Autism and “I”

Not that long ago, Kev Leitch converted his Left Brain / Right Brain blog into a team blog. I had been considering shutting down 29 Marbles and stopping blogging, but decided to take Kev up on his offer. That way, I could continue to post very intermittently without feeling the pressure of trying to keep a site up on my own.

Unfortunately, Kev has since shut down the blog (as you will see if you click the link above to LB/RB). To maintain some continuity and a record of my posts, I’ve decided to republish them here. This is the first of four posts I published at LB/RB.

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Earlier this summer I read Douglas Hofstadter‘s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been “I” is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of “I”, and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.

Hofstadter’s works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of “I” fits with autism.

On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and “I”, Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper’s abstract:

Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.

Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of “absent-self” put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can’t really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I’m still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word: alexithymia – difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions.)

My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I’ll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I’m reading Steven Pinker‘s latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and “I”, I’ll have a better context for processing what I read.

Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a “A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine”, so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)

The so-called autism epidemic is just a conspiracy theory. Or is it?

In The lure of the conspiracy theory (subscription required, full article here), author Patrick Leman discusses some thoughts on the nature of conspiracy theories and why people believe them (or don’t). I learned of the article from the blog Schneier on Security, in which Schneier excerpts some key points.

From the perspective of an autism parent, and my discussions with others on the subject, this paragraph jumped out at me the most (emphasis is mine):

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Though I hesitate to make the comparison to the need for religion, believing in a conspiracy theory model for something like autism seems to fulfill much the same need in people: the need for life, and what happens in it, to have a meaning, if not a purpose.

A couple of other interesting paragraphs:

Other research has examined how the way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. Numerous studies have shown that in general, people give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias”. Reasoning about conspiracy theories follows this pattern, as shown by research I carried out with Marco Cinnirella at the Royal Holloway University of London, which we presented at the British Psychological Society conference in 2005.

The study, which again involved giving volunteers fictional accounts of an assassination attempt, showed that conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy. In fact, because of my research, I have been accused of being secretly in the pay of various western intelligence services (I promise, I haven’t seen a penny).

It is important to remember that anti-theorists show a similar bias: they will seek out and evaluate evidence in a way that fits with the official or anti-conspiracy account. So conspiracy theorists are not necessarily more closed-minded than anti-theorists. Rather, the theorist and anti-theorist tend to pursue their own lines of thought and are often subject to cognitive biases that prevent their impartial examination of alternative evidence.

How then can we predict who will become believers and non-believers? My hunch is that a large part of the explanation lies in how individuals form aspects of their social identities such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status and political beliefs. The reasoning and psychological biases that create believers or their opposites are fostered by social origins. For conspiracy believer and non-believer alike, there is a kind of truth out there. It’s just a rather different truth that each seeks.

Reading through this, I’ve come to understand better one of the reasons that I don’t post as much as I used to, or participate in various autism related forums more. Most people have already set their opinions, and are not likely to change them based on anything I, or anyone else, has to say. I’m sure that I am as guilty of this as other people, though I do believe that my opinions and beliefs in this area are somewhat flexible.

I only have to look back at the early days of this blog to see how my opinions have changed. When was the last time your views on autism, its causes, its nature, and its future changed?

For what it”s worth, Einstein was…

…not autistic, at least not in my mind. Alas, I do not have an answer of my own to offer to the question of “Does it matter?” If you were to press me, I would say that it doesn’t matter if it matters to me, it depends on whether or not it matters to you.

We all have our own point of view, and the answer to this question is – yes – relative to that point of view. Several people commented to my post Was Einstein autistic? Does it matter?. I encourage you to read those to get an idea of the answer from some diverse points of view (parents, autists, anonymous anti-autistic fundamentalists).

Was Einstein aloof? Yes. Emotionally distant? He could be, but wasn’t always. Obsessive? I’d say passionate.

In the comments to that previous post, Joseph questioned Einstein’s view toward his mentally ill son, Eduard. Here’s what Isaacson had to say:

Eduard was unable to keep his balance. He began cutting classes and staying in his room. As he grew more troubled, Einstein’s care and affection for him seemed to increase. There was a painful sweetness in his letters to his troubled son as he engaged with his ideas about psychology….

“Tete [Eduard’s nickname] really has a lot of myself in him, but with him it seems more pronounced,” Einstein conceded to [his first wife] Maric. “He’s an interesting fellow, but things won’t be easy for him.”

It is true that Einstein did not see Eduard much as he grew older, and spent more and more time in institutions. As Isaacson puts it, Einstein “simply walled [Eduard] out when the relationship became too painful.”

Sounds pretty normal (god, I hate that word) to me.

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Has autistic intelligence been underestimated?

Has autistic intelligence been underestimated through the years? I think many of you know what my answer is going to be (YES! of course), but I actually have a scientific study that backs up that claim that I (and many others) have known all along.

