"Life", communication, disabilities, education, learning, social sciences

Learning Disorders in the Meteorological Community: Implications for Communication and Education” (abridged)

Matt Bolton, lead intern at How The Weatherworks, continues to provide insights into many social issues facing people (especially students) who have learning disabilities. This article relates to how professionals in the weather community may or may not see the effect their routine activities could have on individuals with such disabilities. You can see Matt’s recent PowerPoint presentation (NWA Annual Meeting – Fall 2015) here.

For further information about this overall topic, I refer you to four other articles that Matt has penned during the past year:

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Hi everyone. I’m Matt Bolton. I’m the Lead Intern for How The Weatherworks, a weather consulting and education company in Naples, FL. Today, I’m going to talk to you about learning disorders.

You may be wondering why I’m here, at a meteorology conference, talking about learning disorders. I am heavily involved in How The Weatherworks’ National Weather Camp Program for middle and high school students. Over the last four years, I’ve interacted, both as a student at camp, and as a faculty instructor, with several individuals who have different learning disorders. Most recently, last year, we had a student who is on the autism spectrum. While we were ultimately able to accommodate the student, the overall national Program did not have a formal plan in place to account for behaviors associated with specific disorders, like autism, that affect learning. Based on our interactions with the student, I started a series of discussions regarding disorder accommodation. I’m happy to report that we’ve taken steps over the last year that will allow us to both recognize such conditions, and better accommodate them.

In those discussions, I asked, “If we’re not thinking about conditions like autism at camp, is anyone in the wider weather enterprise?” Partially because of that line of thought, I’ve become heavily involved as an advocate for individuals who have learning disorders. I’m especially drawn to autism, and I’m also interested and involved in helping people affected by color blindness. 1.7% of the American population – roughly 4.6 million people, according to a 2014 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities – is affected by some kind of learning disorder or disability. This includes 1 in 68 who are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, and about 1 in 10 who are affected by color blindness. Color blindness mainly affects males, and the 1 in 10 stat reflects the male population. Female color blindness prevalence is roughly 1 in 200.

In my initial advocacy work, I wanted to look at meteorologists’ awareness of different learning disorders. Results from an informal survey I conducted and discussions I had with professionals in the field show an inherent lack of awareness of learning disorder topics, and a seeming lack of willingness to talk about them.

What I found was that people don’t talk about learning disorders and conditions like color blindness because they’re uncomfortable with them. But because people don’t talk about them, they don’t understand them. If learning disorders were better understood, it could remove some of that discomfort.

Let me ask you a question – please answer by a show of hands: how many of you, when you think of people with autism, think of people who act repetitively? People who rock back and forth or flap their hands, or do other self-stimulating behavior? How many of you immediately think of people who are non-verbal, and struggle to communicate? Or, people who have a single, intense interest?

Let’s try a little social perception experiment. What if I walked up to you right now and said, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I have autism!” – what would you do – because, guess what, everyone? Hi, I’m Matt, and I have autism! I have autism, and I’m telling you because it shows that the condition exists across a spectrum. When you meet one person who has autism, you’ve met one person who has autism, and the same goes for any other disorder. We shouldn’t stereotype or label people. Learning disorders, really, are just features of the individual, just as much as personality or skin color – and we shouldn’t be unwilling to discuss them just because they make us uncomfortable. There are plenty of things these days with ever-increasing levels of widespread acceptance that used to be uncomfortable topics, and there’s no reason learning disorders can’t have similar acceptance.

Why should you care about learning disorders and conditions that affect learning? Let’s go back to color blindness and I’ll show you. This is a low temperature forecast map. Temperatures on it range from the upper 30s to the upper 50s. Greens are closer to the 30s, and yellows and oranges are closer to 60 degrees. I put it through color blind simulation, and look at this: the entire green color spectrum disappears and turns yellow. This map is now totally useless, even for people who don’t have some degree of color blindness. Color blindness mainly affects greens and reds, and everything in that range typically turns shades of yellow, tan, and brown. You can understand, then, why color blindness is such an issue for meteorologists. Reds, yellows, and greens are the main colors we use in radar images, and a lot of other things, including most watch and warning products. You have to ask yourself, are poor color choices forcing approximately 11% of the people using your graphics to spend more time interpreting the graphic than they do taking action, in something like a tornado event?

As you can see here, there are several very good free phone apps and computer programs that do a nice job of simulating the different kinds of color blindness. In closing on color blindness, we should think about the context of the data we’re showing the public, and if there are ways we can enhance it to make color perception differences less of a problem. Some possible ways to do this are adding bold borders between colors, and using colors that have strong contrast.

