A simple flower photo workflow

This short post, written for a class blogging photo, will discuss the creation of the following image, which I captured earlier today.

For this hibiscus shot, I used my Canon 35mm F2 IS with a 12mm extension tube attached to enable a closer view (original photo above). I like this combo for macro photography; the lens’ image stabilization (IS) allows for slower shutter speeds to combat the light reduction brought about by the extension tube(s) I use, though of course wind speeds are a concern in many cases and I instead have to rely on ISO boosts. In any case, IS helps with camera shake and allows me to go tripod-free. Alternatively I’ll use my (favorite lens) 70-200mm F4 L (non-IS) with an extension tube or two attached.

My post-production edits for this shot were minimal: I deepened the blacks and applied a small clarity boost to add just a bit of pop to the water droplets and vein structures.

I liked the contrast of this photo and decided it looked pretty nice in black and white. I made a few small changes from the original color edits to further enhance the contrast. Doing so added, to my eye at least, a hint of extra separation between the foreground flower and background.

And there you have it — my workflow for this image!


The psychology of black-and-white photography

We know that color has a great amount of impact on people; that it has emotional impact (1, 2, 3), and even might enhance visual memory and affect viewer’s tendencies for depression. Rather than focus on color photography, in and of itself, however, today’s class-related post is about the psychology of black-and-white photography and my editing and thought processes when working on black-and-white photos.

For me, the shot above, from New York City, was all about composition – all in the framing – and I converted it to black-and-white for a number of reasons with that framing in mind. First, there’s the centered framing for the car that was coming down the street towards me. Then, there were multiple areas of contrasting brightness throughout the image: in the bottom right, along the crosswalk, it is particularly bright and this contrasts nicely with the darkness in the right of the image; the upper right corner also has a spot of brightness shining through, adding further contrast with the lower right corner.

The crosswalk to the right provides a great leading line that draws the eye into the image, and into the other crosswalks that in turn guide the eye through the image. The trees further down the street have areas of light and dark that provide nice contrast; the leaves are nicely shadowed and contrast well with the sky, which features slightly blown out highlight areas, but none so bad that, to my eye at least, the image becomes unappealing. Rather, I think the resulting sky complements the overall atmosphere of the image quite well, and helps convey the classic feel I was aiming for with this image.

This image was taken several years ago but, when editing in black-and-white, my workflow is much the same as when it is in color: I typically deepen the blacks, reduce or increase the shadows and highlights as appropriate, and add just a little clarity. I aim for a very natural look in my photography.

I don’t like to convert images to black-and-white just for the sake of making a black-and-white image. Rather, for black-and-white to really work for me, the image needs a few things to come together: there must be good contrast between light and dark, the subject must be interesting, and the composition itself needs to be appealing. I also try to aim for a sense of class, of timelessness, and I feel that this image was successful in conveying that.

The photo below, from Oklahoma City, is another example of this philosophy in practice:

Some random thoughts

I don’t post nearly enough to this blog. Certainly not as often as I would like. There’s just so much to do, with school work, research (which includes designing studies, setting up surveys, analyzing data, writing up results, and more), professional commitments, writing, writing, and – oh, look – more writing. But every now and then I have time, so here are a few random thoughts I’ve been lingering over recently (including the best mentorial advice I’ve ever received).

  1. Psychological research is difficult to do well and the research process is very often misunderstood by those outside of academia.
  2. The assumption by people unfamiliar with the field that psychologists only engage in mental health counseling is maddening*.
    • *Worse, even, than the assumption that all meteorologists work for The Weather Channel or are on TV in general.
    • “Oh, you’re a psychologist…. are you psychoanalyzing me / can I talk to you about XYZ…?” My reaction is something like this:
  3. Working at the edge of science – asking tough research questions and being among the first to investigate different things – is hard, hard work.
    • The edge of science can be scary and confusing at the same time it is an amazing, awe-inspiring, and wonderful place.
  4. Writer’s block [1,2] coupled with ADHD is the absolute, absolute worst**.
    • **Case in point, I wrote this post yesterday morning around 6am, since time was available and in an effort to break out of my block, and proceeded to totally forget about it after becoming distracted by an email I was concurrently writing.
  5. It is important to be patient when we don’t know all the answers, and forgiving of ourselves and not too self-deprecating when we do but don’t understand or are disappointed by them.
    • People far too often either overcomplicate or oversimplify things (myself included).
      • The same people who do good things can also do bad things – and the opposite is true, too. Without dark, there is no light…

To (the focus plane of) infinity and beyond

Okay, the title of this post (written for a class assignment) doesn’t exactly match up with the post’s content, since in macro photography one isn’t focusing to infinity. However, its a Toy Story pun I couldn’t resist, given that the post is about toy photography. Today, I’ll be talking about two things: (1) My dive into the world of toy photography, and (2) the psychology of my photo editing process.

This post was inspired by the fantastic work of Instagram user @sgtbananas (Johnny Wu, a California-based toy photographer I’ve been following for the last six months or so). I have a lot of Star Wars figures from when I was a kid, and decided to use one of them – Jedi Master Mace Windu – for this post. Here’s the original image.



I use Luminar to edit my photos. It’s a solid program with a lot of flexibility; it includes an array of different features with an approach that focuses on presets but doesn’t skimp on professional tools. Luminar functions in much the same way as Adobe’s Lightroom, but differs in a big way by incorporating masking tools similar to those seen in Photoshop (very handy for editing!).

I have a pretty simple workflow, as I don’t like to do too much in the way of post-production on my photos. I typically enhance (deepen) the blacks a little bit – usually in a range from -20 to -40, sometimes going a bit more extreme (this image went down to -62). The shadows also usually get a similar boost or deepening (-40 here), depending on my vision for the shot. I’ll sometimes adjust the exposure (+/- 1 stop is typically what I aim for; +.56 here). When I boost the contrast or clarity of the image, I typically don’t exceed a boost of more than 20 points; anything more tends to look too unnatural to me.

I did take some liberty with this photo, since the tones weren’t as at-risk of getting blown out or overly muddled (the contrast was taken all the way to 100 in a total departure from my usual preference, though I like this look; clarity was +17, and whites -40). I also applied a slight saturation boost using one of the presets at the start, so that the colors would pop out. I used a masking filter on the lightsaber to specifically add a touch of extra clarity and darker exposure to make the edges a little more opaque with the light coming in through the window in the background. This way, it looks a little more lightsaber-y. I was going to add a lightsaber effect in GIMP, but I couldn’t match the specific shade of purple well enough to my liking. All in all, I like this shot and will be continuing to dabble in toy photography going forward.



Here’s another shot, where I applied the technique linked to above on General Grievous’ lightsaber. It turned out really well for a first try!

L/R: before and after:

A brief explanation of the “Smarties” and “Sally-Anne” tests of theory of mind

This post is a short discussion of the Smarties and Sally-Ann tests of theory of mind, written for a multimedia class blogging assignment. I hope readers may find it informative.

Theory of mind is both ability and modular cognitive framework (Baron-Cohen, 1995). On one hand it is the ability to infer mental states (e.g., thoughts, feelings, desires, etc., in oneself and others; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Baron-Cohen, 1995). On the other, it is conceptually comprised of several cognitive modules which work together to enable mental state inference (Baron-Cohen, 1995).

An array of studies have corroborated the theoretical claim of ToM – that autistic individuals have less of a capacity for mental state inference (see Baron-Cohen, 2001, for a review).

A few different tests of mental state inference have been designed over the years; perhaps most notable of these are the Sally-Anne and Smarties tasks. The Sally-Anne task involves two dolls – “Sally” and “Anne,” who represent two actual people in a social situation. In the experiment, the participating individual is first shown the two dolls and asked whether or not they know which is which.

Sally has a marble, which she puts into her basket before leaving the scene. Anne then walks over and puts Sally’s marble into her own basket. Sally returns. It is at this point that the experimenter asks the participant where the marble is. They then ask where Sally will think the marble is. While the correct answer is that Sally should think the marble is in her basket because that is where she left it, autistic participants (who often but not always have a weaker theory of mind) will in many cases respond that Sally will think the marble is in Anne’s basket, because they themselves know the marble is there but fail to take into account that Sally was not present when Anne moved the marble and therefore will not know this information. Two control questions are asked of the participant to ensure they know where the marble was in the beginning, and where it really was at the end.

Another test of theory of mind is the “Smarties” task. Smarties, a British candy similar to American M&Ms. Here, a candy container similar to a mini M&Ms tube, is shown to the participant, who is asked what they think the container will contain. The participant, of course, will respond expecting smarties or M&Ms. However, the experimenter has replaced the candy with pencils, to the participant’s surprise. The participant is then asked what another, hypothetical person (or an actual person in the room) will think is in the container. Again, as with the Sally-Anne task, the participant who is weaker in ToM will expect the other person to know what they themselves know (in this case, that pencils are in the container instead of candy), as they do not recognize that the other person has not actually seen the pencils in the container and therefore would expect candy.

Both of these tasks are demonstrated in the following video.



Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21, 37–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Boston: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Theory of mind and autism: A review. International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, 23, 169–184. Retrieved from http://docs.autismresearchcentre.com/papers/2001_BC_review.pdf

An Analysis of the Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Conditions for Application to Weather Communication Methods in the Weather Enterprise


Matthew J. Bolton1,3

William G. Blumberg2

H. Michael Mogil3

1School of Arts and Sciences, Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, FL 33574

2Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorology Studies, School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019

3How The Weatherworks, Naples, FL, 34110


Weather is important to all people, whether they realize it or not. It affects them physically and psychologically on small scales (e.g., in behavior and clothing choice), and on large scales (economies, critical infrastructure, etc.). Within this is the widespread occurrence of extreme weather threats across the United States. In response, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) launched the Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) initiative in 2012, in an effort to increase weather awareness and resiliency across the country. Better methods of meteorological communication and outreach are being explored within this program, and then are being disseminated and applied throughout the greater weather enterprise – the collective group (which includes meteorologists, emergency managers, mass communicators, psychologists, and others) whose individual entities work together to communicate weather information to the general public. Forecasters are working to improve the ways in which they communicate weather, while efforts are underway to improve the public’s weather knowledge and corresponding ability to prepare for extreme and severe weather events. Individuals with physical disabilities are included in meteorologists’ focused efforts (e.g., hurricane evacuations), and a new lightning safety campaign focused on deaf and hard-of-hearing populations was launched in June 2016 (National Weather Service, 2016a). However, “invisible” conditions – including various mental disabilities and conditions, and conditions such as blindness and color vision deficiency – remain left out of formal discussions (National Weather Service 2016b, 2016c, 2016d).

Autism, which can drastically affect cognitive development and communication ability, is one such condition. Affecting individuals neuro-developmentally, it is generally characterized by delays in communication ability, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, impairments in cognitive development and social interaction, and by the possession of a narrow range of interests which are typically the subject of intense focus (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The prevalence rate of the condition in the United States is 1-in-68 (U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2014). Historically, there have been a number of individually-diagnosed autism-related conditions to fit multiple levels of severity, including classic autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder among others (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). These were all merged into one umbrella diagnosis (Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD) in 2013 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). However, we support the notion that autism is not necessarily a disorder but rather a manifestation of individual difference along a continuous spectrum of being (Baron-Cohen, 2000; Beardon, 2007; Wing, 1988). Whereas the implication of “being disordered” is that one is somehow broken or flawed, “having a condition” is generally viewed as far less stigmatizing (Baron-Cohen, 2012a), and so, following in the footsteps of other researchers, we will hereafter refer to the aforementioned diagnoses as falling upon the autism spectrum of conditions and to individuals with these conditions as having Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC, Aylott, 2009; Baron-Cohen, Golan, Chakrabarti, & Belmonte, 2008; Bölte & Hallmayer, 2011; Clare & Woodbury-Smith, 2009; Lai, Lombardo, Chakrabarti, and Baron-Cohen, 2013 among others). ASC terminology aligns with the so-called “neurodiversity perspective,” which puts forth the concept that neurological conditions are manifestations of natural variation in human functioning (e.g., Jaarsma & Welin, 2012).

People with an ASC function at many different levels. Some display more typical behavior and development, while others are severely cognitively impaired and in need of substantial living support. Regardless, each individual on the autism spectrum is limited, to some degree or other, in their respective capacities to discern and act on many types of information.

Integrated weather-society research has become a key focal point within the weather enterprise over the past decade. Topics include the public’s perceptions of forecast uncertainty (e.g., Handmer & Proudley, 2007; Joslyn & Savelli, 2010; Morss, Demuth, & Lazo, 2008), general weather risks (Hoekstra et. al, 2011), the importance of weather to people on a psychological basis (Stewart, 2009; Stewart, Lazo, Morss, & Demuth, 2012), and climate change (e.g., Egan & Mullin, 2012; Hamilton & Stampone, 2013; Taylor, de Bruin, & Dessai, 2014). Others (Bolton & Blumberg, 2015; Bolton, Wise, & Blumberg, 2016a, 2016b; Bryant et al., 2014; Grant, 2015) have suggested weather communication implications exist for individuals in the arena of color perception. However, no empirical work, nor the WRN program to our knowledge, has considered autism populations in the context of weather communication. Adding to this, we have observed through discussion with those in the field that even though meteorologists may be directly affected by ASC through a family member or friend, it is not something they usually think of or see as related to their work. It is for these reasons that, even as meteorologists go to great lengths in communicating timely and accurate weather information and facilitating quality weather education to the general public, we hereby state that the weather enterprise does not do enough to accommodate populations with various neurological conditions, including ASC. We mean this with regard to community education and engagement, and the communication of potentially life-saving weather information.

