Thursday, April 23, 2009

Enhanced Perception in Savant Syndrome

[Please note: although the abstract of Enhanced Perception in Savant Syndrome: Patterns, Structure, and Creativity can be found here, the full text of the document is not yet freely available. I would normally abstain from writing extensively about an autism research article that is not reasonably accessible to all, but I am making an exception in this case because of the importance of the paper. Nonetheless, see my comments here about the research community's odious practice of charging the public outrageous sums of money in order to gain access to research articles the public should already be entitled to see.]

The article Enhanced Perception in Savant Syndrome: Patterns, Structure and Creativity (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, 2009, hereafter referred to as EPSS) has been published recently in the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions B. Although I expect the occasion will go mostly unnoticed by the autism research community at large, the publishing of this article is actually a watershed event. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time an autism research paper has clearly set forth an affirmative description of autistic perception and cognition, and thus stands in marked contrast to an entire autism research literature that has been established around putative deficits as the preferred means to characterize this condition. In EPSS, we find a straightforward description of what autistic cognition is, as opposed to what it is not, and the Mottron team deserves the heartiest congratulations for this much needed contribution.

Many of the ideas set forth in EPSS are not entirely new: they were either hinted at or stated briefly in the Mottron team's earlier paper Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: an Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006, hereafter referred to as EPF). In EPF, the use of savant syndrome was made supplemental to the Mottron team's broader description of its enhanced perceptual functioning model, a model that I actually have some concerns about as a whole (see my thoughts on the EPF paper here, here, and here.) In contrast, EPSS places the perceptual characteristics of savant syndrome front and center, describes those characteristics in more detail and applies them more broadly (with the other aspects of the EPF model correspondingly deemphasized), and the result is a remarkably bold and forthright statement, one that I see as a positive development for autistic individuals everywhere.

There are an endless number of good things I could say about EPSS. For the sake of brevity, let me highlight just a few:

The Constructive Use of Savant Syndrome. The notion that autistic perception and cognition are best understood through an appeal to the pattern, symmetry and structure to be found within the autistic individual’s surrounding environment was something I had described in my first essay on autism, On the Presence of Autism within the Human Population, but even I would admit there were features of that presentation that were left somewhat murky. When I saw the Mottron team's 2006 EPF paper, what grabbed my attention first was the creative manner in which the paper took the existing knowledge about savant syndrome and built it up into an affirmative description of the most salient features of autistic perception and cognition. That effort gave the entire concept some much needed vibrancy: now there were details, now there were examples. And more importantly, the Mottron team did not shy away from suggesting that the features of savant syndrome could serve as an entryway into understanding all forms of autistic perception and cognition, savant like or not. This effectively removed savant syndrome from being the freak sideshow of autism and elevated it to the status of being a key element for understanding the condition.

This constructive use of savant syndrome has now been given a thorough and full development within EPSS, with the result being a successful demonstration of how powerful and far reaching this concept can be. The use of savant syndrome is not the only avenue into understanding autistic perception and cognition, but it has certainly been one of the more imaginative and constructive techniques seen to date, and this innovative approach qualifies in my mind as the Mottron team's most significant contribution so far to the autism research canon.

The Emphasis on Patterns, Structure, Isomorphisms, Mappings, Symmetry, Etc. From the basic low-level pattern-focused perceptions that are present in early age, through deeply structured hierarchies that distinguish higher level savant and autistic abilities, across all manner of sensory and phenomenal domains—in every direction the reader turns, EPSS outlines a richly detailed argument that it is orientation towards structure and pattern that determines the essential characteristics of autistic perception and cognition. Not weak central coherence. Not damaged executive functioning. Not a missing theory of mind. Not a masculinized brain. Orientation to pattern and structure is the key to understanding autistic perception—an approach that is productive towards autistic interests and abilities, not destructive, as is the case for nearly every other competing theory. The Mottron team's emphasis on pattern-oriented perception in autistic individuals is a helpful step forward in understanding autistic individuals as they truly are.

The Not-so-veiled Suggestion that Exposure to Structured Materials is Essential for Helping Autistic Individuals to Thrive. This theme carries throughout the paper, but is touched on most directly near the end of the section “Savant Creativity: A Different Relationship to Structure,” where the topic of so-called restricted interests is soberly re-assessed in light of autistic preferences for pattern detection, along with the positive emotions that can often accompanying such activity. Indeed, all the success stories related inside the pages of EPSS are accompanied by fortuitous exposure to various forms of structured material, clearly marking out the most promising path for autistic development and growth.

And of course these discussions fly in the face of the current clamor for early intervention in autism, where it would seem the goal is always to yank the autistic child away as early as possible from his or her preferred method of engaging the world, and substitute instead an intense bombardment of socially based indoctrination, hoping to turn the child around while there is still time for the “malleable” brain to be re-molded. (Anyone not believing that scientists can engage in magical thinking should follow the genesis of this so-called theory of the malleable brain.) The outcomes from such forms of early intervention are predictably poor, as the EPSS authors generally note.

