Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Autistic Perceptual Difference

I want to draw your attention to a paper recently published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders: Play and Developmental Outcomes in Infant Siblings of Children with Autism (Christensen, Hutman, Rozga, Young, Ozonoff, Rogers, Baker, Sigman, 2010; hereafter referred to as PDO). There is much I might criticize about this paper—for instance, its prejudicial insistence on describing everything autistic as an impairment, and also its abundant use of pseudo measures to create the veneer of science (that is, an observer “counting” the number of functional play activities in a four minute session is not the same thing as measuring the distance from Mars to Neptune, no matter how much statistical massaging is applied thereafter—concocted measures are the calling card of a concocted science). In truth, however, these criticisms would apply to almost every instance of current autism research, so they do not of themselves distinguish the paper. What does distinguish the paper is that after one filters out all the fuzzy science, and after one overlooks all the prejudicial assumptions emanating from the paper's authors, the residue that remains still provides some useful insight into the nature of autism, including strong evidence for what I believe to be the nearest thing we currently have to that much sought-after prize, an actual cause of autism. Since the paper's authors have preemptively blinded themselves to these fertile possibilities (because of their prejudicial insistence on seeing everything autistic as an impairment), allow me to step in and try to shed a more productive light on their work.

The study described in PDO centers on observational data of infant siblings of autistic children, alongside similar observational data of non-autistic controls. Since a fair portion of these infant siblings will later be recognized as autistic themselves, these observations allow for a relatively large number of comparisons of autistic and non-autistic behaviors at early ages, well before outside interventions and influences begin to obscure the source of such behaviors. This particular study observed children at the age of eighteen months, and although both autistic and non-autistic behaviors are fairly limited at this age, it is not unreasonable to assume that whatever behaviors do exist at eighteen months, they are for the most part naturally and spontaneously derived.

To cut to the chase, a major finding from PDO is that the infant siblings who will eventually be identified as autistic are observed to display fewer functional play behaviors and more non-functional repetitive play behaviors than do non-autistic controls. The terms “functional” and “non-functional” are unfortunate choices (I will have more to say about these terms later), but within the context of PDO, it becomes apparent that the term “functional” is intended to describe play activity that is considered “appropriate” vis-a-vis the activities and expectations of other humans, and thus another, less prejudicial way of describing this particular finding is to say that non-autistic children engage more frequently in human-centric or human-derived play behaviors, whereas autistic children tend to engage, relatively speaking, in more object-centric or object-repetitive behaviors. Indeed, when the authors get around to discussing the observed differences between autistic and non-autistic behaviors at eighteen months of age, they concentrate precisely on this people versus non-people aspect of perception and activity. The authors' own words:

Examination of the subtypes of functional play revealed that the ASD [autistic] sibling group showed fewer self-directed and other-directed play behaviors than the TD [typically developing] controls. However, the ASD sibling group did not show fewer object-directed functional play acts. This finding is of particular interest because it suggests that children with ASD may not understand people as potential recipients of a play action and/or are not motivated to direct play behaviors to people (self or other) even before many of them are diagnosed.

Although PDO's science behind the above statement is far from precise, nonetheless, on a crudely observational level, the authors are actually onto something here; indeed, the above statement crystallizes perhaps the most useful aspect of their study. With it, PDO becomes yet another instance in a growing body of evidence, much of it dealing with children at a very young age, that demonstrates the fundamental, early-observable distinction between autistic and non-autistic individuals, namely that each group perceptually focuses on an entirely different class of sensory targets. Non-autistic individuals focus primarily on humans and human-centric activities, whereas autistic individuals focus primarily on objects and activities that are non-biological and non human-centric but that are often rich in concepts such as pattern, structure, symmetry and form. For another much-publicized example of this phenomenon, see the study Two-Year-Olds with Autism Orient to Non-Social Contingencies Rather than Biological Motion (Klin, Lin, Gorrindo, Ramsay, Jones, 2009), which demonstrates that two year-old non-autistic children focus primarily on point light displays that depict biological motion, whereas two year-old autistic children focus primarily on point light displays that depict some form of non-biological pattern.

This repeatedly observable distinction between autistic and non-autistic perception and behavior is so important and so significant that I believe it needs to be highlighted and given a name. Therefore, let me dub it the autistic perceptual difference and let me define it in the following way:

Non-autistic individuals perceptually orient primarily to humans and to human-related activities, whereas autistic individuals do not.

There are several items to note about this definition of the autistic perceptual difference. In the first place, the autistic perceptual difference is not the same thing as a social deficit model of autism. A social deficit model of autism would imply that autistic individuals readily perceive other humans—just as non-autistic individuals do—but that autistic individuals, through a neurological defect or some other mechanism, are somehow unable to respond correctly to social inputs or to social situations. I will not go into detail here about the paucity of evidence in support of the social deficit model of autism, but I would note that the mere fact many autistic individuals do mature to the point of being quite capable and quite sophisticated in social circumstances later in life is enough all by itself to make the idea of an inherent social deficit highly improbable. By contrast, the definition of the autistic perceptual difference implies no such deficit—it posits only the perceptual distinction. All the autistic behaviors commonly portrayed by autism researchers as social shortcomings are in fact behaviors that can be expected—that is to say, they are behaviors that are quite healthy within the context of autistic perception. Autistic social behaviors are simply the natural response arising from a form of perception that does not spontaneously orient to the other members of the species.

