Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Simple Theory

There is so much absurd autism science floating around these days I hesitate to point out a particular piece of it that might actually be useful. It would have to be a fluke, right?

The piece of autism science I'm referring to is highlighted in the following abstract from Decreased Spontaneous Attention to Social Scenes in 6-Month-Old Infants Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Chawarska, Macari, Shic 2013):


The ability to spontaneously attend to the social overtures and activities of others is essential for the development of social cognition and communication. This ability is critically impaired in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD); however, it is not clear if prodromal symptoms in this area are already present in the first year of life of those affected by the disorder.


To examine whether 6-month-old infants later diagnosed with ASD exhibit atypical spontaneous social monitoring skills, visual responses of 67 infants at high-risk and 50 at low-risk for ASD were studied using an eye-tracking task. Based on their clinical presentation in the third year, infants were divided into those with ASD, those exhibiting atypical development, and those developing typically.


Compared with the control groups, 6-month-old infants later diagnosed with ASD attended less to the social scene, and when they did look at the scene, they spent less time monitoring the actress in general and her face in particular. Limited attention to the actress and her activities was not accompanied by enhanced attention to objects.


Prodromal symptoms of ASD at 6 months include a diminished ability to attend spontaneously to people and their activities. A limited attentional bias toward people early in development is likely to have a detrimental impact on the specialization of social brain networks and the emergence of social interaction patterns. Further investigation into its underlying mechanisms and role in psychopathology of ASD in the first year is warranted.

These results are in line with similar eye-tracking studies from this research group, most of which have described controls (non-autistic infants and toddlers) as attending more frequently to other people than do autistic children. All the suggested causes for this distinction remain highly speculative, but the observed behaviors do tend to be remarkably consistent. At the same time, these researchers have had difficulty in figuring out what it is that autistic children tend to focus on in lieu of other people, other than to note it doesn't seem to be inanimate objects (which is what the researchers apparently expected).

I like these results. They should be taken with a grain of salt of course, but I see them as direct evidence for a simple theory I have that describes the essence of autism. In straightforward words: most individuals (non-autistic individuals) naturally focus upon the other members of the species, and thus humans and their activities form perceptual foreground for non-autistic individuals. By contrast, autistic individuals, to a significant degree, are not as perceptually drawn to other humans (as though there is a species ambiguity at work). Without other humans serving as perceptual foreground and in need of perceptual material to create sensory and cognitive orientation, autistic individuals gravitate instead to those environmental features that inherently stand out, features we describe with such properties as symmetry, pattern, repetition, structure and form. (Indeed, it is pattern and structure that autistic individuals are perceptually attracted to, not objects per se).

It's a simple theory really, but one that has gone entirely overlooked by autism scientists. Yet it remains the only theory I've ever seen that fundamentally addresses what autistic individuals, and non-autistic individuals, actually do.