Saturday, June 27, 2015

Autism and Amateur Radio

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post on another blog about "Technology Mediated Communication" and autism, using my experiences with a range of technology based communication systems, ranging from today's computer driven social media back to technologies which pre-date computers.  One of those technologies is Amateur Radio, which dates back to the first days of radio communications, in the 1890s.

So what is amateur radio, and what is its relevance to autism?  Firstly, the what - Amateur radio is a a hobby involving the experimentation with and use of radio technology by persons licensed by their government to do so.  Because of the formal licensing requirement, and the need for international regulation, there exist a formal definition, which is: "A radiocommunications service for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried out by amateurs, that is, by duly authorised persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.".  In other words, it's a radio based service for people who want to learn about, experiment with and use radio for personal interest, without any financial motive.  The part about "duly authorised persons", refers to the fact that radio amateurs are licensed by their country's regulatory body to use the amateur radio service.  In practice, this means demonstrating (typically through examinations) appropriate knowledge in radio theory, amateur radio regulations pertaining to one's jurisdiction and possibly one or more practical elements.  In the past, this involved the sending and receiving of Morse Code, but many countries no longer require Morse today.  In Australia, there is a practical exam, which involves basic radio operation, such as initiating and ending contact with another station and tuning an antenna.  For more information, there are many pages, such as that produced by the Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA) that explain amateur radio in more detail ( ).  It is well worth going through all of the links on this page.

So, how is this all relevant in the age of the Internet?  Probably more than most people could ever imagine.  If you've ever heard about amateur radio, you might have been given images of someone sitting in front of a big shortwave transceiver full of glowing valves, listening to crackling noise and talking to all sorts of exotic places.  Sure, amateurs still do these things (often with a much smaller and more sophisticated radio!), but amateur radio is much more than that.  Furthermore, we live in an age where radio is all around us, but we are not aware of it and take it for granted.  Examples range from broadcast radio and TV, to mobile phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the remote key for your car, basically almost anything that is "wireless" relies on radio to work (even infra-red remote controls use electromagnetic waves similar to radio, just a much shorter wavelength).  Yet how much of this technology, do we actually understand?

This brings us to autism, and that's an area I have a lot of personal experience.  As many know, I am on the autism spectrum.  What many don't (yet) know is that I have been fascinated by communication systems since childhood.  This turns out to be a side effect of my interest in connecting with people.  As a kid, I was fascinated by the radio, in that out of this box could come voices sent "magically" from distant places.  Two way radio, where one could talk back to the person on the other end, without wires held even more fascination for me, and the greater the distance, the more the fascination.  I dreamed of the day when a little handheld radio could talk to the world.  Back then, I had no concept of the physics required, or the technological solutions that would make this possible (you're using one of them - the Internet, to read this blog! :) ).  I also never dreamed that I would not only bear witness to this sort of technology, but actually play a minor part in making it a reality, through amateur radio.  More on that later. :)

My autism gave me the drive to understand this mysterious radio thing, so I could learn how to send my own messages across the void.  I wanted to know what made radio work, and how to make it work for me.  In my teenage years, I discovered "FM bugs", miniature transmitters that worked on the FM broadcast band.  I experimented with different designs and antennas, and managed to get them to work over several hundred metres.  Back then, in the early 1980s, there weren't a lot of FM stations, so there was plenty of room to experiment.  Today, one would have to be much more careful, there are stations all over the FM band.  I also suspect that regulations have been tightened to minimise the risk of interference from unlicensed FM transmitters.  I did learn a bit about building better antennas, as well as interfacing different audio sources, such as microphones and cassette players to the transmitters.

The 1989s were also the years when the electronics store Dick Smith were heavily into selling components and other products for electronics hobbyists (today, they are just another electrical retailer :( ).  The Dick Smith catalogue contained a large electronic reference section, which included Australian amateur radio information.  At the time, I didn't understand what it meant, but I was fascinated and wanted to know more.  That knowledge would come over the next several years.  Firstly, in Year 12, the father of a girl in our class was an amateur.  I was able to visit his "shack" (amateur speak for where the radio gear is setup) and he showed me what his gear did and how it worked.  I found it fascinating and wanted to do similar myself.  Next, I got involved in CB radio and became a serious hobbyist there, chatting to both local stations and others long distances away, when conditions permitted.  I gained a lot of knowledge on CB, but within a year, I knew amateur radio was my future.  Only on the amateur bands, could I legally experiment with transmitters and do more than just talk.

I was at university at the time, studying electronic engineering.  This meant that one element of my amateur licence was pretty much covered - the theory component, and I could study for the highest level of theory, which was relatively straightforward compared to third year university engineering.  That left regulations, which were  a combination of rote learning with a bit of common sense.  I decided to have a go at the Morse Code exams (which were required back in 1989 for access to the HF bands, but no longer are now).  I passed all of my exams - theory, regulations, 5 WPM Morse send and receive, and about a month later, received a shiny new call sign in the mail, after paying the appropriate fees.  Now I had the (radio) world at my feet! :). However, it would take me a number of years to really get established and on the air on my terms, because of the cost of radios back then (no $50 Chinese radios, like you can buy today on eBay).  But I did get myself going over the years, and learned a lot about many aspects of radio, such as:

HF radio.

VHF and UHF radio.

Repeaters - even built a couple myself.

Communicating through satellites.

Amateur television - transmitting full motion video over the air, which can be received on standard TVs usually with the help of a simple converter.

Bicycle mobile operation - combine a great hobby with exercise.  I am currently involved with an active bicycle mobile group locally.  

