"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.