We believe that the observed lack of action on behalf of those with ASC presents a problem to the weather enterprise, because the most-prime directive of the meteorologist is to protect all life and property in times of severe weather. Recent research (Bolton & Ault, 2017) has shown that knowledge of ASC facilitates acceptance for and understanding of those with the condition. Therefore, in an effort to begin a dialogue within the weather enterprise on autism spectrum conditions and related topics, we seek to introduce to meteorologists some of the concepts relevant to understanding those with ASC, through a thorough analysis of the various characteristics of the condition. This includes a presentation of three theories which allow for a substantial understanding of some of the strengths and weaknesses that may be present in individuals with ASC, which may be encountered by the meteorologist in the course of their work. Finally, we will use the aforementioned concepts to present some possible research topics for future consideration by meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise. Overall, in providing information on some key features of ASC, we hope to spark conversation on the topic among meteorologists.

Overview of ASC Characteristics

Autism exists along a continuous spectrum (American Psychiatric Association 2013; Wing, 1988). Individuals who have less severe manifestations of ASC have fewer cognitive impairments overall, but still typically experience some social, emotional, and information-processing deficiencies. Individuals with more severe ASC, meanwhile, typically have moderate to severe deficiencies all-around. Inhibitions in the processing and integration of sensory information are most common across the spectrum; as a result, individuals with ASC may engage in self-stimulating behaviors in attempts to relieve sensory-related stressors and discomforts (Wing, 1997), or in response to intense feelings of happiness and pleasure, and due to some of the soon-to-be-described logical thinking and information-processing characteristics of ASC (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabarti, 2009). Such behaviors, informally known as “stimming” and occurring potentially all along the autism spectrum, consist of usually-uncontrollable, sudden, and/or erratic movements such as the flapping of hands and/or feet, spontaneous leg shaking, and fidgeting.

More severe manifestations of the condition may, furthermore, cause the affected individual to be exceptionally limited in verbal communication ability. Work concerning non-verbal ASC is sparse, but one relatively recent study on the prevalence of this extreme form of the condition estimated that it affects one-fourth of all individuals on the spectrum (Tager-Flusberg, Paul, & Lord, 2005). Many with severe ASC only communicate on the basis of expressing their essential needs in a very limited fashion, and require extensive therapy and intervention to potentially improve their condition. Others speak on a limited basis, but struggle to use language meaningfully (Smith, Mirenda, & Zaidman-Zait, 2007). Some non-verbal individuals with ASC communicate by way of gestures, sign language, picture cards, typed language, or augmentative and alternative communication devices (Mody, 2014).

Sensory-processing conditions, and conditions like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivty Disorder (ADHD), echolalia (wherein one repeats heard speech), and apraxia of speech, can co-occur alongside ASC, and additionally affect the individual. Apraxia of speech is a “motor-speech” condition that creates imbalances in brain functioning such that the individual has difficulty in mentally planning and coordinating the muscle movements required for speech (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2016). It occurs most frequently in cases of more severe ASC (Shriberg, Paul, Black, & van Santen, 2010). Sensory-processing conditions (affecting hearing, vision, physical function/perception, cognition, taste, and smell) co-present alongside the majority of ASC cases (O’Neil & Jones, 1997) with varying severity levels. Impairments in executive functioning (e.g., working memory, mental flexibility, planning abilities) have also been observed in ASC (Hill, 2004).

Theory of Mind

The first cognitive theory that we will discuss, Theory of Mind (ToM), is particularly relevant to the way people with ASC interpret the social world, although it is not exclusive to the condition. It is a widely accepted theory of cognition, and while its deficits are most often seen in ASC, they are also observed in schizophrenia and ADHD (Korkmaz, 2011), deafness (Lecciso, Levante, Baruffaldi, & Petrocchi, 2016), epilepsy (Giovagnoli et al., 2011), and alcoholism (Uekermann & Daum, 2008). Baron-Cohen, Frith, and Leslie introduced theory of mind to the ASC lexicon in 1985. This was in an effort to address the condition’s social deficits from a cognitive perspective, independent of such factors as IQ.

ToM crosses simultaneously into the domains of conceptual theory and ability, which together work to explain the underlying cognitive mechanics of ASC. Conceptually, it is the idea that one is able to conceive of mental states. They include, for example, purpose, intention, knowledge, belief, thoughts, doubts, and likes and dislikes. As human beings, we understand, generally, that we possess these and other such psychological constructs, which comprise one piece of an overall state of mental consciousness. However, we are forever blind to the consciousness – the minds – of others. We know others have minds due to our own inner thought processes and mental experiences, but we are unable to directly access or observe them in others. As such, we are left to merely infer others’ mental states and the behaviors which may result from them.

When an individual possesses the capacity to know that mental states exist, and further, when they are able to recognize the presence of these in themselves and others, it is said that the individual has a “theory,” or understanding, of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Premack and Woodruff  here infer “theory” to mean “understanding,” because the ability to infer mental states is a model which can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others. The dual process of role- and perspective- taking, in which one determines an appropriate social response by combining knowledge of people and behavior, and perceptions of behavior in a given situation (Flavell, Wright, Botkin, & Jarvis, 1968), is heavily involved in ToM.

Tightly interwoven with ToM is a psychological construct known as “meta-representation” (M-rep). M-rep is a “higher-order” cognitive representation process, in which “representation” refers to the process by which one conceptualizes some thing in their mind. While “first-order” representation involves self-awareness, second-order representation, with which M-rep is synonymous, involves awareness of others.

In meta-representation, one represents in one’s mind what one sees or otherwise experiences. Moreover, one also represents to oneself the mental representations (thoughts) of others. When we think about another person, and also when we think about another person thinking about us (in what is considered to be third-order representation), our M-rep abilities are engaged.  M-rep is an ability considered impaired in ASC alongside ToM, which is itself a meta-representational model of cognition (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985; Leslie, 1987; Leslie & Frith, 1987; Leslie & Frith, 1988). It is through M-rep that we generate new knowledge or meaning, by mentally considering thoughts and concepts.

ToM and M-rep deficits are among the primary reasons that people with ASC can in some cases be extremely honest and loyal (Baron-Cohen, 2007), as the individual simply may not know any other way of behaving because other possibilities are entirely foreign to them on a conceptual level. To be dishonest, one must possess an inherent understanding and awareness for the existence of false beliefs. That is, it must be recognized that there can be two different perspectives or versions of an event: there is the true, reality-based version (“The vase broke because I dropped it”), and the false, fictional version (“The vase broke because Mark dropped it”) that can be believed as true by someone else. This knowledge is not always possessed at a sufficient level when ToM is lacking (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985).

The skill/ability part of theory of mind, in which M-rep and second-order representation are crucially involved, is the sub-concept of “mentalizing.” Mentalizing is the cognitive process that occurs when mind-reading: that is, when thinking about and attributing mental states, both internally and to others, through meta-representation. This ability allows us to temporarily infer for ourselves what others are thinking, and correspondingly enables us to predict their behavior. It also facilitates the differentiating of fact from fiction – allowing one to successfully and consistently discern meaning from, and recognize, deception (Sodian, 1991), jokes and lies (Leekam & Prior, 1994), and other communication subtleties (such as sarcasm, irony, white lies, and double bluff; Happé, 1994). Theory of mind, as an overall model of cognition that includes M-rep and the ability to mentalize, is typically impaired or lacking in ASC because impairment in second-order representation prevents the autistic, to some degree, from having a proper theory of mind (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985, 1995; Dennett, 1978; Pylyshyn, 1978). ToM impairments also affect the individual’s capacity for meta-cognition, which is thinking about thinking, or as Proust (2007) elaborated more technically: “all cognitive activities in which one is trying to appreciate, in retrospect, a cognitive achievement…” (e.g., thinking about whether or not one will be able to learn something new, thinking in retrospect that we were just able to recall an entire song’s lyrics after having not heard the song in several years).

It is a myth that people with ASC lack empathy in totality, because empathy is not all-or-none. Empathy is cognitively impaired in ASC, due to mentalizing and M-rep inhibitions, but remains affectively-functional (Baron-Cohen, 2012b; Mazza, 2014; Rogers, Dziobek, Hassenstab, Wolf, & Convit, 2007). To fully understand what this means, it is necessary for us to briefly discuss the two underlying components that make up the overall construct of empathy (which are of cognitive and affective natures, respectively). Affective empathy drives one’s ability to respond in an emotionally-appropriate way to what others are thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy, meanwhile, is the part of empathy that allows one to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and “put themselves in that person’s shoes,” so to speak. What this is saying is that people on the spectrum lack intuitive and unconscious awareness for differing perspectives (cognitive empathy/ToM), but not the ability to respond appropriately to others’ emotions (e.g., responding with concern and a desire to help when they notice someone is hurt).

In short, cognitive empathy is theory of mind (Baron-Cohen, 2012b), but it is important to not confuse them. They are interchangeable terms insofar as they both relate to how people understand the thoughts of others (in reference to the ability mentalize), but ultimately diverge because ToM is an altogether more complex process which incorporates cognitive representations on a more in-depth level.

The social skill and emotional inhibitions in ASC are thought to largely stem from ToM-related impairments in inference and mental state understanding (though it is important to note that individuals on the spectrum can still be socially competent due to intact factors outside of the ability to infer mental states – see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985, and Montgomery et al., 2016). The individual might close themselves off from others (Frith, 2003), mentally “shut/melt down” due to an inability to appropriately process their emotions and related sensory information from the world around them (Mazefsky et al., 2013), engage in self-harm (a behavior estimated to be present in as many as 28% of autistic children in two recent studies – see Soke et al., 2016a and 2016b) or try to harm others, if, for example, they are unable to properly process and feel cognitively overloaded by certain emotions. These responses could be coping mechanisms to sensory feedback and environmental stimuli, or they may result, more simply, because the individual has little to no experience in the particular situation at hand.

Because individuals on the autism spectrum often lack appropriate unconscious awareness and understanding of mental states and others’ thoughts, they may appear to show little concern for others. They may ask questions repetitively, and/or in inappropriate situations and contexts; they may say rude/inappropriate things at times, or be overly candid, not realizing their inappropriateness until it has been pointed out. Further, they may ask a question over and over, even if they know the answer. In these cases, they ask not in an attempt to learn or impart new information, but merely to confirm (in an if-then manner) some factual pattern or question that interests them (S. Baron-Cohen, 2015 interview). These questions are not necessarily born in intentional rudeness or social inconsideration on the part of the individual with ASC but, rather, are manifestation of a natural driver of behavior (which we will discuss shortly) working in conjunction with communication impairments. ToM impairments cause the individual to frequently misunderstand correct social cue usage, because they are often unable to properly infer a response appropriate to the situation. The potential behavior exhibited by the person with ASC as a result of this scenario can be disruptive to others, especially considering that the co-occurrence of social anxiety is common in ASC (Kussikko et al., 2008, among others). ToM deficits could induce, and then feed into and off of, social anxiety, and majorly affect the individual’s ability to socialize.

            Empathizing-Systemizing Theory

One piece of theoretical evidence that supports the relationship between ToM and anxiety is that people with ASC can be strong “systemizers.” Whereas the process of empathizing involves the natural drive and ability to identify and relate to the emotions of others, systemizing is the drive and ability to construct and identify rules/patterns in “systems,” which can be anything that takes an input and produces a correlated output (Baron-Cohen, 2009). Systemizing is an if-then process in which one observes some detail (variable) of a system and then monitors it for change and variance. Systemizing occurs naturally from passive observation, and also when one purposely manipulates a given variable, in the framework of “if I do X, A changes to B. If Z occurs, P changes to Q” (Baron-Cohen, 2008).

In a 2014 study examining the relationship between empathizing, systemizing, and anxiety, Strutt, Campbell, and Burke reported that people who scored highly on a particular measure of systemizing traits correspondingly scored lower on a measure of empathizing (ToM) traits. This same group scored highly on measures which examined participants’ levels of anxiety and autistic traits. A positive correlation was found between participants’ levels of anxiety and systemizing, such that participants who expressed higher levels of systemizing also exhibited higher levels of anxiety. A propensity for systemizing may therefore predispose one to exhibit higher levels of anxiety.

The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory was formulated to account for the social and non-social behaviors of ASC, including the possession of narrow interests, a need for sameness, and attention to detail (Baron-Cohen, 2009). It has been posited that systemizing is a cognitive style of ASC, and that its purpose is to seek truth – which can be hereafter defined as “precise, reliable, consistent, or lawful patterns or structure in [some kind of] data” (Baron-Cohen, 2008). This search for logic and accompanying predictability and control is evidenced by the frequent repetitive behaviors seen in ASC (e.g., self-stimulating behaviors, young children spinning wheels on toy cars, fascination with dates, tendency to arrange objects in sequence, repetitive question asking, need for routine, structure, and sameness of schedule) and the tendency for these individuals to largely be disinterested in socializing. It also explains how social and other anxiety could so easily be introduced to the individual with ASC if that predictability is unable to be found.

