It is amazing how articulate autistic children can be, and just as amazing how dense and cruel autism research scientists can be in response.
A little more than a month ago, press releases were circulated regarding the results of a report published online by the journal Nature, Two-year-olds with Autism Orient to Non-social Contingencies Rather than Biological Motion (Klin, Lin, Gorrindo, Ramsay, and Jones, 2009). Here is the report’s introduction:
Typically developing human infants preferentially attend to biological motion within the first days of life. This ability is highly conserved across species and is believed to be critical for filial attachment and for detection of predators. The neural underpinnings of biological motion perception are overlapping with brain regions involved in perception of basic social signals such as facial expression and gaze direction, and preferential attention to biological motion is seen as a precursor to the capacity for attributing intentions to others. However, in a serendipitous observation, we recently found that an infant with autism failed to recognize point-light displays of biological motion, but was instead highly sensitive to the presence of a non-social, physical contingency that occurred within the stimuli by chance. This observation raised the possibility that perception of biological motion may be altered in children with autism from a very early age, with cascading consequences for both social development and the lifelong impairments in social interaction that are a hallmark of autism spectrum disorders. Here we show that two-year-olds with autism fail to orient towards point-light displays of biological motion, and their viewing behaviour when watching these point-light displays can be explained instead as a response to non-social, physical contingencies—physical contingencies that are disregarded by control children. This observation has far-reaching implications for understanding the altered neurodevelopmental trajectory of brain specialization in autism. This study points in a number of interesting directions.
The report goes on to describe this study in more detail, outlining how autistic children and control groups were shown side-by-side videos of point-light animations formed from scenarios played out by human actors, with one display being shown right side up and forwards running in time (so that the light points had some resemblance to human motion), the other display being shown upside down and backwards running in time (so that the light points had a fairly random appearance and were not synchronized to the accompanying sound track). Using eye gaze as a measure, the non-autistic control groups were shown to have more preference for the right-side-up display, whereas the autistic children were shown to have no particular preference for one display or the other. This was apparently the initial purpose of the study, to show that non-autistic children have a normal, and therefore “healthy,” response to biological motion, whereas autistic children do not: one more wood chip on the autism-as-disorder lumber pile.
However, in one of the trials, where the human actor was playing pat-a-cake (with the clapping sound prominent on the sound track), the researchers noticed that a fifteen-month-old autistic girl—who in the other trials was showing preference for neither of the displays—was in this case evincing a clear and intense preference for the upright image. Since it was only in the upright image that the clapping sound corresponded to the motions of the point-light display, the researchers wondered if it was the synchronized clapping that the autistic girl was responding to, and after re-examining all their data—and after developing further trials to confirm their “serendipitous” discovery—the researchers concluded that a preference for non-biological pattern was consistent and significant across the entire autistic study group. The overall findings of the study were therefore greatly enhanced, such that they could be summarized in the following manner:
- Non-autistic toddlers respond preferably to human biological motion, and do not respond preferably to non-biological pattern.
- Autistic toddlers respond preferably to non-biological pattern, and do not respond preferably to human biological motion.
- Neither group responds preferably to random sensory noise.
To be honest, these findings are not nearly as new as the report’s press releases would have us believe—they are consistent with many other findings regarding the primary distinctions between autistic and non-autistic perception—but the study’s enhanced conclusions are at least more valuable than they would have been based on what the researchers initially had in mind, for the enhanced conclusions provide a more accurate picture of what autistic perception naturally is, as opposed to just another worn-out description of what autistic perception is not (not to mention, the enhanced results add to our knowledge about non-autistic perception as well). It would seem, therefore, that the study’s researchers owe a debt of gratitude to that articulate autistic girl who pointed them in the right direction, for it was after all she who helped them see what had actually been in front of their eyes all along.
And how did the autism research community decide to repay this debt of gratitude? Why, it repaid this girl in the same fashion autism researchers have always responded to articulate autistic children—by giving her the back of their hand.
Here is a sampling of quotations given in response to the Klin, et al. study:
From Ami Klin, the study’s lead author: “Our hope is to detect vulnerabilities for autism as early as possible, so as to intervene with the hope to capitalize on the babies’ brain malleability.”
From Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health: “For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with ASDs [autism spectrum disorders]. In addition to potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research holds promise for development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders.”
From Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks: “These findings could potentially be useful in detecting infants at risk for autism very early in life. It is important to use therapeutic strategies for children with autism that help draw their attention to people, including their facial expressions, and gestures.”
So let me see if I have this straight. This young autistic girl and her study group cohorts helped open the researchers eyes to the fact that autistic individuals do not have randomly damaged perception, but instead respond positively, consistently and usefully to a particular form of stimulus in their environment, and the researcher’s only response to this discovery is to suggest forcible removal of the preferred form of perception from autistic children and to offer instead mass substitution of the one type of stimulus autistic children have markedly demonstrated they do not respond to. Absolutely amazing. If I were to suggest that non-autistic children could be greatly improved by forcibly redirecting them away from biological and social stimuli and towards a non-stop bombardment of pattern-based perceptions while their brains were still malleable enough to be re-formed, I would be derided for both my folly and my cruelty. But somehow, when the corresponding approach is suggested for autistic children, that is considered the height of scientific insight!
If we could just capture stupidity on point-light displays, then I am sure autism research scientists would show a 100% preference for exactly those images.
I hope one day, after that articulate autistic girl has had time to grow up and come to understand the blind-aping world in which she lives, she manages to track down those so-called scientists Klin, Insel, and Dawson, and in the literal manner autistic individuals are apt to prefer, gives them the back of her hand. The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the autism research community has reached an all-time peak.