Saturday, May 31, 2008

Historical IQ

Let’s give a modern IQ test to one of the ancients—a Mesopotamian, an Egyptian, the average Athenian citizen (Meletus, for example). How many block designs do we expect before sundown? How much arithmetic without mistake? Similarities? Picture completion?

When we measure intelligence, what capacities have we already assumed, and where and when did these originate? Are we sure we want to keep looking in the lobes?

The Flynn effect should not surprise us. Not that long ago, the average human did not possess enough intelligence to take an IQ test, let alone analyze its calendar-sensitive results.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Enhanced Perceptual Functioning – The Good

The paper Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006) is one of the few autism research articles that attempts to get at the heart of what autism is, so I heartily recommend it as reading.

Perhaps I should begin by confessing I am only lukewarm about the paper’s model as a whole—too much reliance upon speculative brain dynamics and citation politics for my own taste. Plus although the paper does provide a plausible hypothesis for explaining autistic cognitive strengths, it remains too eerily silent on how enhanced perceptual functioning can also account for autistic cognitive weaknesses (i.e., why should I not expect an enhanced perceptual processer to remain at least passably average in social and biological skills?). These difficulties aside, the paper does take an intriguing turn starting around principle 5, and by principle 7, it enters boldly into the land of brilliance.

The discussion’s emphasis on savant skills and on the constrained, pattern-rich domains of such skills brings into focus a cognitive process engaged primarily by spatial, temporal and structural features to be found in an individual’s perceptual environment. The laying out of a savant-specific brain-behavior cycle, including its appeal to a “stoppage rule,” demonstrates how cognitively hungry such individuals must be to form cohesiveness out of their sensory experience—highlighting how for some, once they have latched onto any organizing perceptual influence, they pursue it with a relish and determination unprecedented within the realms of psychology. Now if it were me writing this paper, while pointing out the particular perceptual elements that autistic savants do focus intensely on, I would also be pointing out the conspicuously absent elements they as a group do not so readily perceive, namely any biological or species-based influences that for the population at large would be considered the perceptual focus of norm. But that one quibble aside, Enhanced Perceptual Functioning’s inventive use of savant skills as an entryway into a description of the autistic cognitive process must be applauded for being both original and productive.

And the fresh insights do not end there. After this promising introduction into the nature and form of savant cognitive skills, principle 7 notes how all types of autistic cognition can be described and classified through a similar approach, the only essential difference being the diminished degree with which non-savant autistic individuals burrow into any particular domain or skill. Autistic subtypes are to be determined not by assumptive genetic or neural differences, but instead by a classification of the general perceptual influences that appeal to and engage various autistic individuals. At this point, the authors are coming daringly close to asserting—even if they may ultimately wish to deny it—that autistic cognition is formed almost entirely out of the spatial, temporal and structural environment to which each autistic individual is exposed, a process almost random by its nature, but also creative by definition. Furthermore, a hint of a claim is being made that positive outcomes in autistic individuals can be enhanced by providing more such exposure to non-social, non-biological influences, not by limiting such exposure.

These ideas are bold and inventive—they point the way to a paradigm shift that the autism research community stands badly in need of. The marvelous discussions around principles 5, 6, and especially 7—sparked by an innovative use of the features of savant skills and built up into an affirmative description of an autistic cognitive process—are far more illuminating than the long-in-the-tooth hypotheses hashed together around assumptions of brain deficits and genetic defects. Here, at long last, we have some visionary insight into the true nature of autistic perception, and to the Mottron team, I say, Bravo! Bravo! Many, many bravos!

Enhanced Perceptual Functioning – The Bad

The paper Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006) is one of the few autism research articles that attempts to get at the heart of what autism is. Nonetheless, I would be hesitant to recommend it as reading to anyone, because its prose is utterly wretched.

Almost any of the paper’s unparsable sentences could serve for illustration. Let me offer the following as both egregious and representative:

This unusual threshold profile is not concordant with a straightforward intact vs. impaired dichotomy as it depicts a different ‘‘default setting’’ of discrimination performance according to the level of complexity of visual information.

Admittedly, Enhanced Perceptual Functioning is only somewhat less readable than the average academic morass; but really, is it too much to ask of the research community that it construct sentences actually renderable by human lips?

I have two working theories as to why this paper’s rhetoric is so particularly abysmal. The first is that it results from too many bad translations from French into English during development; the second is that the paper is yet one more all-too-obvious example of why writing by committee is such a bad idea. Given the outcome, I suspect the paper is suffering the multiplicative effects of both forms of torture.

