Thursday, December 31, 2009

Scientific Advancement

I agree with Michelle Dawson's assessment that the editorial board of the proposed journal Autism Insights is dubious in nature and bad news for autistic individuals, and I expect its actions will be motivated far more by personal interests and personal agendas than by any desire to advance the science.

But my question is: how would this differ from the editorial board of any other autism-related journal?

In fact, it is revealing that assessments in autism science have now devolved mostly into questions of scientific reputation, for when you are faced with a discipline in which practically no one is advancing the science in any meaningful way, reputation becomes the only thing left to argue.

Nonetheless, scientific reputation is only a pseudo measure. Playing by the rules and convincing others to recognize you for having played by the rules does nothing to promote understanding—to promote autism insight, if you will—and it certainly does not qualify as good news for autistic individuals.

Good science spinning its wheels travels no farther than bad science prowling at random.

Scientific Accumulation

A million trivial results do not add up to something significant; they add up to triviality.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mathematical Weaknesses

Here is a telling statement by Professor Carl B. Boyer, straight from—of all places—A History of Mathematics:

A number of deficiencies in pre-Hellenic mathematics are quite obvious. Extant papyri and tablets contain specific cases and problems only, with no general formulations, and one may question whether these early civilizations really appreciated the unifying principles that are at the core of mathematics.

Of course. But then again: one may question whether academicians can see beyond the end of their own nose.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Harold Doherty and Intellectual Disability

Let me address Harold Doherty's claim that the recent CDC report on autism prevalence shows that 60 – 100% of children diagnosed with Autistic Disorder also have a significant intellectual disability (IQ less than 70). To put it bluntly, that claim is a ridiculous fiction, fabricated entirely by Mr. Doherty and not supported by anything in the CDC report. It is the kind of claim made by someone who either cannot read, cannot do math, or cannot handle logic. In Mr. Doherty's case, I suspect we are witnessing a combination of all three.

What the CDC report does state is that across the reporting sites where adequate data is available, 41% of all autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cases are associated with intellectual disability (with a range across the reporting sites from 29.3% to 51.2%). Mr. Doherty then leaps to the statement that if the Asperger Disorder cases were removed from the CDC study population, then this would imply that 60 – 100% of those with Autistic Disorder must have a significant intellectual disability (with great emphasis placed by Mr. Doherty on the midrange number of 80%).

It would be interesting to examine Mr. Doherty's math on that.

To keep the numbers round, let us assume that 40 out of 100 ASD cases show intellectual disability, which is consistent with the 41% number from the CDC report. Question: how many Asperger Disorder cases (no intellectual disability) would need to be removed from the study population so that the remaining population has an 80% intellectual disability rate? The answer is that 50 out of 100 would need to be removed. Mr. Doherty's math implies that around 50% of the cases in the CDC study are Asperger Disorder cases. I wonder if he really intended that.

I myself would be willing to grant Mr. Doherty his 50% Aspergers estimate, provided that either: a) the number shows up some place in the CDC report, or b) Mr. Doherty's other posts remain logically consistent with 50% of all ASD cases being Aspergers cases. Alas, neither provision holds true.

For instance, I have looked high and low, but the CDC report does not seem to indicate how many of its identified cases fall under the Aspergers classification. Maybe Mr. Doherty has read the report more carefully than I have, but my suspicion is that Mr. Doherty has not bothered to read the report at all. Figure 5 in the report does shows a group that would include the Aspergers cases, but Aspergers by itself does not seem to be broken out. What's worse, no matter how you look at Figure 5, it clearly does not support Mr. Doherty's 50% Aspergers estimate. If anything, Figure 5 indicates an Aspergers percentage much lower than 50%, a percentage so low it cannot in any way support Mr. Doherty's feeble attempt at math.

And then there is the matter of Mr. Doherty's other posts, the ones insisting quite loudly that autism is an environmental epidemic and that people with an Aspergers diagnosis, like Ari Ne'eman, are not really autistic. But if 50% of all ASD cases are Asperger Disorder (and therefore not really autism), what remains of the epidemic? Let's go ahead and apply Mr. Doherty's methodology to the CDC report itself, where we might note that if 1 in 110 children have ASD but 50% of these are Aspergers (and therefore not really autistic), then of course only 1 in 220 children really have autism. Better yet, if we forge ahead with Mr. Doherty's brand of logic, we might next compare this 1 in 220 figure to the 1 in 150 prevalence from the previous CDC report and note that the “epidemic” is now actually reversing—the “crisis” is indeed over! (Maybe it was all those environmental toxins that provided the cure everyone was looking for.) Now if perchance the preceding analysis is making your head spin, or if you feel like you have been somehow bamboozled or that I just made things up, please do not put the blame on me; remember, I am only following Mr. Doherty's logical lead.

Listen, no one is suggesting that intellectual abilities and disabilities in autism should be swept under the rug. Clearly, a significant portion of the autistic population experiences cognitive delays and difficulties, and a better understanding of this phenomenon would be helpful for all. But to concoct “facts” for the purpose of promoting a personal agenda serves no one well. I do not expect Mr. Doherty to agree with me very often, but I do expect him to be able to read, do the math, and think logically. I do not believe that is asking too much.

Of course it is possible that it is me who is incorrect; maybe it is my math, logic and reading skills that have gone awry. If so, I invite Mr. Doherty to demonstrate the error of my ways, and if he is successful, I will gladly make acknowledgment and apologize. But note that my only requirement for this demonstration is that Mr. Doherty use information straight out of the CDC report, and not straight out of his imagination.

Friday, December 18, 2009

And All Hell Breaks Loose

Autism Speaks, never one to miss the opportunity for tightening the fund-raising screws, has chosen to respond to today's CDC announcement on autism prevalence by portraying autistic individuals (yet once again) as devastating, burdensome, tragic and worthy of eradication. I wonder if this is how Autism Speaks has come to be known as a “charitable” organization.

