Monday, October 10, 2011

Autistics Think Differently, Part 3

[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

In “The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome?” (Soulières 2011), the following sentence appears:

“Autistics can maintain more veridical representations (e.g. representations closer to the actual information present in the environment) when performing high level, complex tasks.”

That's an intriguing statement, and I think I have a rough idea of what the authors are driving at (and I would generally agree with that rough idea). But the sentence as stated strikes me as slightly off key and a bit misleading. Let me see if I can explain.

I'm going to lay out a hypothetical visual scene (something similar could be done in the auditory domain if so desired), and once I've described the scene, I'm going to have three different entities survey it, including one that represents autistic perception and another that represents non-autistic perception. But when it comes to veridical representation, it's going to be the third entity that emerges as the clear winner in “capturing the actual information present in the environment.”

Here's the scene: It's a fairly open and sparse field, maybe in a large park or reserve. Near the front section of the field is a bench, where a woman and a girl are seated and talking. Rising behind them are four tall light poles, evenly spaced and situated so that they form a diagonal across the visual plane. The sky is mostly blue with a few nondescript clouds, and there is nothing else worthy of note.

Here are three entities viewing this scene from the same perspective, along with a rough description of what each perceives:

  • Entity 1 surveys this scene entirely as light and color stimulus. You can think of it as a pixelated view, where the perception of this scene is best described as a series of points, each point determined by its relative position and its light qualities, such as brightness and hue.
  • Entity 2 surveys this scene and is immediately drawn to the woman and girl on the bench. If asked about this perception, Entity 2 might say something like, “Yes, I can see the mother and daughter on the bench over there. See, the daughter is extremely upset—she's crying.” If asked about the light poles, Entity 2 might offer the observation that it's a good thing to have them here, because people can come at night without being afraid.
  • Entity 3 surveys this scene and is struck by the particular arrangement of the light poles. Entity 3 might note that there are four of them, or might point out that they are evenly spaced, or might remark on the angle they form in the visual plane. If asked about the people on the bench, Entity 3 might say they were noticed and there were two of them and they looked small beneath the light poles towering above them.

Although these descriptions are meant to highlight only general tendencies, I think most people would agree that the perceptions of Entity 1 closely match those of a camera, the perceptions of Entity 2 are fairly typical of a non-autistic person, and the perceptions of Entity 3 are more indicative of someone who might be on the autism spectrum. Each entity sees the exact same visual stimulus, but each extracts from that stimulus an entirely different set of information. That is the essence of what we mean when we talk about the concept perception.

In my way of thinking, Entity 1 has by far the most veridical representation here—it comes the closest to perceiving this visual scene as it truly is. The key to a camera creating an accurate visual representation is, ironically enough, not to do much of anything at all with it; in particular, not to impose any form upon the visual scene. No foregrounding. No backgrounding. No extracting of signal from noise. Just reproduce the visual scene as it visually is—that's all a camera is required to do.

By contrast, both Entity 2 and Entity 3 come to their particular perceptions by imposing some kind of structure on the raw visual stimulus, which is to say some elements in the visual scene form perceptual foreground while other elements fade mostly unnoticed into the background. The perceptual process is quite similar for both Entity 2 and Entity 3 (and quite different from the perceptual process of Entity 1). What distinguishes the perceptions of Entity 2 and Entity 3 is the material of the signal itself; that is, there is a categorical difference in what tends to foreground within the perceptions of Entity 2 and Entity 3.

It's not obvious yet that Entity 3's representations are more veridical than those of Entity 2, but let's keep exploring all these perceptions in more detail.

It's actually quite fortunate that Entity 1 is not a biological or responsive agent. If it were, having the most veridical representation of the visual scene would manifest as a huge liability. To be responsive to an environmental stimulus requires that information be extracted from it, exactly what Entity 1 cannot do. This has actually been a problem in the world of robotics, where despite having extremely accurate cameras, it has been nonetheless difficult to get machines to respond flexibly and constructively to various visual stimuli, precisely because it is difficult to get machines to recognize what constitutes the necessary foreground and what needs to be dismissed as inconsequential background.

Possessing a perfectly veridical representation of an environmental stimulus is tantamount to experiencing sensory chaos. Everything comes across as noise, nothing appears as signal. And with no signal, there is no information. And with no information, there is no ability to respond with purpose. We must keep in mind these thoughts about perfectly veridical representations and their corresponding sensory chaos, because when we later consider the perceptions of Entity 3 (autistic perception), we'll discover this very same concept comes into play.

First, however, let's talk in more detail about the perceptions of Entity 2 (non-autistic perception). It's my contention that what signifies and distinguishes non-autistic perception is its strong tendency to focus upon human-related events in the sensory environment; that is, it is the human-specific features that most commonly foreground within non-autistic perception, and it is this human-specific focus that provides the necessary structure for extracting signal from the sensory noise. You can see this at work in my depiction of Entity 2's perceptions, where the attention is drawn primarily to the people in the scene—and in a very detailed way—and even the elements which are not so apparently human-related are often tied back to humanity by some indirect means (the light poles, for instance, are comprehended as helping people see at night and not be afraid).

I wouldn't use the terms “global processing” or “hierarchies of processing” to describe this phenomenon, but I would consider such a term as “common thread” to suggest how these people-specific perceptions tie non-autistic cognition together into a cohesive package. And this works at more than just the individual level. Since nearly all humans share the characteristic of these people-specific perceptions, these perceptions serve to coalesce not just individual thoughts and behaviors but also the conventions and actions of the species as a whole. Humans formulate their shared species-specific perceptions into a series of cohesive thoughts, behaviors, conventions and environments, exactly as we might expect from a species-driven, biologically essential phenomenon.

