IT Employment

Asperger's and social interaction: Learn to speak in colors

Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the high end of the autism spectrum disorders, may be more common among those in the technical fields. Now, a new technology developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained professor may help correct some social interaction problems common to those with Asperger's.

Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the high end of the autism spectrum disorders, may be more common among those in the technical fields. Now, a new technology developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained professor may help correct some social interaction problems common to those with Asperger's.

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Last year around this time, I wrote a blog about the connection between Asperger's Syndrome and IT. Asperger's is on the high end of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and is characterized by social difficulties, restricted, stereotyped interests and activities, and obsessive or repetitive routines. People with Asperger's often have sophisticated vocabularies but experience trouble with social interaction.

Many TechRepublic members who responded in the discussion following that piece said they either had Asperger's or had wondered about the connection. For that reason, when I came across a piece about a new computer program developed to let such people "see" how they are communicating, I was intrigued.

Karrie Karahalios, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says her computer program, which she calls a "conversation clock," provides feedback in real time and can act as a type of social mirror, allowing people to adjust their speech in the same way "they adjust their appearance before a glass mirror."

Here's how it works: Subjects are fitted with a microphone matched to a color and attached to a computer. Each voice appears on a computer terminal as a color -- red, yellow, blue, green -- and the images grow in size if the voice gets louder, overlaps another color as it interrupts, or abruptly narrows with silence. The program was tested on children with Asperger's, and the testers found the subjects (who normally had a tendency to speak in long monologues) were able to "see" this pattern in terms of their color on the screen. From these visual clues, the subjects tended to adapt their conversational patterns in order to balance the colors on the screen.

Karahalios is still developing techniques for the program. The researchers are not sure yet if the adaptive behaviors will carry over once the subjects are away from the screen. It sounds like an interesting endeavor though.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

14 comments
louren15
louren15

You can think of it like movie reviewers they go to practically every movie, to serve as an informed authority for others in their influence circles on how good it is and what the salient features are.[b] "Dr. Naveed Fazlani":http://www.facebook.com/DrNaveedFazlani [/b]

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

Microphones make me stressed. I don't know why this is, but the presence of a mike just sends my blood pressure off the scale, and I get so self conscious it's untrue. When I get like that you can't predict what's going to come out of my mouth. A friend once covertly started taping me, and gradually brought the mike into view. When we played the tape back you could hear my voice getting tighter and tighter. Apart from this, I would love to try the system. Oh yeah - "CJ" and Somewhat anonymous both gave pretty good descriptions of how I see myself. What I would really like is a device that detects when I am about to make a big social gaffe, and delivers an electric shock just as I begin to open my mouth. It would have to be quite a big shock, because nothing seems to stop me in those situations, not even friends desperate attempts to interrupt.

johndecoville
johndecoville

Yes - That is me! 1. Long monologues. I am 63 and have known about this since my teens. Even with decades of coaching, I have to be quite mindful not to fall into that trap. Answer: Gauge your listener. If they are glazing over, looking around, sighs, looking at their watch, trying to interject a question, or abruptly changing the subject maybe you are obsessively on your "splinter" interest. 2. Aspies as we are known as, are not ADHD's although we have some ADHS-type symptoms. 3. Aspies can be great in IT. 4. Aspies can focus like a laser. 5. Aspies can have narrow and long-held interests. Many are life-time singles. Some have great difficulty scoring points other than their own. So getting advanced degrees involving peer-review, keeping jobs, having good job-reviews are all a challenge. 6. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors including counting are natural. I was once hopping from railroad tie to railroad tie in Philadelphia and missed my cross-street by almost a mile. I was definitely in the "zone". Program a "trigger" to know when you are in the "zone" so you can step back and be the observer of yourself! That can help with the monologues too. 7. At a previous job I was known as 'CJ' or Crazy John. The guy who called me that was known as 'God' so we got along great! 8. Suffered a lot of cruelty at school but also did have friends. Many Aspies feel totally cut off. 9. Sometimes as pointed out by jalepeno bob I broach socially taboo subjects. I shoot myself in the foot big-time at least once every 90 days. 10 I have to remember to tone my volume down. ASPies can be very loud talkers. Cheers! -John

Jalapeno Bob
Jalapeno Bob

Our best friends' daughter has Asperger's Syndrome. She does have a strong tendancy to either be silent or talk in long monologues. For this symptom, it might help. Some of the other symptoms, such as constantly shifting to new and frequesntly inappropriate topics, we all wish someone could help. She constantly broaches tabu topics ins social conversation. Oh, well.....

