Autistics Seen As Pattern Thinkers

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Book Exerpt: THE AUTISTIC BRAIN by Temple Granding and Richard Panek

I’ve given a great deal of thought to the topic of different ways of thinking. In fact, my pursuit of this topic has led me to propose a new category of thinker in addition to the traditional visual and verbal: pattern thinkers

The Autistic Brain book cover

Reading an interview with Steve Jobs, I came across this quote: “The thing I love about Pixar is that it’s exactly like the LaserWriter.” What? The most successful animation studio in recent memory is “exactly like” a piece of technology from 1985?

He explained that when he saw the first page come out of Apple’s LaserWriter — the first laser printer ever — he thought, There’s awesome amounts of technology in this box. He knew what all the technology was, and he knew all the work that went into creating it, and he knew how innovative it was.

But he also knew that the public wasn’t going to care about what was inside the box. Only the product was going to matter — the beautiful fonts that he made sure were part of the Apple aesthetic. This was the lesson he applied to Pixar: You can use all sorts of new computer software to create a new kind of animation, but the public isn’t going to care about anything except what’s on the screen.

He was right, obviously. While he didn’t use the terms picture thinker and pattern thinker, that’s what he was talking about. In that moment in 1985, he realized that you needed pattern thinkers to engineer the miracles inside the box and picture thinkers to make what comes out of the box beautiful.

I haven’t been able to look at an iPod or iPad or iPhone without thinking about that interview. I now understand that when Apple gets something wrong, it’s because they didn’t get the balance between the kinds of thinking right.

The notorious antenna problem on the iPhone 4? Too much art, not enough engineering.

Contrast this philosophy with Google’s; the minds behind Google, I guarantee you, were pattern thinkers. And to this day, Google products favor engineering over art.

Temple Grandin & Richard Panek

  • One of the world’s most well-known adults with autism, Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois and is a professor at Colorado State University. She was most recently named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 most influential people of the year, and has an HBO movie based on her life that starred Claire Danes and received seven Emmy Awards. Dr. Grandin is a past member of the board of directors of the Autism Society of America. She is the author of four previous books.

  • A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Science Writing, Richard Panek has written frequently for The New York Timesas well as SmithsonianNatural HistoryDiscoverEsquireOutside, and numerous other publications. He is the author of three previous books.

After I gave a talk at one high-tech firm in Silicon Valley, I asked some of the folks there how they wrote code. They said they actually visualized the whole programming tree, and then they just typed in the code on each branch in their minds. I recalled my autistic friend Sara R. S. Miller, a computer programmer, telling me that she could look at a coding pattern and spot an irregularity in the pattern. Then I called my friend Jennifer McIlwee Myers, another computer programmer who is autistic. I asked her if she saw programming branches. No, she said, she was not visual in that way; when she started studying computer science, she got a C in graphic design. But she did think in patterns. “Writing code is like crossword puzzles, or sudoku,” she said. (Crossword puzzles involve words, of course, while sudoku involves numbers. But what they have in common is pattern thinking.)

Once I realized that thinking in patterns might be a third category, alongside thinking in pictures and thinking in words, I started seeing examples everywhere. (At this point, this third category is only a hypothesis, though I’ve found scientific support for it. It has transformed my thinking about autistic people’s strengths.)

Pattern Thinking

I’m certainly not the first person to notice that patterns are part of how humans think. Mathematicians, for instance, have studied the patterns in music for thousands of years. They have found that geometry can describe chords, rhythms, scales, octave shifts, and other musical features. In recent studies, researchers have discovered that if they map out the relationships between these features, the resulting diagrams assume Möbius strip-like shapes.

The composers, of course, don’t think of their compositions in these terms. They’re not thinking about math. They’re thinking about music. But somehow, they are working their way toward a pattern that is mathematically sound, which is another way of saying that it’s universal. The math doesn’t even have to exist yet.

The same is true in visual arts. Vincent van Gogh’s later paintings had all sorts of swirling, churning patterns in the sky — clouds and stars that he painted as if they were whirlpools of air and light. And, it turns out, that’s what they were! In 2006, physicists compared van Gogh’s patterns of turbulence with the mathematical formula for turbulence in liquids. The paintings date to the 1880s. The mathematical formula dates to the 1930s. Yet van Gogh’s turbulence in the sky provided an almost identical match for turbulence in liquid.

