Adam and Hunter share their autism journeys and how engaging communities have been fulfilling to them.
I had a chance to talk with Adam Mico and Hunter Hansen shortly after their presentation on neurodiversity at the The Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival is a community organized event to give people a platform who may not have opportunities to participate in mainstream circuits. Anyone who knows Adam and Hunter knows that they are very active within the data community. They are both data visualization and analytics professionals by day who are also neurodiversity advocates by life. Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal rather than deficits. The idea of neurodiversity can reduce the stigma with learning and thinking differences. It can help frame challenges as differences, rather than as deficits. It can also shed light on instructional approaches that might help to highlight particular strengths neurodiverse individuals have.
In “Neurodiversity and Data,” Hunter discusses that the qualities of good design are intuitive, accessible and unobtrusive. He explains that while neurodivergent people can be hyper focused and excel at pattern recognition, dashboard layouts should not be cluttered for example. They should be clear, concise and consistent.
Adam discusses autism myth busters that debunk the theory that autistic people can’t navigate, thrive or contribute to a community. In “The DataFam and Autism: A Match Made in Data'' he describes how the DataFam is focused on supporting Tableau users and deliberately inclusive. He encourages austistic people to create either a free Tableau Public profile to start vizzing or a data viz blog to start writing and sharing ideas. Both of these activities will help newcomers engage with the tight knit community!
Allen Hillery (AH): Can you share your thoughts on why data visualization appeals to neurodivergent people?
Adam Mico (AM): Data visualization provides options and context that's missing from tables or paragraphs while allowing me the option to find my own way with data. A lot of words are very difficult for many neurodivergent people to wrap their heads around and get meaning. From my personal experience, I very much prefer to find something at a high level and if interested have the ability to do a deep dive.
Hunter Hansen (HH):I feel it helps engage and translate what is often a difficult field for some, many neurodivergent individuals, especially those who fall under the dyscalculia umbrella. Dyscalculia is a learning disability that impairs an individual's ability to learn number related concepts and basic math skills. Even those who are adept in data, numbers, maths find a certain stimuli in "visualizing" numbers, like it takes it out of the mechanical discipline into something more creative, shapely.
AH: I got a sense from watching both of your presentations that there is something particular about Tableau that appeals to neurodivergent users. Can you elaborate on that?
AM: We tend to find something we like and get completely absorbed in it. Tableau as a tool provides nearly infinite ways to be absorbed with so many chart types to create and data to explore. It provides the ability to put those capabilities into practice and appear to be a data rockstar. In all, it gave me something that I was good at. It was easier to communicate what I held internally, and help others make informed decisions.
HH: For me, it's not just the versatility, but also the purpose. This is a dataviz design tool, not just a reporting tool with dataviz capability. It goes from the simple to the complex, and it feels like you can hyper focus on the deeper and complicated aspect to "scratch that proverbial itch" in a way.
AH: Do you feel Tableau's product design and user experience play a role in making it more appealing to neurodivergent communities?
AM: The product design of Tableau when I started; especially in the server environment was not as fun as it is today. Today, there are a lot of things that make it more user friendly in many environments. What I like is the user experience and being a good communicative tool. An additional benefit is seeing people get geeked out by data and its possibilities that were once afraid to open up an Excel document.
HH: Those aren't things that come to mind for me, despite both being good.
AH: Adam, you discuss in your presentation that you've been diagnosed as autistic for 10 years now. How was life for you prior to your diagnosis?
AM: Before I was diagnosed as autistic, I was aware on some level for most of my existence that my wavelength did not match others. When I was a kid in the 1980s in the Midwest, the only material I remember on autism is a film on a severely disabled person who stimmed at a very intense level. It really stigmatized my perceptions of being autistic and I didn't think of it for a long time. I just did my own thing while obsessing about fitting in and wondering why I didn't until I learned how to mask.
I focused on masking a lot in my early teens and fine-tuned it for years. I went on to college, got married and started a family. Eventually, I was unable to maintain the facade I had built and didn’t know how to cope. Not knowing how to deal with what I was struggling with and not wanting to alienate my wife and son, I started researching online to find answers.
I took an online test that said I was possibly autistic and my childhood vision of the severely disabled kid came back. I didn't deal with it for a couple more years, but not dealing with it made me care less about masking and hurt me personally and professionally more. I took a few more detailed tests online that made me realize it was a possibility, but I wasn't ruling out other conditions that were related. I went to seek a professional opinion that made the initial preliminary Aspergers diagnosis but referred me to a specialist who was working with DSM V where Aspergers was no longer a diagnosis and at that point was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder with related anxiety. Learning that, more than any subsequent counseling, helped me better navigate the good and bad of having autism.