Amidst all the doomsday hoopla, however, the Autism Speaks leadership might have overlooked that their sister organization, Homosexuality Speaks, also issued a press release today, one targeting prevalence rates in its own domain. Purely for the edification of Autism Speaks' officials—all of whom must have been quite busy today—I have reproduced the Homosexuality Speaks press release in its entirety below, complete with illuminating and perhaps familiar-sounding commentary from various Homosexuality Speaks officials. I trust that Bob Wright, Geraldine Dawson and Mark Roithmayr will find nothing offensive in the Homosexuality Speaks press release, but if by chance they do, perhaps they should stop for a moment and ask themselves why.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For immediate release:

As CDC Issues New Homosexuality Prevalence Report, Homosexuality Speaks Asks “What Will It Take?” for Government to Meet the Challenge of this National Health Crisis

Leading Homosexuality Advocacy Organization Calls for Dramatic Increase in Federal Funding for Research and Services

SAN FRANCISCO, CAL. (December 18, 2009)—In the wake of today's new report from the U.S. Centers for Difference Control (CDC) stating that homosexuality now affects 1 in every 35 American teenagers, Homosexuality Speaks, the nation's largest homosexuality science and advocacy organization, called on the federal government to immediately step up its efforts—and dramatically increase funding—to address the growing national homosexuality public health crisis.

“Now that the government has confirmed that three percent of American teenagers have homosexuality, the question becomes what it will take to get our elected leaders to wake up and take on this crisis in an appropriate way,” said Rob Writeoff, co-founder of Homosexuality Speaks. “Must we wait until every member of Congress has a child or grandchild with homosexuality, or until every household is impacted by this devastating disorder? With nearly 2.25 million children on the homosexuality spectrum, we need meaningful action now that acknowledges the scope of this problem and allocates the resources necessary to take the fight against homosexuality to a new level. We cannot expect the millions of people impacted by this crisis to wait another 20 years for answers.”

The CDC report, published in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), states that 3% or 1 in every 35 teenagers has been diagnosed with homosexuality, including 1 in 25 girls. This represents a staggering 57 percent increase from 2002 to 2006, and a 600 percent increase in just the past 20 years. Other significant findings include that a broader definition of HSDs does not account for the increase, and while improved and earlier diagnosis accounts for some of the increase, it does not fully account for the increase. Thus, a true increase in the risk for HSD cannot be ruled out. Even though parents typically express concerns about their child's sexuality before age twelve, the average age of diagnoses is not until around the sixteenth birthday, although diagnoses are occurring earlier than found in the 2002 study. The report uses the same methodology that produced the CDC's 2007 prevalence findings of 1 in 50 children with homosexuality.

“This study provides strong evidence that the prevalence of homosexuality spectrum disorder is, in fact, dramatically increasing,” said Darlene Gawson, Ph.D., Homosexuality Speaks chief science officer, who noted that recent research indicates that a significant amount of the increase in homosexuality prevalence cannot be explained by better, broader or earlier diagnosis. “It is imperative that the federal government, primarily through the National Institutes of Health and CDC, quickly and significantly increase funding for homosexuality research. We have learned a lot about homosexuality during the past five years. However, most of the critical questions about the factors that cause the many manifestations of homosexuality—and how we can better treat this disorder—remain unanswered.”

“The CDC numbers validate what we already know: We have a major public health emergency on our hands that is taking an enormous toll on millions of families across the country,” said Homosexuality Speaks President Rick Moithrayr. “These families want answers that can only come through further research. They also desperately want access to services that are, at this point, grossly inadequate to meet the current and growing needs of people with homosexuality. That must change quickly, before our society becomes overwhelmed by the demand for these services in the coming years and decades.”

According to a 2007 Yale School of Public Health study, it costs approximately $105 billion each year to care for people with homosexuality—a number that has clearly increased over the past 2 years with the rising prevalence among the youngest people with HSD and a growing demand for housing, work skills and opportunities, healthcare, and other services that simply do not exist for adults with HSD. In FY 2008, total federal spending on homosexuality research was just $177 million, expected to increase to $282 million in FY 2009—only because of a one-time infusion of $89 million in stimulus spending.

“During his campaign, President Obama committed to $1 billion of annual federal spending on homosexuality by 2012. In October, he identified homosexuality as one of his administration's top three public health priorities. This new prevalence data must compel Congress to take action to fulfill the President's promise in the upcoming FY 2011 budget process,” said Writeoff. “It is also vital that any healthcare reform legislation sent by Congress to the President must include—as both the current House and Senate versions do—an end to insurance marketplace discrimination against people with homosexuality by requiring insurers to deliver coverage for behavioral health treatments.”

“There are too many children with homosexuality who are being diagnosed at fifteen, sixteen or even seventeen years of age, which is far too late for them to experience the maximum benefits of early intervention services,” said Gawson. “Clearly, we need to do a better job of diagnosing children as early as possible—ideally by age five. We know that early intervention can make a critical difference in a child's outcome.” Gawson went on to promote her involvement in a recent study which showed that HSD children as young as four years of age, exposed to the Salt Lake City form of early intervention treatment, had follow-up heterosexuality quotient scores ten points higher than HSD children not so favorably placed.

Homosexuality Speaks has committed more than $141 million to date to fund research into the causes, diagnosis and treatment for homosexuality through 2014. It is currently funding research into potential genetic and environmental factors involved with homosexuality, as well as improved methods of early diagnosis and new treatment models.

About Homosexuality

Homosexuality is a complex biological condition that affects a person's ability to procreate and develop appropriate sexual relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. A 2009 report by the Centers for Difference Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that homosexuality spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 35 or 3% of all teenagers in the United States, affecting two times as many girls as boys. It is estimated that 4.5 million Americans have a homosexuality spectrum disorder. The CDC has called homosexuality a national public health crisis for which we still need effective treatments and whose causes need to be better understood.

About Homosexuality Speaks

Homosexuality Speaks is the nation's largest homosexuality science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, diagnosis, treatments and a cure for homosexuality; increasing awareness of homosexuality spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with homosexuality and their families. To learn more about Homosexuality Speaks, please visit

About the Co-Founders

Homosexuality Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Susie and Rob Writeoff, the grandparents of a child with homosexuality. Rob Writeoff has held lots of important, high-paying positions, and so he (and not homosexual individuals) should be listened to. Susie Writeoff has an extensive history of active involvement in community and philanthropic endeavors, mostly directed toward helping children, and serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations, and so she also (and not homosexual individuals) should be listened to. In 2008, the Writeoffs were named to the Newsweek 200 list of the most influential people in the world for their commitment to global homosexuality advocacy.