As a cognitive style, systemizing interprets autistic difficulty related to empathy and socializing as a consequence of minds which seek truth and certainty in the domain of emotions. Human behavior, being inherently fluid, is lawful only to a certain degree. It therefore cannot be systemized with certainty. Anxiety can result for the individual affected by ASC in many different ways, but one theoretical example is that it occurs when they attempt to apply another individual’s conflicting words and behaviors to the systemizing model. Systemizing would expect the person the ASC individual is interacting with to behave, with unerring consistency, in a way that correlates with their words. When their behavior does not match their words, cognitive dissonance – a mental state of psychological discomfort in which the affected individual holds two or more conflicting and irreconcilable beliefs (Festinger, 1957) – and social anxiety are introduced. The person with ASC is subsequently confused by their peer’s ability and willingness to say X (to which they expect a corresponding result Y) but do B, instead (recall that mentalizing deficits induce an inability to consistently detect deception, and other communication subtleties which may be recognized as benign were the individual able to mentalize). In an attempt to alleviate their dissonance and anxiety while lacking a theory of mind which could help them resolve the situation, the individual with ASC may unintentionally engage in further systemizing behavior, by repetitively questioning their peer about their behavior.

Systemizing sees the minds of people on the autism spectrum as naturally driven for if-then details and related pattern-based thinking, which contradicts and is naturally opposed to empathizing’s drive to affectively understand the minds of others. Basically, this theory suggests that, in ASC, there is generally a net increase in logical and analytical thinking, and a net decrease in emotional understanding and social responsivity/reciprocity to others. The result of this, however, is that people with the condition may be predisposed for talent in science and other fields (Baron-Cohen, 2008; Baron-Cohen et al., 2009).

Psychologists have indeed observed a link between ASC incidence and individuals interested in science, which features disciplines heavily-rooted in observable data and predictability. A good deal of work has linked ASC to mathematics, engineering, physics, and technology-related fields such as IT and computer science (Baron-Cohen et al., 1998; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Stone & Rutherford, 1999; Wheelwright & Baron-Cohen, 2001; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Burtenshaw, & Hobson, 2007; Roelfsema et al., 2011; Baron-Cohen, 2015). Notably, Baron-Cohen and colleagues have found in multiple studies (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001; Baron-Cohen et. al., 1998, 2007) that ASC traits, and diagnosed occurrences, are more common among the physical sciences – families of engineers, physics, and mathematicians – compared to control groups in the social sciences and humanities, and also disciplines (i.e., medicine and law) which could be considered to require a similarly strong drive for systemizing.

Interestingly, anecdotal evidence, noted by these authors while working within the weather enterprise, would seem to suggest that individuals with ASC may have higher-than-normal interests in meteorology. Working as weather educators at various education events, and elsewhere, we have observed numerous individuals who have exhibited noticeable levels of autistic traits, some of whom have self-disclosed themselves as autistic. In addition to our anecdotal findings, news outlets have also observed cases in which a child or other individual with ASC has a meteorological or other science-related inclination (e.g., CBC News, 2013; New York Times, 2014; Tampa Bay Times, 2014; WRIC-TV, 2015).

Mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression, and others) seems to be linked to artistic creativity (e.g., Kyaga et al., 2013; Sussman, 2007; Popova, 2014; Cancer, Manzoli, & Antonietti, 2016). Considering this, perhaps the opposite might be true of certain other conditions: that, instead of predisposing one for creative outlets, particular conditions might calibrate an individual for science through an innate attention for detail and desire for logic, and, therefore, act as a benefit where weather communication is concerned.

            Central Coherence Theory

Cognitive psychology involves many different internal processes of the mind, including those by which information is gathered and interpreted. Information is broadly processed in two ways: from the top, down; and, from the bottom, up. “Top-down” processing occurs when one forms perceptions and impressions – of concepts and ideas, of people, and so on – by starting with the larger picture and moving “down” to the specific details. Put another way, it is thinking “from the general to the specific.” Contrast this framework with “bottom-up” processing, which is thinking “from the specific to the general.” Bottom-up processing occurs when perceptions are formed by starting with specific details, moving “up,” or outwards, towards the larger picture. Grandin (2013) established that bottom-up processing is what generally happens in the brain of someone with ASC, whereas those without the condition generally possess the capacity for both top-down and bottom-up processing in fairly balanced amounts. Together, top-down and bottom-up processing comprise one’s capacity for “central coherence,” the process by which information is gathered from a wide array of sources and then centrally assimilated together in a cohesive manner. Central Coherence Theory, the last theory in our review, puts forth the idea that one of the core components of ASC is an inability to integrate and process information at different levels of cognition (Frith, 1989; Frith & Happé, 1994).

This inherent inability in people with ASC, which gives way to bottom-up information processing, exists, precisely, in one’s ability to interpret information locally (pertaining to individual details) and infer it globally (with regard to the “big picture” and overall mass of details). The ability to take information from one level of cognition (i.e., that concerning small, local, pieces of information) to another (that concerning large pieces) is biased in ASC towards local information processing, so that one who has the condition is considered to have “weak” central coherence (WCC). To make a meteorological analogy, when one has WCC, that person most naturally sees and processes concepts at the microscale, and not on a synoptic scale, level.

WCC has been pointed to as an explanation for some aspects of savantism – a condition in which one has high skill or knowledge in a very particular area, but potentially severe impairment elsewhere. Treffert (2009) reported that although there is study-to-study variability, savantism is generally thought to be present in as many as 1-in-10 people on the autism spectrum – more than in any other group observed to date. Evidence for WCC-linked savantism has been reported over the years (e.g., Heavey, Pring, & Hermelin, 1999; Heavey, Hermelin, Crane, & Pring, 2012; Wallace, Happé, & Giedd, 2009). In studies examining numerical processing in relation to long-term memory retrieval, for example, Heavey and colleagues observed that weak central coherence may bestow strong skills in mentally calculating dates and numbers. Long strings of numbers and other information are essentially broken down into manageable pieces; hence, some people with ASC can easily repeat facts and figures.

It has been established that WCC is a detail-focused cognitive style, with psychologists consistently finding that individuals with ASC have small-scale information-processing skills that are superior to those observed in those without ASC (Happé, 1999; Happé & Frith, 2006). Notable studies which have furthered this conclusion include work by Shah and Frith (1983, 1993), Jolliffe and Baron-Cohen (2001), O’Riordan, Plaisted, Driver, and Baron-Cohen (2001), and Mottron, Burack, Iarocci, Belleville, and Enns (2003). Taken together, the existing body of work on central coherence has garnered widespread acceptance for the belief that Central Coherence Theory centers around concepts that exist not as overall negatives and pure deficiencies in global processing, but rather as a manifestation of local processing skill and attention to detail.


There are a myriad of contexts where knowledge of the characteristics and cognitive theories of ASC could benefit meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise. Sensory-processing deficiencies and differences can potentially lead to behavioral meltdowns and/or temper tantrums, and other behaviors which may otherwise seem odd to those lacking knowledge of ASC, at public weather events where meteorologists may be present. Knowledge of the fact that individuals with ASC may be more sensitive to and perceptive of changes in the weather (given proof of the sensory-integration issues in ASC, see, among others: Blakemore et al., 2006; Tavassoli, Miller, Schoen, Nielsen, & Baron-Cohen, 2014), and this coupled with knowledge of these individuals’ need for routine and structure in scheduling, could have implications for meteorologists, emergency managers, and others. Consideration of this information could allow for enhanced messaging to individuals with ASC in times of needed evacuation. For example, in the time before a tropical cyclone landfall, when planning and preparation may be needed for more severely impaired individuals with ASC who live in group homes or under other intensive supervision, and even those without extreme impairment who nonetheless may struggle with issues related to anxiety and the need for sameness.

Mentalizing inhibitions, meanwhile, could cause the individual with ASC to behave outside of normally-observed social conventions. For example, they may respond inappropriately or otherwise improperly in conversation with a meteorologist because they are unable to infer the consequences of their behavior and how it may be interpreted. Due in part to mentalizing weaknesses, systemizing could induce a situation in which the individual becomes fixated on some (perhaps situationally-inappropriate) question or thing. Finally, the individual with ASC, unable to properly mentally assimilate and conceptualize thoughts because of WCC and M-rep deficits, also may not understand concepts or information presented to them on a meaningful level. All of these issues may potentially hinder meteorologists in providing quality weather communication and education to individuals who fall along the autism spectrum.

Potential Areas of Focus for ASC-Meteorology Research

We have identified multiple integrated weather-society avenues professionals across the weather enterprise may take in exploring research topics related to autism spectrum conditions. It is possible that the co-occurrence of ASC and sensory-processing conditions forebodes potential trouble where weather is concerned. Impacting factors which could affect the individual with ASC include noise (thunder), light sensitivity (lightning), and imagery (i.e., visualizing flooding, tornadoes, and other phenomena leading to cognitive and/or sensory overload through an amplified sense of anxiety, fear, and perseveration on said fear). Neil, Olsson, and Pellicano (2016) found anxiety to be present in as many as 84% of the sampled children with ASC. These high levels of anxiety were found to be correlated with an inherently poor tolerance of uncertainty. Considering this linkage, and that extreme/severe weather phobia is already a problem for many people in the general population (Coleman, Newby, Multon, & Taylor, 2014; Westefield, 1996), it should be considered a possibility that extreme-weather-centered phobias could readily develop for individuals with ASC.

Another relevant research area is that involving social perceptions of those with disabilities and mental conditions such as ASC. Much of the work conducted in this area (see, for example, Gordon, Feldman, Tantillo, and Perrone, 2004; Karnilowicz, Sparrow, and Shinkfield, 1994; Nowicki, 2006; Thomas, 2000; and Tringo, 1970) has found that people (children and adolescents as well as adults) seek distance from those with mental illness and disability more so than they do individuals with physical disability. Meanwhile, reports by journalistic outlets reports (e.g., ABC News, 2017; Lincoln Journal Star, 2016; The Guardian, 2015; WABC-TV, 2016; WSB-TV, 2016; Good Morning America, 2016, among others) suggest widespread poor treatment of those with mental illnesses and disabilities. These social injustices lend themselves to the idea of “stigma,” which has been defined as a feature “which majorly discredits the [affected] individual” and reduces him or her “from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman, 1963, p. 3, as cited in Major & O’Brien, 2005). Mental illness stigma and bias can potentially lead to strained familial relationships (Lefley, 1989), employment discrimination (Farina, Felner, & Boudreau, 1973), and general social rejection and lower quality-of-life overall (Corrigan, Edwards, Green, Diwan, & Penn, 2001). The overall stigma surrounding mental health and disability topics has been shown to result in people on the autism spectrum forming fewer friendships, and maintaining an altogether smaller social support group than their without the condition. Subsequently, it has been reported that people with ASC have lower self-esteem and other negative self-directed perceptions that ultimately lead to lower quality-of-life (Nevill & White, 2011).

Considering this, it may be beneficial to investigate the consequences of social isolation that may result for individuals with ASC, and whether or not these also forebode trouble regarding the receipt of critical weather information from meteorologists. There is much support in the literature (including Aguirre, Wenger, & Vigo, 1998; Anderson, Keaton, Saarinen, & Wells, Jr., 1984; Baker, 1979, Christensen & Ruch, 1980; Riad, Norris, & Ruback, 1999; and Bateman & Edwards, 2002) for the social behavior phenomenon that sees people confirm weather warnings and phenomena like tornadoes through friends and wider social networks before taking action themselves. (This is part of the warning-response process. See Communication of emergency public warnings: A social science perspective and state-of-the-art assessment, Mileti & Sorensen, 1990, for more information.) With potentially fewer meaningful interpersonal relationships, and therefore smaller social support networks, individuals with ASC may have fewer ways to receive and verify life-saving weather information.

The ways in which weak central coherence may work within the framework of television weather broadcasts (commonly known as “weathercasts”) also warrant research. Weathercasts are most often split into “packages,” each of which makes up a different aspect of the forecast. Within an overall news program, there are numerous weather package cut-ins, with many opportunities for the meteorologist to complete the entire forecast. Most individual broadcast packages last roughly two minutes and, within that time, the meteorologist must deliver the forecast, warning, or other update in a clear and concise manner. Graphic design, tone of voice, camera angles and transitions, and non-verbal delivery (i.e., body language) must all be considered. Severe weather situations may at times warrant wall-to-wall, commercial-free coverage, which features prolonged and comprehensive tracking and broadcast of storm information. These events can be fast-paced, and often lead to what may seem to be chaotic reporting. Related to this, another potentially-confusing element of weathercasts is that, in some severe weather situations (e.g., a landfalling tropical cyclone), there may be many different news anchors and field reporters providing supplementary coverage to the meteorologist. The many aspects of weathercasts, as well as constant changes in some event coverage, may be difficult for the individual with ASC to follow, as they are affected by inhibitions in their capacity for attention-switching (e.g., Charman, 2003; Reed & McCarthy, 2012; Swettenham et al., 1998) as well as the aforementioned WCC-linked imbalance in global-local information processing.