Art sometimes precedes scientific analysis, and the relationship can go the other way too: Scientists can use art to understand math.

Even the seemingly random splashes of paint that Jackson Pollock dripped onto his canvases show that he had an intuitive sense of patterns in nature. In the 1990s, an Australian physicist, Richard Taylor, found that the paintings followed the mathematics of fractal geometry — a series of identical patterns at different scales, like nesting Russian dolls. The paintings date from the 1940s and 1950s. Fractal geometry dates from the 1970s. That same physicist discovered that he could even tell the difference between a genuine Pollock and a forgery by examining the work for fractal patterns.

“Art sometimes precedes scientific analysis,” one of the van Gogh researchers said. And the relationship between art and science can go the other way too: Scientists can use art to understand math. The physicist Richard Feynman revolutionized his field in the 1940s when he devised a simple way to diagram quantum effects. Equations that took months to calculate could suddenly be understood, through diagrams, in a matter of hours.

And then there’s chess. There’s always chess. For a century now, chess has been the petri dish of choice for cognitive scientists. What makes a chess master a chess master? Definitely not words. But not pictures, either (which is what you might think). When a chess master looks at the board, she doesn’t see every game she’s ever played and then find the move that matches the move from a game she played three or five or twenty years earlier or from a nineteenth-century chess match that she’s studied closely. The stereotype of a chess grand master is someone who can think many moves ahead. And certainly, many chess players do strategize that way. But the grand masters retrieve from their memories not more possibilities but better possibilities because they are better at recognizing and retaining patterns or what cognitive scientists call chunks.

Michael Shermer, a psychologist, historian of science, and professional skeptic  – he founded Skeptic magazine — called this property of the human mind patternicity. He defined patternicity as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.”

What all these examples tell me is that in society, the three kinds of minds — visual, verbal, pattern thinkers — naturally complement one another. When I recall collaborations in which I’ve successfully participated, I can see how different kinds of thinkers worked together to create a product that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Three kinds of minds — visual, verbal, pattern — naturally complement one another. Yet society puts them together without anybody thinking about it.

Yet society puts them together without anybody thinking about it.

But what if we did think about it? What if we recognized these categories consciously and tried to make the various pairings work to our advantage? What if each of us was able to say, Oh, here’s my strength, and here’s my weakness — what can I do for you, and what can you do for me?

Let’s apply this same principle to the marketplace. If people can consciously recognize the strengths and weaknesses in their ways of thinking, they can then seek out the right kinds of minds for the right reasons. And if they do that, then they’re going to recognize that sometimes the right mind can belong only to an autistic brain.

We have a lot farther to go, of course. Ignorance and misunderstanding are always difficult to overcome when they’ve become part of a society’s belief system. For instance, when the movie The Social Network came out, in 2010, the New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote this assessment of the onscreen character of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook:

“It’s not that he’s a bad person. He’s just never been house-trained.”

The “training” of the fictional character, however, would have had to somehow accommodate a brain that can’t process facial and gestural cues that most people easily assimilate and that finds its greatest fulfillment not in the fizzy buzz of forming a personal relationship but in the click-clack logic of writing code.



Improving Emotion Recognition With “Training Faces” App

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CINCINNATI — A Cincinnati-area mother is on a mission to help children and families across the globe break through some of the daily challenges faced by those with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

This year Therese Wantuch launched Training Faces, an application for iPads, iPhones and Android phones designed to help people like her son, Jack, with emotion recognition.


Jack, a gifted cellist, composes his own music. He has played to a packed Carnegie Hall as a student in the orchestra at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts. And now, Jack, an autistic 21-year-old, is driving.

“It’s a major milestone,” said Therese Wantuch. “Some things take longer for him, but people really don’t know the incredible things that these kids can do. They’re talented people, who just happen to have autism.”

The app, which was launched in May, has had thousands of downloads from across the globe, underscoring a “hot new trend” in the autism community that’s rooted in technology, said Andy Shih, senior vice president for scientific affairs at New York-based Autism Speaks. The nonprofit focuses on autism research and advocacy.

“In the past six months, there isn’t a day that goes by without me hearing from a member about a new device or app that’s been helpful in their daily lives,” said Shih. “Some of the functions of these new tools existed before, but they tended to be expensive and clunky equipment that was not easily accessible by your average family. The integration of mobile computing into our daily lives is what’s really driving this.”