End of press release

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let me add, purely for the edification of Autism Speaks' officials, that autistic individuals are first and foremost human beings, worthy just as they are. Autistic individuals are not harborers of a devastating disorder, and they are not candidates for pity, intervention and eradication. This is a lesson we have been learning, with great difficulty, about homosexual individuals over the past half century, and thus it is disheartening to see organizations like Autism Speaks intent on putting us through that painful process all over again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Good Science

If science is merely a methodology, then in the current era it has become the preferred method of minutiae and mediocrity.

Think about it. We now live among literally millions and millions of scientists, a large portion of whom practice, in the well-intended words of Ben Goldacre, good science. They dutifully form their hypotheses, they dutifully conduct their experiments, and they dutifully record all their critical data. And when the harvesting time of publication comes around (and when the services of enough well-connected co-authors have been dutifully gathered), these good scientists patiently submit their findings to peer review and wait longingly for reply. In the thousands and thousands of unread journals now clogging our crowded shelves we might find the outpourings of these good scientists' many tireless efforts—their tantalizing insights into fatherless mice, dark halo density profiles, dysfunctional amygdalas, and the priming effects of macrophages. If good science is a blessing, then our cup truly runneth over.

But where, might I ask, is the brilliant science? Where might I find that scientist equivalent to a Newton, a Darwin, an Einstein—each of whom appeared to be far less concerned with following the prescribed recipes of good science than with turning good science upon its head? With millions and millions of good scientists now rubbing their shoulders against us, why is the brilliant science not more abundantly ripe for the picking, and why would we assume this dearth of brilliant science is in no way related to the massive proliferation of good science?

I will say it again: if science is merely a methodology, then in the current era it has become the preferred method of minutiae and mediocrity.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Intelligent Design

William Dembski, he of intelligent design fame, has written a poignant account of taking his autistic son to a gathering run by a popular faith healer, in the hopes of obtaining some miraculous autism healing—a healing which, as events turned out, would not even be offered, let alone consummated. The faith healer of course revealed himself as little more than a conjurer of theater and coinage; and after having endured the multi-hour ordeal of a long drive, a needless wait, blaringly loud music and the insipid amusements of a traveling medicine show, Mr. Dembski's wife and autistic son, summoned at long last to approach the stage for some personal healing and prayer, found themselves more than an hour later effectively shunned and turned away. The entire family drove home bitterly disappointed, if somewhat wiser about the nature of popular revivalist gatherings.

In many ways, Mr. Dembski's account is one of the more moving articles I have read in recent years—and this coming from a man for whom I share hardly a thread of common understanding. But if Mr. Dembski and I share little in the way of a common philosophical background, we do share a commonality of experience, for I too have an autistic son, one of nearly the same age as Mr. Dembski's. Thus I can commiserate completely. In fact, I cannot help but be touched greatly by Mr. Dembski's story and I cannot help but feel within the very depths of my soul the bitter anguish and confusion that must have been experienced during that distressing ordeal. But of course it is not Mr. Dembski's anguish and confusion I am feeling—I am feeling the anguish and confusion that must have been experienced by his autistic son.

It is an oft-told story: salvation was at hand—so remarkably close at hand—if only it had been recognized and accepted.

There was indeed a miracle being offered to Mr. Dembski at that revivalist gathering, a miracle offered so quietly, so humbly, so simply, that amidst all the dancing, all the singing, all the hearty exhortations—and amidst all the tinkling of collection plates—it might have gone so easily overlooked. The miracle being offered to Mr. Dembski on that bitterly ironic night occurred at the very moment of his autistic son's rejection (and how Christianly ironic is that?), just one more rejection in a long line of rejections—from doctors, from school administrators, from nearly the entire human community, and (dare he confess it) from Mr. Dembski himself. But at the very moment of that one further rejection, that forced turning away from this so-called minister of god and the turning back towards a reassessing father—now there was a moment worthy of a hallelujah chorus.

And to Mr. Dembski's credit, at least on this particular occasion, he was not entirely immune to the poignancy and gift of that telling moment. Quietly accepting his autistic son back into the family fold, driving his children home at that ungodly hour, waiting until each had fallen asleep to discuss with his wife the doubts now arising within his troubled soul, Mr. Dembski had taken those first, faltering steps towards the altar of his own salvation—hallelujah, indeed.

But how to encourage him to take all the remaining steps? How to inspire him to face all the challenges yet to come? Do we dare to remind Mr. Dembski that in the story he cares about most, the father does not reject the unwanted son.

If there is an entity deserving of the name “God,” then that entity must exist in the here and now, and I do not mean in the here and now of any particular church, I mean in the here and now of each and every moment. The discovery and acceptance of this world as this world truly is—not as we humans desire or demand it to be—there will be found the glory behind both science and religion. And accepting autism for what it is, welcoming both its offbeat demands as well as its profoundly transformational impact upon the entire human species—there might be found the admittedly narrow path that one day uplifts all mankind.

Let Mr. Dembski begin his reconstructed catechism with that lesson and that lesson alone. And after he has begun to master it, after he has incorporated it deeply within his being, only then might I be willing to sit and talk with him about something called intelligent design.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Three Questions Poorly Asked

What aspect of brain neurology gives rise to human intelligence and reasoning?

What evolutionary mechanism underlies the ascent of human culture and civilization?

What etiology explains the disorder known as autism?

They say that a question well asked is a question already half answered: the examples above show that a question poorly asked cannot be answered at all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Do Not Walk – Run!

Through February 2010, Royal Society Publishing will be providing free access to its digital archives, and above all else this means that the seminal autism paper, Enhanced Perception in Savant Syndrome: Patterns, Structure and Creativity (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, 2009, hereafter referred to as EPSS), can now be read in its entirety without it costing you an arm and a couple legs. Please, if you are at all interested in expanding your horizons regarding the nature of autism, avail yourself of this opportunity to read EPSS. In an era when the entirety of the autism research community has become mired in a coagulation of genetic defect theories, brain dysfunction theories, medical imbalance theories, interventions du jour, and so on, reading the pages of EPSS can be like taking a step outdoors into the sunshine and fresh air. Even if you find yourself ultimately unable to accept the various ideas put forth in that paper, at the very least you will have to admit the presentation is not just more of the same old thing. If you want more of the same old thing, there is an interminable glut of autism research articles that can fulfill that need; but if you would like to begin to see autism through a new set of eyes, then the Mottron team's paper is certainly an excellent place to start.

(More of my thoughts regarding EPSS can be found here.)

