax difference.

Walk through most major cities in the USA, and you see shuttered buildings everywhere you go.  In places like Buffalo, whole sections of the city lie abandoned.  Canada has nothing like that form what I have seen this year.

The result: Just as Canadians do not seem to fear their neighbors and their cities, they do not seem to fear for their jobs or economic security. 

Politics

An analysis of American news stories shows that we devote a disproportionate share of our media coverage to inter party squabbles and scandal and tabloid coverage.  Reasoned discussion of the hard issues facing our country has fallen by the wayside.  How is it that the Canadians have avoided this “tabloid trap?”  I don’t know, but I wish we could devote a bit more effort to solving the real problems in this country.  Congressman Weiner may be entertaining but there is a real fundamental problem when stories like his dominate the news, and we remain mired in a war no one wants with one person in six in my home city out of work.

Population and production

Is the fundamental problem that we have too many people here?  Or is the issue that too many Americans are riding on the backs of too few real production workers.  I could not find any statistics to show the percentage of Canadians engaged in actual production versus administration and government workers, compared to the USA.  But I’ll bet it’s lower.

Creating and making things is what made this country great and strong, yet that is not where we focus our education or job creation efforts.   I wonder if we can bring that back; at times it feels like the bureaucracies are too entrenched.  Would our TSA workers move from their current jobs to doing something that adds value, like making cars or computers?  So many of the new jobs we’ve created in the past 20 years actually harm our country’s efficiency and its ability to compete globally.

Food

I have been fortunate to eat in good restaurants, both here and abroad.  One thing I notice when comparing Canada to the US is the greater emphasis on natural and organic foods.  Our Canadian neighbors seem to have a better handle on food that’s safe and healthy.

The environment

The Canadians have some notable environmental messes, like the oil sands mining.  However, that is contrasted with much more use of wind and water power, and a generally grater regard for the environment.  For example, Canada uses much less salt on its roads and they have reduced salting in the past decade.  We have gone the opposite way in the Northeastern US, and our roadside grass is dead while our cars rot away. 

I’ve been a believer in our country all my life.  But seeing the contrast between the American of today and our neighbor to the north brings home just how far we have diverged from the image of America the great I had as a kid. 

I wonder if we can move back in that direction?            

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tornado hits Springfield, MA, near our work

Here are some images from yesterday's storm.  There is quite a bit of damage in Springfield but we are all ok at Robison Service

It began with strange skies . . .
















In this image the tornado cloud is forming to the left side of the image.



Now it's formed, and it's on the ground.  Stuff is swirling in the cloud to the right of the building, about a mile from us


As quick as it came, the tornado is dissipating to the south





The storm brought some decent sized hail. Other people saw much bigger hail elsewhere in the city




More strange skies, which lasted till dark



This link to CBS 3 Springfield shows the tornado vacuuming water from the Connecticut River.  It's the best footage of the storm so far.