Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Can Aspies drive?

Can people on the spectrum drive?  Not just anecdotes about individuals who can or can't, what about some meaningful data about how we cope behind the wheel?



Professor Torbjorn Falkmer is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University's School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work.  He's behind a study looking specifically at autism and driving.

"We are going to ask parents, driving instructors and persons with ASD about their viewpoint on driving and autism experiences," Professor Falkmer explains.  That will be followed by some cognitive testing relevant to driving, and then participants get behind the wheel: first in a driving simulator, and then for real on a pre-defined route around the Curtin campus in Perth. 

All the while, researchers will be collecting data on how their subjects perform, how they handle the hazards, distractions and multi-tasking that come with driving, and how they read and respond to social cues while motoring.  Part of that involves collecting eye tracking data, so researchers can monitor what their participants were looking at, and for how long.

Getting your drivers licence is a rite of passage, especially in country areas where your opportunities and movements are severely restricted if you can't drive yourself around.  Prof. Falkmer says this research could help train and assess the next generation of neurodiverse drivers.

"We would hope that insight into and establishing the evidence for the driving performance in adolescent drivers with ASD may assist in development of more reliable and accurate tools for assessing drivers with autism," he says.

"The study may also help to inform clinicians about appropriate training strategies to improve drivers’ behaviours and to enable safe driving.

"By exploring and understanding facilitators and barriers of driving ability in individuals with autism we can hopefully enhance their strengths and work on improving areas of concerns to facilitate the independence by enabling more persons with autism to manage to get their driving licence."

Driving is a very visual exercise: a big part of it is keeping an eye on the road and responding to what you see.  And being a 'visual thinker' is often talked about as being an autistic trait.  (Temple Grandin, for instance, has written eloquently and at length about how she thinks and understands the world visually.)  So, visual thinkers taking on a visual task should be a recipe for success, right?

Not necessarily. 

There's a difference between thinking visually and being able to handle a highly visual task in real time.  As for whether people on the spectrum tend to be better at picking up and processing visual information, the short answer is we just don't know.

"If there is a general superiority in people with autism when it comes to attending to visually presented details is still not conclusively proven," Professor Falkmer says.  "Some studies report that such superiority exists, some have not been able to find it.  So maybe a good summary is to say that we still do not know enough about visual perception in autism."

Many thanks to Professor Torbjorn Falkmer and Susanna Wolz from Curtin University for their time and help.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Four Aspie-friendly online games and one that's creepy as hell

Or you could play with these, I guess
So, you're bored.  You have some time to kill, or you're procrastinating, or you just have a free evening and would like to do something other than browsing YouTube or refreshing Facebook for the umpteenth time in case someone's posted something interesting.

Here are some options.  They're games that might keep you occupied for a few minutes or a few hours, and most involve some strategy, general knowledge or pattern matching rather than shooting at things or madly stabbing at a little yellow bird that doesn't understand how its wings work.

I tested a lot of games (it was a hard job, but someone had to do it).  I looked at how straightforward they are to play and the quality of the instructions, potential sensory annoyances like animation and sound effects, and stuck to things that are free to play, that don't bug you about sharing on social media, and that don't expect you to recruit other players.  I also stuck to casual games - nothing that things that requires registration or downloads, and no complex world-building and roleplay games that require ongoing commitment.  No doubt there are loads I've missed (points to comments box) but here, in no particular order, are some I'd recommend:

FreeRice

An oldie but still awesome, FreeRice is an endless quiz where the advertisers donate money to the World Food Program for every correct answer.  The default setting is vocabulary, which is great for word nerds and the hyperlexic, but click "subjects" and you'll find they offer all sorts of topics from famous paintings to maths, chemical symbols and flags of the world.

Sudoku

I'm rubbish at Sudoku, but then numbers and I have always had an uneasy relationship.  There are lot of options for playing Sudoku online, but this was the best of the ones I tested because the interface is simple, you can set your difficulty level and the size of your board, you can check your answers, and while there's an option to play against the clock it doesn't time you by default.

2048

You've probably heard of this one - it's new (although based on an older game, Threes), popular and really quite addictive.  It's harder to explain how it works than it is to play it, but if you tap around with the arrow keys for a while you'll figure it out.  It's numbers-based, but more about strategy and spatial logic than maths.

GeoGuessr

This one is for geography fans.  It presents you with a Google Streetview image from some random part of the world, and you have to figure out where it is.  If you're lucky there'll be recognisable landmarks or writing on buildings to help you, but sometimes it's going to be a long stretch of dirt road with some scrubby bush on either side.  Making an educated guess (or a wild one) is as much part of the game as clicking around looking for a definite answer.