Now, let’s look back at autism. Autism is a complex neuro-developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate. It runs along a spectrum – high-functioning cases are less severe, while low-functioning cases are more severe. The first thing I want to talk about in relation to autism is the idea that affected individuals are inherently interested in science.

Psychologist and autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen proposed that there is a link between autism incidence and science interest, evidenced by his Hyper-Systemizing Theory. He used the term “systemizing” to describe what he sees in autism as a desire to build and analyze “systems.” A system is anything that receives input and produces a related output. Systems follow rules and are predictable, and the goal of systemizing is to find and be able to predict those rules. In systemizing, you’re looking for associations to see if things are related. This is important for meteorologists to know because it means individuals who have autism may be more inclined toward an interest in meteorology.

The second thing I want to talk about is Theory of Mind, which is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. It also involves understanding that others have thoughts, feelings, and intentions that are different from one’s own, and the ability to infer what others are thinking so that it is possible to predict their behavior. Think for a moment how having poor Theory of Mind might affect someone in a severe weather situation. How could they be affected in an educational setting, such as when one of you are talking to them at school?

The last thing I’m going to talk about is information processing. Looking at this image, you’ll see a meteorologist in a TV studio. He’s showing the radar and talking about some showers moving inland off the coast of Florida. But what else is in this wide-angle studio shot? There are computer screens over here, and his hand is blurred, because it’s moving. There are a lot of extra things going on, while he’s talking about the rain chances. In autism, information is processed in such a way that individuals process everything at once. They would see his hand moving, the radar, the extra studio equipment…. and possibly get confused, missing the message of when the rain will come onshore. This isn’t a severe weather situation, but imagine the potential implications if it was. That’s not to say we can or should change how we deliver forecasts; this is just something we should be aware of, that there are people who have trouble processing our forecasts. We should try to simplify them when we can.

In closing, what are some things we could do to help these individuals? Two ideas I’ll share today are 1 on 1 mentoring programs for high school and middle school students, and workshops and training sessions to educate meteorologists on how to recognize and respond to different learning disorders. We could also create specialized weather learning resources specifically targeting different disorders.

I’d like to leave you with a closing thought that is even more important than the above recommendations and is, really, the overarching theme of this talk. It is a quote from a friend of mine that we all should take with us, and remember when interacting with individuals who have learning challenges:

“No one is perfect or normal. […disorders] are just the features that make you who you are.”

© 2016 Matt Bolton

Originally posted 1/31/16

Matt Bolton, a student communicator pursuing a B.A. in psychology, is the Lead Intern for How The Weatherworks in Naples, FL, and a member of the National Weather Association’s Professional Development and Diversity Committees. He maintains a personal blog, where he posts articles on autism and learning disorders and disabilities, education and learning, psychology, photography, and meteorology.

"Life", disabilities, education, learning, social sciences, tutoring

Everyone is a Mentor: My Thoughts on Student Mentoring

The following is an article written by Matt Bolton, a sophomore college student from Brooksville, FL. He posted it at his blog site on Jun. 14, 2015. I am reposting it with a preface because of its importance. This is his third installment concerning matters of interest to those on the Autism spectrum. This one relates to all of us.

Matt has served (and continues to serve) as an intern for one of our companies, How The Weatherworks. He is a former summer weather camp graduate, who continues to be heavily involved in the National Weather Camp Program.

Matt knows first-hand what mentoring means, having been mentored by meteorologists from the National Weather Service in Tampa, other meteorologists, and emergency managers. One of my prior interns and I are also continuing to mentor Matt. Most recently, Matt started mentoring two middle school weather campers.

I, too, have had many mentors in my life and, in turn, I have mentored scores of people (pre-college students, college students and adults). As you can see, the mentoring chain can run through many generations and often becoming linked across these. In addition, one can quickly see that if one mentor is a good thing, many mentors can be even better.

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This article, on student mentoring, ties together “My Thoughts on Autism in Education,” and “Autism in Society: Moving Towards A Greater Acceptance of Kids on the Spectrum,” while adding additional thoughts to the ongoing discussion.

For the aspiring student, a key goal is to find at least one mentor, who can guide, teach, and inspire them.

So, to begin, what exactly is a mentor?

mentor is defined  in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.”

I believe that the above definition can be expanded further: in every interpersonal interaction that occurs, there exists the potential to teach another person something, even if just for a few moments. We learn, and in turn, teach (without ever knowing it), in adapting to the myriad of situations that we face daily. Mentoring, then, is something everyone does, perhaps not strictly by definition, but in a broader sense.