EPSS is part of a Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B issue devoted entirely to the subject of autism and talent, and if you have time and inclination, I would encourage you to peruse some of the other articles in that issue as well. They are mostly a mixed bag, ranging from the not so bad (the Plaisted Grant and Davis paper, for instance) to the execrable (Casanova et al. and the opening introduction); but more than anything the other articles provide a revealing contrast to the EPSS paper. Note that even in an issue devoted entirely to exploring the talents and abilities of autistic individuals—talents and abilities that in many instances cannot be replicated by non-autistic individuals—even under such a heading, the various authors cannot seem to break themselves free of the paradigm that autism is the evidence of something gone medically wrong. From impaired central coherence to hyper-sensitive hyper-systemizing to “a failure in top-down inhibition,” autism scientists are literally stuck in their language of deficit and defect for explaining autistic characteristics; and at each turn there comes the barely contained whisper that it must be the strangest of happenstance that allows such fouled-up, abnormal cognitions to produce artifacts of human value and wonder. It is only in the pages of EPSS that you will find authors daring to make the opposite assertion, the assertion that autism is not so much the evidence of something gone medically wrong as it is the evidence of something gone humanly right.

I have noted elsewhere that even the Mottron team can have difficulties shaking itself completely free of the vestiges of autism's medical model; but within EPSS, the Mottron team is unabashedly spontaneous, imaginative and creative. The result is a first, solid glimpse into autism not as deficit and disease, but instead as a catalyst for humanity's most shocking and wondrous transformations. Do not miss this historical opportunity. Do not walk, but run! Run to the Royal Society archives!

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Often what is needed is not new evidence, but a better home for the evidence one already has.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Philosophy of Academic Philosophy

Do academic philosophers write about anything besides other philosophers? Kripke, Dummett, Foucault, Wright, Rawls, the list goes on and on. Like denizens of a closed-off room, these dilettantes can breathe only their self-made stench.

Open a window, for God's sake! Out in the sunshine you might find Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein—all romping about, and giving a rat's ass for their fellow philosophers. But no, behind these heavy curtains we find Dennett, Searle, Rorty—each waxing ad nauseam on...Dennett, Searle, Rorty (not to mention, waxing ad nauseam on Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein).

Why would anyone strive to become a philosopher for the purpose of regurgitating other philosophers? Can these professors not think for themselves?

Maybe Derrida, you say—maybe he is the exception. Well, here too we are stuck in the morass of other philosophers, although I admit the approach is unique. But what can it say about modern philosophy to know that its con artists are the most creative?

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Foretold History of Autism Science

It is hard to scale a phantom mountain; inevitably, that climbing party must come back down.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Divineless Comedy

I suppose it had to come to this, what with the new atheism having become so popular and all. Now we have the Brights movement, and no kidding, you too can register. Hell, what am I saying, I myself can register—apparently I meet all the preconditions.

But Lord have mercy, where is a Kierkegaard when you truly need him? I can hear the Dane laughing already: “And after you have mastered truth is subjectivity—ein, zwei, drei—then you can register as a Bright.”

According to their website, the Brights' first principle (you knew there had to be a first principle) is “We are a constituency of individuals (the registered Brights).” If I were to make a suggestion for a second principle (after registering, of course), it would be “We shalt make closer scrutiny of the words 'constituency' and 'individual,' not to mention a more careful contemplation on the consequences of registration.”

Why Life Is Not a Team Sport

The real conflict is not between science and religion, the real conflict is between collective ignorance and an individual sense of wonder. And in that conflict, Dawkins, the Pope, Behe, Hitchens, Dobson, Harris, Dembski, Grayling, Dennett and the grand ayatollahs are all on the same side.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Great Distraction

Here is a reminder for the founding members of the Autism Science Foundation, as well as for the many participants on the Autism Hub who seem to think that lobbying against the anti-vaccination crowd is the same thing as lobbying for autistic individuals:

The enemy of one's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

Or let me try a different word of advice, equally applicable to those fervently anti-vaccination and to those who are fervently anti- the anti-vaccination crowd:

Vaccines have nothing to do with autism.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Stretching the Brain

I would like to take a few moments to discuss an autism research paper that was recently published online by the journal Human Brain Mapping. The paper is entitled Enhanced Visual Processing Contributes to Matrix Reasoning in Autism (Soulières, Dawson, Samson, Barbeau, Sahyoun, Strangman, Zeffiro and Mottron, 2009, hereafter referred to as EVP). As best as I can tell, the full text of EVP, like too much of autism research, is not being made reasonably available to the public; however, for those who are interested, an email request to the lead author will likely net you a pdf copy (that is how I obtained mine). As per usual, I am not entirely comfortable commenting at length about a research article that has not been made accessible to all, but as with other works produced by members associated with Laurent Mottron's research team, I feel these efforts are far too valuable and far too relevant to be left unconsidered. (Maybe one day the Mottron team will be in a position to remove itself from the autism publishing grid and present its insightful work more directly to the public, an action I would certainly recommend.)

Before I summarize the experiment at the heart of EVP and its corresponding results, let me note that in doing so I cannot do justice to the paper itself. One of EVP's main strengths is that it is extremely well produced—very thorough in detail, quite readable for a highly technical subject, and generally even-handed in its interpretations and judgments. For those who have not been exposed to the latest techniques in neuroimaging science, I can highly recommend EVP as an excellent example of what the discipline currently has to offer.

In this particular study, Dr. Soulières' team divided the experimental participants into two groups, 15 autistic participants in one group and 18 non-autistic participants in the other group, the two groups otherwise matched on factors of age, sex, Wechsler IQ scores, and manual preference. Soulières' team also rigged up a test-taking mechanism inside an fMRI scanner, with each participant being made to take first a simple pattern-matching test and then a Raven's Progressive Matrices (RPM) test within that mechanism. Soulières' team then compared the test results and the brain scanning images across the two study groups and interpreted the findings.

The experiment and its findings would have remained straightforward if it were not for an unexpected anomaly in the results. Although the autistic and non-autistic groups scored with similar accuracy on the RPM test, the autistic group was about forty percent quicker on average in completing the test. This led to some discussion about how to interpret the surprising result, and it also spurred the Soulières team to look at the fMRI images in two different ways, one designed to factor out the faster performance effect. In the final analysis, the anomaly was taken as a potentially significant, but not yet fully understood phenomenon, and the fMRI images were judged to be mostly unaffected by the between-group differences in performance times. Finally, getting back to what the experiment was originally designed to measure, the Soulières team judged that the fMRI images revealed some small, but significant neuronal differences between the autistic and non-autistic groups when answering RPM questions, and in particular judged that the autistic group seemed to be displaying a potential bias towards increased (enhanced) use of visual processing mechanisms to aid with reasoning tasks.