At its website, www.autismspeaks.org, the nonprofit offers links to more than 200 apps, including Training Faces, which is available in English and Spanish.

Shih said Training Faces is reminiscent of software developed by Yale University about six years ago that “trains individuals how to recognize facial expressions and emotions.”

Understanding the difference between a smile and frown, and the emotions behind the expressions, is among the most common daily obstacles encountered by those with autism and other special needs, Shih said.

With Training Faces, Therese Wantuch said she wanted to create a learning tool that was fun and functional for children with autism. The app sells for $2.99 at the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Focused on a passenger train traveling to destinations around the world, the game requires players to match a specified emotion with the correct picture of the passenger’s facial expression.

The game is designed not only to help children with autism improve their emotion recognition, but better understand the meaning behind the expression and interpret expressions more quickly, Therese Wantuch said.

“It helps them answer the question, ‘Why are they happy or why are they sad?’ ” she said.

From her experience with her son, who was diagnosed at 18 months, Therese Wantuch said she knows firsthand the difference early intervention can make with children with autism.

“When he was diagnosed, we went all out,” she said. “My husband went part-time with his job. We did all the programs. One was called floor time, and we spent at least 20 minutes a day just getting in his face and working with him on verbal skills.”

The skills learned from Training Faces are paramount for children with autism to become more independent adults, she said.

“As the diagnosis of autism continues to go up, we need these folks to be independent,” she said. “It’s what gives them a fuller a life, and lets them get decent housing on their own and get a job so they’re not sitting in Mommy and Daddy’s family room their entire life. That’s not fair to them or their family.”

Nationwide, 1 in every 88 children is diagnosed with some form of autism each year, according to the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati.

While there is no known single cause for autism, medical experts say it occurs because of abnormalities in brain structure or function.

For now, no hard data measures the impact apps such as Therese Wantuch’s can have on an individual with autism, Shih said.

“Whether it’s an app developed by a mom or at the MIT Media Lab, there does need to be more controlled, unbiased research to better understand that these applications indeed have a real impact,” he said. “But there are a lot of anecdotal reports on how great they are, and we have no doubt that these are emerging as new tools to help individuals and families maintain a higher quality of life.”

Therese Wantuch plans to give a percentage of each download to autism charities and research once her initial investment — she declined to say how much she’s invested — is recouped.

Her work has landed her a spot as a finalist for a $25,000 investment from Bad Girl Ventures, a micro-lending organization in Cincinnati created to fund woman-owned start-ups. She’ll learn Thursday whether her business plan is the winner.

The money would go to boosting work already under way on other gaming apps on which she’s working, she said. She wants to use proceeds toward her longer-term goal of creating apps and programs for adults with autism that help build skills for employment.

“It’s my big, hairy, audacious goal,” she said. “These kids know so much, but they’re so underestimated. They just need a chance.”




Autism: There’s An App For That

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Institute’s Mobile Apps Are Built By Hands of Those With Autism

NonPareil Institute in Texas has long-term plan for campuses nationwide


Computerworld – The connection between adults with autism and computer programming has become the basis of a unique nonprofit technology company in Texas.

Instructor Kyle works with student Taylor at the nonPareil Institute

Instructor Kyle works with student Taylor at the NonPareil Institute, which helps adults with autism learn skills in application development.

Called the nonPareil Institute (for “no equal”), the company builds apps for iPhone and Android phones and PCs. The 11 staffers provide 80 students who are on the autism spectrum, which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, technical training and help adjusting to a work environment.

The students, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s, and staff have already launched NPISarobon, an abacus-like app for 99 cents available on the App Store for iPad. Two new apps, Card Tracker and Number Tap, are about to be launched in the App Store. NPISarbon was conceived and coded by Cheryl O’Brien, a student at the institute who is now a staff programmer.

“We also have a social app coming, and it’s going to be revolutionary,” CEO Dan Selec said in an interview, while declining to offer any details. “Everybody thinks if you have an app in the App Store, you’re a millionaire. I wish it worked that way. So far our sales have been insignificant.”

