Search This Blog

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Spotting Fake Science

  In The Politics of Autism, I write:

Many articles and blog posts arguing for the vaccine-autism link have the trappings of genuine academic research: tables, graphs, citations, and scientific jargon. Some of the authors have credentials such as M.D. or Ph.D. degrees. None of these things is a guarantee of scientific value, as the history of science is full of crackpot theories (e.g., AIDS denialism) that are the heavily-footnoted products of people with letters after their names. But most people will not be able to spot the scientific weaknesses of such work. Outside of academia, few understand concepts such as peer review. Jordynn Jack describes one dubious article that appeared in a non-peer-reviewed publication: “Regardless of the scientific validity of the article, though, the writers perform the writing style quite effectively. It would be difficult for the layperson to distinguish this article from any other scientific research paper, especially if one did not investigate the nature of the journal … or of the scientific response to the article.”

Frederick Hess at AEI:

[Sam] Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.

Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”

He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap.

In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”

Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”

Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”

The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.

In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”

To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Autism at Work

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience.

James Mahoney. Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work JPMorgan Chase & Co.:
A couple of years ago, I learned a startling statistic: The unemployment rate for individuals with some form of autism – often called the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – is estimated to be between 80 to 90 percent. While it’s shameful and disheartening that any subset of people would face such a challenge, what’s even more startling about that statistic is that many of these individuals are simply brilliant people–highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed.

But my employer JPMorgan Chase, like many successful organizations, looks at situations like this one and sees opportunity. Because of our size and continued growth, we have an almost constant need for talented employees – especially in technology-related fields. We thought that perhaps this could become a new untapped pool of talent.

And it has: Since rolling out our initiative, Autism at Work, a program focused on hiring employees with Autism, we have hired more than 30 individuals who have ASD and we anticipate hiring hundreds more across the globe over the coming years.

Autism manifests itself in many different forms; no two autistic individuals face the same exact challenges. To quote Melanie, a Columbus-based Chase employee whose daughter is autistic: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

These challenges may explain why unemployment for this community is so high.

Melanie explained that just getting past an interview can be difficult, especially if the interviewer is unaware of the applicant’s ASD. Her high-functioning daughter rocks back and forth and side-to-side, stutters, frequently says ‘um’ and has difficulty making eye contact. “I taught her to say, ‘Hi. I’m Billie and I have autism spectrum disorder. Just so you know I’m not weird or quirky.’”

Through partnerships with organizations that have more experience in working with individuals with ASD, we are learning to look beyond the traditional interview process to find highly qualified employees. We work closely with senior leaders across the firm to identify roles that would benefit from the talents of ASD adults and ensure we provide an inclusive work environment for these employees to thrive.

The embracement of this untapped workforce allows our company to benefit from the unique blend of talents provided by these detail-oriented, rule-bound, logical and independent-thinking individuals.

And it is paying off: Many studies show that the performance of autistic individuals in certain functions exceeds their peers without autism.

Jon, a quality assurance analyst at Chase, said his strongest attribute is to assess situations and come up with the best possible solutions in order to make them more organized and more efficient.

“I would encourage anyone on the spectrum to embrace what makes them different and see it as their greatest strength,” he said. “I firmly believe that companies could always benefit from having employees who see things in an unconventional way, which is something to remember any time an individual on the spectrum is seeking a job.” 
He said the Autism At Work program opens a door for those “who may not be the best at traditional interviews, to show off their unique skills in a workplace environment. Some people on the spectrum simply are not given a chance to shine through conventional means. This program is a great way to facilitate that.”

The success of Jon and others confirm that their skill set simply requires an environment in which to contribute and thrive. And that provides a winning solution for all of us.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Ernst and Young's Boston Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience.

An April 12 release from Ernst and Young:
Today, Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) announced the launch of the Boston Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence (NCoE), aligning with Autism Awareness Month in April. The Boston NCoE, the sixth of its kind opened by EY US, is the first in New England and is designed to apply the talents of neurodivergent individuals to meet clients’ business needs.

The Boston NCoE will open with a founding team of 10, which includes individuals with cognitive differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and Asperger syndrome. These professionals will join existing EY US client teams of nearly 2,300 professionals in the Greater Boston area working in consulting, intelligent automation, data analytics, cybersecurity, assurance, tax and more. Through community and professional relationships, the number of individuals at the NCoE is poised to grow over time. Several prominent organizations have also stepped up to help drive awareness and increase the employment rate of neurodivergent individuals. These organizations are truly “accelerators” around neurodiversity for the Boston area.