When I first read the press reports that came out upon publication of EVP, my initial surprise was not that the autistic group was forty percent quicker in answering RPM questions, my initial surprise was that the autistic group was not more accurate in answering RPM questions. The press reports (indeed, the abstract too) suggested that the autistic group had been matched to the non-autistic group on Wechsler scores and yet had performed with similar accuracy on the RPM questions. This would run counter to previous Mottron team findings, in particular those of The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (Dawson, Soulières, Gernsbacher, and Mottron, 2007), which showed that autistic individuals tend to perform relatively better on RPM tests than on Wechsler exams. The details of EVP, however, appear to reveal a slightly different story than is suggested by the press reports and the abstract. On average, the autistic group scored about 101 on the Wechsler full scale, while the non-autistic group scored about 106, and the autistic group scored with about 76% accuracy on RPM, while the non-autistic group scored around 74%. It is not clear to me if these differences add up to statistical significance (and of course the recruitment procedures of EVP might also have skewed the results—although there is nothing in the paper to suggest this possibility), but an eyeball estimate suggests that the findings of Dawson, et al. still hold, and I suppose if we add in the speedier performance of the autistic group in answering the RPM questions, it seems reasonable to say that autistic individuals continue to show relatively better performance on RPM than would be suggested by their full scale Wechsler scores.

Now, about that faster performance finding.

In some respects, the finding that the autistic group was forty percent faster than the non-autistic group in answering RPM questions is a bit of a distraction within EVP. I can certainly understand why the authors included the finding and discussed it at some length—the between-group difference is too large to simply ignore. On the other hand, there are many factors that make it difficult, if not impossible, to draw any meaningful conclusions from the result.

The first problem of course is that RPM is not a timed test. RPM test takers are instructed to take as much time as is deemed necessary to feel reasonably certain about their answers, and these instructions were the ones given to the EVP participants. Furthermore, all the statistical information ever gathered around RPM has been compiled under conditions of a non-timed test, so in a certain sense, it is a violation of the spirit of RPM to even measure the amount of time it takes a participant to answer the questions, let alone report on those measurements. (Or to put it in perspective, a test taker who gets 35 questions correct in an hour is deemed to have performed better than a test taker who gets 34 questions correct in two minutes flat—speed has simply never been a factor in judging RPM performance.) Indeed, perhaps the first thing to do in determining whether EVP's faster performance finding is meaningful would be to repeat the experiment with a different set of instructions—instructions designed to make it clear that time is being measured and that speedier performance is somehow going to be judged as “better”—and see if those instructions affect the overall results. Such an experiment would of course be an even greater violation of the spirit of RPM, although at this point, I would have to say, in for a penny, in for a pound. None of this is meant as criticism, by the way—again, I understand the reasons the EVP authors reported on the finding—but I also want to make it clear that the entire circumstances of the finding are already resting on shaky ground.

If, however, we put aside those concerns momentarily, we can still discuss tentatively what the faster RPM performance from the autistic group is suggesting, and indeed that is the approach the EVP authors have taken. In short, the EVP authors posit that the faster performance might be indicative of an underlying processing “advantage” in the autistic group, one loosely tied to the visual processing differences seen in the fMRI results. At the same time, the authors are upfront about admitting that it is impossible to rule out, without further investigation, other plausible explanations—explanations that would have little to do with any advantages in reasoning skill. I would tentatively concur with such an analysis, but I would also like to consider a few more details than were discussed in the paper itself.

The test-taking conditions in the EVP experiment are highly unusual. Most people do not take an RPM test within the confines of an fMRI scanner. Such conditions are generally uncomfortable—loud and often claustrophobic—and certain individuals, at least after awhile, might feel highly motivated to answer questions quickly and bring the test to an end (God knows, I would feel that way). If it turns out, for instance, that autistic individuals feel this urge more strongly than do non-autistic individuals, that would explain at least in part their relative haste, but it would also have very little to say about their reasoning skills.

At the other end of the significance scale, one plausible explanation for the between-group time difference relates to a finding from another paper several of the EVP authors participated in: Cognitive Differences in Pictorial Reasoning Between High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome (Sahyoun, Soulières, Belliveau, Mottron, and Mody, 2009). In short, that paper demonstrates that autistic individuals appear to favor visuospatial processing strategies over semantic or linguistic strategies, more so than would be the case for non-autistic individuals (and more so than would be the case for Asperger's individuals, but it is important to keep in mind that Asperger's individuals were excluded from the EVP study). Although between-group response times were similar on the simple pattern matching test of EVP, one can surmise that such simple and straightforward visual patterns are going to be processed quickly and similarly by all. The RPM questions, however, are an entirely different story. RPM questions are complex and multi-dimensional, enough so that they can be tackled effectively through a variety of strategies. One approach, for instance, would be to try literally to see the patterns emerge; that is, tackle the problems visually. Another approach would be to talk one's way through the problem; e.g., “there are three dots in the upper left in the first square, there are just two dots in the middle in the second square, and so there must be one dot in the lower right in the last square, …”; that is, tackle the problem with a linguistic or semantic strategy (this is the manner in which I would approach RPM problems, for instance). Both strategies, and perhaps others as well, can be effective in determining the correct answer, but given that the RPM test is visually set, it would seem reasonable to surmise that those using a visually based strategy might have a built-in advantage for being quicker, because there is less cognitive translation required for such an effort. (This, by the way, would justify the decision to set RPM as a non-timed test.)

Such an explanation would actually fit in quite nicely with EVP's thesis that autistic individuals rely more heavily on visual processing abilities in the performance of reasoning tasks, but such an explanation would also present the EVP authors with a potentially confounding issue—namely, is the EVP experiment picking up a true autistic versus non-autistic reasoning difference, or is it instead picking up a visuospatial style versus semantic style difference? That question would extend to the fMRI results as well, so it is important to give it some consideration. The fact that autistic individuals may be more visual in their approach to problem solving than non-autistic individuals is certainly interesting and significant, but I am not sure that by itself it captures what is frequently meant by autistic versus non-autistic reasoning skills. If, for instance, visually-oriented non-autistic individuals show similar performance and fMRI patterns as autistic individuals, then the whole notion that EVP is capturing a true autistic versus non-autistic reasoning difference becomes far more doubtful.