But Selec, who has a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s, has a 100-year vision for nonPareil and said mobile app revenues will eventually sustain the institute’s operating budget, which is expected to be $1.2 million for 2012. “It just takes one app that gets everybody excited,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Selec co-founded the institute in his kitchen more than two years ago with two other fathers of sons with autism, a developmental disability that can cause problems with social interaction and communication. Asperger’s is a milder form of the condition.

One of those dads, Gary Moore, is president of the institute and likes to point out that building a successful app takes persistence. “Rovio built 50 games before coming up with Angry Birds,” he said. The third dad and co-founder is John Eix, who works in business development for a Dallas law firm.

Situated in classrooms at Southern Methodist University in Plano, Texas, the institute plans to build a $20 million campus nearby that will include housing for the most severely autistic students, and then expand to branch campuses around the U.S., Selec said.

Kyle McNiece, 23, originally a student at the institute, is now a teacher there, similar to a graduate instructor. He teaches apps coding using tools such as Hammer and Unity and, soon, the Unreal Development Kit.

“What I do really well is design, although the coding part of it is hard,” he said in an interview. A self-described person with Asperger’s, he said his main difficulty is misconstruing what people mean when they say things, such as when they tell a joke or are being sarcastic.

“It really has been an adjustment in a good way here,” he said. “Back home, people didn’t understand what it was to work with an autistic, but it’s easy to get along with people here and what they say. It’s actually been a huge, drastic change.”

Asked how happy he is at nonPareil on a scale of 1 to 10, he answered: “I’d say it’s an 11.”

McNiece came to nonPareil when he was still deciding whether to look for a job or go to school. He didn’t expect to become an instructor but said he likes the job and is working on fully adjusting. “If I could change anything, it would be that I really want to not be as stressed out and frustrated when problems arise, like when students come to me all at once with questions,” he said.

NonPareil is a good fit, McNiece said. “My five-year goal is to get that one product out that makes our name recognizable, so other [developer] companies say, ‘Hey, those people made something fantastic and we want those people to work here.’ ”

Moore said three nonPareil students have finished a variety of design and coding classes and have gone on to programming and design jobs.

Students each year get certificates for finishing various classes, but the institute is not accredited as a school, since it is technically a nonprofit business, Selec said. A student pays $600 a month to take classes, but the money is donated to the institute to help keep it running. Apps are not patented or copyrighted, and profits from apps will go back to the institute.

Selec is dedicated to building housing in the next phase partly because so many people with autism can’t handle a long commute, even though they might do well in a design or programming class. About 70% of the students don’t drive, and some still must commute three hours each way to attend.

“Not all our students are computer savants, and some have social challenges or difficulties with lighting or communications,” he said. “Some have been here a year and still have trouble finding the bathroom. Even so, you can achieve great things.”

Similar to his co-founders, Selec said he started nonPareil by “looking at my son, who wasn’t playing football but was on the computer. I realized he was pretty good for this stuff.”

Moore added that many people with Asperger’s “have an uncanny ability to connect with technology.”

The co-founders also realized that they didn’t know what would happen to their kids when they became adults, a problem facing hundreds of thousands of families with autistic children around the globe.

“We literally have received emails from all over the world asking about the work we’re doing,” Eix said. The waiting list at the institute is now about 80 names, and is expected to mushroom.

Selec said he knows of other nonprofit organizations training adults with autism to become software testers, such as AspiraTech in Chicago and another institute in Denmark. Offering training in actual programming and design as NonPareil does is rare, if not unique, Selec said. Building a campus with housing would be unique.

Selec said the NonPareil concept might not have been possible without the invention of the App Store and subsequent others like the Android Market. “We owe those markets a debit of gratitude without a doubt,” Selec said. “They provide built-in marketing. If I’ve written the greatest app ever and can’t get it into the hands of the public, what have I done?”

With mobile markets growing, Selec said he feels more secure about nonPareil’s prospects for selling apps. “The mobile market is still in its infancy and will change over time. We want to have our data with us wherever we go and be free to use it where we are. I believe that the apps market is just going to get stronger, although it never kills the PC and desktop. Just look at how the female population is untapped with games, although Zynga has tapped into that.”

While some of nonPareil’s apps will be games, the focus is much broader, reflecting the values of the institute, which maintains that its students have special abilities, not disabilities.

“We’re finding ideas for apps to make life easier,” Selec said. “We’re building a math educational app as well. We’re looking for a way for people to learn math in a more natural and easy way.”