Jane Steinmetz, Boston Office Managing Principal, Ernst & Young LLP, says, “The Boston NCoE will not only transform the way we help our clients across New England, but it underscores our deep commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and opportunity for all. These team members bring unique skills to the firm and will be able to support clients through innovative work and thinking. We’re always looking to build a better working world and create inclusive employment opportunities that benefit EY, the businesses we serve and most importantly those we hire. The Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence have reimagined the traditional hiring processes and created environments more conducive to the needs of a neurodivergent individual that unlock tremendous talent potential.”

Over the past five years, EY US has customized the NCoE hiring, training and onboarding process to be more inclusive for our neurodivergent colleagues. One such adjustment is shifting from a behavior-based interview process to a performance-based process. We have also allowed additional time for team members to absorb and retain the information we share during onboarding and training. This comprehensive approach provides structure around the team to ensure success and promotes psychological safety for true belonging and equity. This comprehensive approach provides structure around the team to help ensure success and promotes psychological safety for true belonging and equity.

EY US created the NCoE model after recognizing a need to drive growth for businesses by accessing the tremendous untapped talent of neurodivergent individuals. The contributions of NCoE professionals help to enhance workforce ability and support clients in accelerating technology processes and solutions while meeting the changing demands for jobs, tasks and skills – such as intelligent automation, blockchain, cybersecurity, cloud optimization, true data science and analytics.

In addition, EY US recognized the significant employment roadblocks faced by people experiencing neurodiversity. It’s estimated that up to 85% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hiren Shukla, EY Global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence Leader, says, “The EY NCoEs activate the exponential power of neurodiversity by creating inclusive high-performance teams. By spearheading this journey of incorporating and curating cognitive differences into teaming models, we are positioning ourselves to solve transformation challenges directly and have a competitive advantage in the market.”

Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with dyslexia, Asperger syndrome or autism, make up approximately 20% of the global population and excel in data analytics and software management that supports emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, automation, blockchain, cyber and more. These skills are a great asset to EY US clients, and with the addition of this Center, the team in Boston will be able to offer an even higher standard of service.

Members of the founding Boston NCoE team, many of whom were previously not fully engaged in the workforce, are now embedded in the fabric of the firm. EY US is committed to sharing leading practices and helping other companies similarly engage the neurodivergent community. EY US co-founded the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable and sponsored conferences to share knowledge with other employers, ranging from large multinational companies to other businesses looking to launch neurodiversity hiring efforts. The firm also helped create a 60-page playbook explaining how to develop a neurodiversity program.

EY US introduced its first neurodiversity center in Philadelphia in 2016 and has since expanded to six cities across the US, as well as one in both Canada and India. The firm plans for cities in South America, Asia-Pacific and Europe to join the network soon.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Biden Proposes IDEA Funding Boost

 In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

From President Biden's request for fiscal year (FY) 2022 discretionary funding:

 Increases Support for Children with Disabilities. All children—including those with disabilities—should be provided with the services and support they need to thrive in school and graduate ready for college or a career. To this end, the discretionary request provides $15.5 billion for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants that support special education and related services for students with disabilities in grades PreK through 12. This historic $2.6 billion increase would, for the first time in eight years, increase the Federal share of the cost of providing services to students with disabilities, and is a significant first step toward fully funding IDEA. The discretionary request also provides $732 million for IDEA Part C, an increase of $250 million above the 2021 enacted level. IDEA Part C supports early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays and funds services that have a proven track record of 8 improving academic and developmental outcomes. This increase in funding would be paired with reforms to improve access to these vital services for underserved children, including children of color and children from low-income families.

Sunday, April 11, 2021


In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread  And among those diseases could be COVID-19.

Antivaxxers are sometimes violent, often abusive, and always wrong

Corbin Duncan at The Harvard Political Review:
When the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was established in 1990, its creators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have scarcely imagined the government program would become a leading vector for vaccine misinformation amidst a global pandemic.

The VAERS dataset was created to manage reports of vaccine-associated side effects. With the authority of the CDC, whose official seal adorns the webpage, VAERS packs a shock. As of today, the online database alleges 1349 U.S. deaths attributable to COVID-19 vaccines. The database makes for gruesome reading, with side-effects of the vaccine appearing to include brain death, herpes and even one case of a gunshot wound. Quite the vaccine.

These statistics are, of course, patently false. Claims made by the VAERS database now form the foundation of a global online misinformation campaign which to-date has garnered little attention. The startling statistics are being shared far and wide by anti-vaccination activists and concerned readers alike. And the CDC’s role in the dissemination of vaccine misinformation, unwilling though it may be, is attracting increasing scrutiny as it jeopardises what President Biden calls his administration’s “most important battle”: the global coronavirus vaccine rollout.