In the end, the 40% greater efficiency finding, although much ballyhooed in the press reports, still represents little more than a tempting sideshow at the moment, with a whole host of possibilities lined up to account for the surprising result. Perhaps Dr. Soulières' team will in the future have the opportunity to explore the discovery in greater detail, and maybe then we can draw some more definitive conclusions.

And now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

The main purpose of EVP is to compare autistic versus non-autistic brain activity during the performance of a complex reasoning task. This is in keeping with the vernacular that the autistic brain is somehow “wired” differently, and in particular, EVP explores the hypothesis that autistic individuals make greater use of perceptual (especially visual) neural processing mechanisms during cognitive tasks.

There is an interesting historical background to this hypothesis that I want to take some time to recall. In 2006, an unusual paper was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders called Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: an Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006, hereafter referred to as EPF). I say unusual, because EPF is perhaps the most schismatic research paper I have yet to encounter. If one were to remove principles 6 and 7 (and to some extent, principle 5) from that paper, all that would remain is a straightforward description of autistic cognition as biased towards local processing and detail discrimination, possibly caused by a different brain structure biased towards enhanced perceptual processing. This is an interesting and somewhat novel approach, yet it is not all that different in kind from other research-oriented descriptions of autistic behavior and cognition, and is not all that applicable in a broader and anthropological sense. But injected right into the middle of this rather dry description of autistic psychiatry and neurology comes suddenly a fascinating use of the characteristics of savant syndrome to highlight the distinctive perceptual characteristics of autistic thinking, replete with an enlightening new emphasis on the role that environmental patterns, symmetries and structure can play in the development and presentation of savant and autistic cognition. Furthermore, this discussion of principles 6 and 7 takes on an entirely different tone from the rest of the paper, for suddenly gone is the over reliance on psychiatric and experimental literature, and in its place is substituted a more conceptual description of autistic perception and cognition. In the modern sense of the word, this discussion is less “scientific” than the rest of EPF, but it is also demonstrably more fruitful and broadly applicable, to the point of being anthropologically stunning. In EPF, principles 6 and 7 appear like a bolt from the blue.

I have written elsewhere about these two aspects of EPF (one aspect which I have clearly enjoyed, one aspect which I am less thrilled about), but it is important to note that if in the year 2006, EPF was like a cell getting ready to divide, by 2009 that division has been thoroughly accomplished. Members associated with Laurent Mottron's research team have published two significant papers this year. First, in Enhanced Perception in Savant Syndrome: Patterns, Structure, and Creativity (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, 2009, hereafter referred to as EPSS), the team has put together a more complete reflection upon EPF's principles 6 and 7, backed now by a richer catalog of case studies, but still essentially a conceptual description of autistic perception, as opposed to being a scientific hypothesis supported by a plethora of experimental evidence. In contrast, they have also published EVP, the paper under discussion here, one that more clearly aligns to those aspects of EPF that were concentrated on the psychiatry and neurology behind enhanced perceptual processing, an effort now being supported in the most direct manner possible by the techniques of experimental science.

Of course, it is possible the members of the Mottron team do not appreciate my attempts to divide their work so thoroughly down the middle—I suspect they might see their two recent papers as simply different views onto a model they conceive of as constituting a whole. But I want to insist upon making the distinction, because from my point of view I see one of these approaches as holding the potential for providing abundant knowledge about the nature of autism—as well as providing abundant knowledge about the nature of mankind—whereas I see the other approach leading mostly to a scientific dead end. Since I have already written abundantly and effusively about the unlimited value to be found inside the pages of EPSS, let me now correspondingly add my reasons for believing that the findings of EVP hold a high likelihood of leading nowhere.

The problem is not with EVP itself. As I have said, EVP is extremely well done, and in many respects we owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Soulières and her team for demonstrating the leading edge of what neuroimaging has to offer for providing an affirmative description of the characteristics of the autistic brain. That I believe these efforts ultimately reveal very little is to be attributed more directly to the shortcomings of neuroscience itself—and neuroimaging in particular—disciplines that, despite their widely advertised promise, are constructed upon logical foundations that are dubious at best. Therefore let me use the findings of EVP to explore the current state of neuroimaging science, and let me see if the discipline really has that much to offer in the way of helping us narrow in on the qualities of autistic intelligence and reasoning. There are many logical and conceptual problems I might list, but let me start with just these:

The neural activity of autistic and non-autistic individuals is far more similar than it is different, a fact that is not given its true weight in assessments of the brain's role in human cognitive tasks. EVP admits to the large overall similarity between autistic and non-autistic neural activity during RPM tasks, but since it does so with only a single sentence or two, and then devotes its remaining sentences to a thorough analysis of the subtle distinctions, I think it is important to take a step back and put things in proper perspective. If we are to believe the assumption that the brain is the primary source of reasoning/intelligence activities, then all neural activity observed during a reasoning task must be given its due weight, and on that basis alone, we would have to conclude that autistics and non-autistics cognate in essentially the same manner, the differences being slight at best. That is what the overall fMRI evidence strongly suggests.

Of course, there are known domains in which marginal differences can be important, but that tends to happen only when the entity under study leverages a much larger context. That larger context, however, is exactly what modern neuroscience does not consider. Cognitive scientists study the human brain so intensely because for them the human brain is the alpha and omega of human cognitive activity—all the secrets are to be found within the confines of the human skull. In consequence, cognitive scientists are left with an overriding conundrum of how to explain wholesale cognitive distinctions on the basis of only minor-scale neural differences. That conundrum is on full display in EVP.

Neuroimaging technology is still extremely crude, its expense notwithstanding. A nice touch within the EVP paper is its inclusion of a set of fMRI composites, pictures that might easily dazzle the reader if they were not by comparison—comparison to the pictures of a disposable camera, for instance—so incredibly crude. Indeed, such a comparison is extremely apt, for a tourist taking snapshots of the Parthenon, let's say, can record a wealth of accurate detail about human intelligence and reasoning—structure, pattern, style, history, and the like; and although neuroscientists no doubt desire to reveal a similar set of cognitive characteristics, even at a more nuanced level of detail, it is hard to make those kinds of distinctions when dealing with little more than a collection of colorful blobs.