Thinking more conventionally in terms of what is considered “mentoring” (one-on-one teaching/learning) today, what makes an effective mentor? There are many angles one could take to answer this question but – in my opinion – the most important attribute that an effective mentor possesses is a genuine enjoyment for facilitating learning. They seek to do it selflessly, with only the goal of inspiring the next generation of students. Mentors practice what they teach by dressing and acting the part of a consummate professional during work hours; and, they also live it 24/7 in their personal lives.  In doing so, they model the behaviors that they are trying to pass on to their students.

Some of my recent discussions on mentoring (with one of my mentors, a former How The Weatherworks intern and current PhD student) have revolved around the idea that mentorship goes beyond the facilitation of learning. Based on my own experiences, I heartily agree that it is a perspective, an attitude, as much as it is active action. It was suggested in the course of our discussions that mentors must live what they teach; and, in doing so, they must regularly reflect on their actions as they relate to what they are attempting to teach.

Through self-reflection, the mentor typically “finds the essential aspects” of themselves. In striving to be a good mentor, they look for “the way” to be the best mentor they can be. The mentor grows him/herself, while finding those qualities he/she is seeking to exemplify in the student.

In this process of self-growth, mentors are recognizing their own imperfections as humans, and trying to find ways to empathize with and relate to the student. Empathy – being able to relate to the student on their level – is critical in the mentoring relationship.

Mentors recognize that attitudes and beliefs are caught, rather than taught. Thus, the greatest lessons a mentor can teach their students come through their own actions, and from leading by example.

Further, mentorship is a mutual journey, one experienced by the teacher as well as the student.  In teaching, mentors learn, and, in learning, mentees teach.

Mentoring is a near symbiotic relationship: the actions of one individual affect the other, quite directly in many cases – especially where internships and other one-on-one interaction opportunities are concerned.

With the explosion of social media in the last six years or so, mentors and others in learning facilitation roles have used social media as a conduit to provide an enhanced learning experience for students.

In this ever-evolving digital age, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and SMS text messaging are all effective tools to facilitate learning. Further, supporting mentoring are an array of video chat solutions such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime.  These allow for real-time, face-to-face, communication, taking the idea of long-distance mentoring to a whole new level.  I, for example, have been in a long-distance, online-based internship for nearly five years.  With the utilization of the above (and other) tools, the amount of mentoring I have received has exceeded anything I could have hoped for.

In turn, I have begun a long-distance meteorology/professional development mentoring program with three students (two of whom attended a weather camp in southwest Florida in 2014).  I have made extensive use of various communication channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime, text messaging) to facilitate learning opportunities for them. Both as a mentee and a mentor, I can vouch for the usefulness of these social media services to further mentor/mentee interaction and growth.

I recognize that there must be a distinct line drawn in this mentoring process between being a friend to the student and being a professional mentor.  However, I would argue that not allowing the friend/professional gap to overlap to some degree would only cripple mentoring efforts from the start. Therefore, with utmost professionalism in mind, it is important for both student and mentor that a close relationship develops. This ensures that more efficient and effective communication channels for mutual learning can evolve.

In recent years, I have developed more of a colleague-like relationship with a few of my mentors thanks to my continued professionally-geared pursuits and experiences. When I started out, it was more formal, teacher/apprentice-like. With one mentor, I can discuss leadership and organizational management, and with others, conversational topics range from programming to education.

Having one mentor is great; but, having two or three (or more), who are really high-caliber, is even better.

While all of the above applies to any student, it is important to recognize that the need for mentoring is even greater for students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

For a student with ASD characteristics, social issues can run rampant. ASD individuals are often shunned by peers because of the inherent, largely uncontrollable social behavior inhibitors present. Mentors can step in and help to alleviate some of these problems by providing ways in which the student can communicate. Through social interaction provided in the mentor/mentee relationship, the ASD individual can, in many cases, effectively improve their social skill set.

In opening a line of communication centered around the student’s interest, the mentor can become a positive influence in the student’s life. This includes giving the student someone to talk to, providing the student with a focusing point they can use as a source of motivation, and reinforcing positive social and other behaviors.

Students who are on the autism spectrum need inspiration, and an iron-willed attitude, focus, and sense of determination to overcome and/or improve upon the situations they face on a daily basis but, with help, it is possible that self-improvement can be seen in many cases. Mentors can be major players in facilitating this improvement.

There are a number of programs and initiatives which have a focus on mentoring. These include Boys and Girls Clubs, various Boy and Girl Scout programs, 4-H, weather camps for middle and high school students, and a college meteorology mentoring program run by the American Meteorological Society’s Board for Private Sector Meteorology, to name just a few. The National Weather Association also has a mentor portal (for members only), which provides a listing of professionals who serve the meteorological community as mentors.

