On March 5, 2022, World Information Architecture Day (or World IA Day) is making its way to Pittsburgh, PA. World AI Day is a locally organized event that brings together students, industry leaders, and educators to celebrate the practice and education of Information Architecture. This year’s theme is ‘A Connected World’, which focuses on connectivity and connection. Industry professionals will be presenting workshops, group activities, lightning talks, and panels discussions. Among these professionals is Tessa Watkins (Interactive Web Developer, Flying Cork Media) whose talk titled Aren’t We All A Little Bit Human? Connecting With Autism focuses on changing the perception of autism within the fields of technology and science.
Tomorrow’s World Today (TWT): How would you define information architecture?
Tessa Watkins (TW): I think the term itself is really broad. It’s basically someone who is designing the flow of communication. In the realm of websites and what we do, that is building websites and social media basically curating experiences. And [it also involves] new information like digital technologies and the digital space, as opposed to the physical walk into a store.
TWT: What inspired you to pursue a career in interactive web development?
TW: It was more out of necessity, I suppose. I went to college for Video Game Art and Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and I wanted to be a programmer for video games. I loved developing the video game experience, the experience that users would have when they play video games. The market after college was tough, then I found my way into advertising agencies and web development there. And it’s really easy to get started because really all you need is Notepad and a browser to make a local website on your computer. But for a video game, you would need some kind of game engine to compile the code. There are definitely free versions, but it’s not as easy to get started.
TWT: How does information architecture impact your job as an interactive web developer?
TW: When I imagine an “information architect”, I imagine Tony Stark, he’s throwing designs into the air and moving them and manipulating them. Physically, it looks like an art with the translucent graphics and his fluid movements could be compared to dancing, but he’s really programming, problem solving. He’s turned programming into an art so that people can see that it’s not just logic and pure right-brain activity, it’s also left-brain, too.
TWT: How does connectivity impact your job or vice versa?
TW: In a literal sense, I need to be connected to the internet or I can’t work. But I think it’s really interesting because there are some projects where I have almost over-communication with the client, the ones where they want to be in every piece of the project and there’s so much connection and conversation with them. Then there are some projects where the client [will give] me a keyword and [they’ll tell me to] just make it whatever I come up with. I can guess based on their body language or do some searching about them and what they might like… It’s a whole spectrum.
TWT: How has autism affected your work?
TW: One of the things that I tell people is that programming is my special interest. The term special interest holds a lot of weight in the autistic communities… If you’re familiar with The Big Bang Theory, everyone knows that Sheldon Cooper loves trains. You might say that trains are a special interest of Sheldon Cooper. For me, solving problems and programming itself, that’s my special interest. So [you could tell me] “I need you to do this [project]” and if I’m excited about it, I will just sit there for hours… I can effectively sit for 10-12 hours [straight] just [working on that project] because I love it that much and it holds my attention that much. It’s called hyperfocus. The world doesn’t exist and when I mean the world, I also mean myself. I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I don’t get up. I might change positions once in a while. And this comes [back to bite me] because I’ll be at the end of the day and I’ll be cranky or “hangry”. But it’s very good for my clients or my employer because they get a lot of productivity out of me, but not so much for my physical wellbeing or my family if they want to spend time with me. Balance is hard to manage for an autistic adult like me because I can feel stuck where I can’t focus on my home life if my brain is still hyperfocused on work, or any special interest for that matter.
TWT: You stated in your bio that the tech industry is “perfect for an autistic person to thrive.” Can you speak more to that?
TW: I’ll be covering it more in my talk, but I’m trying to draw the parallel between the autistic brain and the computer. There are stereotypes that [autistic people] are very literal, cold, or unemotional… I’ve been called robotic before in daily society. It’s not [viewed as] a desirable thing, neurotypical people don’t want to be autistic… Parents might grieve if their child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Or if you go for an assessment as an adult and try to get a diagnosis [the Doctor might say] “I don’t think you’re autistic, I think it’s just trauma and anxiety.” They try… to avoid giving you that label, they think that’s helpful to you because they think being autistic is inherently a bad thing. It’s just a neutral thing.
But when we look at the tech industries [and] science industries, these are desirable traits. You want something that is self-enclosed, something that is basically automatic and automated [like] self-driving cars, the autocomplete on your phone, [and] artificial intelligence. But all of those things are essentially autistic…. [Autistic people] are naturally thriving in these types of industries because we’re now going to a place where we’re seen as celebrated and desirable as opposed to “other.”
TWT: What changes do you hope to see in the industry in the next few years?
TW: I would like to see more autism acceptance. I feel like the pandemic actually helped because we used to have this mentality where… you get paid for your time as opposed to your output. Now that we’re all working from home, if I can hyper-focus for 6 hours a day and still be just as effective as I was when I was sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day, you’re still paying for the same amount of productivity. But I get a little bit of time back and time is very valuable. I think that’s changing overall, that we’re no longer paying for time, we’re paying for a product or output. I would like to see it continuing in that direction. Now I work from home all the time and it’s nice because I get to completely control my environment. With my autism, there is sensory sensitivity, so [some loud noises in the office will] make me startle and jump and [trigger] my flight or flight response….
