Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Dreams of a Software Consultant Who Needs a New Job

You're given a task:

“The client's toilet is overflowing. They've contracted you to fix it.” It dawns on you that you're a plumber in this scenario and you have plumbing skills and experience. You think you can do the job.

When you arrive, it's an enormous building, one of the largest you've ever seen. A man meets you in the lobby.

“The broken toilet is on the 72nd floor.”

You walk over to the elevator and push the button. Nothing happens.

“Are the elevators working?”

“No. None of them are.”

“When will they be fixed?”

“Isn't that your job?”

“I don't know anything about elevators.”

He looks at you funny, like you're stupid or lazy or both. You glance at the stairwell. Seventy-two floors is an awfully long ways to climb. But you want to do the job, so you walk on over. The door is locked.

“Can I get in the stairwell?” you ask.

“We have tight security here.”

“Is there any other way up?”

“You can fix the elevator.”

You don't know what to say. He pulls a crumpled paper from his pocket. “The last plumber scaled the side of the building. He left instructions. They might not be complete.”

Just then, a stream of dirty water trickles past on the floor.

“You need to hurry,” he says. “That toilet is our number one priority.”

The alarm goes off. It's time to go to work.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mirror Symmetry

I'm afraid I have very little time for autism discussions these days, but I do want to make a few quick and unstructured remarks about the Mottron team's recent paper on mirror symmetry (Perreault et al. 2011). [And please note, I am using the term “Mottron team” simply as a rhetorical shortcut to reference the various people associated with Laurent Mottron and his research labs; as far as I know, there is no such thing as a formal Mottron team.]

First off, (Perreault et al. 2011) is one of the more well-crafted papers I have seen in recent history. Concise, well-written, with an extremely instructive and informative Discussion section. Although I still object to multiple-author papers on principle, the inclusion of a forthright Author Contributions section helps ameliorate some of the concerns. (I sure would like to see some of the hundred-author goliaths make a similar attempt at explaining who contributed what—that might be eye-opening.) More wonderful yet is that the paper has been published in an open access journal, so that everyone can read it without having to beg, borrow or steal a copy. Thoughtful science that can be reviewed by the public at large—now there's a radical idea!

This study is fairly straightforward and simple. It uses a series of pixel-based images to measure recognition of symmetry around various axis orientations. In short, the study reports two major findings: 1. both autistics and non-autistics are more capable of recognizing vertical symmetry than symmetry around other axis orientations; and 2. as a group, autistics are more capable of recognizing symmetry (around all axis orientations) than non-autistics are.

This is yet another result indicating that autistic perception seems to be geared towards recognizing various forms of structure and pattern to be found in the surrounding sensory environment. Similar results have been reported in for instance (Klin et al. 2009) and (Annaz et al. 2011), and of course the most eloquent discussion of this idea can be found in (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières 2009). What makes the members of the Mottron team unique in this regard is that apparently only they recognize that this characteristic of autistic perception is not a defect to be treated, but is instead a trait that can be valuable and profound. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of that recognition, or to overstate the blindness of researchers who fail to make a similar recognition.

As much as I like (Perreault et al. 2011), I do have a couple criticisms to make. The first is a criticism I have made in the past regarding the Mottron team and its efforts. For a team that does such an exceptional job of providing detailed, thoughtful, inventive, evidence-based descriptions of autistic perception, I am utterly astounded at how little effort is made towards providing a corresponding description of non-autistic perception. In this paper for instance, the complete discussion of non-autistic perception can be found in the statement “such parallel access would be less likely in non-autistic individuals, whose ability to use local information from early visual areas would be diminished due to typical globally-biased processing hierarchies.” Come to think of it, that is about thirty words more devoted to the subject than in past Mottron team papers. Indeed, if you were to fill in the persistent blanks from (Perreault et al. 2011) and most other Mottron-team articles, you would have to arrive at the following conclusion: non-autistic perception is simply a deficient form of autistic perception, completely lacking in local processing strength, utterly bereft of adequate perceptual processing and clearly defective at recognizing environmental structure and pattern. Heck, the Mottron team has even managed to perform some comparative brain imaging studies so that we can see in full glorious detail which sections of the non-autistic brain must be tragically miswired!

Of course, having had experience with this type of argument before, I feel fairly confident in saying that there is nothing deficient or defective about non-autistic perception at all—non-autistic perception is simply a different form of perception, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and should be valued as such. If it turns out that autistics do indeed possess enhanced perceptual functioning—as the Mottron team likes to suggest—then I assert that non-autistics must also possess an enhanced something. But ask the Mottron team what that enhanced something is and you will apparently get nothing in return but silence. That annoys me. All the excellent work the Mottron team has put into accurately and thoroughly describing autistic perception is going to go to waste if not accompanied by a similarly accurate and thorough description of non-autistic perception. The two shed light and contrast on each other.

I have many times suggested that the enhanced something of non-autistic perception is the keen ability to be species-aware or species-focused, to be perceptually sensitive to the species-related features to be found in the surrounding sensory environment. The Mottron team is perfectly free to disagree with that point of view, to provide alternatives, to weigh in with evidence, etc. But to remain silent on the subject—that I find hard to comprehend.

My other criticism has to do with the argument that sensitivity to vertical symmetry can serve as a proxy for global processing. It may be that I'm misunderstanding the argument, but if I'm reading it correctly it seems to run something like this:

  • Non-autistics, who tend to be good at global processing, are more sensitivity to vertical symmetry.
  • Perhaps non-autistic sensitivity to vertical symmetry is driven by biological experience, such as the awareness of human faces (which evince vertical symmetry).
  • Since autistics are more sensitivity to vertical symmetry than symmetry around other axis orientations, autistics must also possess some of the same global processing abilities and biological awareness as non-autistics do.
  • But in addition, since autistics are more sensitive than non-autistics to symmetry in all orientations, autistics must also possess local processing and other perceptual strengths. (Thus, autistics can see both the forest and the trees, as the authors would have it.)