Somewhat anonymous
Somewhat anonymous

I used to work with someone who I suspect may have Asperger's but I was never told he did so I am not sure. He could be very sweet and we got fairly close (platonic) but he did do the loud talking, long monologues, and sometimes quite insensitive -- he was always pissing people off without seeming to know why. He would joke about it, but it also seemed to make him sad. I tried to have patience with him and blew a lot of stuff off, but at one point his behavior got a little out of control with me and I confronted him about it, asking him to treat me more respectfully. Around this time we also ceased to be colleagues (he was a contractor and his contract had just ended) and our relationship kind of dissolved after that. We still email sometimes . . . I wonder if there is a way to be friends with someone like this and have a way to talk to him when he crosses a line?

dpresley_50201
dpresley_50201

This software would also be useful for those who are ADHD as they tend to speak LOUDLY and frequently interrupt other conversations even when on meds. It would give them an immediate visual cue on how they are vocally encroaching other people's boundaries. With ADHD, immediacy is the key concept. I hope the developer continues her work with this software, so we may have another tool to give the socially impaired another way to modify their behaviors to accepted limits.

santeewelding
santeewelding

That it intrigues you, Toni. And, Rohn01, I think it's "mind", not "brain", unless you mean to be stereotypical.

Ron_007
Ron_007

Cool, computers (potentially) open another door for people with handicaps. "Intuitively" I can see how that could work, it's interesting to see that it works in practice. The brain is an amazing place. It would be interesting to see what that kind of effect that application would have on "normal" people, in "normal" conversational situations. I've seen a couple of TV specials where autistics were able to learn to use computers and guess what, there was a "real" personality hiding under all of the physical symptoms. Without the tool, those people were locked inside of their bodies, how insanely frustrating would that be. And of course, there is always Steven Hawking. All of his genius would be held incommunicado without his computer tools.

Tig2
Tig2

You already have the first required tool- empathy, and the second- awareness. Add to those an understanding that you have to tread just as carefully with an Aspie or ADHDer as you would with a close friend, and you have it. If someone tells me what I am doing inappropriately, I will ask them to help me problem solve a solution for the behavior and add that to my coaching. I will also ask them to alert me if they see that inappropriate behavior re-surface. On the other hand, if they tell me "try harder", I will shut down. Try to imagine how you would want to be given feedback if you "heard" the world around you as a monotone stream. Suddenly, as in text, word choice becomes significantly more important. Another thing to keep in mind is that people with ADHD and AS often perceive words differently than you might. Many of us can see spoken words in color, others can smell spoken words. That alone can change the impact of what is heard. Unfortunately, the ability to visualize words in color doesn't feedback information about how those words are being perceived as this proposed system does.

BigBlueMarble
BigBlueMarble

Really glad you posted this. AS is still a relatively new diagnosis, so many adult Aspies probably don't know they have it - or as in my case - didn't know until a child was diagnosed. Keeping in mind that AS is an autism *spectrum* disorder, it can be very difficult to recognize AS in yourself, let alone a colleague. It takes many forms, from not being able to look someone in the eye during a conversation, to completely dominating conversations with minute details. To relate to what it is to have AS, one of the best analogies I've ever read was in regard to the tactile sensitivities many Aspies live with: Imagine having to put on a shirt made of steel wool. Now imagine having to wear that shirt all day. What may be a "normal cotton t-shirt" to anyone else *is* that steel wool shirt to an Aspie. This color patterning test is huge news for the AS community. I hope it will be available online at some point. It provides the kind of non-emotional feedback Aspies need to comfortably address issues such as social isolation. FWIW, my husband and I both have AS, as does our son. We've both had extreme difficulty communicating "appropriately" in business and casual situations. Aspies lose many friends due to an inability to express themselves. Kudos to you, Somewhat anonymous, for making the effort to be patient and understanding with your colleague. I'd bet s/he was and still is grateful for your friendship and willingness to overlook the moments when they came across as insensitive. I can never say anything in one quick beat. I do want to add that high-functioning Aspies don't see themselves as disabled or handicapped. We just see things differently. One way to sum it up is to say we hear in absolutes/black and white, but we think in all grays. We see detail in big pictures, but may miss the point of the picture entirely.

road-dog
road-dog

Some kind of visual indication that someone has tuned you out. For instance, ever been in an argument and the other person is arguing against something other than what you're trying to say? I'd love to be able to show someone how they listened to the first three or four words of what I've said and then tuned me out to formulate a reply to what their subjections say, not what I actually mean. If a red light went on on their forehead saying that 95% of brain activity has transitioned from listening to formulating a response, I'd know to just quit talking because they've quit listening. Then, if I care enough to be understood, I could break complex thoughts down to suit a small buffer size on their end, or just call them an ignorant jackass and walk away.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

classification as stereotypical, the brain is not un-amazing.

santeewelding
santeewelding

To, "brain", regarding that engineering couple, I cop to, "stereotypical", as in, "together", as in, "kaleidoscopic", where Toni treads. You, too.