An Analysis of the Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Conditions for Application to Weather Communication Methods in the Weather Enterprise

By: Matt Bolton

Weather is important to all people, whether they realize it or not. It affects them physically and psychologically on small scales (e.g., in behavior and clothing choice), and on large scales (economies, critical infrastructure, etc.). Within this is the widespread occurrence of extreme weather threats across the United States.

In response, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) launched the Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) initiative in 2012, in an effort to increase weather awareness and resiliency across the country. Better methods of meteorological communication and outreach are being explored within this program, and then are being disseminated and applied throughout the greater weather enterprise – the collective group (which includes meteorologists, emergency managers, mass communicators, psychologists, and others) whose individual entities work together to communicate weather information to the general public. Forecasters are working to improve the ways in which they communicate weather, while efforts are underway to improve the public’s weather knowledge and corresponding ability to prepare for extreme and severe weather events. Individuals with physical disabilities are included in meteorologists’ focused efforts (e.g., hurricane evacuations), and a new lightning safety campaign focused on deaf and hard-of-hearing populations was launched in June 2016 (National Weather Service, 2016a). However, “invisible” conditions – including various mental disabilities and conditions, and conditions such as blindness and color vision deficiency – remain left out of formal discussions (National Weather Service 2016b, 2016c, 2016d).


Autism,which can drastically affect cognitive development and communication ability, is one such condition. Affecting individuals neuro-developmentally, it is generally characterized by delays in communication ability, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, impairments in cognitive development and social interaction, and by the possession of a narrow range of interests which are typically the subject of intense focus (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The prevalence rate of the condition in the United States is 1-in-68 (U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2014). Historically, there have been a number of individually-diagnosed autism-related conditions to fit multiple levels of severity, including classic autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder among others (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). These were all merged into one umbrella diagnosis (Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD) in 2013 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). However, we support the notion that autism is not necessarily a disorder but rather a manifestation of individual difference along a continuous spectrum of being (Baron-Cohen, 2000; Beardon, 2007; Wing, 1988). Whereas the implication of “being disordered” is that one is somehow broken or flawed, “having a condition” is generally viewed as far less stigmatizing (Baron-Cohen, 2012a), and so, following in the footsteps of other researchers, we will hereafter refer to the aforementioned diagnoses as falling upon the autism spectrum of conditions and to individuals with these conditions as having Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC, Aylott, 2009; Baron-Cohen, Golan, Chakrabarti, & Belmonte, 2008; Bölte & Hallmayer, 2011; Clare & Woodbury-Smith, 2009; Lai, Lombardo, Chakrabarti, and Baron-Cohen, 2013 among others). ASC terminology aligns with the so-called “neurodiversity perspective,” which puts forth the concept that neurological conditions are manifestations of natural variation in human functioning (e.g., Jaarsma & Welin, 2012).  

People with an ASC function at many different levels. Some display more typical behavior and development, while others are severely cognitively impaired and in need of substantial living support. Regardless, each individual on the autism spectrum is limited, to some degree or other, in their respective capacities to discern and act on many types of information.

Integrated weather-society research has become a key focal point within the weather enterprise over the past decade. Topics include the public’s perceptions of forecast uncertainty (e.g., Handmer & Proudley, 2007; Joslyn & Savelli, 2010; Morss, Demuth, & Lazo, 2008), general weather risks (Hoekstra et. al, 2011), the importance of weather to people on a psychological basis (Stewart, 2009; Stewart, Lazo, Morss, & Demuth, 2012), and climate change (e.g., Egan & Mullin, 2012; Hamilton & Stampone, 2013; Taylor, de Bruin, & Dessai, 2014). Others (Bolton & Blumberg, 2015; Bolton, Wise, & Blumberg, 2016a, 2016b; Bryant et al., 2014; Grant, 2015) have suggested weather communication implications exist for individuals in the arena of color perception. However, no empirical work, nor the WRN program to our knowledge, has considered autism populations in the context of weather communication. Adding to this, we have observed through discussion with those in the field that even though meteorologists may be directly affected by ASC through a family member or friend, it is not something they usually think of or see as related to their work. It is for these reasons that, even as meteorologists go to great lengths in communicating timely and accurate weather information and facilitating quality weather education to the general public, we hereby state that the weather enterprise does not do enough to accommodate populations with various neurological conditions, including ASC. We mean this with regard to community education and engagement, and the communication of potentially life-saving weather information.

We believe that the observed lack of action on behalf of those with ASC presents a problem to the weather enterprise, because the most-prime directive of the meteorologist is to protect all life and property in times of severe weather. Recent research (Bolton & Ault, 2017) has shown that knowledge of ASC facilitates acceptance for and understanding of those with the condition. Therefore, in an effort to begin a dialogue within the weather enterprise on autism spectrum conditions and related topics, we seek to introduce to meteorologists some of the concepts relevant to understanding those with ASC, through a thorough analysis of the various characteristics of the condition. This includes a presentation of three theories which allow for a substantial understanding of some of the strengths and weaknesses that may be present in individuals with ASC, which may be encountered by the meteorologist in the course of their work. Finally, we will use the aforementioned concepts to present some possible research topics for future consideration by meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise. Overall, in providing information on some key features of ASC, we hope to spark conversation on the topic among meteorologists.

To read the full article, please see this post on Matt Bolton’s blog.

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