Furthermore, some broadcast television vendors program their weather graphics software in such a way as to only allow particular colors to be used in certain graphical elements (B. McClure, 2016, personal communication). A station, therefore, could be forced into using two different colors to represent the same watch/warning product, both of which may be seen on-screen at the same time. Someone with ASC could see a certain color used in one part of the broadcast and infer meaning from it, even though the watch/warning product in question is used elsewhere in the broadcast in a different color.

Visual fixation and systemizing behaviors may potentially negatively affect the message ASC-affected individuals receive during weathercasts. Frey, Molholm, Lalor, Russo, and Foxe (2013) noted that eye- and gaze- tracking (“the ability to keep the eyes on target when looking from one object to another, moving the eyes along a printed page, or following a moving object like a thrown ball,” American Optometric Association, 2016) is often observed as impaired in ASC. They reported poor mapping of visual space within the cerebral cortex section of the brain as the likely cause of this. It has been suggested in psychology literature that eye-tracking differences cause people with autism to focus more on their surroundings and inanimate objects therein, and less on people, in social settings (e.g., Klin, Jones, Schultz, Volkmar, & Cohen, 2002; Rice, Moriuchi, Jones, & Klin, 2011). We postulate that the results from these studies may apply when individuals with ASC watch weathercasts. The major concern here is that the weathercast might essentially be processed by the ASC-affected viewer in a manner similar to a social interaction. In addition, there are often extra computer monitors, TV screens, weather data visualizations, and other details on-screen, especially during wide-angle camera shots. Such distractions may be more easily systemized. The viewer with ASC could be predisposed to focus/fixate not on what is intended to be the focus (e.g., the meteorologist and green screen or TV monitor), but on extraneous details in the margins of the shot, as they are caught up in systemizing. These issues and those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, with regard to weak central coherence, could potentially expose those with ASC to a greater level of weather-related risk than that seen in other populations, and warrant investigation, with specialized methods focused on identification of the problem and potential interventions, to mitigate that risk.

Yet other weather dissemination channels, including traditional radio, NOAA Weather Radio, and computer-based information, as well as mobile weather applications, may introduce other inconsistencies and issues with regard to WCC and M-rep deficits. Radio broadcasts are not accompanied by imagery, while mobile apps may have inconsistencies in their information when compared with other sources due to the preponderance of computer-generated weather data and its potential conflicts with human-produced forecasts. So, with regard to these outlets, the individual with ASC may have trouble mentally conceptualizing content without the prompts provided by complementary graphics, and, furthermore, may be confused when presented with conflicting information. We are currently investigating weather perceptions and uses and sources of weather information in people with ASC.


Given the lack of meteorology-ASC literature, this article attempts to define, for the first time, Autism Spectrum Condition as an important topic of concern faced by the weather enterprise in delivering weather information. Toward this end, we have thoroughly reviewed aspects of ASC with which we feel meteorologically-focused professionals should be familiar. We examined three models of cognition that exist within ASC. Theory of Mind (essentially, the ability to infer thoughts and mental states in oneself and others) was reviewed first. Secondly, we discussed Central Coherence Theory (deficiency in large-scale information processing, but strength in small-scale processing). In closing our theoretical review, we discussed the Empathizing-Systemizing Theory (which posits that people on the autism spectrum are impaired in empathizing because of ToM impairments, but have a strength in analytical, if/then-type thinking in contrast). Thereafter, we outlined areas of research which could be pursued by meteorologists, in efforts to improve weather communication methods to better account for individuals on the autism spectrum. We hope this will spark future communication around autism-related topics in the weather enterprise, and that meteorologists and others active in the field will take the information provided here into consideration in the course of their future work.


We would like to thank Jodi Savell, Instructor of Psychology at Pasco-Hernando State College (PHSC), for her mentorship of the lead author on the conference presentation which led to this article. We are grateful for her commentary on the initial draft of this article.

We are grateful, too, to Traci Blumberg and Cristel Cruz, and Drs. Susan Jasko (Professor, Department of Communication Studies, California University of Pennsylvania), Laura Myers (Director, Center for Advanced Public Safety, University of Alabama), and Simon Baron-Cohen (Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director, Autism Research Centre, at Cambridge University), for their feedback at various stages of the writing process.

Finally, in closing, for their inspiration and support of this work, the lead author extends his gratitude, furthermore, to his family, and also meteorologists Lynnette Grant (KMEG14/FOX44, Sioux City, IA) and Alyssa Bates (NWS Warning Decision Training Division and OU CIMMS), Dr. Jenette Flow (Professor of Humanities, PHSC), and Steven Meigs (Instructor of Religion, Hillsborough Community College, formerly Instructor of Religion, PHSC).


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An Essay: On Society, Ethics, Neurodiversity, Myself, and the Understanding of Empathy

Please note that unlike my previous articles, this piece is very long (essentially four articles in one), emotional, and psychologically-detailed. I have broken it down into sections for easier reading, and these are all ultimately related. Please note, as well, that I use both person-first (“person with / person who has / etc.”) and identity-first (i.e., autistic) language in this article, to describe individuals affected by autism. Finally, direct quotes have been italicized, with emphasis added to words by way of bold highlighting. Links are underlined.

An Introduction, on Society

Lack of societal inclusion is a very profound and pervasive problem for those who have disorders and disabilities. Discrimination is commonplace for these individuals, especially kids. One study [1] (2015), for example, on autistic kids and the social stigmas of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) found that “65 percent of the children were sometimes or often avoided or left out of activities by other kids… [and] about 13 percent were physically bullied.” One need not look far to find even worse stories of neglect and abuse (A, B, C, D). This behavior from wider society makes little sense to me. Why are these individuals so often treated with such contempt and scorn? Why are they ignored and pushed aside, sometimes merely for existing? Why are they not granted equal access and opportunity in society?

There are laws in effect to protect disorder- and disability- affected individuals from discrimination. Key among these is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides protection “in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.” Another, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was created to provide qualified students with equal opportunities in education. These and other measures, however, ultimately mean nothing when wider society cannot accept disorders and disabilities, cannot accept affected individuals for who they are, on an interpersonal level.

The answer to the questions posed above is that we, as a global community, lack empathy.

 On Ethics

Autism and ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are not diseases; they are not contagious, nor are they even inherently harmful to others. Just as an object will not move without first being acted upon by some external force, ASD will not suddenly and randomly manifest in a healthy and well-functioning adolescent or adult. ADHD will not transfer to another person as bacteria does. So, then, why do people act in such an unethical manner towards individuals who have these and other conditions?

Why do people say one thing (that they are accepting) and then almost immediately do the complete opposite (ignore the disorder/disability-affected individual), without even the pretense of communication? If they were empathic and accepting, or at least tried to be, would they not actively engage in conversation in spite of the perceived challenge; would they not at least hear the individual out and give them a solid chance before making the decision to not associate with them?

While ASD, ADHD, and similar disorders can present very real challenges at times, to say that you accept someone who has a disorder or disability while completely turning your back on them (or purposely choosing to only rarely interact with them) is to directly devalue them. People should not be ignored simply because they are not always easy to interact with. One should be willing, always, to give chances to those affected by disorders and disabilities. To further emphasize and extend this point, it should be remembered that people can (and typically do) change and grow. By virtue of this, even those individuals who have seemed to exhaust their welcome should be given due consideration in the future. If they claim to have changed and improved upon what is seen as “problem behavior,” they should be given benefit of the doubt, and allowed a solid chance at proving said change. They very well may have experienced positive change, but it might not be readily apparent depending on the nature of their disorder or disability, and depending on the mode of communication one uses with them. This is not to say that one should remain supportive at all costs (therefore ignoring potential safety risks, and one’s own well-being); but rather that we should not give up on or withdraw our support from individuals without just cause. I would caution against liberally and loosely defining what constitutes just cause, however. The nature of the behavior should be considered carefully, in relation to the disorder. For example, ponder the fact that research has found anxiety to be present in as many as eighty-four percent of autistic children. This anxiety was recently correlated [2] (2016) with inherent factors of uncertainty (as will later be discussed herein, autistics like rules and certainty), and could potentially trigger repetitive behaviors [3] (2012). With this in mind, should the individual be punished if they are being repetitive due to anxiety, which would seem to be naturally occurring in ASD?

In my last semester at Pasco-Hernando State I took an excellent and eye-opening World Religion class, wherein we students were led through a thorough and objective study of the major world religions. The class was very interesting and intriguing. I learned a great deal, not only from a theological standpoint, but also from philosophical and anthropological standpoints as well. Labeled an introductory-level class, it went well beyond base theology and the three major monotheistic religions. There were fascinating discussions on ethics, among many other topics.

One of the core concepts in these discussions was that of ethical failure. One fails ethically when they profess to live by a particular set of morals and/or ethical principles, but then break or otherwise fall short of maintaining said morals and principles. Ethical failure also occurs when someone intentionally disregards and/or devalues another, typically in an attempt to only help themselves. Even if said personal gain might help others, the positive end goal would not excuse the behavior as ethical. It is, then, in short, all about intent. In the latter of these, if one were to approach a situation or interpersonal problem in such a way that they attempted to work through potential solutions, keeping intact their moral faculties while striving to the best of their ability to respect the other person(s) involved, then negativity would not be reflected upon their character.

Concerning ethical failure in the context of disorders and disabilities, we need to think long and hard. Do people intentionally ignore affected individuals because they do not care about them? Or, is it that they are ethical and caring, but do not understand the disorder or disability, and therefore do not know how to approach and/or support the individual? Finally, what of those people who do have an understanding for disorders and disabilities, who are ethical in other ways, but choose to not use their knowledge to benefit affected individuals?

Consider that failure and, moreover, success, as many people conceive of them, are often associated with material wealth or lucrative careers. Instead of taking this view, what if we recognized these as things that inevitably will happen at some point (failure), or will happen with effort (success)? What if the only form of failure we were concerned with preventing was ethical failure, and the only form of success we desired to achieve was ethical success? Being of sound morals and good character is more and more valuable each day as our society changes and becomes further desensitized to negativity. Success in the traditional sense (possessing wealth, a high-end career, etc.) is, by contrast, but a temporary pleasure – and so fleeting as to be nearly transparent in the grand scheme of things.

The directive to love your neighbor as you love yourself (treat others as you would want yourself to be treated) is a precept that exists at the core of Christianity and Judaism. Ultimately, however, this most-prime of all ethical commands reaches much further, across religions and cultures. In this way, it transcends race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and spoken language, and underlies the fact that people of all walks of life want to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. The article linked above summarizes this command nicely, as “practicing justice towards fellow human beings.” Accepting someone who has a disorder or disability is to love your neighbor as yourself; in the process, one is both ethically successful and empathic.

Instead of recognizing differences in others and treating them in an ethically-appropriate manner, we tend to fear those things we do not necessarily understand. In addition, we often choose to not involve ourselves in matters that make us uncomfortable, or that do not fit our views of how our lives should proceed. We live in a very fast-moving world, and are quick – too quick, in many cases – to judge others. We tend to struggle, if we attempt at all, to break free from and see past our own narrow experiences of life and our definitions of what should define it. Nobody is perfect in this regard; to accept others and embrace their differences is something we all contend with at times. We can have a hard time being ethical. That, however, does not mean we should not strive to the best of our respective abilities to succeed in doing so.

On Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences – disorders like, but not limited to, autism and ADHD – are the result of natural variation in human DNA. These disorders are embraced within this framework of thinking as differences in human functioning, rather than being treated as problems in need of a cure.

Proponents of neurodiversity, instead of rejecting or treating the individual poorly, recognize that we are all simply wired a little differently. They believe that the disorder-affected individual – afforded understanding, patience, and support – can, in many cases, be just as successful and prominent a member of society as so-called “normal” people. Instead of focusing solely on a cure, those who advocate for neurodiversity focus on promoting acceptance and providing support to individuals in need of it.

Searching Google for “neurodiversity” shows there are many differing opinions on the matter. There are those who support neurodiversity, and those who only desire a cure for involved disorders. These people, unfortunately, have a hard time conceptualizing that there can be positives in neurological disorders. I understand  this divide, as it is not possible for such a concept to exist without contention. The problem is that some, on both sides, take things too far. I have no problem with respectful and reasoned disagreement, but some of these statements border on vitriolic. This in-fighting is needless. Much as I made the case for looking beyond the use of specific language in relation to disability (using person-first vs. identity-first), I again implore the various neuro-communities to stop fighting. Uniting would be universally beneficial, whereas the current state of arguing serves to accomplish nothing. Regardless of what you believe, and no matter how well-intentioned you may be in expounding and evangelizing your beliefs, you should always be respectful of others’ beliefs, and allow them to form their own opinion or viewpoint on a matter.

Having said that, I believe that people who have autism, ADHD, and other neurological disorders are not entirely different from other people.

Much emphasis is placed on ASD being a disease, that a cure for it is needed. Finding a cause (or causes) is also being heavily researched. Again, autism is not a disease. It is merely a disorder that represents a different way of thinking. Yes, it can be exceptionally severe and paralyzing, but it also manifests in such a way that it can be of benefit to society. Microsoft recognizes this, as does Hewlett-Packard. Both companies, and others, are coming to recognize the unique attributes that can manifest within ASD.