Fox hunting - no furry creatures here, the art and science of finding hidden radio transmitter - and something for which my unique processing style is especially suited.

Voice over IP/ Radio over IP (VoIP/RoIP) - using the Internet to carry voice traffic and link distant sites.

Politics and conflict resolution - yep, things can get political, people disagree!

Interoperability - making incompatible systems work with each other.

Data transmission on various frequencies.

Digital voice on radio.

Networking - various voice and data protocols.  I learned the Internet Protocol (IP) hands on, on radio, before using it on phone modems or local area networks, unlike most today, who start on a LAN.

Software Defined Radio and Digital Signal Processing.  This is the 21st century way of doing radio, using powerful computers to process signals, instead of traditional circuitry.  These software defined systems also have a side effect of providing metaphors for my own processing issues - sensory, social, etc.  my understanding of these systems is more a broad overview, rather than detailed.

Emergency/remote/self sufficient communication - getting the message through without any local infrastructure.

Remote bases - remotely controlling radios in another room or half a world away.  I have even built my own remote base to a unique design (yes, there is only one of its kind in the world! ) 

These are just a selection of fields that I have been able to explore through amateur radio.  Suffice to say, it's been far from boring, and despite demographics (most amateurs being elderly men), and stereotypes suggesting amateur radio is a thing of the past, it has been a way to explore cutting edge technologies, as well as learning to adapt to a changing world.  Once the amateurs were the only hobbyists who had independent global communications.  Today, anyone with an Internet connection has global connectivity.  Amateur radio has evolved to suit these changing conditions, but it's becoming a "best kept secret".

So, getting back to autism and amateur radio, there is an obvious attraction for those whose interests lie in a technical realm, especially for people who want to make social connections through a medium that encourages talking about a shared special interest.  That was certainly one of the attractions for me.  I recall before getting my own licence, listening to technical discussions on a scanner, wishing I could join in.  Amateur radio suits those who like to explore technical subjects in detail.  For me, that has been getting a system to behave _exactly_ how I want, writing scripts that can adapt to slightly different environments or user preferences, and the like.  And in a number of ways, amateur radio has helped me develop skills for dealing with the typical world around me.  Many years ago, in the early days of VoIP technology, two systems emerged with two different philosophies - one emphasised "pure" radio access, all access points were via a linked radio system, and used the Linux operating system.  The other system put an emphasis on convenience, allowing people to access the system directly from a computer, without a radio, using Windows based software.  Neither approach was right or wrong, just different.  However, the two groups largely disagreed and some serious conflict emerged.  I, along with a few others came up with a range of solutions to allow the systems to coexist.  For me, what mattered most was being able to communicate with whoever I wanted to, regardless of what system they were on, and also creating spaces where people using different systems could freely mingle.  Initially, we had a lot of resistance, but once people saw what we were really trying to achieve - flexibility for users, while giving system owners the control they desired, people came on board very quickly.

Another thing amateur radio, along with Computers and IT have given me is a range of metaphors to help express my own thoughts, feelings and experiences.  These metaphors have been vehicles of self discovery, giving me tangible concepts to relate to, when trying to delve into the inner workings of my own mind, so concepts such as "social protocols" - the unwritten rules of social interactions, and "sensory processing/filtering" - the techniques I've developed to cope with the world around me, could now be expressed.

And what would someone on the spectrum be likely to do on amateur radio?  Well, if you're very introverted, you may not talk at all, but you might like trying out new ideas - building circuits, writing software to do new things, just to see "if it works".  If you're one to collect lists of information, well, DXing (contacting distant and rare countries) and chasing awards might be your thing, collecting proof of contact (usually by exchanging postcard sized "QSL cards" with details of the contact on them, and a picture relevant to you on the front).

If pure science is your thing, you might do some sort of propagation studies, to further understand the complex behaviour of radio waves in various conditions, or you might try and find better ways to send data or digital voice over the air.  There's even room for some friendly competition in several ways.  The first is contesting, contacting as many stations as possible in a given time, to try and get the most points (there are many contests and sets of rules).  Or you might try fox hunting, using your ability to build equipment to help find where a signal is coming from, and your own knowledge to locate a hidden transmitter before anyone else.  Or if you want something a bit more physical, Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF), a cross between orienteering and fox hunting, where skill in locating hidden transmitters and navigation (map reading, compass use) combine with cross country running for success.

As an aside, I suspect there a lot on the spectrum (whether diagnosed or not) already among the ranks of licensed amateurs, because of the detailed technical nature of the hobby, and the depths to which one can explore the various facets.

Modern amateur radio is closely aligned with computer / information technology.  If you're good at writing code, and have an interest in communication systems, this might be a way to express your interests.  In the past, home construction meant building things out of physical components.  Today, much "home development" is purely software.  Hardware is often only needed to get the signal into a form that the computer can work with, and from there, the rest is all code.  Sadly, amateur radio could do with a lot more coders, there is so much room for experimentation and development in this field.  If a script hacker like me can do clever things with a handful of open source programs and several hours, imagine what someone proficient in programming could achieve.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on the subject.  I've gained both a lifelong interest (licensed for over 26 years at the time of writing this), as well as vast amounts of technical knowledge to further my own interests, and occasionally solve real world problems with some consumer gadget.  I've also gained insight into myself and people in general, and learned some valuable skills for working with others.  Amateur radio may or may not be your thing, but until now, you may not have even heard of it.  I hope this blog post has been enlightening, even if it's not your thing.