Some gestures seem universal, however as you travel this summer you will realize that gestures can get lost in translation. Humans used gesture as our primary form of communication, and later, speech was layered on top of gesture. Many years on we see how gestures can be localized to specific regions or cultures. These are called intransitive gestures. They are socially sophisticated, and they are bound to both environmental and cultural contexts.
Social Rejection is as Real and Hurts as much as Physical Pain
Have you ever wondered why we use phrases like my feelings are hurt, and I was heartbroken when we describe emotional pain?
To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain,” writes the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, “And put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group—his tribe—is a large part of his identity.”
Humans were not designed to live solitary lives. It is well documented that loneliness, and feelings of isolation, are associated with a plethora of negative outcomes including cardiac disease, immune dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and sadly, suicide.
Loneliness is on the rise among many groups including the elderly and adults with disabilities, and the risks of isolation are so alarming that the UK recently appointed a government official to address this social crisis. Many of us know someone who is lonely and isolated, but we may not realize just how much emotional pain they are truly experiencing. In fact, I know individuals who describe their emotional pain as excruciating.
People frequently ask me, "Why are you bothering to connect with autistic adults who are just happier being alone?" Indeed, it may appear that this is the case if someone seems perfectly content to stay in their room, and after venturing out, returns to their safe haven as soon as possible. Of course, many adults do relish their downtime, and they often enjoy the quiet and solitude as a way recover from emotional or sensory stimulation. However, individuals may isolate because they don’t feel that the world is a safe place. So, safe haven is the perfect word to describe their private corner of the world. We need to consider why they feel at risk. What is the risk or danger to their emotional safety on the outside of their four walls?
Physical Pain and Social Rejection Share the Same Neural Circuitry
Matthew Lieberman is a researcher at UCLA specializing in social cognition. Several years ago, he published his groundbreaking findings that show that our brains process physical pain and social pain using the same neural substrates. In other words, physical pain and social pain share the same neural circuitry. Lieberman suggests that there is an important area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex that surrounds the large white matter fiber tracts connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain (known as the corpus callosum). Moreover, the area of interest implicated in social pain is the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (DACC).
Michael Lieberman and his colleagues conducted a series of studies using a video game known as Cyberball. This is a game that the researchers used to assess the neural basis of social rejection. After informing the research participants that they would be tossing the ball in the video game to two other people, they placed them in the scanner. The participants were led to believe that they were throwing the ball to two strangers, when in fact; they were merely interacting with avatars.
After the participant tossed the ball several times, they were removed from the interaction, and the two avatars continued to play with one another; in essence, excluding and rejecting the research participant.
The analyses revealed that DACC activity increased during the exclusion phase of the experiment, but not when the participant included in the interaction. Not only did the participants show increased activation in the DACC during exclusion, but they also reported that they also felt distressed as well. A positive correlation showed that the greater distress the participants reported, the greater the activation of the DACC.
A follow-up study demonstrated that individuals with higher self-reported scores of exclusion distress also showed greater activation in the DACC when shown photos of disapproving glances. The researchers also found that social supports played a role in the results and that participants with fewer social supports showed greater activation in the DACC.
Become a Catalyst to Start a Chain Reaction of Social Connection
These findings are significant because they suggest that when someone is repeatedly rejected, that the rejection may increase the sensitivity to future rejection. This, in turn, may lead to a downward spiral for individuals on the spectrum who already suffered the pain of social rejection, and now choose to retreat to the safety of their homes. Retreating to their safe havens may be the only way for them to avoid unsuccessful attempts at forging friendships and experiencing the emotional pain of repeated rejections.
Yesterday, I met a Vietnam veteran who has suffered PTSD and other mental health challenges. He said, “Dr. Ham, let me tell you, I don’t have any friends. I am an outsider.” This beautiful person is not a stranger to emotional pain, and he is devoting his life to helping another isolated adult who is on the autism spectrum. He sees that the autistic adult has been taken advantage of by others, is completely isolated without any real friends to care for him, and has been rejected by society. This honorable veteran told me today that he made a vow to protect Americans, and he meant what he said. Now, this veteran also needs a little help from his friends, but he can’t find anyone to listen.