Indeed, it is important to note that it's not just in humans that we observe this common form of species-specific perception. All across the animal kingdom, we can observe abundant evidence that creatures attend most strongly to the other members of their own species and to the species-related elements in their surroundings while most everything else in the sensory environment is ignored as inconsequential background. It is in this sense that I think the word “mandatory” comes into play. The common thread of a species-specific focus is extremely powerful, it has been forged through the long-burning furnace of evolutionary time. I think most organisms inherently rely upon this common thread, and would find it extremely difficult to step outside it.

In my previous post (Autistics Think Differently, Part 2) I complained that the authors of (Soulières 2011) have not provided an affirmative, distinguishing description for non-autistic perception and cognition. If it were up to me to provide that description, I would do it in much the same way I have here, highlighting the species-specific perceptions non-autistics share and that help cement the common cognitions and behaviors across that particular class of the population. I am of course open to criticisms of this idea and am willing to consider alternative suggestions, but so far I've not see much of anything forthcoming, anything beyond that is just a settling for describing non-autistic individuals as constituting the norm.

It is also my contention that what most fundamentally distinguishes autistic perception is that it lacks the species-specific focus that is characteristic of non-autistic perception. For reasons not yet clearly identified, autistic individuals do not tend to naturally foreground human-related elements within the sensory environment, and as a baseline, this would leave autistic individuals in much the same situation as that of Entity 1: autistics would perceive the raw environmental stimulus almost exactly as it is and would have no natural means of obtaining signal from the various aspects of that stimulus.

It's primarily in this sense that I think it's fair to say autistic individuals experience more veridical representations—representations that don't come with as many pre-imposed filters, such as the human-focused filters that get routinely and naturally applied within non-autistic perception. But this also means that the natural (beginning) state of autistic perception is one that comes dangerously close to sensory chaos, and I believe this goes a long ways towards explaining why autistic individuals tend to experience sensory difficulties, difficulties that vary in domain and range and seem to have no discernible physical cause. It also goes a long ways towards explaining the developmental difficulties autistic individuals experience in their early years, because both as an individual and as a member of a species that has built its environmental surroundings out of a shared perceptual experience, an autistic individual would find himself closed off from those species-shared experiences and all their coalescing and foregrounding effects. As was stated in the discussion for Entity 1, the possession of a perfectly veridical representation is actually a huge liability when it comes to acting as a biological or responsive agent.

The saving grace for autistics is that there are features within the sensory environment that seem to inherently foreground in the absence of any stronger means of perceptual organization. It's not entirely clear to me (logically or biologically) what causes these particular elements to form signal against an otherwise chaotic background, but we recognize these mostly non-biological features through such names as symmetry, repetition, pattern, mapping, structure, and form. The authors of (Soulières 2011) routinely invoke said features in describing the distinguishing characteristics of autistic perception and cognition [see for instance (Mottron 2009) and Principles 6 and 7 in (Mottron 2006)], and in my depiction of Entity 3's perception, you'll notice the emphasis being placed on such things as number, repetition, pattern, geometry and so on. And just as non-autistics will often apprehend non-biological features in their sensory environment through a referential connection to humanity, autistics will often reverse this process, apprehending humans through such things as number, categorization and measure. It seems to me that there is a good deal of evidence backing the idea that autistic perception is drawn primarily to those environmental features consisting of non-biological pattern, structure and form, and it is out of such features that autistics gain the majority of their perceptual foregrounding. Apprehension of non-biological environmental structure forms the backbone of an autistic individual's atypical means of overcoming sensory chaos, allowing that individual to respond productively as a biological agent.

One of the fascinating aspects of autistic perceptual foregrounding is that it can bring forth incredible variety and novelty. An autistic individual is apt to pull almost any kind of information from a sensory environment (it wouldn't have been all that surprising, for instance, if Entity 3 had ignored both the light poles and the people on the bench and had fixated instead on the harmonious colors in the clouds and sky). Because of the variety, novelty and non-biological (objective) nature of the information autistic individuals tend to gather, this too might be considered a valid reason for classifying autistic representations as more veridical (and I think the authors of (Soulières 2011) actually have something of this consideration in mind). But here I think we should be a bit more cautious. Once an autistic individual has actually foregrounded some aspect of the sensory environment, he has already moved far away from the realm of true veridical representation, is no longer perceiving reality anything at all like a camera. And no matter what structure is being applied to the environmental stimulus—be it the biological, species-driven form common to non-autistic perception, or the more pattern-based variety familiar to autistic perception—it can have equally valid potential to be a good or poor reflector of environmental reality. When we consider the entirety of human history, as well as the entirety of modern human society, I think it's fair to say that all types of human perceptual foregrounding are potentially informative and valuable, we wouldn't want to be deprived of hardly any of these perspectives.

In summary, I think there is merit and truth in the (Soulières 2011) claim that autistic individuals have a tendency to experience more veridical representations under many circumstances, but I wouldn't want to make that statement as obvious, simple fact. To come to that conclusion requires a deep understanding of both autistic perception and non-autistic perception, and in particular a deep understanding of what fundamentally distinguishes them. And this is just one more example of why I think it's inadequate to describe either autistic or non-autistic cognition as merely a deficit or norm. What's needed here are clear, affirmative, distinguishing descriptions—descriptions that enlighten us about both autism and non-autism, descriptions that bring out the essential value in each of these points of view.

(Soulières 2011): Soulières I, Dawson M, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L, 2011 The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? PLoS ONE 6(9): e25372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025372

(Mottron 2009): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I (2009) Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 1385–1391.

(Mottron 2006): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I, Hubert B, Burack J (2006) Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: an update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36: 27–43.

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