Special mention for being creepy as hell and kinda triggery:

Elude

For Gods' sake don't play Elude if you're already miserable.  It's a weird, spooky game designed to explain depression to people who don't get it, like friends and family members who tell the affected person to just cheer up and get over it already.  It does this through the medium of climbing trees in a forest while singing despondent one-note songs to passing birds.  Occasionally you might break through the leaf canopy to the elusive state of happiness, where you leap from flower to flower until you lose your footing and plummet back to earth.  Reaching out to the birds around you helps you jump higher and get closer to happiness, except then it doesn't and the ground swallows you up.  The game ends on the edge of a bottomless red-lit chasm that looks suspiciously like a portal to hell, which you might be able to escape.  Or you might not.

Having said that, it's very playable in a platformy kind of way.  It stands up to repeated playing, because there are some tricks you can learn, like getting better jump-boosters from the birds so you can climb higher more quickly.  Except when the tentacles appear, because then the birds sod off and leave you to deal with it.

I probably should have just made this a four-point list, shouldn't I?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Executive function and managing email

Holy crap but my inboxes are out of control right now.



I love email.  It saves me a lot of talking on the phone I'd rather avoid, plus having things in writing lets me process it as and when I can rather than having to keep up with a real time conversation.  (I can't always do that, mostly thanks to sensory processing delays.)  But keeping on top of my email is an ongoing challenge.  Every so often I'll get my inboxes empty and be terribly pleased with myself for a while.  Then I get complacent, and within a few days they're overflowing again with stuff I don't know what to do with or don't want to deal with, and things I could have sorted out in a few minutes but didn't and now feel guilty about.

It's time to break this habit and get these suckers under control once and for all, so I've been reading up on email management.  There are eleventy billion blog posts about this, mostly aimed at people who wear suits and work in offices, but most boil down to the same general ideas.  Now it's a matter of making those ideas work with my ropey executive function.  For instance, having a separate folder for emails to deal with later won't work for me.  I'm probably going to forget to check that folder - if I can't see it, it doesn't exist - so nothing in there is ever going to be dealt with.  Folders are great for storing things I need to keep but am unlikely to have to deal with again, like receipts for stuff bought online, but not a good idea for work in progress.

So, here's the plan.  These are email management tips distilled from about a dozen sources (I'll put a full list of references at the end) tweaked and refined to hopefully make them work better in the face of shaky executive function.

Limit the amount of stuff coming in:  Minimising the amount of crap you have to deal with is better than having an efficient method of dealing with it.  Report spam, so anything else from the same spammy sender goes straight to your spam trap.  If you're getting updates about stuff you're not interested in - like daily emails from that obscure news site you registered with so you could leave one comment and then never went back - unsubscribe from them, or if you can't unsubscribe mark them as spam.  (If they don't give you an easy means of subscribing, they are spam, even if the sender is legit.)  If your inbox is filling up with mailing lists or blogs you follow by email, consider following them by RSS instead.

Create rules to direct your traffic: If RSS isn't your thing, you could also create a rule (also called filters by some systems) that sorts your email newsletters and blog updates into their own folders.  (Assuming folders would work for you.)  You can use a rule to identify any email from a particular sender or domain or containing certain keywords, and send it straight to a folder other than your inbox. 

Have a second email for online forms and signups: If you need to register with a website or app you're probably only going to use once, or you have some other online thing demanding a means of contacting you, it can be handy to have a second email to use.  This is one you don't necessarily check regularly or use with your real name, but does exist and you can check if you have to.  It means the random Grubby McGrubbersons of the internet might have your email, but not the one you use for communicating with real people.

Turn off notifications: If your phone or computer makes a noise, pops up a box or does a little dance every time you get a new email, switch that feature off.  (If you can't figure out how, and some of them are quite well hidden, googling for "turn off new email notification <program you use>" will probably help you find out.)  Those constant popups and pings can be really distracting.  They also encourage you to read and deal with every email as it comes in, which in most situations is a pretty inefficient way to work.  That brings us to...

Have set times to check and deal with email: Try scheduling a set time to check and handle mail, which could be anything from once every three days to four times daily depending on what you do and how you use it.  Sometimes this won't work - in some jobs, responding to back-and-forth emails is pretty much what you do all day.  But if you can set aside an hour or two specifically to getting it sorted out and dealing with the stuff that's been building up, it might give you the motivation to get on top of it.

Deal with it straight away if you can: I could win Olympic gold for Australia in procrastination, so I tend to read emails, and then promptly do nothing about them.  Sometimes it's because I don't know how to respond, sometimes it's because I don't want to deal with whatever the issue is, sometimes I genuinely don't have time.  But if you can deal with it the first time you read it, it saves you having to come back and read it again later.  If you can't deal with it - say it's someone asking for help you just can't provide - reply and say so.  You might be able to suggest someone else who could help, in which case you could suggest them or even cc them in on your reply. 