A second point to note about the definition of the autistic perceptual difference is that it also provides an affirmative description of non-autistic perception. This is an area conspicuously absent in the current state of autism research. Although considerable research dollars are spent and considerable ink is spilled on describing what is presumably wrong about autistic individuals, scarcely one penny is deployed or one drop of ink is applied to describing what is supposedly right about non-autistic individuals. Or to put it more fundamentally, no one ever bothers to address the question, what makes non-autistic individuals non-autistic? The definition of the autistic perceptual difference provides an answer to that question in a fundamental way, by highlighting the species-specific focus of non-autistic perception, and it should be noted that while this species-specific focus aligns non-autistic individuals with the perceptions and behaviors of the remainder of the animal kingdom, oddly enough it leaves non-autistic individuals somewhat atypical with respect to the current state of civilization and mankind. It is my belief that a wealth of anthropological information is just waiting to be gleaned from the contrast and blending of our respective knowledge about autistic and non-autistic forms of perception, and at any rate, there can be no question autism research will never arrive at an accurate, comprehensive and meaningful description of the nature of autism without also arriving at a correspondingly accurate, comprehensive and meaningful description of the nature of non-autism. The autistic perceptual difference provides an excellent place from which to begin that investigation.

The final thing to note about the definition of the autistic perceptual difference is that it states the primary characteristic of autistic perception. The other observable characteristics—such as the tendency towards repetition, and the natural attraction towards objects and activities embodying pattern, structure, etc.—these remaining observable characteristics, although they follow immediately and necessarily from the lack of a human-specific orientation, they must still be described, technically speaking, as secondary characteristics. What is happening here is that because autistic individuals do not have a species-specific focus to serve for cognitive grounding (as is the case for non-autistic individuals), autistic individuals find themselves in the near grip of a sensory chaos, and must overcome this chaos by engaging with the few features in their sensory environment that inherently stand out. When we reflect upon what kinds of features in a sensory environment would inherently stand out from the remainder, we are led immediately to those features rich in concepts such as symmetry and pattern. And viewed in this light we quickly realize that autistic behaviors—repetitive, structure-focused, symmetry-intense—are once again the expected behaviors arising from their particular form of perception. Far from being deficit driven, such behaviors are indeed quite healthy and quite necessary under the given circumstances of the autistic perceptual difference.

It is possible that one day advances in neuroscience, genetics, or some yet-unknown field will uncover a material cause of autism. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that today, currently—despite all the self-congratulatory press releases and despite Geraldine Dawson's annual pompom efforts—despite all this, the autism research community's current efforts towards uncovering a specified material cause of autism still stands at essentially square zero. The autistic perceptual difference is of course not a material cause of autism; but it is, as far as I can tell, the most fundamental piece of information we currently possess regarding autism, and thus stands as the closest thing we currently have to an actual explanation for autistic characteristics. As more and more studies are performed and published regarding autistic children at extremely young ages, my prediction is that the autistic perceptual difference will continue to emerge as the one consistent thread running throughout all those studies. Strip away their concocted science, strip away their researchers' preconceived notions, strip away the medical community's insistence that autism must be a devastating medical disorder, and what will remain in paper after paper is the same observable fact: non-autistic individuals perceptually orient primarily to humans and to human-related activities, whereas autistic individuals do not. Within that unfolding body of evidence can be found a deep and wonderful scientific story that is badly in need of being told; now if we can only get the researchers compiling that evidence to drop their prejudices for just a moment, and open their eyes.

Let me conclude by discussing in greater detail PDO's usage of the terms “functional” and “non-functional” to describe various types of observed play activity in very young children.

At one point in their paper, the authors do offer some examples to help explain their employment of these terms, noting for instance that a child who puts a toy spoon to the mouth of a doll would be counted as performing a functional play activity because that activity is considered “appropriate” with regard to the functional use of a spoon, whereas a child who repeatedly puts various items into and out of a pot would be counted as engaging in a non-functional repetitive play activity, since such activity does not coincide with the expected usage of a pot. I would have preferred, however, if the authors had stuck with the example of the doll and toy spoon when explaining non-functional play activity, noting for instance that if a child were to line up these items into a regular pattern—say, spoon doll spoon doll—that child would be counted as engaging in a repetitive non-functional play activity, just as with the example of the pot. By keeping the context of their contrasting examples more homogeneous, the authors would have revealed more clearly that their usage of the terms “functional” and “non-functional” has far more to do with their own preconceived judgments of these various play activities, rather than having anything to do with the inherent value of the activities themselves.