So many adults share with me that they are lonely. Don’t we all desire to belong, to connect with others, and to be accepted?
Please contact Spectrum Fusion if you want to be a catalyst to start the chain reaction of social connection. Together, we can break the chains of loneliness.
We are captivated by the idea that another person could interpret a different version of our reality. The blue dress, the pink and grey shoe, and now the audio clip of Yanny vs. Laurel are a few examples of how intrigued we are with the idea of perceptual differences.
Yet, in society, we come into contact every day with people that see the world through a different filter. In the examples above, usually, there are two distinct possibilities in which to choose. In the audio clip, 47% of people perceive the word, Yanny (the latest poll) while 53% perceive Laurel. The reasons for this are complex and are grounded in formant frequencies in speech science, as well as cognitive processing of the sensory input.
The photos are static visual images, and the audio clips are dynamic and are require ‘online’ processing. We perceive sounds when various frequencies are combined to produce a particular sound. These frequencies are represented as formants on a spectrogram, and formant F1 is determined by the height of the tongue body whilst F2 is determined by the frontness/backness of the tongue body. Vowels are either high or low vowels. In Yanny vs. Laurel, the perception of the F2 formant may be one of many reasons why we are confused. Fellow speech pathologist, Professor Ben Munson presented a visual on the speckled F2 formant of Yanny vs Laurel. This may be one of the many reasons for the confusion of the variance in the perception.
Interestingly, although you may be adamant in your interpretation of Yanny, the correct word is, in fact, Laurel.
This example of perceptual differences is striking, and we need to remember this when we meet people who see the world differently than us. Instead of dismissing their views straightaway because we have formed a different opinion (and we can back it up because the majority of people also agree with us), we should be open. Many times it doesn’t mean that we are holding fast to an accurate representation of reality.
How our brains interpret the representations of the sensory input, including auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli vary, and it is this underlying cognitive processing that results in the differences in how individuals on the autism process information in the world around them. In my research in imitation and gestural processing, I found distinct differences in how adolescents on the autism spectrum imitated gestures compared to those without autism. I found differences in gesture production according to how the stimuli were presented (verbal, visual, tactile). Individuals with above average IQ scores experienced difficulty imitating basic gestures, and this finding was eye-opening because it provided insight into how these individuals may perceive and process social information.
It is also the differences in cognitive processing that allows adults on the spectrum to demonstrate their strengths and talents. Baron Cohen and colleagues describe this as the theory of hyper-systematizing, and they outline categories of skills and abilities that we may see in individuals on the autism spectrum.
It is important that we come together as a society and understand how individuals on the spectrum differ in how they process information. When we identify the underlying cognitive processing styles, we can help empower them by encouraging and developing their strengths.
Thoughts can change our brains. But we need to carefully consider our thoughts and expectations about others because we hold their future synapses in our hands. This is powerful, and the realization of the importance of our responsibility to the outcomes of adults on the spectrum is sobering. We all have to keep our expectations at the forefront of our minds when meeting individuals who share their ideas, hopes, and dreams with us. If we are not careful, we could kill their future potential, and this is a crime.
Cognitive fatigue in autism
I receive messages from adults on the autism spectrum who live all around the world. They courageously reach out with the hope that someone will be there on the other end, someone who may truly understand what they are going through, and the amount of effort they are required to exert on a daily basis to sustain the ‘magic illusion’ of normalcy when working in traditional settings.
When individuals on the autism spectrum exert maximum effort to perform in settings that are not suited to their strengths, they often experience cognitive fatigue and emotional exhaustion. For this reason, it is fallacious to prescribe the same old ‘encouragement’ to these individuals that they should merely get a job in the traditional setting and then come home and enjoy their ‘hobby’ like the rest of the workforce. This is simply is not possible. These individuals are using every ounce of their cognitive resources to perform daily tasks, and when they do return to home to their safe haven, they often require considerable time to replenish their reserves.
Types of Attention
The ability for humans to think, to process and recall information relies on cognitive ability. The DSM 5 includes six neurocognitive domains for diagnosis including perceptual-motor function, language, executive function, complex attention, social cognition, learning, and memory. This blog will discuss attention and its effects on adults in the workplace.