In closing, I leave you with the thought that mentorship is multifaceted. Yes, it is a physical experience, due to one-on-one social and other interactions. However, it also involves a mindset and an attitude. It is an opportunity to give back, learn from one another, and most importantly, inspire the next generation of students. Thus, I highly recommend that students find a mentor – regardless of their career path, regardless of any disability they may have.

© 2015 Matt Bolton

Originally posted 7/15/15

"Life", disabilities, education, learning, social sciences

A college student’s perspective concerning the autism spectrum – Part II

Matt Bolton, a How The Weatherworks intern, originally published this article (Apr. 2, 2015) at his blog site. It is the second of a three-part series addressing autism issues.

At the time of publication, Matt Bolton was a sophomore college student from Brooksville, FL.

I continue to republish these articles here because of their importance across educational and learning venues.

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This article follows up on “My Thoughts on Autism in Education” article, published earlier this year. In that article, I introduced my efforts to educate people about autism, and help kids who are on the autism spectrum (also referred to as ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder[s]). If you are unfamiliar with autism spectrum disorders, please read that article first.

This article will focus on aspects of autism in social settings. It expands on the framework of not judging an individual by an actual or apparent disability; and, instead, fosters getting to know the individual, first.  While parents of ASD kids learn about the condition, and educators may be trained to address it in a classroom setting, many non-ASD kids and adults – have little working knowledge of ASD conditions and often do not understand them. This results in unnecessary labels and stereotypes for ASD kids.

To make the social setting more meaningful, let me begin by sharing some of my experiences on the autism spectrum, primarily in the area of what is formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, and with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  As you may suspect, writing about myself is not easy, but it is necessary.

During my first few years, doctors literally “wrote me off,” saying that I would never be able to read or write. They noted, too, that if I ended up being able to walk, it would be with extreme difficulty due to some traits of cerebral palsy and severe arthritis.

At twelve years old, I was tested as reading at a college level, reading 700 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. Now, in college, I frequently execute well-written, “A”-graded, papers in excess of five pages.

When I was four or five, I started playing basketball. I struggled to run up and down the court, and played through a lot of pain. Every time the scoreboard buzzer went off, I would freak out due to its high volume. My parents tried to discourage me from playing, for my own sake. But, I wanted to play and dealt with each obstacle as it arose. I ended up playing basketball quite successfully for fourteen years. Around the time that I began playing basketball, I also started playing baseball; this, too, continuing through my teen years. At the age of thirteen, the kid who was labeled as “never going to be able to throw or hit a ball,” due to poor hand-eye coordination, led his team in home runs.

Now that I am twenty one, I can look back at having conducted college-level meteorological research, and having presented my findings at conferences hosted by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), National Weather Association (NWA), and American Geophysical Union (AGU).  AGU actually invited me to present in 2013 as part of their Bright Scholars program.

Overall, since starting this journey as a high school junior in 2011, I have presented nearly half a dozen times at major science conferences. At this time, I am preparing for several additional presentations at upcoming conferences in 2015 and 2016.

I currently serve as the Lead Intern for How The Weatherworks and I volunteer at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. I’ve served in three different elected officer positions with the West Central Florida Chapter of the AMS. I’ve also filled numerous forecasting and public outreach roles for Foot’s Forecast (a largely East Coast-focused weather consulting company).

I have been a volunteer with my local emergency management office, where I have assisted in the organization of three county-level hurricane expo outreach events. I also am currently a college student representative on the NWA’s Professional Development Committee.

Still, in spite of these successes, I have much to learn and much to overcome, as I am not as well-rounded as I’d like to be from an interpersonal communication standpoint. While I have no problems talking to large rooms of professionals, I begin to struggle one-on-one and in small groups.

On many occasions, I have been pushed into uncomfortable social settings by my parents, mentor, and others, and, recently, I have pushed myself in an attempt to break my own internal social stereotypes and self-doubts. In spite of the difficulties I may face, much as I desired to succeed in sports, I am determined to succeed here.

With this background, please treat this article as an extension of the focus on not judging an individual based on any actual or seeming disability. In many cases, an individual can overcome or partially correct for his/her disabilities. I have (and continue to), and I know others who have, as well.

If any of us (handicapped in some way or not) were not given a chance by colleagues, teachers, professionals, mentors, or others, our growth and development in many interpersonal communication realms (social, professional, and family) would not be possible.