As Steve Silberman, author of the compelling book NeuroTribes (in which he details the history of ASD in society) put it recently, in addressing the United Nations on neurodiversity:

Autistic people are not failed versions of ‘normal.’ They’re different, not less.

By focusing exclusively on long-range research into alleged ‘risk factors’ for autism, while ignoring the need to dramatically improve the quality of life for autistic people and their families today, we fool ourselves into thinking that autism is a ‘puzzle’ that will be solved by the next medical breakthrough. Instead, what autism really is is an enormous population of men and women with tremendous potential who are being denied what everyone deserves: the chance to live a happy, healthy, safe, secure, and productive life. Viewed in this light, autistic people are one of the largest disenfranchised minorities in the world. Imagine if society had put off the issue of civil rights until the genetics of race were sorted out, or denied wheelchair users access to schools and public buildings while insisting, ‘Someday, with the help of science, everyone will walk.’ Viewed as a form of disability that is relatively common rather than as a baffling medical enigma, autism is not so ‘puzzling’ after all. Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodations is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability rights movement proves.”

As Silberman further stated in his speech: “Inclusion does not mean simply inviting people with disabilities into our workplaces, classrooms and communities as a compassionate gesture. It’s about ensuring that every member of our society is given the greatest chance for success. When people with developmental disabilities have what they need to thrive, everyone benefits. That’s the message behind the notion of honoring neurodiversity… Let’s move beyond shallow “awareness” of autism to appreciate autistic people in the fullness and depth of their humanity.”

There are good aspects associated with ASD. For example, it allows for an attention to detail not widely seen in the wider population. Central Coherence Theory, formulated by world-renowned developmental psychologist and autism researcher Uta Frith maintains that, among other features, ASD is characterized by specific imbalances in an individual’s ability to integrate and process information at different levels of cognition (Frith and Happé, 1994 [4]; Happé and Frith, 2006 [5]). This works locally (pertaining to individual details) and globally (pertaining to the “big picture” and overall mass of details). Frith noted that in normal information processing, information is drawn from a wide array of sources and pieced together; this cognitive process, she called “central coherence.” When an individual has weak central coherence, they have a poor ability to assemble large amounts of information within a specific context (this is why I have difficulty holding in mind many meteorological variables simultaneously when forecasting). Inversely, one who has strong central coherence is able to easily connect the dots, so to speak, and relate pieces of information to one another. Rather than seeing weak central coherence as a negative implication of autism, Frith believes that this “imbalance” is a positive feature, calling it a “detail-focused cognitive style” that allows information to be thought of and processed in a different light. Going back to my meteorology example, I am skilled at finding individual short wave troughs (cold fronts, essentially) on upper air analysis charts; however, I struggle to see them as relating to other meteorological features and across larger spatial scales. Frith has gone so far as to say that the failure to process global, big picture details is “an outcome of superiority in local processing,” which is to say that people with ASD perform better at processing local details than non-autistics. There is truth to this, as Shah and Frith proved (1993) [6].

It is these traits, and others outlined below, that companies like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are recognizing and capitalizing on.

Furthering the idea that strong attention to detail is present in ASD, Swettenham et al. (2014) [7] found that the disorder involves a reduced susceptibility to perceptual blindness (described here and here). Similarly, autistics are considered to be strong “systemizers.” Cognitive neuroscientist, psychologist, and world-renowned autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen theorized [8] that autistics have a strong inherent desire to construct “systems,” which can be anything that receives an input and produces a correlated output (the cost of this skill is that they lack skills in empathizing [9]). That is to say, autistics naturally like to analyze rules and patterns that exist, in an “if-then” framework (if towering cumulus clouds form, then rain will likely follow, for example), and discover the relationships between them (read my article on systemizing here). Systemizing is an inherent counter to uncertainty (allowing the individual to feel/create control), and Baron-Cohen has argued [10] that it is an indicator of talent. A combination of strong attention to detail and an inherent drive to search for rules and patterns can lead to “out-of-the-box” thinking and unique solutions to problems, with savantism (exceptional skill or knowledge in a limited, specific field) present in some cases. Indeed, Wallace, Happé, and Giedd [11] (2009), and Heavey et al. (1999 [12] and 2012 [13]) drew conclusions towards this end. Heavey’s studies found a link between individuals’ calculating of calendar dates and weak central coherence. It was noted that parts of the calendar can be cut into individual pieces and groups, and therefore, be made readily available for processing and future recall. Anecdotally speaking, I mentor a student who is superbly talented at this and recalling meteorological statistics, and I myself have a talent for the recall of historical dates. Treffert found (2009) [14] that savantism is present in as many as one in ten autistic individuals. Autistic individuals, furthermore, typically exhibit high levels of loyalty, sincerity, and honesty (more on this later).

On Empathy

Empathy is powerful. As Baron-Cohen once noted, there are two distinct kinds of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy drives our ability to respond in an emotionally-appropriate way to what others are thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy, meanwhile, is the part of empathy that allows one to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and “put themselves in that person’s shoes,” so to speak. One way to differentiate between them is to think of an impaired state of affective empathy as relating to and being like what is known as a state of “flat affect.” To have a flat affect is to neither experience nor express the typical range of emotions (this is usually seen in schizophrenia). Contrast this with an impairment in cognitive empathy, which signifies that the individual can experience and express emotions, but has trouble processing and understanding them. These two separate pieces come together to form our inherent ability to understand and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.

In the fascinating video linked just above, Baron-Cohen discusses, and makes an argument for, the idea that exhibiting low amounts of affective empathy is a key factor in explaining human cruelty. As he puts it, “when we dehumanize a group [of people] as the enemy, we have the potential to lose our empathy.” This, he notes, is evidenced by world events like the Rwandan genocide, and the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Such world-impacting events start as individual dehumanizing moments; they are problems on a much smaller scale that continue to grow out of control.

Baron-Cohen, in his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Zero Degrees of Empathy in the U.K.), goes much further in discussing empathy and how a lack thereof results in unethical behavior and, ultimately, outright cruelty towards others. Baron-Cohen proposes that empathy occurs “when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” “Single-minded attention,” he says, “means we are only thinking about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions.” Exercising “double-minded attention,” on the other hand, means we are “keeping someone else’s mind in [our] mind at the very same time.” Essentially, this is to say that thinking only of oneself is to turn empathy off; and to think of others is to turn empathy on.

While the book’s contents are, overall, too far beyond the scope of what I am writing here to discuss in much more detail, perhaps the most key takeaway from Baron-Cohen, as relates to this article, is that unethical behavior first arises when one’s empathy begins to erode. This erosion of empathy, he notes, typically occurs when one first devalues another human being, and is a process that can potentially lead to further acts of cruelty. This process can take many forms (relationship abuse, drugs and related gang violence, human trafficking, and Hitler and the Nazis, for example). Science of Evil is an intriguing book. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about empathy and/or some of the drivers of human behavior. The last thing I would like to touch on from the book is Baron-Cohen’s proposal that there are “six degrees” of empathy. Six stages of a spectrum, if you will, that one may broadly fall upon. I have placed it below, heavily paraphrased. For more information, please read The Science of Evil.

Level 0 Even when it is pointed out to them that they have hurt another person, people at this level do not care. That they have hurt another person means nothing to them. They cannot experience remorse or guilt because they do not understand the feelings of the person they have hurt.
Level 1 One may still be capable of hurting another person, but they are able to reflect on what they have done to some extent, and show regret.
Level 2 People have enough of an understanding for the feelings of others to be inhibited from physically hurting them. They have enough empathy to understand that they have done something wrong and hurt another’s feelings, when it is pointed out to them.
Level 3 One knows they have difficulty with empathy and may try to mask or compensate for this. May avoid jobs or relationships where there are constant demands on their empathy, because empathizing can be exhausting and stressful for them. They keep their heads down, so to speak, and hope this helps them not have to interact with people. “Conversation may be a nightmare at this level because there are no rules and [because] it is so unpredictable [and unable to be systemized]….” Baron-Cohen says.
Level 4 One has low to average levels of empathy at this level, though this does not typically affect everyday behavior. More men are at this level than women. Friendships are based more on shared interests and activities than on the sharing of emotional intimacy.
Level 5 Individuals have a capacity for empathy that is above average. More women are at this level than men. Friendships may, at this level, be based more on emotional intimacy, sharing of confidences, mutual support, and expressions of compassion. People here hold back their opinions so as to not dominate or intrude; they are careful in their decisions, taking into account a wide range of perspectives. “They take their time with others even if they have lots of other things to do because they want to find out how the other person is, and what is on their mind.”
Level 6 People at this level demonstrate a remarkably-high capacity for empathy.  They are “continually focused on other people’s feelings, and go out of their way to check on these and to be supportive. It is as if their empathy is in a constant state of hyper-arousal, such that other people are never off their radar.”

To address the topic of empathy specifically as it relates to ASD, I want to share a small amount of information on the concept of “theory of mind (ToM).” It was first mentioned, as far as I can determine, by Premack and Woodruff [15] in 1978; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (Baron-Cohen’s doctoral advisor at the time), introduced [16] it into the autism lexicon in 1985. ToM focuses on the social, communication, and cognitive deficits of ASD, and is simultaneously an idea, concept, and tangible representation of ability and skill. This may be confusing and not make much sense at first. However, it should begin to come together more coherently when we replace the word “theory,” and think of it to fundamentally mean “understanding.” What we are really talking about with ToM, then, is an understanding of the mind (to lack or have an impaired ToM is to misunderstand the mind).

Within theory of mind, there exists the concept of “mentalizing.” This is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, to understand that others have thoughts, feelings, intentions, and desires that are different from one’s own; and, to infer what others are thinking. Autistics typically exhibit poor skills in these areas, bringing about a potential misunderstanding of emotions, both in themselves and others (which leads them to improperly respond in social settings). A theory of mind deficit is part of why someone with autism may, for example, mentally “shut down” when faced with certain emotional situations or thoughts. To explain this anecdotally, it is like hitting a wall, mentally, beyond which lies an open, empty space where there is no awareness or thought. It is feeling so mentally overwhelmed that you stop feeling, essentially. The individual might close themselves off from others, engage in self-harm, or try to harm others . They might also respond in an unexpected way, either as a coping mechanism to sensory feedback (acting out with a behavioral tantrum, for example, or again, shutting down) or, perhaps more simply, due to lack of experience in some situation. Interestingly, it has been found that damage to the brain’s right-side temporo-parietal junction, which has been proven to be involved in the mental monitoring of oneself and others, can lead to theory of mind deficits (more information: [17] / [18] on the RTPJ and ToM relations).

Related to theory of mind is a really interesting concept known as “meta-representation.” Just as “meta-cognition” can be thought of as thinking about thinking, meta-representation is representing in one’s mind some thing which one sees. A more helpful and approachable example of this process, hopefully, is that a drawing depicts something, and someone who looks at it would represent it – as an idea, as a concept of a thing, as an image – in his or her mind. It is through meta-representation that we generate new knowledge or meaning, by mentally considering thoughts and concepts.

Theory of mind and meta-representation practically work hand-in-hand to affect different aspects of cognition. It is for this reason that autistics can have trouble understanding that another person might believe something that is actually not true. This “false belief,” as it would be known, is not understood by the autistic because they would wrestle with the concept of how someone else could accept something that they – the autistic – know to be false. They would fail to a degree, or totally, to take into account that a point of view other than their own could exist. However, even lacking a theory of mind and having difficulty with meta-representation has positives. Because of these limitations, autistics are naturally less inclined to act deceptively. To lie, one must be able to meta-represent. There must be an inherent understanding and awareness for the fact that there can be two different perspectives or versions of an event: there is the true, reality-based version (“I ripped the pages from the book”), and the false, fictional version (“Jake ripped the pages from the book”) that can be believed as true by someone else. This knowledge is typically not possessed at a high enough level when one has an impaired theory of mind, and meta-representation deficits.

This does not mean an inhibited meta-representation ability brings about total honesty, as meta-representation exists on a spectrum just as much as ASD itself does. It does, however, make for a substantially lower disposition for dishonesty. I wrote above that autistic individuals are known to display high levels of loyalty, sincerity, and honesty. To return to that line of thought, this is due largely to their inability to engage properly in meta-representation. They simply do not know any other way of behaving because other possibilities, such as deceptive behavior and disloyalty, typically make little or no sense to them. When autistics are overly frank and honest, potentially coming across as rude or inconsiderate in voicing an up-front opinion or thought, it is because they have trouble considering that being honest to the utmost degree in that situation would be inappropriate. Problems can also occur when the individual says something (perhaps inappropriately) without thinking and considering potential outcomes; these statements can be taken the wrong way.

Theory of mind deficits lend themselves to the stereotype (read: myth) that people with autism have little to no capacity for empathy. From my own experiences on the spectrum, from observing autistic individuals, and from discussing ASD with parents of autistic kids, I have come to believe this is not true. Research corroborates this. Work conducted by Mazza et al. (2014) [19] and others has shown that affective empathy remains intact in ASD. According to Mazza, “affective impairments found in people with ASD are mainly related to the cognitive recognition and processing of emotions, rather than to the actual ability to feel emotional distress or concern.” The study concluded that, “a few studies have formally assessed empathy in individuals with autistic conditions… [and] showed an impairment in cognitive empathy, but the presence of normal empathic concern…” So, rather than being un-empathic, it is just that autistics experience empathy in different ways, due to the fact that their theory of mind is impaired, and because they may not have much experience in social settings. A good example to highlight this difference is that in many cases, though they seem emotionally unattached and unconcerned when it comes to people, autistics are able to form tight, emotionally-close relationships with their pets, for whom they can show deep care and concern. Further, it is because affective empathy remains, states Baron-Cohen, that “people with autism are often highly motivated not to upset others or hurt others, and are themselves upset to hear that they may have done this if it is pointed out. And once they know that someone else is upset or suffering, they are very often motivated to want to help or offer comfort.”