Enhanced Perceptual Functioning – The Ugly

The paper Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006) is one of the few autism research articles that attempts to get at the heart of what autism is, but I will be damned if I am going to recommend it to anyone after principle 8 was tacked on. Who on the team could possibly have been so wedded to his collection of 8x10 fMRI glossies that he had to insist on the inclusion of this clunker?

The discussion of principle 8 opens with a question: “How can a more local default orientation, superior discrimination of physical dimensions, enhanced autonomy of perceptual processes, and superior expertise effects be grounded in brain allocation and organization?” If the reply had come back, “It can’t,” then not only would the paper have tallied one readable sentence, it could have concluded on an effective and consistent note. But no, we cannot possibly have that, we cannot walk away without paying homage to the research community’s unbridled love for new toys. So instead of receiving a straightforward answer to principal 8’s opening question, the reader is subjected to three more run-on paragraphs of gobbledygook about double hierarchies and orthogonal cortex axes.

I have just about had it. This pervasive, dogmatic and blind-groping reliance upon brain imaging studies has now reached the point where it really needs to be raised to the level of a hypothesis:

The cost of any piece of neurometric equipment is inversely proportional to its overall human worth.

Here is what I managed to get out of principle 8. I managed to get out of it an idea for a practical application, the Feed-forward Dorso-ventral Occipiterior Activatitron—easily constructed out of spaghetti bowl, spark plug wires, and a heavy-duty truck battery. I volunteer to try it out on my own son. Plop it straight onto his head and he can be an autistic of the without overt speech type. One quarter turn and overt speech can be suddenly gained. One more quarter turn (to trigger the primary auditory cortex, you know) and Brian can develop into an Asperger type. But why stop there? Why not rotate straight on to a cure? Three quick spins, one tap of heels, and Brian can blossom as the second coming of Mother Teresa!

As bad as all this is, it is not even remotely the worst of it. The worst of it is that principle 8 butts right up against principle 7, with no one apparently realizing the two principles are diametrically opposed! It raises the question of how this paper was constructed. Did each member of the team contribute a favorite idea or two, with the final draft being copied and pasted? I can appreciate the team managed to keep the numbering in sequence, but really, I must point out that motleyhood is not a virtue.

To the Mottron team, I say, Boo. Boo. Many, many boos.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carnival House Mirror

For anyone who believes autistics can easily understand and empathize with one another, consider the example of Socrates.

Here we have Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein—in many ways the spiritual descendants of the puzzling Athenian—all lining up to express their deep frustration with him. Each grouses, “It’s as though I can see something familiar in the bumptious old fart, but I’ll be damned if I recognize what it is.”

Sunday, May 18, 2008


The following observations are not scientific in the least. But from a marketing point of view, I have noticed a very intriguing phenomenon arising out of the general discussions about autism treatments:

Although there are many different approaches to responding to autism, especially for young children, it appears these approaches can be divided roughly into four camps:

The Pharmacology Camp: Risperdal, Abilify, or other medications are used to control the symptoms of autism.

The ABA Camp: Applied behavioral analysis, sometimes intensive (at least 40 hours per week is often cited as essential), is administered for the purpose of teaching life skills and common behaviors.

The Biomedical Camp: An assortment of possible interventions—such as methyl-B12 shots, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, gluten free/casein free diets, chelation therapy, and so on—are given to children for the purpose of curing the perceived biomedical foundations of autism.

The Acceptance Camp: The child’s autism is accepted as a viable, alternative condition, needing only occasional and directed support—such as occupational therapy, alternative communication devices, etc.—to help respond to sensory issues, motor skill problems or developmental delays.

Each camp has its ardent supporters, and as a side effect, each camp will sometimes attack the underlying assumptions of the other three, but the Acceptance Camp holds an asymmetrical position in this free-for-all, because its main premise stands as a direct and serious challenge to the more basic assumption underlying the other three camps as a whole. The other three camps, whatever their differences may be, are all grounded in the fundamental axiom that autism is a dire condition in need of swift and intensive correction. For instance, proponents of the Pharmacology Camp will often describe how nightmarish the autistic behaviors have become, to justify the admittedly serious step of resorting to powerful drugs. The ABA Camp, often trying to encourage support for public funding, will raise the argument that ABA is “medically necessary” and must be provided early and often in order to be effective. And finally the Biomedical Camp is prone to employ such phrases as “toxic,” “poisoned,” and “train wreck,” to describe presumably sick children desperately in need of biomedical treatment.