In autism spectrum disorders, perhaps the most pervasive and prevalent issues for individuals are those related to problems in their ability to effectively communicate, usually involving delays in responding to others. Linked to neurological impairments, this delayed response scenario quickly marks a kid on the autism spectrum as being “different,” and precipitates a wide range of negative social interactions.

One example of this is when kids who are on the autism spectrum try to engage their peers in conversation, but have a limited array of interests. In all but a few cases over the years, when I have expressed my interest in such topics as meteorology and history to others, this overture has essentially served as a social death sentence.

For most kids, these are not topics of high interest. Instead, kids are into the latest fads, new clothing, music, video games, and sports, among other things. That’s not to say that I’m so narrow-minded in my interests that I only care about history or meteorology; on the contrary, I very much enjoy music (it’s very effective as a mechanism to help focus an ADHD mind), video games, and other “modern” interests. However, because my primary interests aren’t “mainstream,” or in other words, widely popular, I have largely been ignored by people, and continue to be ignored in some situations.

With age, however, comes a different suite of friends, associates, and colleagues. It is here where having one or more focused interest areas (in my case weather, photography, humanities, and communications) actually pays dividends. At the college level, peers are more focused, and professional relationships bring the possibility of mentorship opportunities and many venues for talking about focused interests. As I will discuss in detail in the next article, mentoring and other training is an extremely important part of the development process for kids on the autism spectrum.

In many cases where kids on the spectrum have interests that aren’t “mainstream,” peer pressure sets apart, and classifies them as “socially undesirable.” This leads kids with ASD to develop low self-esteem and establish environments for themselves where they choose not to be social. In these settings they don’t engage in social activity at all, because they have learned, based on prior experiences, that other people “don’t want to talk to them.”

Put another way, if their initial attempts at social behavior are not met positively, they typically stop trying to interact socially.

Even though these kids are in many cases perfectly capable of social interaction (albeit with much more effort on their part), they are widely ostracized, under the aforementioned perception that they are “socially undesirable.”

That message becomes part of the identity they create for themselves. Eventually, these thoughts can lead to a host of other potentially serious issues for them, social anxiety and depression among them, as they decide that it is not worth their time or effort to pursue social activity. In the cases where this happens, and they later decide to pursue social activity, it can be excruciatingly difficult for them. Conditions such as depression and social anxiety, when coupled with an ASD, can be crippling.

Kids who are on the autism spectrum may unconsciously make distracting movements (e.g., arm flapping, hand wringing, rocking back and forth, fidgeting constantly or adjusting their posture) or be very vocal, making distracting noises (tongue clicking, whistling, etc.).  Tics such as echolalia and palilalia are also common, and the individual may ask questions repeatedly, despite being given the answers over and over.

This behavior, often noticed before any other characteristic, serves as a greater catalyst in the social treatment of ASD kids than even their lack of so-called “typical interests.”

Most (if not all) individuals on the autism spectrum are, to an extent, literal thinkers. They have trouble following the nuances of metaphors, allusions, sarcasm, and other forms of verbal expression. There is little grey area amongst the black and white, little flexibility in how they perceive things. You are their friend, or you aren’t. A movie character is “good,” or “bad;” very infrequently do they understand subtleties in character and personality. They often don’t “know” or inherently deduce reasoning – you have to explain things to them clearly, or miscommunication will invariably result.

The behavior of ASD kids can be very off-putting and serve as a source of frustration for the people who interact with them. Under the best of circumstances, people can feel strained in constantly fielding the autistic individual’s behavior.

We put millions of dollars toward research each year, in an effort to learn more about ASD. But, it doesn’t matter how much we eventually understand about the genetic, neurological, and physical attributes of this condition (through such great projects as MSSNG), if we are, as a society, unable to allow the societal integration of these individuals. In the process, we must be willing to self-educate, in addition to helping individuals who are on the spectrum learn to cope with their condition; we must be willing to learn about the underlying issues and attempt to understand autistic individuals. Most critically, we must be willing to allow them a place in wider society, before true progress can be made in advancing our knowledge of ASD.

If there are solid efforts to help these kids (especially those who are considered high functioning – i.e., less severe, whereas “low functioning” indicates a more serious, less manageable condition) integrate into classrooms and better mesh with non-ASD kids, this would start to move the conversation forward in a positive way. This would prove to be mutually beneficial in many cases: through regular social interaction, the kids on the autism spectrum get a boost to their self-esteem and social skill set, and the non-ASD kids would see that kids on the spectrum aren’t so different, after all.  From this setting, advances could be made on the part of all kids, teachers and parents.