My personal experience with empathy is an interesting one, given that my autism is relatively mild. I feel that I do not entirely lack a theory of mind or awareness thereof, but that I do struggle at times to conceptualize the mindsets of others. To try to put into words what an impairment in cognitive empathy is like, it can be hard to understand why others are thinking, feeling, or doing something at a given moment. I find it difficult at times to gauge how I should respond in certain situations. I can determine the proper response or emotion itself, but not necessarily the intensity of my response. That is to say, I will respond with the right action or emotion, and feel the correct emotion, but fail to determine how sensitive my response should be (which impacts how I say what I say, or do what I do). Emotional over- or under- reaction is the result, if that makes sense. It is rather difficult to explain.

Although it is anecdotal and only one more point of reference to consider, discussion with an autistic colleague and friend of mine (a fellow former weather camp student I worked collaboratively with for several years in a social media weather forecasting venture) would seem to further confirm my own experience. This can best be summed up by anecdotally stating that an impairment in cognitive inhibits one’s emotional sensitivity and responsivity to the emotions of others. I think the best example to describe this would be to think of emotional sensitivity as having a volume meter that is inconsistent. Sometimes, the volume is turned up and there are no (or few) problems processing emotion, while other times, the volume is turned down, which can cause the autistic to respond in a blunted way or seem totally oblivious to the situation.

It is important to remember, in all of this discussion, that theory of mind impairments will vary with each individual, and therefore, should not be overly generalized. I have actually read accounts of autistic empathy that would seem to indicate an excess of affective empathy. These would seem to correlate with my belief in and experience with my rather-basically-coined “empathy volume meter.” Some people are inherently (broadly and also more narrowly) under-sensitive, while others are inherently over-sensitive.

Whereas one would assume my capacity for empathy to be low because of impaired theory of mind, I am actually quite empathic when it comes to interpersonal interaction. I am skilled in working and connecting with autistic kids (my efforts in this endeavor include mentoring an autistic student in meteorology). Further, I have worked with individuals who have a plethora of learning disorders. I have a proven passion for weather education, evidenced by my activity as a faculty member in the National Weather Camp Program operated by How The Weatherworks, and the many times I have demonstrated hands-on weather activities and experiments at public and private events, for homeschool and public school groups, and, for teachers locally and across the U.S. Furthermore, although my social skills are not the greatest and I am introverted, I am quite interested in socializing, and often take an interest in what others are doing. It is not my capacity for empathy that is limiting, but, rather, my inherent ability to consistently understand the thoughts of others.

A meaningful capacity for empathy is critical to connecting with individuals who have autism, ADHD, and other disorders and disabilities. A display of empathy could be as simple as listening to what another person has to say for the period of a few minutes or hours. Or, it could be more complex, like taking time over a long period to regularly socialize with the individual. It does not have to be an entirely constant effort, but we should still strive to exercise our empathy on a regular basis. In this way, we do not lose it, and our capacity for it grows. To spend time with someone socially; to attempt to gain an understanding of another person: these are but two examples of empathizing. It does not matter if we spend ten minutes, ten days, or ten weeks at a time engaging people empathically; what matters is that we stay open to empathy, and always give our best effort in displaying it. The quantity of our empathy, overall, is far less important than the quality our empathy.

One cannot have empathy without perspective. We must recognize, respect, and embrace differences that are of cultural, religious, and ideological (political and other) import. This, however, is not enough: we must, furthermore, understand, or at least attempt to understand, these differences. In some cases, this requires that we bracket (that is to say, objectively set aside) our own beliefs. However, we do so recognizing the personal growth taking place as we gain new perspective and social insight. This growth, subsequently, has nothing but positive implications for us. Self-reflection plays a large role in this perspective-gaining process, just as it does when one is involved in a mentoring relationship.

On Myself

As someone who has ADHD in addition to ASD, I have had a tumultuous social history. I have been the target of bullying, labeling, and stereotyping, and have been socially ostracized throughout my life. I find it difficult to consistently make eye contact, recognize social cues, and start and maintain conversation. Exacerbating these is the fact that I can, at times, be conversationally repetitive, especially when anxious. Social anxiety, caused and reinforced by many failed attempts at socializing and accumulated years of poor social treatment, is something I have struggled with, especially in the last five years. Although my autism is not overly severe and pervasive, and although I have worked persistently, especially recently, to improve my social skills, I still can have trouble interacting with others.

People, whom I have considered friends, have told me that I am socially incapable and unable to have friends. I have been heavily ignored by my supposed peers over the years, and continue to be, in many situations. When I tell others of my disorders, they typically respond by saying that they are (or are working to be) accepting of them. At the same time, however, many of these same people ignore me, unless I initiate interaction and make a significant effort to engage them. Interactions are not guaranteed, however, and tend to be very brief and/or limited in scope when they do occur. I have tried my best to be friends with people over the years, but it is only rarely that I have seen my efforts returned in kind.

I have spent much time within the realm of meteorology. In high school, I threw myself into the weather enterprise with a passion and single-minded intensity that astonished many; indeed, professional meteorologists and others in and out of the field have marveled at my interest level over the years. I was driven in my studies by an interest that arguably exceeded that of other students, and even professionals. There was never enough information available to me, as many National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists can tell you. This propelled me to a level of professional success that is rarely seen for so young a student in the field, especially at the high school level.

I have always recognized the value of teamwork, and believe fully that collaboration in the meteorological community should be of the utmost importance. I have tried repeatedly, yet struggled, to build relationships to that end. I have, further, always believed in using my success and skills to help others in the enterprise. Whether this is by introducing someone to a connection I may have, mentoring, debugging or contributing to a piece of code, or whatever else, if I could be of benefit to another person, then it would be a win for me personally. I felt that a few people working together could do more good than any one person could on their own; this is especially true regarding research efforts. Meteorology students however, have always been and continue to be a social enigma to me; welcoming, and yet, somehow, very cliquish at the same time, largely resistant to interacting with me. I am certain that my autism played, and continues to play, a role; yet, at the same time, there is something more, something deeper, that even an intense shared interest cannot penetrate. Perhaps it is that my successes have proven intimidating, or envy-inciting? Though I myself have been there, wanting to be better than others, I ask, “why would they be intimidated or envious?” Many of these people are just as successful as I am. Actually, any student currently in the enterprise is automatically more successful. With all of this said, social relationships within meteorology have been and remain elusive. My successful relationships therein have been of a professional nature, on the basis of working partnerships or mentorships. There has been, at least, one graduate student with whom I have successfully connected in a mentoring relationship, who has been, more and more as time has progressed, a friend. He and the professional mentors I have had have been bright spots in a social landscape that has been very dark otherwise, both inside and outside of meteorology.

With incredibly few exceptions, I have been ignored to an extreme degree in my social life. I largely continue to be, and it hurts. It hurts to see conversations end almost as soon as I join them. It hurts to see others be physically distant from one another yet make the effort to stay in contact, when people I know do not care to consistently make that effort with me. It hurts to reach out to people for even the simplest of interactions on common or near-common intellectual ground, only to be rejected because they see me as a thing to be dealt with, or as a socially incapable and inferior person, or for some other reason. I recognize in saying all of this that people have their own lives, and all that that entails, to manage. I recognize that some of my social inhibitions can be perplexing and difficult to handle when not fully understood. But, I am a person too; one not so handicapped in any way that I should be ostracized and kept apart from others. I want to have friends. I want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. So why am I shunned, and set aside? It is, perchance, highly idealized of me to ask so much. Yet at the same time, why should I not be entitled to this equality, why should I not desire the things I see others so often experience: the chance to socialize on equal terms (and enjoy those experiences), and the chance to contribute in a meaningful way to society?

It is a difficult thing for me to write about but, going into 2015, I was struggling mightily with changes that were happening in relation to my career path, as well as continued lack of success socially. After studying meteorology intensively for nearly ten years, my rapidly-progressing climb in the field came to a screeching halt. Math has always been a difficult subject for me. As I began seriously considering where I might pursue my degree, I realized that I was far from where I needed to be in math, skill-wise, due to certain cognitive deficits, which bring about limitations in my inherent mathematical computation ability. This revelation made me realize that a traditional meteorology career was likely no longer on the table. It was the cause of much panic and stress; even as I said I could catch myself up, I knew on some level, instinctively, that this was not true, that the nature of my comprehension problems would prevent me from handling the upper-level math required in meteorology classes. It was only after much deliberation on whether or not I thought I would be able to successfully earn a meteorology degree (also taking other factors into account), that I made the decision to find another career path. Everything in my life seemed uncertain then, as the goal I was most determined to see through to realization slipped from my grasp. It was with a feeling of trepidation and uncertainty that I went into 2015: already lacking in friends and social interaction, I also lacked in career aspirations.

I was introduced to the concept of neurodiversity by a friend I had for a short time, in the spring of 2015.

We started talking one day, after one of our two classes, and I proceeded to ask her if she might be interested in us being friends. It was at this point that I mentioned my disorders, even though past experiences screamed that she would not want to talk to me if she knew of them. She was more than willing to talk however, and it was her belief that “nobody is perfect or normal. It does not matter what you look like, the color of your skin, hair, eyes, or disorders. They are just the features that make you who you are.” That was her response, along with the statement that she did, in fact, want to be my friend. She assured me that the things I considered “issues” and problems did not faze her, and would not scare her away (quotation marks on the word “issues” were added by her, because she saw my disorders and other disabilities as differences in functioning and not unmanageable problems).

That changed my life. Not because it was a profound statement in and of itself, but because she actually followed through; she backed what she said with corresponding behavior, unlike every other person around my age I had tried to be friends with to that point. We had a good friendship, but because of the long-standing social anxiety I was only then finding myself able to fight, we did not begin speaking and become friends until nearly a month before the semester ended.

As we began talking, I was still very hesitant and quiet – unsure that I could actually finally have a friend – but my social confidence slowly began improving. It was by an acknowledgement of her own innate imperfection – and subsequent quiet contentment therein, in recognizing that normalcy is non-existent – that she first helped trigger my slow, but sure, up-swelling in confidence and self-esteem. In the time since, I have come to consider that “normal” is a social construct at best: “normal,” it could be said, is defined as what is socially-acceptable and socially “trendy” at a given time. It is the average of current social behavior in society.

I was not fully committed to, or active in, being an advocate for individuals who have learning disorders and conditions/disabilities that affect learning until May of 2015. Since then, I have presented a talk on learning disorders and learning-affecting conditions – namely, autism and color blindness – at the 40th Annual Meeting of the National Weather Association (NWA). I was invited to present my talk to the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and as part of the NWS’ Integrated Decision Support Services Webinar, which was held this past January. More recently, I was accepted to present new work on color blindness at the AMS’ upcoming 44th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, and the NWA’s 41st Annual Meeting. I was invited to join the recently-formed NWA Diversity Committee as a founding member, and am active in Committee affairs. As part of my Committee responsibilities, I am leading a subcommittee on disabilities. This subcommittee is already actively contributing to the goals of the Diversity Committee, as well as those of the NWA and will, in the coming years, work to affect change and promote awareness within the larger weather enterprise for individuals who have disorders and other disabilities. All of this is in addition to research I am conducting that mixes meteorology with psychology, communications, and advocacy work.

My friend unknowingly played a crucial role in all those things, as she greatly influenced my final decision to become an advocate. To say she saved my life would be totally cliché and overdramatic, but, in a sense, she did. She saved me from myself. Despite having several highly-positive influencers in my life, without the changes she helped facilitate, I would have continued to settle for being less of a person than I am capable of being. I needed the right kind of friend to serve as a catalyst and forcing element of sorts, a friend who could cause me to see as false all the negative things I had been conditioned to believe about myself.

People often say they have a “best” friend. What, though, qualifies a friend as such? “Best,” at most, is a subjective platitude, and it sets upon the person an unfair expectation. How can one be a “best friend” when people are so fluid, when so many variables exist to be considered along the spectrum of human behavior? One can be better than another at something, but never better at everything. It is for this reason that I prefer to rank friendships for how “meaningful” they are. My definition of a “meaningful friendship” is rather simple: it is a friendship (romantic or not, though in a romantic relationship they are assumed) in which both people are treated fairly and ethically; and, in which the effort and desire to communicate is mutual, even if that communication is infrequent. It should go without saying that, in a meaningful friendship, there is a shared interest in knowing and interacting with the other person; there is sincerity; there is honesty; there is some amount of loyalty (dependent on the depth of the relationship); there is a mutual attempt at understanding; and, finally (and perhaps, most importantly), there is an understanding of imperfections. By this, I mean that each individual should regard the other in such a way that they seek to understand and accept them no matter what imperfections they may have, so long as there is no potential for harm in doing so. To have an understanding of imperfection is to recognize the inherent value in another person. It is impossible to attempt an understanding of another person, or to accept any differences they have compared to oneself, without naturally recognizing that they have value (and this is also to have empathy). Furthermore, to succeed in achieving this, we have no false perceptions of the other person. This is not to say we know everything about them, or that they could not succeed in deceiving us; instead, I mean that we do not place them upon a pedestal and over-value them; we do not believe them to be something or someone they are not. An understanding of imperfections goes beyond simply recognizing that one is neither perfect or normal, although that is a core piece of a meaningful friendship.