Only the Acceptance Camp challenges the basic premise that autism is a dire condition, promoting instead that while sometimes challenging, autism need not be ultimately debilitating, and furthermore has positive compensations that can result in extremely strong outcomes for any given autistic individual.

To counter this fundamental attack from the Acceptance Camp, the remaining three camps resort to what I can only describe as a very strange marketing tactic. They do not generally respond to the attack by saying, for instance, that children exposed to the Acceptance Camp are in danger of having very poor outcomes—becoming institutionalized, etc.—they generally respond by stating that the children who are exposed to the Acceptance Camp are the ones who are not all that autistic (i.e., have mild symptoms, are diagnosed with distant “cousins” of autism, etc.). In effect, the parents and proponents of the other three camps reply to the Acceptance Camp by saying, “Sure, you can afford to be accepting of your child’s autism, because your child does not have the severe issues our child has. We on the other hand do not have the luxury of such acceptance—take a look, our child is in desperate need of his interventions—so we are going to continue with his treatment of … “.

This domain-shifting response is actually quite understandable—the assumptions of the Acceptance Camp, as well as the examples of children with positive outcomes within that camp, are indeed a serious challenge to the basic premise underlying the philosophies of the other three camps. But from a marketing point of view, this counterattack sounds exceedingly strange. If an outsider were to come to this debate as a potential client for one of the four camps, and were checking to see which camp was providing the best results, he would find himself face-to-face with a unique sales campaign. For not only is the Acceptance Camp tooting its own horn about the positive outcomes of its own product, what is quite astonishing, the competitors are readily agreeing. It is as if Honda were to run a television commercial touting the effectiveness of its own automobiles, and right afterwards General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all came on to wholly concur: “Well, sure, if it’s good gas mileage, high resale value and safe driving you are accustomed to, then perhaps Honda might work out for you—consider yourself lucky. Now on the other hand, if poor performance and costly repairs are all you’ve ever had in mind, come take a test drive with us—we might have just the car for you.” It is a branding strategy I am sure I have never seen before.

As I said at the outset, these observations are not scientific—debates, arguments and descriptions from the four camps have nothing to do with the outcome for any particular autistic individual. But I must say, in all my experience, this is the first time I have ever known the marketing point of view to be so exceptionally illuminating.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Decidable Proposition

In 1931, Kurt Gödel demonstrated his incompleteness theorem, showing how any computable axiomatic system could not be both consistent and complete.

But the assumptions underlying autism’s conventional wisdom do not suffer any such indecision—they are both inconsistent and incomplete.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Biological Risk of Chelation and Lupron Therapy

When I hear testimonials from the proponents of chelation and lupron therapy, I am always surprised no mention is ever made of the potential risk involved. No, I do not mean the risk to the child’s health or her future well-being—I realize that risk can be dismissed easily enough, as it does not hit nearly close enough to home. But the inevitability of the coming lawsuit, how is that risk so blithely ignored?

The cases against the medical practitioners will be plausible prima facie, and worth every possible attempt. And although the law will be much murkier here, an endeavor against the parents will almost certainly be given a go. Or to put it another way, in case I am failing to awaken those who really need to hear: if I were a young, aspiring and slightly hungry lawyer, and were hearing the details about the damage being done, I would be taking down names, birth dates and numbers, and warming up the phone.

These children are going to turn 21 one day, and upon that germination, the flower of litigation is surely going to bloom.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spinning and Twirling

Spinning and twirling, an early warning sign of …

I can almost reach a savannah-bound animal through the not-so-long funnel of time, but vertigo has taken over my senses today, I am overwhelmed with such strange and dizzying form: the potter’s wheel in skillful hands, the joiner’s swiftly circular blade; cathedral domes, intricate clocks, mills forever grinding (all those cogs and pulleys and gears); one bouncing ball past the merry-go-round, satellites in orbit; Euclid’s compass, Euler’s pi, and a Copernican revolution so perfect it might leave you longing for an ideal, heavenly sphere.

Spinning and twirling, an early warning sign of … a defect?

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Never-ending Occasion

Kierkegaard describes knowingly the true circumstances of Christ’s life, and indeed of all empyreal visits to our transforming planet. God does not walk this Earth in robes of glory, but instead comes as something of a piss-ant—and so he is received.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pocket Full of Posies

Here we have the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, with an editorial board that includes N. Minshew, P. Szatmari, G. Anderson, M. Ghaziuddin, T. Charman, and H. Tager-Flusberg, publishing articles by G. Dawson, H. Tager-Flusberg, T. Charman, A. Bailey, P. Szatmari, L. Mottron, N. Minshew, S. Ozonoff, and M. Ghaziuddin.