I discovered the study, entitled The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (available online through the journal Psychological Science, on the Autism pages of About.com in the article Once Again, the World Discovers That People with Autism are Bright but Different. There is also a discussion of the study on the Science Daily website.

The study was written by Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, and Laurent Mottron. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Autistics are presumed to be characterized by cognitive impairment, and their cognitive strengths (e.g., in Block Design performance) are frequently interpreted as low-level by-products of high-level deficits, not as direct manifestations of intelligence. Recent attempts to identify the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional signature of autism have been positioned on this universal, but untested, assumption. We therefore assessed a broad sample of 38 autistic children on the preeminent test of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Typically developing control children showed no such discrepancy, and a similar contrast was observed when a sample of autistic adults was compared with a sample of nonautistic adults. We conclude that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.

Unfortunately, you must be a member of the Association of Psychological Sciences to get the article from their website. Another option, the one I’m pursuing, is to get a copy from your local public library (or school library, if you are a student).

I should have it in a couple of weeks, I’ll post more thoughts once I’ve actually read it.

Words to live by

Sell out crowds. Overflow rooms. Young fans looking for autographs after a ‘performance.’ Not things usually associated with a lecturer talking about prime numbers. But such was the case recently for 2006 Field’s Medal winner Terence Tao. The article Scientist at Work – Terence Tao – Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime in the New York Times gives a profile of this young, talented mathematician, described as a ‘rock star’ and the ‘Mozart of math.’

Though Tao is obviously quite gifted (an understatement), the description of his childhood, and how his parents handled his talent, is very telling as well. [emphasis is mine]

[Terry’s father] Billy Tao knew the trajectories of child prodigies like Jay Luo, who graduated with a mathematics degree from Boise State University in 1982 at the age of 12, but who has since vanished from the world of mathematics.

“I initially thought Terry would be just like one of them, to graduate as early as possible,” he said. But after talking to experts on education for gifted children, he changed his mind.

His parents decided not to push him into college full time, so he split his time between high school and Flinders University, the local university in Adelaide. He finally enrolled as a full-time college student at Flinders when he was 14, two years after he would have graduated had his parents pushed him only according to his academic abilities.

The Taos had different challenges in raising their other two sons, although all three excelled in math. Trevor, two years younger than Terry, is autistic with top-level chess skills and the musical savant gift to play back on the piano a musical piece — even one played by an entire orchestra — after hearing it just once. He completed a Ph.D. in mathematics and now works for the Defense Science and Technology Organization in Australia.

The youngest, Nigel, told his father that he was “not another Terry,” and his parents let him learn at a less accelerated pace. Nigel, with degrees in economics, math and computer science, now works as a computer engineer for Google Australia.

But what really caught my eye was Billy Tao’s summary of how they approached their kids’ learning:

All along, we tend to emphasize the joy of learning. The fun is doing something, not winning something.

Words to live by, indeed.

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Mastery: Setting the conditions for innovation

Achieving mastery in your field of choice allows you to see and understand connections from outside your own area of expertise. I can’t help thinking of Richard Feynmann’s excursions outside the world of physics as an example. The recent Science Daily story Mathematicians Unlock Major Number Theory Puzzle provides another (emphasis mine):

It was during a flight to New Hampshire that Ono realized the full depth and meaning of Zwegers’ work. Skimming a journal to pass the time, Ono happened upon an old article by George Andrews on mock theta functions. Suddenly, he noticed that some of the mathematics in the paper seemed to resonate with parts of the Harmonic Maass theory, which he and Bringmann just happened to be developing at the time, for other reasons.

Or, as Louis Pasteur said way back in 1854, chance (and aha!) favors the prepared mind.

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Telling your story with pictures

302800321_958f4d7821_m.jpgAt the last St. Louis Idea Market, Scott Matthews from XPLANE had us all create a visual explanation of how a toaster works. Among many observations I made from the exercise, key was how different people interpreted what was meant by “how a toaster works.” Some of us took it to mean “How do you make toast with a toaster” while others approached it from the “how does a toaster function” point of view. (It was pretty easy to pick out engineers in the crowd!) Scott has posted the scanned cards on Flickr. haentsch200.jpg

Photographer Volker Steger gave a similar visual story telling challenge to past Nobel laureates in the article and photo layout Nobel Notations in the December 2006 issue of Discover magazine, in which he asked these great minds to explain their prize winning achievements using crayons and a piece of poster board.

The scientists’ artwork draws out unexpected and often deeply personal details. Curl’s depiction of the buckyball’s creation hints at a dispute over the naming of the molecule. He favored “soccerene” for its soccer-ball shape, but his British cowinner, Sir Harold Kroto, nixed that idea, arguing that in England the game is called football and that the molecule ought to be called “footballene.” (In the end, it was named for architect Buckminster Fuller’s celebrated geodesic domes.)

If you would like to your own hand at a visual explanation for a scientific idea – and possibly win a prize – check out the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.