To be honest, I'm not sure any of that argument scans logically, but even putting that concern aside, I have a much bigger objection to the use of vertical symmetry as a proxy for global processing, and I can sum that objection up in one word: gravity.

On the surface of this planet, the main line of force runs straight up and down. Indeed, that's what vertical means—it's the axis of orientation in line with gravity's effect. In an environment in which there were no primary line of force, the assignment of vertical would be an arbitrary choice. But it's not arbitrary around here.

For various biological and physical reasons all relating to gravity, the primary form of symmetry to be found on the Earth's surface is vertical symmetry. Many plants and animals have evolved in concert with vertical symmetry, because fighting the effects of gravity is not biologically economical. This preference for vertical symmetry has also carried over to man's many constructions—the Parthenon for instance is an orgy of vertical symmetry, because otherwise it would fall down. And not only are most of the objects being perceived oriented around vertical symmetry, the entities doing the perceiving are also oriented in the same way. Look at the position of the eyes, ears and hands and tell me that we (and most other animals) are not naturally geared towards the perception of vertical symmetry. Vertical symmetry is the rule on this planet; everything else is the exception.

Thus as a surmise, I could take autistics and make the assumption that they have no global processing abilities whatsoever and no biological recognition at all, including the recognition of human faces, and yet I would still expect them to have more sensitivity to vertical symmetry than to any other orientation. Whatever autistics are perceiving in their environment the chances are still extremely high that it is mostly oriented around vertical symmetry. That is just a natural consequence of being an inhabitant of the Earth's surface.

To be honest, I'm not sure I even understand what global processing is supposed to mean. But when it comes to explaining perceptual sensitivity to vertical symmetry, I don't need to understand global processing. Gravity makes for a far simpler explanation.

Criticisms aside, (Perreault et al. 2011) is yet another instructive work from the Mottron team. That team's continuing emphasis on autistic perception and the team's recognition of the importance of symmetry and pattern to autistic perception have provided a consistent, positive way forward to understanding autistic individuals, valuing their contributions, and helping them to succeed. As usual, I find myself both rewarded and inspired by these thoughtful efforts.

(Perreault et al. 2011): Perreault A, Gurnsey R, Dawson M, Mottron L, Bertone A. 2011. “Increased Sensitivity to Mirror Symmetry in Autism.” PLoS ONE 6(4): e19519.

(Klin et al. 2009): Klin, Ami; Lin, David J.; Gorrindo, Phillip; Ramsay, Gordon; Jones, Warren. 2009. “Two-year-olds with Autism Orient to Non-Social Contingencies Rather than Biological Motion.” Nature 459: 257–61.

(Annaz et al. 2011): Annaz, D.; Campbell, R.; Coleman, M.; Milne, E.; Swettenham, J. 2011. “Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Do Not Preferentially Attend to Biological Motion.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (ePub ahead of print).

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

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Core Deficit

Here is a brief abstract that recently popped up on PubMed:

Preferential attention to biological motion can be seen in typically developing infants in the first few days of life and is thought to be an important precursor in the development of social communication. We examined whether children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) aged 3-7 years preferentially attend to point-light displays depicting biological motion. We found that children with ASD did not preferentially attend to biological motion over phase-scrambled motion, but did preferentially attend to a point-light display of a spinning top rather than a human walker. In contrast a neurotypical matched control group preferentially attended to the human, biological motion in both conditions. The results suggest a core deficit in attending to biological motion in ASD. (Annaz et al. 2011)

I don't have access to the paper, just the abstract, so the usual caveats apply. But it would appear this study is in much the same vein as (Klin et al. 2009), which I have commented on previously and which gives what would appear to be a similar set of results. In fact, I'll repeat what I said about (Klin et al. 2009) since it seems to apply equally well to (Annaz et al. 2011). These studies are revealing that:

  • Non-autistic children respond preferably to (mostly human) biological motion, and do not respond preferably to non-biological pattern and structure.
  • Autistic children respond preferably to non-biological pattern and structure, and do not respond preferably to human biological motion.
  • Neither population responds preferably to random sensory noise.

Predictably, (Annaz et al. 2011) commits the same stupidity as (Klin et al. 2009) by interpreting these results as somehow disastrous for autistic individuals, inexplicably judging autistic perceptual characteristics as evidence of a “core deficit.” I'm sure I must be sounding like a broken record by now, but given the astounding amount of scientific blindness on display here, I feel obligated to highlight at least one more time the “core deficit” behind these shallow interpretations:

Nearly every species on this planet shows a preference for and a dexterity with biological motion, particularly biological motion associated with the species itself. But there is only one species on this planet that displays any preference for and dexterity with such things as spinning tops (and all the other patterned- and structure-based artifacts that are the hallmarks of modern civilization). Before we go off mindlessly describing the characteristics of autistic perception as a core deficit, we might want to stop and consider for a moment where this species would be without the benefit of that core deficit.

(Klin et al. 2009): Klin, Ami; Lin, David J.; Gorrindo, Phillip; Ramsay, Gordon; Jones, Warren. 2009. “Two-year-olds with Autism Orient to Non-Social Contingencies Rather than Biological Motion.” Nature 459: 257–61.

(Annaz et al. 2011): Annaz, D.; Campbell, R.; Coleman, M.; Milne, E.; Swettenham, J. 2011. “Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Do Not Preferentially Attend to Biological Motion.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (ePub ahead of print).