And behind this curtain we have Autism, the International Journal of Research and Practice, staffed by such capable editors as P. Szatmari, L. Mottron, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Ghaziuddin, and T. Charman, sporting the scintillating research of L. Mottron, S. Ozonoff, H. Tager-Flusberg, N. Minshew, and T. Charman.

And finally there is the new kid on the block, Autism Research, fresh off its presses introducing the editors G. Dawson, H. Tager-Flusberg, T. Charman, P. Szatmari, S. Ozonoff, N. Minshew, G. Anderson, and A. Bailey, printing the groundbreaking insights of G. Dawson, A. Bailey, N. Minshew, and G. Anderson. (I wonder whose work we might expect to see next.)

As happens in all games of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, each participant exerts a considerable effort, but everyone still falls down in the same place he or she began.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Today’s word is tautology.

tau·tol·o·gy, noun:

  1. a needless repetition of an idea in different words or phrases;
  2. a representation of anything as the cause, condition, or consequence of itself.

In its everyday guise, a tautology can often be mistaken as a significant statement—it usually takes a little thought and insight to recognize such statements as devoid of any substance. A simple example would be: “I’ve researched the matter thoroughly and have come to the conclusion that, without exception, bachelors are not married. What’s more, everyone agrees with me.” This assertion has been gussied up to sound significant, but of course a moment’s consideration exposes the statement as little more than an empty fidgeting with an agreed-upon definition.

But not all tautologies are so easily unmasked:

A: “Autism is a terrible disorder, a horrible disease.”

B: “But my child has autism and she doesn’t seem particularly troubled by it. True, she has some language difficulties she’s working through, and she’s not particularly interested in what the other kids do and say. But she’s smart, sweet, funny, curious—full of delight. She’s going to be just fine.”

A: “Then your child does not have autism. She may be recovering from autism, or she may have some mild variation that is not autism itself. But people with autism, without exception, are severely affected by the condition. That’s what autism is—a terrible disorder, a horrible disease.”

If we are going to systematically exclude from the category of autism all individuals who are doing well, then statements about autism being a disorder or a disease lose all their significance—they become vacuous, tautological. This practice goes a long ways towards explaining why we have gained so little insight into autism over the last sixty years, because we are never going to understand a phenomenon in which we insist on seeing only those individuals who are troubled by it, while willfully ignoring all those who are propelled.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Joy of The Joy of Autism

Let me take a quick moment to wish Ms. Klar-Wolfond well, and to talk briefly about the value of her words.

I knew almost nothing about autism in the months leading up to my son’s third birthday. What I did know was what everyone else had told me—that autism was a terrible disorder, a tragedy for both parent and child. When during those months it was suggested to me that Brian himself could be autistic, I laughed quite hysterically, because in my mind’s eye the juxtaposition of autism’s image against the bright, unique boy standing before me was something I could only describe as ludicrous. But I did begin to observe him more carefully, and also the other children his age—who much to my surprise were already shaking hands and saying hello goodbye, and never showing a minute’s interest in any nearby ceiling fan, let alone several hour’s. So I began to realize the label of autism could indeed apply, and I began to do some homework.

That is when the real dilemma began.

In the literature, in the research, in all the damning anecdotes—in fact everywhere one looks—autism’s prevailing wisdom spreads out like a monstrous wilderness. Built on top of assumption after assumption and repeated again and again as though mimicry were a virtue, its landscape is drawn in only the most devastating, hopeless and shameful of colors. And what’s more, its crafters are loud and authoritative—they stand ready to mock the slightest challenge. Come to that desert already believing deeply in your child, I warn you, for against its oppressive onslaught, one boy’s smile is going to appear immeasurably fragile and small.

One oasis I stumbled upon quite early was Ms. Klar-Wolfond’s incredible journal, The Joy of Autism. That title alone would have been enough to slake me—a delicate fist against the giant’s chin—but also there was Adam, nearly exactly the same age as my own son, and an echo through and through. The descriptions, the photos, the persistent love, a defiance against the crowd—over the years they have refreshed like cool water, and I too have tasted blessing in autism’s bubbling joy. Perhaps I am just one reader versus the hundreds—I know many insist her stand is wrong. But me, I will remain forever grateful; for although I know the prevailing wisdom will never be in need of any comfort, Brian and I most certainly were.