Indeed, I would say that the most factually incorrect statement in EPSS is the one claiming “the atypical ways in which autistics and savants learn well…are as yet poorly studied and understood, such that we remain ignorant as to the best ways in which to teach these individuals,” because in many respects this statement is undercut by the rest of the EPSS paper. In point of fact, we do know something about the ways in which autistics and savants learn well—the Mottron team has been effectively pointing the way.

A Signpost Towards the Genesis of Human Language. This might seem like an offbeat highlight to list, but it is one of particular interest to me. In Autistic Aphorisms recently (see, for instance, here), I have been including discussions centered on the origin of human language and the role that autistic influences must have played in that history. Key to those discussions is a description of language as essentially a mapping from biologically immediate artifacts (such as spoken sounds, marks on a page, etc.) to events that are spatially, temporally or conceptually removed. The third and fourth paragraphs of the “Pattern Detection in Savant Syndrome” section of EPSS—with their discussions around one-to-one mappings across code domains, the detection of structural similarities that make those mappings possible, and the implicit approach with which autistics/savants master such mappings—those paragraphs can serve as an excellent low-level description of the process underlying language and its possible origin. This is just one example of the many areas of anthropological interest—intelligence, language, learning, etc.—that the EPSS paper can help shed meaningful light upon.

I do have two significant criticisms of EPSS: one I would describe as a disagreement, the other I would characterize as an omission.

Disagreement. Although for the purpose of the EPSS paper, the Mottron team has deemphasized the neurological and physiological underpinnings of its enhanced perceptual functioning model, the authors still refer to those underpinnings on several occasions, and it would appear they remain a major component in the team's overall description of autism. If I understand the EPF model correctly, the “enhanced” portion of enhanced perceptual functioning refers to hypothesized superior perceptual abilities within autistic brains, abilities that account (somewhat selectively and across a wide variety of sensory domains, I would note) for autistic individuals' superior performance on an assortment of sensory-based perceptual tasks. Although I realize that the Mottron team believes it has a degree of empirical evidence backing its claims in this area—and perhaps in the end it will be shown to be correct—for me, conceptually, the notion that a neurological or physiological feature would be the cause of enhanced perceptual functioning in autism, and therefore the reason behind autistic perceptual and cognitive differences—well, quite frankly, that notion makes no sense at all.

In the first place, neurologically based enhanced perceptual functioning is not explicative. If you were to give me a person who was in most respects similar to other human beings, but who also possessed a neurological feature that gave that person an enhanced perceptual ability in visual, auditory and/or other sensory-based domains, I would expect that person to have perhaps many of the same characteristics as the Mottron team describes—an attention to structure, an enhanced ability with patterns, etc.—but I would also expect that person to remain perfectly capable and mostly typical in nearly all biological and socially related activities. There is no reason to expect an enhanced perceptual processor to have an array of species-related behaviors that are in most respects different from those of the other members of the population. But in the real world, autistics and savants do possess a variety of biological and social differences that set them apart from the rest of the population, and it seems nonsensical to ignore those differences.

But my objection to the “enhanced” portion of EPF actually runs much deeper than that. My objection is mainly driven by the fact that any direct neurological/physiological explanation for the autistic population’s perceptual differences would be superfluous, because the Mottron team's discussions around the inherent appeal of pattern and structure in the autistic individual’s surrounding environment already contain all the explanatory power the team needs. Let me try to point this out in the following way:

Now that the Mottron team has done an excellent job of describing the major features and components of autistic perception and cognition—focusing on the vital role played by structural, patterned materials in the individual’s environment—it should be asking itself what would serve as a corresponding description of the major features and components of non-autistic perception and cognition. To me, the essential elements of that description are obvious: non-autistic individuals are drawn first and foremost to the species-specific features to be found in their surroundings. A newly born, non-autistic human is attracted most noticeably to human voices, human sights, human touch, etc.—a form of perception that is just as structured, just as patterned as autistic perception, but is shaped by a different kind of structure and form, a form best articulated through the principles first set forth by Darwin. This form of biologically based, species-specific perception gives non-autistic individuals their sensory grounding—they perceive mostly human signals against a background of sensory noise—and in this respect, non-autistic individuals are following the evolutionary norm. Ants perceive mostly ant-specific features in their environment and they quickly attach to the ant species and its behaviors; lions perceive mostly lion-specific features in their environment and they quickly attach to the lion species and its behaviors; humans (non-autistic humans) perceive mostly the human-specific features in their environment and they quickly attach to the human species and its behaviors.