The CDC describes VAERS as a “passive reporting system.” Pre-dating the internet, the VAERS database has virtually no guards against its potential role as a source of “fake news” and is credulous of even the most fanciful claims of COVID-19 vaccine side-effects. VAERS reports “can be submitted voluntarily by anyone, including healthcare providers, patients, or family members.” The CDC acknowledges the “quality and completeness” of reports “often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors.” Beyond that disclaimer, the CDC tries to ensure its readers know the data is inaccurate by offering users terms and conditions, which are presumably mostly unread, and a checkbox to acknowledge their contents. A federal agency seeking to disabuse citizens of the expectation that government health databases are accurate should be an indicator for the CDC that VAERS has a serious problem.

Beatrice Dupuy at AP:

Posts online are sharing VAERS data without any context. Screenshots of the data being shared online give a vague description to paint a much darker version of reality and mislead social media users into believing that the vaccine is causing more adverse events than the public is being told.

“VAERS - A MUST WATCH!!!!,” one video showing VAERS data on Instagram said. “I bet you haven’t seen any of THIS information about the COVID-19 vaccine covered on CNN, or any off the other treasonous corrupt mainstream media!”

Some screenshots show only a VAERS identification number, the age of the person who was vaccinated, the day they received the vaccine and the day they died to suggest that people are dying from the vaccine. The posts with misleading captions are being widely shared across social media platforms.

“I have not seen any data supporting that the vaccine caused a relationship with an increase in mortality rate or something like that,” said Dr. Werner Bischoff, an infectious disease specialist at Wake Forest University.

According to the CDC, VAERS does not determine if the vaccine caused the reported adverse events, which can often happen coincidentally after immunization.

VAERS has often been misrepresented by anti-vaccine advocates, and the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine has brought more attention to the surveillance system.

There was a time when a number of reports in VAERS were from people concerned that vaccines were causing autism, which has been debunked, said Dr. James Campbell, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Great Divide


From the preface to The Politics of Autism.

A major theme of this book is that just about everything concerning autism is subject to argument. There is not even any consensus on what one should call people who have autism and other disabilities. “In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terms such as `Autistic,’ `Autistic person,’ or `Autistic individual’ because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity,” writes blogger Lydia Brown.[i] Other writers prefer “people-first” language (e.g., “persons with autism”) since it puts the persons ahead of the disability and describes what they have, not who they are.[ii] For the sake of stylistic variety, this book uses both kinds of language, even though this approach will satisfy neither side. I can only say that I mean no offense.

Isabel Alexander at STAT:

The great divide in the autism community occurs between those who view autism as a unique — and perhaps advantageous — extension of typical brain wiring versus those who experience the potentially debilitating symptoms of the condition. In other words: Is autism a gift or a public health crisis?

Maybe it’s both. For every proud story of idiosyncrasy and unabashed connection, for every open mind and open door, there is a story of suffering, of sacrifice, and of soreness that comes with navigating a world of missing links — a world of enormous complexity at both synaptic and societal levels.

Throw in an unprecedented global pandemic, and the spectrum of the autism experience becomes wider, deeper, and more complex. On one end, there may be comfort in seclusion: the virtual realms catalyzed by Covid-19 can alleviate the anxiety, communication barriers, and sensory overload experienced by some people with autism during in-person interactions. On the other end, the pandemic has upended routines for a population that craves predictability and structure, interrupted behavioral and educational interventions outside the home, and multiplied the need for emergency psychiatric assistance at a time of reduced capacity. Given the high rates of comorbid mental illness among people with autism, these scars may last long after societal reopening.

Now more than ever, autism awarenessand increasingly acceptance — should mirror the spectrum of the condition: a celebration of fortitude and uniqueness as well as a recognition of the pain that may lie below the surface.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Autism, COVID, and Food Insecurity

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. 

From Autism Speaks

In November and December of 2020, we sent a follow-up survey to a larger group of recipients. This time, we asked even more detailed questions about how they were being affected by the pandemic, where they live and their situations. This helped us understand more about who is experiencing the most hardship due to COVID-19 so that we can focus our efforts on outreach and support into those communities. Here’s what we learned: FINDING: Households of people with autism are experiencing significant food insecurity, especially minority households, compared to households with no disability. 


  • Children with no disability 20%  before 27.1% after
  • Children with autism 41% before 57% after


  • No disability 27.1%
  • Person with autism, white 43.8%
  • Person with autism, black non-Hispanic 65.7%
  • Person with autism, Hispanic 74.5%

 Source except where noted: Food Insecurity in Households of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Autism Speaks, December 2020.

*Source: Karpur A, Vasudevan V, Frazier T, Shih A, Lello A. Food Insecurity in the Households of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Intellectual Disabilities in

the U.S.: Analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health Data 2016 - 2018. Autism. (in review).