I suspect the reason most people are dazzled by fMRI pictures, and the reason most scientists place such incredible faith in their fMRI results—despite the obvious coarseness of the data—is because the technology is so darned sophisticated and new, not to mention so darned expensive; technology costing that much and qualifying as a genuine modern medical marvel must surely have something significant to impart. But of course such reasoning is not an example of brilliant science: it is instead a textbook example of a logical fallacy. The price and sophistication of the equipment has nothing to do with the value of its output; only the quality of the resulting data can have a bearing on its importance, and on that basis, neuroimaging still has an incredibly long ways to go.

It is easy to confuse neural difference with neural causation, a mistake neuroscientists will make at the drop of a hat. Let me demonstrate with an analogy. Imagine a tribe of people in which a small minority of children are trained from birth to become high jumpers. They practice, they work with weights, they compete—a good portion of their early life is devoted to gaining an extra defiance of the planet's gravity. Then a naïve group of researchers decides to study this tribe of people, and in particular wishes to discover what turns some of these people into such unusually prodigious leapers. They do this study by performing muscle scans on comparison groups of high jumpers versus non-high jumpers as the participants progress through a series of physical activities, and the published findings reveal that the high jumping group has some small but significant differences in their quadricep, hamstring and calf muscle systems.

Now if the researchers stopped there, there would be no problem: they are simply reporting the data. But of course we know the researchers will not stop there, we know precisely what is coming next. The researchers will then announce, with great fanfare, that the muscle distinctions they have discovered in the high jumping group are the actual cause of the high jumping phenomenon. (And if we were to extend this analogy to autism science, the researchers would next propose some surgical procedures whereby to remove the muscle differences and return the high jumpers back to normal.)

The crux of the Mottron team's enhanced perceptual functioning hypothesis turns on whether that hypothesis is meant as a description or an explanation. A description I would not mind at all, but an explanation I object to vehemently. It is not always clear to me where the Mottron team stands on this distinction, but if the title of EVP is to be given any weight, then I suspect the team is tilting in the wrong direction.

Few people would disagree that autistics and non-autistics cognate differently, and so neural differences are certainly to be expected (indeed, perhaps the most surprising finding in EVP is the neural similarity observed on the simple pattern matching task). But of course autistics cognate differently right from birth, and so when we take fMRIs of their brain activity many years later, we have no way of easily assessing whether we are observing neural causes or neural effects. Under the circumstances, I would think the latter would get initial preference, but then again, I am not a neuroscientist.

The lack of any plausible mechanism connecting neural activity to observable cognitive behavior allows neuroscientists unfettered creativity in explaining their results. Scientists, quite rightly, dismiss the vaccines-causes-autism hypothesis by noting there is no plausible mechanism connecting the ingredients and actions of vaccines with the observable behaviors of autistic individuals. Then those very same scientists will turn right around and promote the output of their neuroimaging studies as explanations for certain types of observable cognitive activity. Simply amazing.

Near the end of EVP, in the section entitled “Origin of Neural Differences in Matrix Reasoning Between Autistics and Non-Autistics,” the EVP authors attempt to explain how their neural findings might give rise to certain types of autistic cognitive behavior. They do this mostly by appealing to the findings of other neuroscience studies, studies focused on such things as white matter microstructure and functional connectivity differences, studies which have found that autistic individuals seem to have less neural connectivity between, for instance, the prefrontal and occipital regions of the brain. The authors then lend their support to some theorizing that suggests this reduced connectivity produces compensatory activity in perceptual mechanisms, leading perhaps to a unique autistic cognitive signature. All this sounds scientific enough, but note what would happen if, for the sake of argument, the other neuroscience studies had found something entirely different, for instance that autistics had an overabundance of connectivity between the prefrontal and occipital regions. Would this turn everyone's theorizing around 180 degrees? Well, of course not, not at all. What would then happen is that we would get some kind of explanation about how the abundant connectivity was too much, too overwhelming, producing the equivalent of a neural traffic jam, and the compensatory activity of the perceptual mechanisms was therefore like taking an alternative route to work. In point of fact, it would not matter if autistics displayed under-connectivity, over-connectivity, or had their synapses tied together with pink, curly bows, neuroscientists would use whatever they found to cook up some type of explanation about the differential cognitive activity of autistic individuals. And what, you ask, could possibly give rise to such an unlimited degree of explanatory freedom? Well, what gives rise to this phenomenon is that neuroscientists have no plausible mechanism linking the neural activity they measure in their studies to the observable cognitive behavior of actual human beings. The conceptual gap here is at least as wide as that between thimerosal and autism—perhaps much wider—and into the space of that gap neuroscientists feel free to insert whatever convenient explanation they like. And boy do they ever!

Neuroscience remains blissfully ignorant of human history, and in particular remains blissfully ignorant of the Flynn effect. This seems to be a blind spot for all of neuroscience, but is particularly relevant for the experiment conducted in EVP. The type of intelligence being measured with RPM has undergone a rapid increase through the latter half of the twentieth century, an increase almost certainly experienced by both the autistic and non-autistic populations (indeed, experienced by all human populations). Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, there is no reason to believe the Flynn effect is restricted to the twentieth century alone: how well can we expect an average human to have scored on an RPM-type test say ten thousand years ago? No, the Flynn effect has been with humanity since at least the time of the great leap forward, and so any direct observations being made of human intelligence and reasoning—even neuroimaging observations—are observations of a phenomenon that, historically speaking, has been exceptionally non-static.

Thus do we want to insist that we can literally see human reasoning and intelligence within the biology of the human brain? How are we to accommodate evolutionarily static brain biology to an historically non-static Flynn effect? And note that these problems are actually doubled in EVP, which by positing two different neural reasoning mechanisms for the human brain, one autistic and one not, leaves the biological problem of the Flynn effect now to be answered times two.

Yes, there is observable neural activity during the performance of an RPM task, but does that neural activity equate to human reasoning and intelligence? The evidence of the Flynn effect votes a resounding no.

Nearly all the above-listed problems can be traced to one overriding logical fallacy, namely the unquestioned acceptance that human brain activity is sufficient to explain human cognitive functioning. The widespread belief in this assumption competes only with the notion that evolution explains every biological and cultural process for being modern science's greatest logical misstep. Such widespread belief is, to put it simply, a clear and massive instance of assuming what needs to be shown.