In the entire biological kingdom, autistic individuals would appear to be the only exception to this rule; they alone do not follow the usual perceptual course. Admittedly, I do not have an empirical explanation for why this is so (it might be genetic, physiological, or some other mechanism we remain entirely unaware of), but conceptually, the fundamental description of autistic perception seems apparent enough: autistic individuals do not naturally or primarily perceive the human-specific features in their surrounding environment, and therefore they do not readily attach to the species itself (and its species-specific behaviors), and more importantly they do not receive the strong sensory grounding that is the customary birthright of a species-specific focus. Indeed, autistic individuals would be in danger of a complete sensory chaos if it were not for the fact the surrounding environment itself contains inherent, non-biological structure and form. Hungry for signal against all that sensory noise, autistic individuals latch onto surrounding pattern and structure with a depth of interest and emotion the Mottron team itself makes abundantly clear within the “Structure, Emotion and Expertise” section of the EPSS paper. And that the entire EPSS paper is saturated with words such as “implicit”, “inherent”, “intrinsic”, etc.—that should be testimony enough to the fact that the explanation for the strong autistic attraction to structured, patterned material is contained precisely within the nature of that material itself (and not within any specific features to be found in the autistic brain).

In short, there is no need for the Mottron team to appeal to a presumed presence of special neuronal abilities to account for the distinctive perceptual characteristics of autistic individuals; there is only the need to accept the absence of the usual perceptual characteristics—everything else falls into place.

What I Would Characterize as an Omission. The Mottron team's exposition of the various pattern-rich features that make up the essence of the savant individual’s cognitive environment is truly intriguing. All the examples are splendid, especially in how they are made to cut across various hierarchical levels and across a wide variety of phenomenal domains. Through examples alone the Mottron team makes it abundantly clear that pattern and structure are the essential components of autistic/savant perception. But what I do not see in EPSS is an acknowledgement—or even an indication of an awareness—that these discussions around pattern-rich features prevailing in the surrounding environment have still another dialectical context, one that is much larger than that of autistic/savant cognition alone.

Nearly all the examples the Mottron team employs—musical scales, letters, digits, geons, even 35 g cereal bars—they have made their appearance only recently on the human landscape. If we were to go back some fifty thousand years, we would find a dearth of such structural material within the human environment (only that which was being lent by nature herself—the celestial patterns, for instance). But of course today the human landscape is now awash in all manner of structure and form, at all level of detail and across all manner of constructed hierarchy. The transformational story of mankind’s recent history is mostly a story of an accelerating structural accretion into the human environment; and so in some sense, when the Mottron team focuses on the pattern-rich features to be found in the surrounding environment, they are not only laying the groundwork for an understanding of autistic cognition, they are also traversing the hallowed grounds of transformational human history. In my opinion, it is no mere coincidence that the very same elements that stand at the core of the Mottron team's affirmative description of autistic perception and cognition are also the very same elements that stand at the core of humanity’s sudden departure off the savannah and leap into the modern world.

Admittedly, a thorough discussion of such a topic would be much too large for inclusion in an academic research paper such as EPSS, but the fact that the Mottron team does not mention, or even hint at, the connection between the features of autistic perception and the features of human cognitive history leave it unclear whether the team has ever considered such a connection. It should consider that connection, because I think it is going to be difficult for the team to advance its excellent ideas much further without eventually addressing the issue. EPSS itself, for instance, alludes to the creativity readily apparent in the autistic use of structured materials, and looking over the recent history of mankind, I fail to see how anything different can be said about humanity as a whole. Autistic/savant perception and cognition have played a significant role in bringing structure and pattern into the human environment, a much more significant role than EPSS manages to indicate.

These two criticisms aside, EPSS stands as a major milestone in the world of autism research, revolutionary in all the best senses of the word. If the reader has not yet acquainted himself with the work of the Mottron team, I would greatly encourage him to do so. The team's rhetoric can sometimes be a bit thick, so be prepared for some heavy reading, but the Mottron team's intuitive and constructive approach to autism, and the inventiveness of many of the team's ideas, make the effort ultimately rewarding. At this point in time, the Mottron team seems to be the only autism research team heading in a positive and enlightening direction—a direction that is constructive for autistic individuals everywhere—and I look forward to all their future contributions.


hollywoodjaded said...

A most excellent post. BTW, this, to me, bears repeating:

"To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time an autism research paper has clearly set forth an affirmative description of autistic perception and cognition, and thus stands in marked contrast to an entire autism research literature that has been established around putative deficits as the preferred means to characterize this condition."

daedalus2u said...

You might find a blog I have interesting. I have an explanation why there is the reduction in communication abilities, it has to do with the size of the maternal pelvis, which limits the size of the brain at birth (even so, there is significant infant and maternal death due to cephalopelvic disproportion, something that is unknown in animals). The fetal brain is epigenetically programmed in utero to accomplish the major tasks that individual will require to do over their lifetime. I see autism as the extreme end along the trade-off between a “theory of mind” and a “theory of reality”.