It might also be possible (and, again, mutually beneficial) for high-functioning ASD adults, during classroom visits in which they talk about their career or some other arranged topic, to share that they have ASD symptoms and had many challenges growing up.  Such an individual, much as I am trying to do here, may be best able to showcase that autism spectrum disorders aren’t game-enders.

The issue here, then, at its core, isn’t the autism spectrum itself (as it affects individuals). Rather, it is the inability of others to accept individuals who are on the spectrum as people who are mentally wired in a different way. People who are on the autism spectrum think in a way that is different, compared to many “neuro-typical” people; this, however, isn’t and doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can actually be a strength, because, quite often, individuals who are on the spectrum are very visual thinkers, and can therefore solve certain problems more effectively and efficiently than people who think “normally.”

Another positive is that, although the interests of ASD kids are frequently limited, these are topic areas in which they are often extremely knowledgeable. If focused and motivated properly, these kids can link their interest areas to related courses in school and/or other learning environments. They can, then, go on to make advancements in these focus areas, living successful, fulfilling lives in the process.

Clubs and other organizations can play a key role here, by providing environments conducive to fostering the kids’ interests, while also providing them with positive social interaction and attention they may crave, but otherwise not receive.

ASD kids want friends and seek social interaction. But, they often don’t understand the overly nuanced social dynamics of today’s society, and have trouble maintaining lasting relationships as a result.

An inherent inability in reading social cues can lead to potential misunderstandings in communication, which may lead them to worry needlessly about the quality of their friendships, and other interpersonal issues.

Thus, they need patience and understanding, and most importantly, they need people to realize that autism spectrum disorders are, effectively, modifiers of behavior that are often, to a large extent, uncontrollable. While some of these tendencies and behaviors can be improved upon through therapy and other methods, there are some variables that are unable to be helped, especially in the event of more severe conditions. In any case, it needs to be understood that these modifiers of behavior do not necessarily reflect or define who these kids are as individuals.

Kids who are on the autism spectrum can learn the intricacies of social behavior, and, they can integrate into wider society successfully.

But, before that can happen, they must be given a chance to do so. So why not give it to them? Get to know them. You may be surprised at who you find beneath the seemingly “strange” set of behaviors.

I know that it would be unrealistic to expect total equality and acceptance for kids and others who are on the autism spectrum.  Still, it needs to be realized and understood that many ASD kids have few opportunities for meaningful social activity, largely because of unnecessary stereotyping and labeling that results due to their behaviors and idiosyncrasies.

Some opportunities, coupled with learning and understanding by non-ASD students, teachers, and others, can go a long way to helping ASD kids succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

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Stay tuned for the last article in this three part series, on the importance of mentoring for ASD (and non-ASD) students.

© 2015 Matt Bolton

Originally posted 4/13/15

disabilities, education, learning, social sciences

A college student’s perspective concerning the autism spectrum

The following is an article written by Matt Bolton, a sophomore college student from Brooksville, FL. He posted it at his blog site yesterday. I am reposting it with a preface because of its importance.

Matt has served (and continues to serve) as an intern for one of our companies, How The Weatherworks. He is a former summer weather camp graduate, who continues to be heavily involved in the National Weather Camp Program.

Matt, my wife and I have discussed learning issues for many years. Most recently, thanks to some experiences at our Naples area summer weather camp in 2014 (and at other weather camps in past years), the discussion has turned to the autism spectrum and how students on the spectrum affect their classroom and how the classroom setting affects them.

Please recognize that Matt, my wife and I are not trained clinically in the autism spectrum (even though my wife, a degreed teacher, knows a lot about various learning disabilities). So, this article is not designed to be a definitive one. Rather, it is offered as a way to present some observations and raise awareness and discussion. We have already started the discussion with weather camp leaders, and others involved in weather, nation-wide.

One item that has surfaced in our discussions (but which was not included in Matt’s article) is how to address the classroom inclusion of students on the ASD spectrum. While professional educators and learning specialists have led the discussions to date, we wonder whether it would be helpful to incorporate input from ASD adults (at either the state and/or local levels). These individuals have been in classroom settings and learned (or tried to learn) adaptive techniques. Perhaps these ASD adults can offer insight into what they felt they needed while in the pre-college educational system.

We would welcome comments from those who read this article. Most importantly, we hope that parents of students (especially students with a strong focus on meteorology / weather, who may be on the autism spectrum, or have other learning disabilities) will contact us and share their experiences.

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This article comes after much thought over the past six months on a matter that is very important to me, one I believe more people should be concerned about. I am talking about the autism spectrum, and how it is treated in educational circles (an article on the societal aspects of autism is forthcoming). While my condition has never warranted an official diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I have several very mild traits that could position me on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. In addition to autistic traits, I also have severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Until recently, when I started thinking critically about the autism spectrum, and how kids on it are affected in an educational setting, I never would have entertained the thought of writing this piece.