Another part of my autism is that my nervous system is affected in addition to my cognitive processing. [When I work from home] if my nervous system is underwhelmed, I can get up and jump and flap and dance and sing… to get the nervous system regulated. If it’s overwhelmed, I can go grab a weighted blanket from the other room… I still feel like I can be productive and regulate my body and just be happier overall because I’m not triggering myself or pushing myself to neurotypical standards. I’m able to just exist in a way that’s not hurtful. I hope that [this industry] will be inclusive of people like me… I can be a web developer because autism doesn’t affect my intelligence [I just] have these needs that they might not consider professional.
TWT: What do you want people to know about autism in this industry?
TW: [I want people] to really separate the idea that [autism] is an intelligence thing… For example, people are familiar with what an IQ score is. IQ is a number that’s a composite of a bunch of different scores that includes your processing speed, your working memory, your long-term memory, all sorts of good stuff. I have an average IQ but there is this other score called General Abilities Index (GAI), which includes your intelligence but excludes certain things like your processing speed. In that one, I’m above average. So according to these metrics and the average person’s understanding of them, I would be smart “if” my processing speed was faster. They don’t see me as just smart.
TWT: In your bio, you also discuss how you’ve managed to create a successful autistic community online, can you speak a little more about that and how you’ve facilitated that connectedness?
TW: This is one of my talking points in my talk as well, but I can’t take all the credit because it’s a subgroup of a larger community. The community is called One Bad Mother and we are a bunch of fans of the podcast called One Bad Mother that is hosted by Theresa Thorne and Elizabeth Ellis. The community is a fan group, there’s no official connection or affiliation to the podcast or its hosts. They have this one big group that they call The Motherboard, like a fun inside joke. Then they have all these subgroups including my group, One Bad Autistic, is just a subset of that larger group. All of these group have two rules that I think really set them apart from other online communities. One is “Don’t be a jerk and don’t assume they’re being a jerk,” which I think is super important because one [aspect of autism is that] when we’re just being straightforward, people see that as blunt. I was just being direct, I didn’t realize that was a rude thing… But in this community, when [people] don’t assume that I’m being a jerk, that works fantastically… because people are taking me at face value every time which fits with my autistic communication style.
The other rule is “Don’t give advice unless explicitly asked.” Because my special interest is solving problems, when people come to talk to me I assume they want me to solve their problem. That was something that I just didn’t understand. Growing up, I assumed that if people talked to me, it was with a purpose… So having very explicit rules for engagement, it was very helpful for me to just sit and listen.
Because [the group] belongs to that greater community, there’s some vetting that’s done before they’re allowed into our subgroup. So there’s some like-mindedness going on that helps keep everyone on the same page. We want to keep having this as a brave space for parents and educators and even people who are trying to discover it within themselves to ask the questions that they’re scared to ask. People are being very vulnerable in this group… And when people can see those parts of you, they can realize I’m not the only person that [has these experiences].
TWT: You’ll be a speaker at World IA Day in Pittsburgh, what are you most looking forward to about the event?
TW: I think I’m looking forward to the conversation that my talk is going to spark because I’m aiming at people that would be in my position, people that are just working in technology but are kind of weird. I always knew I was kind of weird, but I never thought anything much of it… I feel like… there are a lot of undiagnosed autistic people. I didn’t get diagnosed until a couple of years ago… Maybe someone who comes to this event [see my talk and say] “I think I may be autistic” and then they [can] get diagnosed and it turns out they’re autistic. We’re starting to remove that stigma because another popular [statement] is “You don’t look autistic”. Well, what do you think autism looks like… I think if a lot more people really understand what autism is, then doctors would be less likely to avoid giving out that diagnosis.
How would you say connectivity affects everyone’s daily life? How has the pandemic changed this?
TW: Everyone I know has a smartphone, so we all can stay connected 24 hours. And it took a pandemic for us to realize we shouldn’t have to. I think several communities [realized they need] to take some self-care. I’m not going to be accessible constantly, they’re disconnecting in order to replenish themselves. I think everyone needs to do that once in a while. They say the phrase “Everything in moderation”, but the part people forget and leave out is “even moderation”…
One of the best things that came out of [the pandemic] was digital accessibility. [For example], automatic closed captions was a premium feature in Zoom until October 2021. So if you were deaf, hard of hearing (I have an auditory processing disorder where sometimes words are jumbled), you would have to pay more money than everybody else just to be able to understand and process a conversation the same way as a hearing person over a virtual call. It’s called a disability tax. It’s the same way you would describe the pink tax [on female gendered] products… So I think in the spring of 2021, Zoom started allowing basic free accounts to apply early to get the transcriptions free… And then as of October, they started offering it for all accounts. But it’s still not the default, which I find surprising. It’s a two-step process to enable it and I can’t even get the people from the local DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) school board [to use] captions on their meetings. Since the pandemic forced a lot of people to rely on digital connections a lot more, accessibility became a lot cheaper. Maybe not free and maybe not accessible, but I think accessibility is becoming more of a focus.