Figure out a folder strategy that works for you:  There are loads of ways you could use folders - by topic, by person, by date, by what you have to do with that information - and what works for someone else won't necessarily work for you.  For instance, having a 'to be actioned' folder isn't going to work for me, because it's going to sit unobtrusively to one side of my inbox where I probably won't see it, and will forget it and everything in it exists.  But I find folders very useful for archiving things I might so I can find them quickly if and when I do.  For instance, I have one for business expenses where I keep receipts for things like stationery and website costs so I can find them easily at tax time.

Keep a dirt file: If you get unwanted attention from creepers or bullies, file them away somewhere so you have proof they happened should you ever need to file a complaint or escalate things further.  But put them in a folder where you don't have to see them everyday while you're getting on with your life.  If you think you might be snooped on, perhaps give it an innocuous name like "memos" or "meeting notes" just to be on the safe side. 

Keep stock replies: If you get the same question repeatedly, save your response somewhere handy and paste it in or attach it to every new enquiry to save time.  We did this at a radio station where I used to work, where we had a regular stream of "how do I send you a community notice?" emails.  Your email system might have a "canned response" feature that lets you do this easily.

There are also some things we can do to help other people manage their emails, because they're probably struggling just as much as we are.

Use sensible subject fields: Let the person on the other end know what your email's about.  If you're just forwarding funny videos amongst your friends, 'lol' or 'I'll just leave this here' might be fine, but if it's something more serious then "Neurodiversity journal article for May edition" is probably more helpful than "article".

Use a separate email for each issue: If you have to email the same person about a heap of different things, it might be helpful to send separate emails.  For instance, in the job I have now I might have to send the boss some art proofs, an update on an ongoing project, and then ask about some policy point.  It's worth sending three emails, each with their own subject line and dealing with one specific thing.  Otherwise, you might get a reply that covers the first point but not the others, so you have to waste time (yours and theirs) chasing up the other answers.  Also, it lets the other person file their emails by their system - maybe they've got separate folders for art proofs, that project, and policy stuff. 

Be specific: This is a really hard one for me, because I worry about coming across as bossy.  But if you specify exactly what information or action you need from the person you're emailing, and by when, you're saving them time and effort working out what to do next.

Wish me luck.

Resources used to compile this list:
Mind Tools: Managing email effectively
The Art of Manliness: Slay the email monster!
Runbox: How to manage your inbox
Asian Efficiency: The simple guide to managing your email more efficiently
LinkedIn: Seven ways to manage your email so it doesn't manage you
The Next Web: Five ways to reach an empty email inbox in 2014
Forbes: How to conquer your email inbox
Everything Email: six tips for managing your emails
About: Email management tips for improved productivity

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Skinny pretty girls being quirky in socially acceptable ways


I love this comic.  I mean, I love xkcd in general, but I love this comic in particular.  But I've shared it with various people over the years, sometimes guys who are acting like the guy in the comic in the hope that they'll recognise themselves and snap out of it, and I usually just get a baffled 'huh?' sort of response.

But this "please stick to the following endorsed forms of quirkery" idea is very much a thing.  It also has another aspect, one that would be hard to illustrate in xkcd's faceless stick figure style: kooky and quirky is for pretty, skinny, able girls.

The further you are from ideal, the more you have to toe the line: if you're attractive and slim, you can act and dress and present yourself in ways you can't if you're fat or have an asymmetrical face.  And if you have a disability, especially something like Aspergers that gives people ammunition to think you're weird, you're expected to make a special effort to fit in and be normal.  A cute quirk becomes a character flaw becomes a clinical symptom depending on who has it.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

How can we make uni easier for students with disability?

source
The University of Southern Queensland is  figuring out how to help disabled uni students complete their studies successfully.

An interdisciplinary team - there are boffins involved from the health, psychology, and education fields - has won a grant for a pilot study working with 30 USQ students with disability.

Around the country uni enrolments are rising, but project leader Dr Rahul Ganguly says students with disability aren't necessarily keeping up - they might leave education sooner than their non-disabled peers, or not do as well academically.

It's a field that hasn't had a lot of research before, and what attention it has had has tended to look at the facilities available or what the faculty thinks rather than talking to the actual students.

This project aims to change that: they'll follow their 30 students for a year, through surveys and interviews.  They'll not only be looking at what uni policies and services are helping, but also recognising the students' own resilience and skills that are helping them get through.

More info here