Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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Last week I gave a presentation at a conference on twice-exceptionality run by a terrific organization called Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy. My talk was on how parents can uncover their children’s strengths and interests, and help them develop their talents towards future careers and passions. I like giving talks about this topic because I believe strongly in the importance of developing children’s strengths, not just focusing on their weaknesses.

During the Q&A, I was challenged by a parent who described the idea of talent development as “pie in the sky” for her family. Another asked how to uncover strengths in a child who is non-verbal (not capable of spoken language). Another described a child who requires a full-time aide to manage explosive and disruptive behaviors. I believe these parent’s children may all be on the Autism spectrum. Because I don’t typically work with children who suffer from such severe symptoms, I felt ill-prepared to address their concerns. I’ve felt badly about it all week. So let me try.

It’s sad but true that individuals with Autism are woefully underemployed as adults. The employment rate among adults with autism is reported to be about 15-25%. A whopping 75-85% are unemployed. Your child has a better chance of being employed as a young adult if they have a learning disability (95%), speech/language impairment (91%), and even low IQ/intellectual disability (74%).

No wonder parents of 2e students with ASD are worried about their children’s chances of having a career. But the statistics I just quoted are for all individuals with autism – not specifically those who are twice-exceptional. About 50-70% of individuals with autism have an intellectual disability. I don’t know what percentage of individuals with autism would be considered twice-exceptional. But I’ve got to believe that unemployment couldn’t be as pervasive for twice-exceptional adults with autism, given all the talents they have to share.

What are the opportunities for twice-exceptional individuals with autism? Famous media portrayals include Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor tv show, most of the characters on the show Silicon Valley, Temple Grandin and Dan Akroyd. Individuals with autism may be especially good systematizers, have amazing attention to detail, and excel at visual thinking. Careers in computer programming, engineering, drafting, photography, mechanics, animation, accounting, inventory control, and statistics, may be good fits. Careers for nonverbal individuals with autism could include data entry, sorting, hand crafts, and assembly. Individuals with autism tend to not be as good at the social aspects of work and should generally avoid careers and workplaces placing a high value on social skills (e.g. marketing, sales). Workplaces that are tolerant of or seek out neurodiversity are more likely to provide a welcoming environment.

There is a growing awareness in the business world of the contributions individuals with autism can make in the workplace, and an effort to provide opportunities. A Wall Street Journal article this fall described a company called Daivergent that connects contractors on the autism spectrum with clients in need of their skill sets. Microsoft implemented an Autism Hiring Program in April 2015. Software corporations SAP, HP, and New Relic have dedicated autism hiring programs. An article on companies hiring adults with autism described several more.

I’m not arguing that opportunities abound, but there are some and they are increasing.

How can parents help their child with ASD identify interests and develop the skills needed to pursue a career? I don’t think talent development is a pie in the sky notion for anyone. We all have strengths and interests, and the twice-exceptional are gifted with more strengths than most. The key with a child who has a more impairing kind of autism is for parents and other professionals to look especially hard. Consider: What does the child like to do with his or her free time? What are his or her interests? What does he or she dislike? When and on what does he or she hyperfocus? In what areas is he or she gifted? Once the child’s strengths and interests are identified, deliberate efforts can be made to further develop the child’s talents. Simultaneously, any areas of weakness (e.g. behavioral) can be addressed through therapy and skill building.

Reach out for help. Organizations like Asperger Works, tools like Autism Speaks’ Spectrum Careers Toolkit, and coaches and advisors (e.g. www.integrateadvisors.org.) are available to help. In New York City, an organization called Spectrum Services has specialists who provide coaching for launching individuals with ASD into adulthood and employment placement.

It isn’t easy – especially for parents with children who have more extreme symptoms of autism. But I believe that there is always something we can do to try to help prepare our children for the future.

There have been a number of alarming articles in the popular press lately reporting that tech moguls and Silicon-valley types impose far stricter rules on their children’s use of screens than most of us do. They do this because they know how addictive screens are designed to be and fear for their children’s growing minds.

A 10/29/18 article in the N.Y. Times headlined “Silicon Valley Wary of the ‘Devil’ in Our Phones” quoted Chris Anderson (tech creds: former editor of Wired magazine, founder of Geekdad.com, and CEO of a robotics and drone company) as describing how addictive screens are by saying: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” As parents, he and his wife “thought we could control it” but “this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain.” Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who does not have children of his own but does have influence over his nephew, does not want him on social media. Bill Gates didn’t allow his children to have cellphones until they turned 14 and his wife Melissa wishes they’d waited longer (the average age for a child getting their first phone is 10). Steve Jobs would not let his young children near an iPad. The Times points out: “the people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it.”

What people in tech know that we may not be as aware of is how cleverly addictive video games, apps, and social media have been designed to be. They are designed to tap into the pleasure centers of the brain, and they do so in a way that’s hard to replicate in the non-digital world. When a child gets accustomed to the kind of rapid-fire reward system of gaming, YouTubes, and social media they may be less likely to: read a book, which requires considerable patience and offers no bells and whistles; go outside and explore nature; do something creative; and seek out social companionship.

I fear they may be missing out on so much of what makes life rich.

Scarier still is the possibility that screen time is actually re-wiring our children’s brains. As children develop from birth to adulthood an important process called synaptic pruning is happening. Infants are born with huge numbers of synapses (points of contact) between brain cells. This is inefficient, so the brain prunes the connections it doesn’t need and reinforces (through myelination) the ones it does. This process is all driven by experience – by exposure to the environment. Repeated experiences strengthen connections. Connections that aren’t used are pruned away. This means that how children spend their time can have important, lifelong ramifications. Repeated behaviors can become biologically compelled habits.

A piece by NPR titled “Heavy Screen Time Rewires Young Brains” described a study with mice in which young animals were exposed to sounds and lights similar to those in a video game for 6 hour a day during development. At maturity, the exposed animals showed “dramatic changes everywhere in the brain” compared to a typically developing group. The changes suggested that the brains of the “video game” exposed mice were “wired up at a much more baseline excited level.” As a result, they needed much more sensory stimulation to get the brain’s attention. Perhaps this explains why children who spend a lot of time on screens find it harder to pay attention to a book or a lesson in school. These activities are nowhere near as exciting as what they’ve grown accustomed to on-screen. Their brains need a baseline of greater excitement to pay attention.

Take this phenomenon and imagine the impact on a child who has ADHD and is already wired to have difficulty paying attention.

This is anecdotal, but in my assessment practice I feel I can often predict certain aspects of a child’s behavior before I meet them based on their parent’s responses to questions I ask about screen time use. If the child spends a lot of time on-screen, their reading achievement will typically be lower and their attention levels weaker.

If you’re as alarmed as I am, consider imposing the kind of strict guidelines Silicon-valley experts do:

• No cell phone until the summer before high school
• No screens in bedrooms – including lap-tops used for homework
• No social media until age 13
• Network-level content blocking
• All screen time enforced by a parent-controlled Wi-Fi shut-off system

I must confess to not having been near as successful at this as I wish I had been when my children were young. But if I’d known then what I know now, I would have tried a lot harder.

Suggested reading:

Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber” by Joe Clement and Matt Miles.

Disconnected: How To Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids” by Thomas J Kersting.