I honestly do not know where to start with the National Science Foundation’s $5 million grant given to the Yang-Tan Institute of Employment and Disability “to help create better job outcomes for people with autism spectrum disorder.”
This grant is focused on artificial intelligence technology that will “train and support individuals with autism spectrum disorder in the workplace.” The research team is made up of collaborators from multiple universities in the US. The article states that the team has interviewed “neurodiverse individuals” (doesn’t specify autistic), but based on their objectives, it doesn’t seem like they’ve taken neurodivergent feedback into account whatsoever.
They mention creating a “coaching process” using artificial intelligence, as if autistic people haven’t been “coached” enough into neurotypicality. Unfortunately, our entire lives are made up of neurotypical “coaching.” We often in fact, receive too much coaching in how to act or generally exist among other people.
Technologies to Improve Job Outcomes
There are 5 technologies they are planning on developing, based on the above linked article. Let’s go through the list together.
- “an assessment system that integrates a wearable eye tracker, scene cameras and computer vision algorithms to produce a detailed record of a person’s performance in visuospatial cognitive tasks”
This is probably the most helpful out of all of them. It allows autistic people to be assessed based on skills rather than based on neurotypical body language and standards. However, not every autistic person is going to have amazing visuospatial skills. I certainly don’t. This may only help a portion of autistic people who have these types of skills, and only be applicable to certain types of jobs.
- “a virtual reality-based job interview simulator that senses a user’s anxiety and attention through wearable computing devices, and provides feedback and coaching”
This is already majorly problematic. I’m not exactly sure why researchers assume that feedback is what autistic people need to change their behavior, to make it more neurotypical. This encourages masking. Being told you are anxious, or not being attentive, probably doesn’t help you become less anxious or more attentive. If feedback is all autistic people needed to get jobs, we sure wouldn’t need AI for it.
Things that this doesn’t change:
- The neurotypical biases of the interviewer.
- The format of the interview itself: vague questions, new sensory environment, new people.
- The way interviews are evaluated by employers. They will still be looking for the same body language that they would for a neurotypical person.
The reason we can’t do well on interviews isn’t because we aren’t trying hard enough to pretend to be neurotypical. It’s because the interview process itself is stacked against us, almost as if to weed us out by default.
- “a collaborative virtual reality platform to assess and help team-building skills through peer-based and intelligent agent-based interaction”
Again, this just sounds like more masking. “Team-building skills” I’m assuming means learning to “work in a group” – i.e., learning to work with neurotypical people, and again, mask.
It Gets Worse
This is by far the worst one:
- “a social robot for use in home environments to improve resilience and tolerance with job-related interruptions”
This is what researchers want to do to autistic adults –
As I’ve previously written about before, this results in sensory gaslighting and trauma. Autistic adults have definitely had enough trauma in their own lives. They don’t need to live with an annoying robot to learn how to “deal with” neurotypical co-workers. We have had to “deal with” neurotypical people since we can remember. There are articles right now about how inhumane the Honorlock system is, that it tracks your every move, that you may be flagged as having “suspicious activity” if you take a drink of water or look in the wrong direction.
And you’re telling autistic people to do this to themselves, to have this robot in their house, to be assessed on how “well” they’re doing (how neurotypical they are being) with eye tracking and other devices, and to willingly annoy themselves into submission.
Isn’t This Harmful?
Autistic people are on a lower level of humanity to many neurotypical people unfortunately, especially when it comes to research. People often aren’t held to the same ethical standards when they work with autistic people, for example in ABA therapy, and based on the article, there doesn’t seem to be any concern about the amount or types of feedback the autistic person would receive using this technology, especially how it pertains to masking. Masking is a significant predictor of suicidality in autistic adults. Masking isn’t mentioned once.
And now, we come to the last bullet point:
- “a computer vision-based tool to assess nonverbal communication in real-world settings.”
This is like assessing a colorblind person on how they label colors. I am making the assumption that the autistic person is the one getting assessed here, not neurotypical people (it’s not like some sort of translational tool for autistic people to use on neurotypicals, I’m assuming, based on their previous bullet points).
This is absolutely nonsensical. I cannot believe this research idea obtained funding. I cannot believe that researchers have jobs based on this research idea.
This is not how to help neurodivergent people.
There are so many other ways to help autistic people that don’t involve changing them. Unfortunately, many neurotypical people are unwilling to assess their own body language, implicit subconscious assumptions, and neurotypical biases that are the very thing preventing autistic people from being in the workforce. Many neurotypical people refuse to assess their own sensory system, and how maybe they could get used to a quieter, slightly dimmer environment for once. Maybe they can change. Maybe they can, just once, consider how exhausting it is to be told, over and over again, that you are the problem.
Autistic people are not the problem. Autistic people do not need to fit into a rigid hiring system that involves interviewing instead of job trials, when interviewing doesn’t even do a good job of assessing skills even for a neurotypical person. We know that the pandemic has changed the way companies have been working now. We’ve just seen all of this change over the last 4 months. It’s possible.
How about you start by hiring autistic researchers and autistic research consultants to improve this research? (yes, we do in fact, exist)
I have a question for you, researchers.
Are you willing to change too?
- Autistic People Care Too Much, Research Says - November 7, 2020
- The Crossroads of Being Autistic and Queer - November 6, 2020
- $5 Million Grant Awarded to Make Autistic People Mask in Job Interviews - October 6, 2020
And also, not everyone who is autistic needs the same help in the workplace. Base it on what we need.
And not every job is the same, since an illustrator for example or a programmer can work from home or in an office without anyone around them.
That made me feel both nauseated and anxious. How absolutely horrible! What a ridiculous waste of funds. We. Are. Right. Here. Ask. Us. Sh*t!
Personally, as an autistic woman who is also employed full-time, I think training to mask in job interviews is a terrible idea for most autistic people. Sure, it might help you get the job where you otherwise wouldn’t have, but your new bosses and coworkers will then expect the same masked behavior you displayed in the interview all the time, which is extraordinarily exhausting to keep up. It’s much better–if much harder in some cases–to find a job where you don’t need to mask as much.
This shit sounds like something the worst presidential candidate in US history (Andrew Yang!) would come up with. Hell, it even has his name attached to it! Well, I doubt it was his idea because he’s a crazed conspiracy theorist who believes robots are taking over the world and wants to ban all AI in addition to making ABA mandatory with taxpayer funding. That’s just as bad as Trump pandering to Autism $peaks 4 years in a row and mocking disabled people in public speeches. I’m so happy we have a much more sensible president now.
I recently decided I’m tired of masking and I’d rather work on worrying less about what other people will think if they observe my autistic traits. Part of that included the difficult decision to turn down a part-time job in a loud crowded setting that I had only gotten accepted to because I did a great job masking in the interview. Masking while on the job is too stressful for me, especially in a fast-paced environment with constant sensory overload and when the application didn’t even ask if I have a disability. I have another interview tomorrow that I’m nervous about because of potential pressure to mask, but I’m a little bit less nervous this time because the application asked “do you have a disability?” and I chose yes so if they can tell I’m autistic then they’ll know why i chose that answer.
How did this idea meet any ethical standards? Was there no ethics committee at all? I was searching for ideas as to how to manage traumatic interviews so that I can finally do something I am passionate about and came across your article. It is indeed infuriating the idea that instead of changing the practices and make them inclusive, one has to learn to fit in them and conform to irrational demands (a bit like the world currently which makes people ill… and instead of changing the conditions, they try to change one’s genes or switch off their feelings)… thanks for writing about it with such honesty and courage…