Thursday, February 24, 2011

Learning and Memory in Autism

I am long overdue to provide some comments on two works from Laurent Mottron’s autism research team. The first is Learning in Autism (Dawson et al. 2008), and the second is A Different Memory: Are Distinctions Drawn from the Study of Non-autistic Memory Appropriate to Describe Memory in Autism? (Mottron et al. 2008). Neither work in its official form is what I would call reasonably available (more on that later), but a bit of diligent searching on the Internet might lead you to a full copy of each. Please make the attempt to do so—the results will ultimately reward your efforts.

(Dawson et al. 2008) is a fairly clever work with an excellent thesis, although I must admit it is a bit of a slog to read. The reason for the difficulty is that (Dawson et al. 2008) is in the form of a research literature review—without a doubt the most soporific rhetorical device ever concocted. But if you can keep your eyes open long enough, you will realize that a bit of a subversive trick is being played with this form, a trick intriguing enough to pique some genuine interest. Rather than using the device of a literature review to arrive at the usual lukewarm, averaged-out conclusions about the current state of autism science, (Dawson et al. 2008) instead uses the form to demonstrate that the current state of that science is almost entirely wrong-headed.

The current state of autism science generally focuses on the difficulties involved in getting autistic individuals to learn in traditional, non-autistic ways, but (Dawson et al. 2008) reveals again and again that such efforts lead almost invariably to frustration, inconsistencies and poor outcomes—results that the researchers themselves often remain blind to because of their preexisting bias. I imagine that more than a few of the cited authors must have found themselves rather shocked and appalled at the way (Dawson et al. 2008) turned some of their studies’ conclusions seemingly upside down; but the turnabout is both fair and accurate, for it derives from a simple source—namely, that there is an alternative way of looking at autistic learning that can provide far more productive results.

Instead of requiring autistic individuals to learn in traditional, non-autistic ways, a good deal of evidence suggests that outcomes are generally better, more satisfying and less contradictory when we allow autistic individuals to learn in autistic ways. That is, autistic learning is generally enhanced when we encourage autistic individuals to be more autistic, not less. This is the informative and subversive theme that begins to emerge from the pages of (Dawson et al. 2008), and it is that theme that makes the work both fresh and innovative.

(Mottron et al. 2008) is actually quite enjoyable to read, one of the more rhetorically pleasing works the Mottron team has penned—the paper’s delicately amusing use of sea creatures, for instance, is an especially delightful touch. There is also something deft and inspired about the overall approach of the work, which might be summarized roughly as follows: An ethical argument would say that autistic competence should always be assumed as a starting point in research, but since autism scientists do not seem to be swayed by the ethical argument, a pragmatic argument can be made instead that ends up leading to the exact same result. Thus, in effect, the entire paper serves as a kind of gentle, back-door shaming of the scientific community into being more ethical in its assumptions regarding autistic individuals. Not your standard autism research fare.

And along the way, the reader picks up useful information about memory and autism, in such areas as savant memory, surface versus deep memory, and categorization. In each instance, despite the scientific community beginning with the assumption that autistic abilities are impaired, the research has invariably led—slowly, but surely—to the more useful and informative conclusion that autistic cognitive abilities, while different than the norm, are viable and valuable in their own way. In this manner, the overall lesson of (Mottron et al. 2008) manages to transcend the subject matter of memory alone, clearly and respectfully pointing the way to a more productive—and more ethical—approach for all autism research. Not too shabby for a paper that makes such liberal use of squid.

If I have a reservation about these two works, it can be crystallized by referring to where they can be found—each work is essentially buried inside the kind of large, dry, overpriced and mostly uninformative academic tome that, along with the onslaught of large, dry, overpriced and mostly uninformative academic journals, has become the standard and approved means of presentation for autism science. And although it is certainly not my place to suggest to the Mottron team how it publishes its work, still I must admit to a certain amount of conflicted feeling when I see that team’s work so deeply ensconced within the customary confines of the autism science community. It makes me wonder in the end, who is influencing whom?

Understand that if it were not for the Mottron research team, I would be able to write off the autism science community in its entirety. For me, without the slightest doubt, autism science—minus the Mottron research team—serves one purpose and one purpose only: to be the foremost example of how incredibly far astray science can actually go. One day, scientists will be looking back on this chapter in their history with the utmost shame, because here is an entire scientific community that has managed, in tremendously large numbers, to match its complete arrogance by an equally complete incompetence.

In truth, the Mottron team has been the only reliable oasis within that vast desert. By serving as the one research team that consistently begins with the assumption that autistic individuals are valuable and interesting as they actually are, the Mottron team has been able to provide at least a moderate amount of useful and productive scientific insight. But because the Mottron team insists on remaining part of the autism science community, ostensibly for the purpose of influencing that community, it appears to me that the team’s message too often becomes hopelessly engulfed in the sandstorms of ignorance swirling all around it.

Listen, science does not come with a guarantee of nobility, and there is such a thing as guilt by association.

I could of course be wrong about all this, and for the sake of autistic individuals I hope that I am. But my fear is genuine. My fear is that the image of being buried as the next-to-last chapter in a large, dry, overpriced and mostly uninformative autism research tome will in the end become the defining metaphor for the Mottron research team. And that outcome would be more than just poor—it would be, in the true sense of the word, tragic.

(Dawson et al. 2008): Dawson, Michelle; Mottron, Laurent; and Gernsbacher, Morton Ann. 2008. “Learning in Autism.” In Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, J.H. Bryne (series editor) and H. Roediger (volume editor). New York: Elsevier.

(Mottron et al. 2008): Mottron, Laurent; Dawson, Michelle; and Soulières, Isabelle. 2008. “A different memory: Are distinctions drawn from the study of non-autistic memory appropriate to describe memory in autism?” In Memory in Autism, J. Boucher and D. Bowler, editors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1 comment:

dinah said...

As I sit on an "Autism Ethics Group" here in the UK, the question that keeps raising itself in my mind, is Can it be ethical to do "ethical research" that has no or extremely little known impact on practice or perception?