My previous inaction was due to two things: a limited number of experiences dealing with the autism spectrum in educational settings, and my own inability, until very recently, to come to terms with my own condition. I have, by now, overcome many of the difficulties that have stood in my way, and I am ready to address what I see as a growing need for action on behalf of those who still struggle on a daily basis with a variety of challenges most people don’t often  consider.

Thanks to my parents and others, I’ve learned to make the best of my situation; recognizing that I could have a much worse condition. Thus, I am attempting to use my “issues” in a positive way to enhance the lives of others.

Autism is characterized, in general, by notable delays in communication ability, a narrow range of interests, repetitive behaviors, and impediments in cognitive development and social interaction. Delays in communication ability and other key cognitive skill areas often translate into issues in reading social cues and providing proper social responses.

It needs to be stated that autism is a series of neurological disorders on a widening spectrum of severity (hence the phrase “autism spectrum disorder,” and the associated ASD acronym). It’s not just one disorder; but a number of related disorders, grouped together for better diagnosis. The spectrum goes from “high-functioning,” to “low-functioning;” the higher one is on the spectrum, the closer he/she is to so-called “normal” behavior.

Prior to 2013, there were a number of disorders that were part of the autism spectrum, but separately diagnosed from autism, which was also its own disorder.

In early 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was revised, and the individual conditions (including Asperger’s Syndrome) were consolidated and/or eliminated, and spread across the autism spectrum. With that change in effect, one who was previously diagnosed explicitly with mild to severe Asperger’s, for example, may now be instead diagnosed with “mild autism.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more streamlined diagnoses moving forward.

I have an extreme interest in weather. When I was in high school, I attended four summer weather camp programs across the country. In the course of those early experiences, I was given an opportunity to become a meteorological intern. Nearly five years later, I’ve worked my way to the position of lead intern for How The Weatherworks, a weather consulting company based in Naples, FL. In the past eight years, I have also served with a number of other organizations in weather related learning-facilitation roles.

Through these experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with or otherwise learn of a number of kids who have traits, or more serious manifestations, of conditions across the autism spectrum. Whatever their unique situation, these kids have all shared a unifying theme: a near-obsession, or at least moderate to high interest, for meteorology.  For some of these kids, meteorology has essentially given them a purpose in life.

As I continue to work with a number of ASD students in meteorology, I am finding an unfortunate trend. Due to the way autism spectrum disorders manifest themselves, these students are typically regarded by others, in educational environments and in wider societal settings, to be “different.” These students may be bullied or excluded from activities by their peers; treated poorly by teachers in the classroom; and/or looked down upon as “not normal.”

Yes, these kids sometimes demonstrate behavioral problems and can be disruptive to other students. They can talk incessantly, or be the source of other verbal distraction. They can be a source of physical distraction and may even be aggressive towards classmates or teachers.

But, far more often than not, these kids are also very bright and intelligent, with talents that would go undiscovered were they to be ignored.

People on the autism spectrum think differently, but not necessarily in a negative way. They process information at a different rate and manner than other people. While some non-spectrum individuals seem to possess an innate skill for social activity, most, if not all, individuals on the spectrum struggle socially to some degree. This is due to inhibitions in the parts of the brain that process social cues and proper response triggers.

Many ASD students participate in perfectly “normal” conversations, but these often require much more effort. In face-to-face situations, they may have trouble making eye contact, focusing on conversation, maintaining spatial awareness, or have other issues.

Educational systems often attempt to handle the perceived difference of ASD students, mitigating their behavior in an integrated classroom. For example, fellow classmates may be taught the basics of the autism spectrum, so that they may better understand and adjust to the behavior of the ASD student. Adaptive learning strategies may be implemented to allow for better accommodation of the student, as well.

Are these the best educational approaches for these students?

I’m not saying that there is inherently a “right” or “wrong” way to teach students who are on the autism spectrum, but I think right now, school systems are more focused on educating, when they should be empowering these ASD students to learn.

One of my mentors, H. Michael Mogil (owner of How The Weatherworks), proposed that there is a difference between education and learning. Education, Mogil suggests, is where “someone else feeds you information.” Contrast this with learning, where “the learning comes from within… one feeds oneself…”

That being said, shouldn’t we give ASD students a chance to find their focus (e.g., weather), and then use this to enable them to see the cross-curricula connections (e.g., graphs of weather data translating into work in statistics, and weather reporting, where they could learn technical skills such as graphic design)? If we can capture their interests and use this focus to get them interested in learning, then the things that don’t interest them could become more interesting, leading to a more conducive environment for learning.