While I have never looked down on or viewed people who have disorders or disabilities as weak or in a negative manner, as I began 2015 my self-esteem and self-perception were very much lacking in that regard. Excepting my early to middle childhood, it is difficult for me to say in good conscience and with respect to myself that I had any meaningful friendships before meeting my classmate. Not one (close-in-age) person I met in my teenage years was consistently understanding of and unconcerned with my disorders once they learned of them, insomuch that they would not affect the friendship or what the person thought of me. I had friendships, but none were especially good, much less overly meaningful.

Thus, I was to the point that the thought of somebody caring enough to actually want to be my friend, and the thought of them being active in that, (i.e., having a meaningful friendship with someone) was nearly unthinkable. I spent nearly all of my high school years, and all of my college semesters before the spring of 2015 in a state of major social disconnection, trying to interact socially, but failing in that quest. I became overly selective in who I chose to interact with, and basically chose to not concern myself with social matters because nearly all of the people I tried to talk to or be friends with largely ignored me. This behavior, and the negative conditioning and bullying I had experienced, only furthered my social anxiety, and the belief that I was socially inept – which I would have to overcome when I met someone who could pull me out of my shell.

It was during this time of social disconnection in the spring of 2015, when I was trying to figure out a new career path, that my classmate and I became friends. In knowing her, I was, in a lot of ways, connected to the world for the first time. I became someone different. Someone better.

Regrettably, when all factors (my social anxiety, mainly, and her own quiet personality) are considered, we did not have many conversations. But, she treated me as an equal, and was sincere and genuine in being my friend; in “meeting me where I was,” so to speak, and engaging me and taking interest in what I had to say; in always greeting me with a smile and asking how I was doing…. It was in these ways that she eased many of the problems I had – especially those related to social anxiety, low confidence, and self-esteem – and enabled me to fight them. She showed me, in a very quiet, very subtle way, how to believe in myself, and within that, how to see myself as more than a mere diagnosis and statistic. She showed me and, furthermore, is proof that, I am, indeed, capable of having meaningful friendships, and that I should never have believed the naysayers who led me down the horrific rabbit hole of self-doubt where I thought otherwise. She was a wake-up call that caused me to realize what I was missing in being so self-exiled socially, and my experiences – and even mistakes – with her gave me the courage to talk to others without overly-critical worry for their perceptions of me. Perhaps most importantly, with a single sentence – an empathic sharing of personal perspective and mindset – and backing behavior, she changed how I view my own “issues.” Those quotation marks are mine, as I now recognize my disorders not primarily as weaknesses and barriers, but as strengths and assets that potentially can serve to further enable me to be and do better in all things.

With that change, I was able to break down and move beyond long-held misconceptions I had about myself. I am capable (of having friends, of the advocacy work I am engaging in, and of many other things); I am worthy and deserving (of people’s time, of having friends, of my accomplishments, and other things); and, I am not less of a person just because I am affected by disability. I am who I am, and autism, ADHD, and other seeming-impairments do not make me inferior; they do not define me.

As above with ethics, we should question matters related to our relationships. If a friend says they are supportive of you, but changes and begins to devalue and treat you poorly, should it be considered that they were never your friend in the first place? Putting this thought into the context of this article, if one has a disorder or disability and their friend turns on them at some point after learning of their disorder or disability, should they consider that person to have never been their friend in the first place? If these people are considered to have been one’s friend, should they be given future chances to prove they have changed, just as much as those who have disorders and disabilities, even though they have wronged, or are perceived to have wronged, the individual affected by disorder or disability? People have the potential for change and growth, but for this, I have no answers. It is a very personal, very subjective matter. Just something I pose to you, my reader, to ponder.

My friend planted seeds of change while furthering the maturation of others and, as a result, in the year since, I have experienced much personal growth. Though I wish I had not waited three months to speak to her, I am exceedingly grateful to have known her even for the short time I did. Unlike many people I have known and tried to know, and even unlike other, past friends I have had, she was ethical, and accepted me through and through. Because of the change she sparked, I have been able to fully recognize a talent for helping those who have learning-affecting conditions and other disabilities, and realize other career interests, like psychology – which I am now pursuing a degree in.

In saying all of this, I do not seek, in any way, to over-value my former friend. She is only a person, completely human, and therefore completely fallible. I recognize that fully. And yet… at the same time, I do not want to under-value her too much, either. Considering my exceptional lack of positive social engagement, it means something to me that she was such a good friend; it means something that she was so understanding, in a world where so many people take  little time, if any, to attempt to gain an understanding of others. She saw me as different, but still capable – not less, as so many others have – through the lens of neurodiversity, and I will be forever grateful for and inspired by that.

This article has been very cathartic to write, but the writing process – reflecting on many of my experiences, some of which I have not thought about in several years – has been painful. I am fortunate now to know a few with whom I can be myself; whom I can genuinely consider to be sincere friends. Outside of this infinitesimal group, people still ignore me frequently – even as, and now perhaps in some cases because of the fact that I left traditional meteorology and have started a new journey in psychology – and intellectually-fulfilling and worthwhile social interaction, especially around my age and in my peer group, is hard to find. But, I realize something in the wake of my experiences last spring, and after a year’s worth of growth and new experiences. I am happy (content with where I am professionally and in terms of my general career path), and I am content, perhaps for the first time in my life, with who I am as a person (comfortable in my disorders and disabilities, self-esteem, and confidence). No longer am I concerned or content with living life down to the level of those who would seek to see me as, or cause me to be, anything but utterly content and happy with myself.

Pulling It All Together: Closing Thoughts

Although I have wanted to write in various ways about some of the individual ethics-related elements discussed herein for quite a while, I did not possess the words and fully articulated thoughts with which to satisfactorily compose any such articles until recently, nor was I of the right mindset.

To write so candidly in a public forum of my experiences and so directly of problems that are of moral, ethical, and societal concern – this is not something I do lightly. It is highly discomforting, and I have thought very critically as to whether or not I should go through with writing and publishing this piece. However, I feel that it is necessary if I am to affect even a small amount of change. To paraphrase Emma Watson in her gender equality speech to the United Nations, I will say that in doubting whether or not I should deliver this article, I have reminded myself that if I do not endeavor to do this, who will, and when? Who else will work to bring awareness to these issues, and work to correct these problems? I am in a position where I have the potential to make a difference, and that is what I am trying to do, however small it may be. After three months, having engaged myself in very deliberate and thoughtful writing, and much reflective thought, I give to you this disquisition, this synthesis of science, and non-science, and heart. In some ways, this is a dissociation with my formerly unconfident self, and a eulogy for what stands, in many ways, as my first real friendship. In other ways, it is a plea for equality, societal acceptance, and inclusion, not only for myself, but also all others who have disorders and disabilities. It is, lastly, a proclamation showcasing some facets of the transformation I have undergone in the past year as I have found a purpose and new aspirations for my life in lieu of the traditional meteorology career I long desired.

It is important to always express kindness and empathy towards others, even those we do not know – and especially to those who have disabilities. These are the individuals most often ignored, and hurt, in society. One never knows what positive, potentially life-altering change a seemingly-simple act of kindness or empathy may spark. People, regardless of disorder or disability, can succeed in many cases – if they are given the right opportunities and levels of support. To this end, we should strive to more readily accept and embrace those who are different, or are perceived to be different, from ourselves. At any given point in time, even when we are not consciously trying, we have the potential to affect another person in a positive manner. It should be this fact, and not money or possessions, not fame or influence, not popularity, that motivates us to act empathically as often as we healthfully can, to the best of our abilities. Kindness, after all, makes the world go ‘round.

As my former World Religion instructor, Steven Meigs, once eloquently stated: “Diversity is beautiful; diversity is awesome. When you see someone very different from you, the correct response shouldn’t be to separate yourself; the correct response should be: ‘I don’t understand that person; I want to meet them.’ We should gravitate towards things that are diverse, because it enriches us; it helps us grow.


This article is dedicated to my former classmate and friend. Had we not met, I would not be the person I am today. Although we fell out of contact after the semester ended, as classmates often do, and although our friendship was regrettably fleeting, I am okay, as I recognize that everything happens for a reason and has a specific timing.

This article is not perfect by any means, nor is it something I would normally publish, as it is incredibly personal. I originally wrote it to mark Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month (April) 2016. However, let us consider this: in a more empathic world, should not every day be a day for awareness and acceptance for autism (and also for all disorders and disabilities)? I think it great that we dedicate the entire month, annually, to raising awareness and promoting acceptance, but why not take it further; why not practice these things every day of the year? That should be our goal, not looking constantly for cures or causes, not taking sides in meaningless arguments.

My articles are usually short and tightly-written. For the most part, I try to remain non-technical and under 2,000 words to allow for easier reading; this massive, nearly-11,000-word piece (10,977), by comparison, spans twenty-seven pages in Microsoft Word, and is quite technical, psychologically speaking (by my usual standards, at least).

I sincerely hope that in reading this and allowing yourself to interact with something that is different and outside the bounds of normalcy, you have opened yourself to new thoughts and perspectives. I hope you feel challenged in that way, to be more open-minded. I hope you will leave this article with a better understanding of empathy, and of autism, and that, having read briefly of some of my experiences, you will, in the future, be more cognizant of your potential impact on others. Finally, I hope you will be motivated to be more ethical and empathic – in your day-to-day social interactions, but especially when interacting with individuals who are affected by disorders or disabilities. Choose empathy and kindness.

References – Journal Article Citations in Order of Appearance

[1]: Kinnear, S. H., Link, B. G., Ballan, M. S., & Fischbach, R. L. (2015). Understanding the experience of stigma for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder and the role stigma plays in families’ lives. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2637-9.

[2]: Neil, L.,  Olsson, N. C., Pellicanono, E. (2016). The Relationship Between Intolerance of Uncertainty, Sensory Sensitivities, and Anxiety in Autistic and Typically Developing Children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-2721-9

[3]: Rodgers, J., Glod, M., Connelly, B., & H., Mconachie. (2012). The Relationship Between Anxiety and Repetitive Behaviours in Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Nov. 2012, Vol. 42(11), pp 2404-2409

[4]: Frith, U. & Happé, F. (1994). Autism: Beyond “Theory of Mind. Cognition, 115-132

[5]: Happé, F. & Frith, U. (2006). The Weak Coherence Account: Detail-focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

[6]: Shah, A. & Frith, U. (1993). Why Do Autistic Individuals Show Superior Performance on the Block Design Task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 34(8), 1993, 1351-1364.

[7]: Swettenham, John; Remington, Anna; Murphy, Patrick; Feuerstein, Maike; Grim, Kelly; Lavie, Nilli. (2014).Seeing the unseen: Autism involves reduced susceptibility to inattentional blindness. Neuropsychology, Vol 28(4), Jul 2014, 563-570.

[8]: Baron-Cohen, S., Richler, J., Bisarya, D., Gurunathan, N., & Wheelwright, S. (2003). The systemizing quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B.

[9]: Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Autism: The Empathizing–Systemizing (E-S) Theory. The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience 2009: Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1156: 68–80 (2009).

[10]: Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Ashwin, E., Tavassoli, T., & Chakrabarti, B. (2009). Talent in Autism: Hyper-Systemizing, Hyper-Attention to Detail and Sensory Hypersensitivity. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2009 364 1377-1383.

[11]: Wallace, G., Happé, F., & Giedd, J. (2009). A Case Study of a Multiply-Talented Savant With an Autism Spectrum Disorder: Neuropsychological Functioning and Brain Morphometry. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B Biology Sci. 2009 May 27; 364 (1522): 1425–1432.

[12]: Heavey, L., Pring, L. & Hermelin, B. (1999). A Date To Remember: The Nature of Memory in Savant Calendrical Calculators. Psychological Medicine 1999, 29, 145–160.

[13]: Heavey, L., Hermelin, B., Crane, L., & Pring, L. (2012). The Structure of Savant Calendrical Knowledge. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 2012, March 13.

[14]: Treffert, D. (2009). The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 May 27; 364(1522): 1351–1357.

[15]: Premack, D., Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 1(4), Dec 1978, 515-526.

[16]: Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does The Autistic Child Have a “Theory of Mind?”. Cognition, 21 (1985) 37–46.

[17]: Saxe., R. (2009) The right temporo-parietal junction: a specific brain region for thinking about thoughts. Department Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Graduate Thesis.

[18]: Scholz, J., Triantafyllou, C., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Brown, E., Saxe, R. (2009). Distinct Regions of Right Temporo-Parietal Junction Are Selective for Theory of Mind and Exogenous Attention. PLOS ONE, Vol. 4(3).