Think about it. From the perspective of an eighteen month-old child, the functional value of the many activities possible with a doll and toy spoon must seem rather arbitrary, and indeed would be arbitrary if not for one thing, namely that the “feeding” activity is clearly a human-centric activity. An eighteen month-old child who performs such activities is doing so because he or she has seen other humans make similar motions with a doll and toy spoon (quite likely) or has begun to match human actions with real spoons to the feigned actions with toys (perhaps less likely at eighteen months, but still conceivable). Therefore, what actually makes these activities “functional”—both in the eyes of the child and in the judgments of the researchers—is their human-specific nature. But does it follow therefore that only human-specific activities are functional? And is it wise to describe other classes of play activity as “non-functional”?

Note that the so-called non-functional play activity of autistic children is not random activity. If play activity actually were the result of some kind of impairment, then what we might expect to observe is play activity that is highly chaotic or unstructured in nature; but the play activity of autistic children is anything but. Repetition itself belies the notion of chaotic behavior, since repetition is the embodiment of temporal pattern, and when we consider the nature of activities such as lining up toys, spinning objects and selves, staring at ceiling fans, running back and forth in repeated patterns, flapping arms over and over, etc., we realize that far from being random or chaotic, such activities center almost exclusively on concepts rich in pattern, structure, symmetry and form. While it is true that autistic play activities are generally repetitious, object-oriented and non human-centric, it is not therefore true that such activities are “impaired” or “non-functional,” and to insist on saying so is to admit to having turned a blind eye to what these activities actually consist of. The researchers in PDO need to be reminded that their task was to observe autistic play activities, not prejudge them.

Looked at without prejudice, autistic play activities are seen to be functional in at least two very critical aspects. In the first place, autistic play activities are functional towards the development of autistic cognition. As we have already noted, without primary perception of species-specific influences, autistic individuals must obtain their cognitive grounding through their engagement with the few elements in their sensory environment that inherently stand out from the remainder, elements humanity has now come to recognize through the concepts of pattern, symmetry, structure and form. Viewed in this light, autistic play activities are seen as not only essential, but indeed healthy towards the developmental progress appropriate for an autistic form of perception, and another prediction I will readily make is that when all is said and done, it will come to be recognized that it is the lack of understanding towards these autistic perceptual and cognitive needs—along with the many mindless attempts to intervene and thwart such needs—that accounts for the large majority of poor outcomes in autistic individuals.

Just as importantly, autistic play activities are functional in another, much broader sense, one that the scientific community has sadly ignored through the present day, but one that is literally stunning in its overall size, scope and impact.

Humanity currently faces an outstanding riddle regarding the origin and nature of its sudden transformation from biologically limited primate to collective architect of landscapes now thoroughly drenched in such concepts as abstraction, symmetry, pattern and form. The irrational bleatings of the sociobiologists notwithstanding, no plausible explanation has yet to be offered as to the source of this sudden transformation. But in point of fact, the source of that transformation actually exists right before our very eyes. If you are in need of an example, I would note that several instances could have been found engaged in the four-minute play sessions of the PDO study.

Whereas no material cause for autism has yet to be uncovered, the material cause of humanity's remarkable cultural transformation exists in abundance all around us, exists in the embodiment of a form of cognition that focuses primarily on the non-biological concepts of pattern, structure, symmetry and form—the distinguishing hallmarks of modern civilization, and the distinguishing hallmarks of autistic perception. The atypical play activity of autistic children is indeed functional, functional in a way we have hardly begun to conceive.


Adelaide Dupont said...

The points I was able to get:

* There is no innate social deficit.
* Autistic and non-autistic behaviours are limited at an early age.
(or probably: have limited predictive value)
* What behaviours there are [at 18 months], would be spontaneous [?]
* Repetition is a symbol of temporal pattern
* Autistic behaviour is functional for autistic cognition
? (But is non-autistic behaviour functional for non-autistic cognition, if we look at it objectively)?

Would like to talk more about perception, cognition and behaviour as well.

And the distinction between primary and secondary characteristics.

Functional behaviour is functional to cognition, whether the person is autistic or not.

Alan Griswold said...

Hi, Adelaide. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I think I can respond to a couple of your points. First, let me say that I don't think repetition is a symbol of temporal pattern, I think repetition is temporal pattern.

Second, you ask an interesting question: "But is non-autistic behavior functional for non-autistic cognition?" To this, I would unreservedly say yes.

In fact, think about what would happen if I took the opposite position. I might be inclined to set up some kind of intervention. I might use ABA, or some similarly stringent technique, and every time the child tried to imitate other humans or showed interest in human activities or tried to play in a manner similar to the other children around him or her, I would immediately thwart and re-direct that behavior. My goal would be to get the child to focus on the objective, structural aspects of the world only and to forget all that human/social stuff that seems so in danger of becoming a perseverative and obsessive activity.

I might try all this, but I predict some very poor outcomes. Sound familiar?

Adelaide Dupont said...


Indeed, viscerally familar.

It is already done for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, and some people with Trisomy 21 in the classroom setting.

Indeed, in the classroom setting, I would say it was almost universally done.

(but, there! I am a little cynical).

And in real life, the techniques are not so stringent.

People do talk about hyper-sociality in conditions as diverse as Williams syndrome and bipolar disorder.