If given something positive to focus on, many students who are on the autism spectrum can overcome, or at least improve upon their existing condition. They can find the motivation they may otherwise lack by capitalizing on their passion. That approach has worked for me, and it has worked for ASD students I’ve interacted with.

Meteorology has served as a point of interest for a few of the ASD students I’ve met. In the same way I have, they’ve found a genuine interest and passion and have focused more as a result elsewhere in school. One former weather camper has applied his passion for weather forecasting towards  his interest in sports: on several occasions, he has provided impact-based forecasts to his school; these forecasts have helped school officials in deciding whether or not to continue with their scheduled sporting events.

One of the students I work with regularly has a particularly strong memory for weather information. He can describe, in minute detail, the weather for numerous locations across the country dating back at least five years.  This includes extreme events, of course, but, even more impressive, is that it extends to so-called “normal” weather (variables including daily high and low temperature recordings, type of weather that occurred, time that thunderstorms occurred…).

The fact that students with autism spectrum disorders think “differently” can actually become strengths for them, because they often have extraordinary memories and other mental visualization skills.

Some of these students are prodigiously gifted in math. Numbers are like words to them; they can easily solve math problems that cause other kids their age to pull their hair out in frustration. Some do poorly in math, yet can read nearly 1,000 words per minute with near-perfect comprehension. If kids are exhibiting these kinds of talents, why are they ostracized? Why aren’t they allowed to foster their interests? Why, in conversation with peers, are they seen as “different?”

It is within this scenario that mentors can prove hugely beneficial for students who are on the spectrum. Professionals, and even pre-professionals, are usually more than willing to help up-and-coming students. They can answer questions, and provide valuable learning opportunities. They can help further refine the student’s foci, or, even, help them find new areas on which to concentrate. They can, at least in some small part, fill the social void in the student’s life by giving them someone with whom they can communicate, allowing them to build on existing social skills. I have had several mentors in meteorology, and they have each afforded me unique opportunities; internships, on-the-job shadow sessions, and even one-on-one training in meteorology topics.

I’ve also formed lasting professional relationships with some of them, earning many valuable learning opportunities on things that aren’t necessarily taught in school; networking, proper business conduct, and professionalism, among them. The benefits resulting from having a good mentor or two are huge, for those on the autism spectrum, and for those who aren’t.

I am now paying those efforts forward by directly mentoring two middle school students in meteorology. It’s amazing to see that they have responded to me in much the same way I responded to my own mentors at their age.

In my limited research into the autism spectrum, I have learned about Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted animal scientist and professor at Colorado State University. She is widely regarded as one of the most well-respected people in the world today when it comes to  the autism spectrum. She is an advocate for people who are on the autism spectrum, and much of her work on the matter has focused on mentoring.  Her studies have validated my feelings regarding mentors and their value to ASD students.

In closing, I leave you with this question, and associated thoughts:

Why can’t educators, and people in general, just see the person, and not the problem?

I know doing this isn’t simple or easy, but we need to remove the labels and see past the problems exhibited by individuals who are on the autism spectrum. We need to be willing to work with them, regardless of how hard it may be, on their self-improvement, as well as on our own understanding and acceptance of their condition.

There is hope for kids who are on the autism spectrum, whether they are high- or low- functioning. For most individuals, some improvement in their condition should be possible. There is a fighting chance, especially, for those whose condition is not that severe. Many already have the inherent ability and desire to improve themselves.  They just need some help.

Autism spectrum disorders can be beaten, with hard work and a will to persevere. I’ve seen both sides; I’ve been the one labeled, and I’ve been the one attempting to work with individuals without labeling them.

I know from experience that autism isn’t always easy to deal with, but dealing with it is exactly what we need to be doing. The good of the few, is, in this and many other cases, just as important as the good of the many.

*If you have worked in an educational setting with a student who is on the autism spectrum, I would appreciate any applicable comments and feedback you could give relating to successful strategies you used to focus or otherwise engage them, or any other comments you think would be useful. Also, if you feel that this article could prove useful to others, please do not hesitate to share with them. Comments can be sent to matt.bolton [at] weatherworks.com.

*I hope to fold feedback I receive into other articles I’m writing on autism, on mentoring, and on the societal aspects of autism (which will be a companion to the education-related post I’m sharing with you now). Applicable strategies may also be incorporated at weather camp programs, and elsewhere, to create a more conducive learning environment for students.

© 2015 Matt Bolton

Originally posted 1/23/15