Attention is a multifaceted construct, and researchers across disciplines differ in their proposed theories, methodologies, and their use of terminology in published attentional studies. However, sustained and selective attention are two of the most widely agreed upon definitions across disciplines including cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and behavioral analysis.
Sustained attention is the ability to focus selective attention on a specific stimulus. This is the ability to attend to a task without being distracted (e.g., playing a videogame).
Selective Attention is the ability to pay attention to the salient stimulus in the midst of other distractors. Selective attention requires filtering out of the distractions while focusing on what’s important. (e.g., listening to instructions from a teacher in the classroom when other students are talking).
Other types of attention are also important in clinical settings. Alternating attention, dividing attention, and processing speed are also critical when completing tasks.
Alternating attention requires focus to alternate, or shift, between tasks that demand different underlying mechanisms. For example, reading a hardcopy of a document and then adding data to an Excel spreadsheet.
Divided attention is the ability to simultaneously process two or more tasks. For example, reading a text when you are listening to your friend talk about her weekend. Although people often use the term multitasking, it is not possible to fully attend to two tasks at the same time. Therefore, you are only focusing on a piece of each task. For example, studies have been published showing how driver’s accuracy decreases when they are speaking on their mobile phones. These same individuals are not believers until they are actually shown the videos to prove that they started swerving and/or alternating their speed.
In 2016, Brandon Keehn and colleagues published a neuroimaging study that measured attentional capture in children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. Sixteen children and adolescents completed a visual presentation paradigm that measured the activation of networks underlying attention. The paradigm presented the participants with relevant targets that required them to ignore the distractors that were irrelevant. The results showed that the autistic participants paid attention to the distractors that were supposed to be ignored, and did not pay attention to the target stimuli. In other words, their responses were under-reactive to the relevant stimuli suggesting that they may have experienced difficulty filtering the irrelevant information.
The authors hypothesize that non-social attention processes may play a role in the difficulties that they face in everyday life in social communication contexts.
In The Workplace
The cognitive profile of each adult on the spectrum is unique, and adaptations can be made in the workplace to compensate for the areas that may create anxiety, stress, and overall cognitive fatigue for the individual.
Many adults on the spectrum describe that they can focus on an area of interest for an extended period, and they often describe this as being “in the zone.” However, if they are required to perform tasks that are out of their area of strengths, or of increasing complexity (holding information in working memory simultaneously), it is common to see sustained attention decrease over time. Errors will increase, processing speed will decrease, and the time required to perform the task will increase as sustained attention decreases. Adults on the spectrum report that their employers tell them to “just pay attention” and to “work faster.” Processing time will increase as the cognitive load increases, so it is essential to understand the underlying processes that the project requires. If the employee is more alert in the morning, they can tackle some of the tasks that need sustained attention in increments that are best suited to their cognitive style.
Alternating attention may be of particular challenge. If individuals are distracted and have to shift their attention to someone asking them a question or if co-workers are laughing and talking in the corridors, it may be difficult for them to refocus on the project or task at hand. Some individuals find that it is helpful for them to listen to music of their choice. Others do not find this to be beneficial and instead prefer absolute silence.
As the neuroimaging study indicates, filtering out external distractors may be difficult for individuals on the spectrum. An employer may see that their employee is seemingly paying attention, but it is impossible to fully realize how much effort this individual requires to stay focused on their work. For this reason, some adults experience cognitive fatigue if they have been working at their maximum effort for a few days at a time, or a week at a time, or a month solid. They may require downtime. This does not mean that they are weak or lazy, and many adults on the spectrum share that this is one of the most difficult aspects to deal with in a traditional setting, especially if they have not disclosed their diagnosis. Of course, calling in sick does not ingratiate them to their co-workers who may become resentful that they are required to take on more responsibility on the days that the employee is not there.
The autistic adults that I work with report that they enjoy going to a workplace setting, but that they also are incredibly productive working from home. Agile work environments are of great value when employing an adult on the spectrum. It is imperative to create an atmosphere allowing the employee to feel comfortable sharing their learning and working styles. They want to perform well, they want to contribute, and they want to be a part of your organization. Please pay attention to their processing styles.