[19]: Mazza, M., Pino, C. M., Mariano, M., Tempesta, D., Ferrara, M., Berardis, D., Masedu, F., & Valenti, F. (2014). Affective and cognitive empathy in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Oct. 7 2014.

A Brief Examination Of The Nature of Interests and Seeming-Obsessions in Autism Through The Lens Of The Hyper-Systemizing Theory

People who have autism are known to develop very intense interests for things in the world around them. These may revolve around an activity, but they can form around any manner of thing, really.

Whereas non-autistics have hobbies, autistics have “special interests.” I don’t know the specific reason for this change in nomenclature, but perhaps it is due to the typically intense nature of the interest, which can verge on obsession. All things considered, perhaps this makes sense. These special interests don’t always count as things that serve as hobbies; very often, it  may be something that seems completely random and non-sensical to anyone but the autistic (I assure you, however, that it means very much to them, even if you don’t understand the reasoning for it). This, however, is not a bad thing.

In many cases, the autistic individual has an encyclopedic knowledge level on their interest. While weather has always been a passion of mine (a topic, perhaps, for a later article), outside of that, probably the greatest interest in my life has been the Harry Potter books and movies. I’ve read the books several dozen times (even owning multiple copies over the years, as I read my originals so many times that they literally fell apart) and watched the movies several hundred times over the years. I frequently marathon through the movies (they never get old) and can quote nearly every scene of each. I’m even able to decently monologue certain characters. I know both the books and movies well enough that I can differentiate between the sometimes subtle book-to-screen changes in the movies, and fill in movie-related plot holes. Likewise, I have just as high an interest in and recall ability for the TV show Person of Interest. In addition to knowing the exceptionally-nuanced plot backwards-and-forwards and being completely familiar with every major character – from lines and quotes all the down to being able to mimic one character’s stiff-legged walk and another’s hand-to-hand combat mannerisms –  I have nearly total recall for every episode that has thus far aired (90, as of the end of season 4), and can recall an entire episode within a few minutes (though, more often, within seconds) of it beginning. If you want to avoid spoilers, I’m not the person you should talk to. But, if you want an in-depth analysis, or have missed an episode, I’m your guy… 😉

And I won’t even start on my extensive interest in Star Wars…. but I will say that I am a total fan who enjoys all the movies (yes, even the prequels… I had more issues with The Force Awakens [initially, at least – I’ve since mostly changed my mind] than I ever have with the last three Lucas-made movies) and the now-invalidated expanded universe.

Cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen believes that autism predisposes one to have such intense interests, through what he calls “systemizing.”

The Hyper-Systemizing Theory is an evolution of Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing Theory, wherein “systemizing” is seen as the desire and ability to construct and identify “systems,” which can be anything that takes an input and produces a correlated output. The goal of systemizing is to determine if rules and/or patterns exist in something.

As Baron-Cohen once put it (2006):

“The hyper‐systemising theory of ASC [autism spectrum conditions] posits that human brains have a systemising mechanism (SM), and this is set at different levels in different individuals. In people with ASC, the SM is set too high. The SM is like a volume control. Evidence suggests that within the general population, there are eight degrees of systemising:

  • Level 1: Such individuals have little or no drive to systemise, and consequently they can cope with rapid, unlawful change. Their SM is set so low that that they hardly notice if the input is structured or not. While this would not interfere with their ability to socialise, it would lead to a lack of precision over detail when dealing with structured information. We can think of this as hypo‐systemising. Such a person would be able to cope with agentive change easily, but may be challenged when dealing with highly lawful non‐agentive systems.
  • Levels 2 and 3: Most people have some interest in lawful non‐agentive systems, and there are sex differences in this. More females in the general population have the SM set at Level 2, and more males have it set at Level 3. For example, on tests of map reading or mental rotation or mechanics, or on the systemising quotient, males perform higher than females.
  • Level 4: Level 4 corresponds to individuals who systemise at a higher level than average. There is some evidence that above‐average systemisers have more autistic traits. Thus, scientists (who by definition have the SM set above average) score higher than non‐scientists on the autism spectrum quotient (AQ). Mathematicians score highest of all scientists on the AQ. Parents of children with ASC also have their SM set higher than average and have been described as having the “broader phenotype” of autism. At Level 4 one would expect a person to be talented at understanding systems with moderate variance or lawfulness.
  • Level 5: People with AS [Asperger’s Syndrome] have their SM set at Level 5: the person can easily systemise lawful systems such as calendars or train timetables. Experimental evidence for hyper‐systemising in AS includes the following: (i) people with AS score higher than average on the systemising quotient (SQ); (ii) people with AS perform at a normal or high level on tests of intuitive physics or geometric analysis; (iii) people with AS can achieve extremely high levels in domains such as mathematics, physics, or computer science; and (iv) people with AS have an “exact mind” when it comes to art and show superior attention to detail.
  • Levels 6–8: In people with high functioning autism (HFA), the SM is set at Level 6, in those with medium functioning autism (MFA) it is at Level 7, and in low functioning autism (LFA) it is at the maximum setting (Level 8). Thus, people with HFA try to socialise or empathise by “hacking” (that is, systemising), and on the picture sequencing task, they perform above average on sequences that contain temporal or physical‐causal information. People with MFA perform above average on the false photograph task. In LFA, their obsessions cluster in the domain of systems, such as watching electric fans go round; and given a set of coloured counters, they show extreme “pattern imposition”. Box 1 lists 16 behaviours that would be expected if an individual had their SM turned up to the maximum setting of Level 8.”

Box 1: Systemising mechanism at Level 8: classic, low‐functioning autism

Key behaviours that follow from extreme systemising include:

  • Highly repetitive behaviour (e.g. producing a sequence of actions, sounds, or set phrases, or bouncing on a trampoline)
  • Self‐stimulation (e.g. a sequence of repetitive body‐rocking, finger‐flapping in a highly stereotyped manner, spinning oneself round and round)
  • Repetitive events (e.g. spinning objects round and round, watching the cycles of the washing machine; spinning the wheels of a toy car)
  • Preoccupation with fixed patterns or structure (e.g. lining things up in a strict sequence, electrical light switches being in either an ON or OFF position throughout the house)
  • Prolonged fascination with systemisable change (e.g. sand falling through one’s fingers, light reflecting off a glass surface, playing the same video over and over again)
  • Tantrums at change: as a means to return to predictable, systemisable input
  • Need for sameness: to impose lack of change onto their world, to turn their world into a totally predictable environment, to make it systemisable
  • Social withdrawal: since the social world is largely unsystemisable
  • Narrow interests: in systems (e.g. types of planes)
  • Mind blindness: since the social world is largely unsystemisable
  • Attention to detail: the SM records each data point in case it is a relevant variable in a system
  • Reduced generalisation: hyper‐systemising means a reluctance to formulate a law until there has been sufficient data collection. This could also reduce IQ and breadth of knowledge
  • Language delay: since other people’s spoken language varies every time it is heard, so it is hard to systemise
  • Islets of ability: channelling attention into the minute detail of one lawful system (e.g. the script of a video, or prime numbers)

Systemizing explains the nature of autistic special interests and other aspects of autism quite well; it makes sense of repetitive behaviors, and details ways in which they may sometimes manifest as special interests. As autism makes one feel less in control of their lives, systemizing enables control, and certainty. This is part of why autistics typically dislike change, and why they tend to be ritualistic, in establishing routines. 

Movies, books, and TV shows never change, and are therefore totally predictable (systemizable). This makes them strong candidates to be internalized, as in my experience above, when viewed repetitively. This is especially true when one feels that they relate to characters in some way, or when the plot somehow engages them on a personal level. But this is just one example; there are many others besides, including math, facts and statistics, and weather. Systemizing also manifests through self-stimulating behaviors, as a way to reduce tension or stressors that are affecting the individual.

Systemizing is not a bad thing by any means. It should be considered that strong skills in systemizing are a positive of autism in many cases, and even as an indicator of talent (especially when combined with certain hyper-sensory factors of autism, as outlined in that journal article). Rather than being looked down upon or discouraged, as long as they are appropriate and in moderation, special interests should be encouraged, because they can be quite beneficial to the individual pursuing them.

This article was not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, nor very technical; rather, it is a quick read mixing personal experience with a bit of theory. Hopefully it has been informative and interesting to you. For more information on the theory behind the concept of systemizing, I encourage you to check out http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/project_2_systemize. For another (less theoretical) look at special interests in autism, I encourage you to read this excellent article.

Going Beyond the Argument Surrounding the Use of Identity-First Language

There has been much debate in various disability/disorder communities surrounding the use of language, particularly to describe affected individuals.

We are, more and more, seeing a move towards what is called “person-first language.” That is, rather than using “identity-first” language, and directly saying that someone is affected by a handicap (is autistic, blind, or deaf, for example) or otherwise implying the direct effects of a handicapping condition, we remove that label in favor of language that is more neutral (“person who has autism,” “person who has impaired vision / can’t see,” “person who is hard-of-hearing or unable to hear”).

The goal of this move is to recognize the value of the person, and help them separate themselves from the condition so that they may better recognize their self-worth. Saying someone “has autism,” or is “a person who has autism,” for example, instead of “is autistic,” is thought to emphasize their humanity. It places the individual in front of the condition, and is seen as removing the label and/or stereotype of that condition from them.

I understand this point of view, and, as someone interested in linguistics, I applaud individuals on both sides of the debate for showing concern about their use of English. Our use of language is important. Words can have power, if we let them. Words work wonders at winning wars, and can prevent them, as well. Words affect people; they form belief systems, change behaviors, and ultimately, give us our ability to communicate. However, people often give too much power to the words of others, and I think that is what is happening with this argument. We’re spending too much time on something that is ultimately a matter of personal preference, time we could instead use to educate people on topics related to disorders and disabilities. We need to go beyond this debate, and focus on what’s really important.

For individuals affected by disorders and disabilities, the recognition of essential humanity, self-worth, and intrinsic value lies not in language, but in being comfortable with and able to identify with their condition. If someone prefers their condition be referenced in a certain way, that’s their choice, and it should be respected. The important thing is that they are happy with who they are as individuals. If they are, then whether they “have” a disorder or disability, or it is referenced in some other way is irrelevant.

I am a person who has autism, and at the same time, I am also autistic. The language involved doesn’t bother me because I recognize that autism is part of who I am, and am content with that. Disorders and disabilities are features that make people who they are, just as much as eye or skin color. But, they don’t define the individual. If a person is unable to walk, or is deaf, blind, or autistic, or is handicapped in some other way, they can still be successful in life – regardless of the words people use to reference them. It is all about attitude and perspective, and the realization that words only have as much power as we give them.

If someone has a disability or disorder and is struggling to recognize their self-worth and value, that’s what needs fixing. We, as a society, need to recognize this and change our priorities to better help these individuals. If we each work on recognizing our own value and worth, as well as that of others, language is no longer a problem.

On Winning The Award for Best Undergraduate Oral Presentation at the 40th Annual Meeting of the National Weather Association

Wow, that’s a long title! As it indicates, I won the award for Best Oral Presentation by an Undergraduate Student last week at the National Weather Association’s (NWA) 40th Annual Meeting in Oklahoma City, for Learning Disorders in the Meteorological Community: Implications for Communication and Education.

I wanted to share some thoughts I have on winning the award.

Going in submitting my abstract, and while at the conference, I didn’t think of my talk as being part of some competition. I saw it as being yet another installment in a long line of presentations occurring at the Annual Meeting, albeit one in which the speaker was going to receive critique and feedback from a panel of judges on the use of graphics, and speaking ability. I would be lying if I said that I’ve never thought about having the best student presentation at an NWA conference, but really, winning the award with this specific talk never crossed my mind as a possibility. I do okay at public speaking, but I struggle in a few key areas, and I felt that this talk was more a chance to get needed feedback to better my speaking skills, than it was something I’d take to a competition. It was on a topic I’m passionate about, and my intent was to spread awareness for that topic while gaining feedback to improve myself professionally. Thus, the only thing I acknowledged to myself about being judged was the feedback I looked forward to receiving.

Many of the other undergraduate speakers were outstanding, and the fact that a panel of judges considered my presentation to be the best was astounding; it was both confidence-boosting and humbling at the same time.  I’m sincerely honored to have won the award. It came as a complete surprise, and in some ways, I’m still trying to comprehend it.

I cannot, however, take all credit. My adviser and co-author, Greg Blumberg, played an important role in keeping me on track and focused during the process of crafting the presentation, and was extremely helpful as someone to bounce ideas off of. I can say with certainty that without him, I wouldn’t have won the award.  Thanks, Greg, for being an awesome mentor throughout this adventure, and beyond!

For a great recap of the conference via social media, check out the conference TagBoard and Storify! There were over 16,000 tweets!

With National Weather Association President, Dr. Elizabeth Page.

With NWA President Dr. Elizabeth Page after the announcement that I’d won the award for Best Oral Presentation by an Undergraduate Student.


With my mentors Greg Blumberg (left. was my advisor for my study and presentation), and Mike Mogil (right).

With my mentors Greg Blumberg (left; adviser for my study and presentation), and Mike Mogil (right).


With my friend Lynnette Grant, who won the award for Best Undergraduate Poster.

With my friend Lynnette Grant, who won the award for Best Undergraduate Poster.