Friday, April 4, 2008

Autism/Asperger's and Us ...

Yes, SIGCSE 2008 is over, but I do want to continue this conversations, especially about diversity and accessibility in computing education -- which bring me to this recent CW article on Asperger's Syndrome in the IT industry, an interesting piece that does a decent job interviewing a few representatives in industry, and few experts (including Temple Grandin, a name I recognize as I read one of her books on Thinking in Pictures).

Again, most people I have met would like to "do the right thing," but the right thing is often hard and sometimes not as profitable. Still, there appears to be some evidence that doing the right thing for people in IT with high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger's Syndrome (Asp) might be quite profitable and the right thing. For example, one could envision an effective manager who recognizes and accommodates a person with HFA/Asp and assigns important work where that person is proficient, as well as a non-HFA/Asp buddy or other accommodation(s) to help with social interactions, feedback and meetings. If anything, I see a risk of exploitation of the person with HFA/Asp, isolating in the name of "helping." Maybe I am an alarmist here, but I am OK with that label until persuaded otherwise :-).

I am happy that there was one note that HFA/Asp may be more difference that disability; consider that people with HFA/Asp tend to need clear guidance and respond to direct feedback, work well independently (sometimes only alone), and are "honest to a fault" which is really an oxymoron if you think about it. As a manager (and I am more professor than executive), I would embrace the trade-off of honesty and clarity for someone who does not get irony or jokes; heck, there are plenty of people from all walks of life who do not understand my humor.

So, how does this inform education in computing? I think there are three areas to start:
  1. recognizing and providing effective accommodation for students with HFA/Asp, like all students with learning issues -- hopefully SIGCSE 2008 started or continued some discussion in this area
  2. cultivating the required capabilities of the "other students" (i.e., non-HFA/Asp) to recognize, communicate with and interact effectively with people with HFA/Asp
  3. providing the needed supports for educators by administration, by professional societies (like SIGCSE, SIGACCESS, others ...) and by the "community at large"
I want to conclude that accommodations can be both the right thing and the most effective thing to do -- they are just not always the easiest or cheapest in the short-term -- but hopefully readers of this blog understand that greedy solutions are sometimes the exact wrong thing to do :-).

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I do want to explicitly note that Mark Guzdial (photo right) has risen to the challenge of not only running SIGCSE 2009 (with Sue Fitzgerald), but to continue with a SIGCSE 2009 Blog to discuss issues relating to the conference and computing education -- or, as their theme implies, "engaging computer science education" -- I have already subscribed to that blog, it's another resource to help me get the most out of SIGCSE.

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