I have tried to demonstrate in several places (for instance here and here) that much of human cognition—intelligence, learning, language, etc.—can be more accurately and more fruitfully described by appealing not to the workings of the human brain, but instead by appealing to the fast-changing, self-constructed form of the human environment (and the members of the Mottron team too have been making that demonstration within the pages of EPSS—whether they realize it or not). I am open to a valid criticism of that argument, just as I am open to any effective demonstration of neural causation for human cognitive activity. But when the debate is always conducted as though the answer is already known, I find it nearly impossible to achieve any meaningful progress.

I am not certain where this unquestioned reliance on the human brain has come from. Perhaps it has originated out of those case studies where someone has been damaged in a section of their brain (Broca's Area, for example) and has correspondingly lost a portion of their cognitive functioning (their speech, for instance). But I assure you, if I yank someone's heart from out of their chest, they will also lose a good portion of their cognitive activity, but that does not justify my making the cardiovascular system the ultimate explanation for human reasoning and intelligence. It is hard to believe so many scientists cannot make the proper distinction between the concepts of necessity and sufficiency, but sad to say, when it comes to human cognition and the human brain, that mistake is nearly universal.

In conclusion, I confess to some ambivalence when I see Dr. Soulières, Dr. Mottron, and the rest of their colleagues listed as authors on an autism-specific neuroimaging study. On the one hand, they are doing me an immense favor, for a brain-specific approach to describing autistic cognition presents a sharp challenge to many of my own ideas about autism, a challenge that, in the interest of achieving greater acuity, I gladly welcome. And since I do not have the resources or means (or desire, for that matter) to conduct such studies myself, I am pleased to see them being conducted by scientists whose intelligence and integrity I can trust. The members of the Mottron team have built a rich history of providing positive, creative and informative insights into the nature of autism, and to the extent any neuroimaging approach might advance our understanding of the autistic brain, I suspect that team will achieve the goal as well as any other. EVP's authors are to be congratulated for their careful and considered effort.

But on the other hand, from a more practical point of view, I know time and resources are limited, and there are still so many autistic individuals in need of a greater understanding. The poignancy here is that the Mottron team has already developed an alternative approach to describing autism that possesses nearly unlimited potential for providing greater insight. Outside the confines of mainstream autism science, and outside the confines of the human skull, the Mottron team has been advancing an understanding of autistic individuals through an appeal to the autistic cognitive environment, an environment best described through the surrounding presence of pattern, structure and form. In my opinion, that effort possesses no discernible bounds: it holds promise for describing autistic individuals as they truly are, and it holds promise for revealing the remarkable influence of autistic cognition upon the entire human species.

If the Mottron team wishes to supplement these excellent ideas by exploring neuroscience as well, it is not for me to make an objection. But I hope they will at least consider my challenges to the foundations of neuroscience; I hope they will at least consider that a brain-based approach is almost certainly going to be more limited. The glory of autistic individuals, including the glory of their surprising impact upon the human population, is to be discovered in the abundance of their surrounding cognitive circumstances, and not in what exists inside their heads.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Context of Neuroimaging

One does not understand an accounting program by taking electronic measurement of all the chips, wires and disks. Strangely enough, one needs to know something about accounting before any of those readings make sense.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Massive Hunt

As we approach an ever more accurate assessment of autism's prevalence within the human population, the cry grows ever more shrill to identify autism's environmental cause. Never mind that we have been searching diligently for that cause for more than a decade now and have yet to find its first trace. Never mind all that, because autism has unquestionably reached an epidemic stage, and with autism such a devastating illness, especially untreated, we could not have overlooked its devastating consequences in all the years before (and no, there is no need to question such obvious assumptions). Look harder, look faster: autism's environmental cause has to be there.

In the late nineteenth century, scientists embarked on a massive hunt for the luminiferous ether. Never mind that they had been searching diligently for the ether for quite some time and had yet to find its first trace. Never mind all that, because light's properties were unquestionably those of waves, and with the characteristics of space, time and energy so well understood, the absence of a propagating medium was something quite unthinkable (and no, there was no need to question such obvious assumptions). The scientists looked harder, looked faster: the luminiferous ether had to be there.

The Massive Hunt Redux

While we are on the topic of searches both far and wide, let me highlight again the bad news for those who have made finding the genetic cause of autism their life's pursuit: when Mark Blaxill can legitimately blow a hole in your most advanced research, you know something about your assumptions has gone horribly wrong.

(By the way, has anyone discovered yet how to get Mr. Blaxill to apply his analytic prowess to his own irrational theories?)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carving Up the Spectrum

Harold Doherty yearns for the day when the autism spectrum can be amputated of all who do not meet his personal criteria for being low-functioning and severe. But note how odd his argument sounds when juxtaposed to the very evidence Mr. Doherty calls on his own behalf. Mr. Doherty says: the “I Am Autism” video is directed at the depiction of some of the harsh realities that often accompany Autistic Disorder.

But in point of fact, that video contradicts Mr. Doherty's yearning. “I Am Autism” presents a fairly sizable number of individuals, and I am certain if their diagnoses were checked, not all would have Autistic Disorder. More than likely, the individuals presented in the “I Am Autism” video would represent quite the range of current outcomes—from those Mr. Doherty might characterize as low-functioning or severe, to those many would agree are high functioning, or perhaps even (gasp) Aspergers.

Ironically enough, it is the producers of “I Am Autism” who gather these individuals under the common heading of autism. It is the producers of “I Am Autism” who see no reason to make any distinction. For them, autism of any kind is something inherently evil—something to be battled against and eradicated forthwith.

It is true, Mr. Doherty, that the producers of “I Am Autism” would indeed amputate from the autism spectrum all who do not meet your personal criteria for being low-functioning and severe. But they are not going to stop just there—they are going to amputate all the rest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Geraldine Dawson's Reply

[Dr. Geraldine Dawson has replied, in a manner of speaking, to my open letter to her. It is a stock reply, one that I imagine is similar to others being sent out by Autism Speaks at this time. It is reproduced in its entirety below. My response can be found in the comments.]

Dear Mr. Griswold,

Thank you very much for sending me your letter and telling me about your perspective and feelings regarding the “I Am Autism” video. I understand and respect your perspective and I am truly sorry that the film offended you. The video was not intended to reflect Autism Speaks broader viewpoint or attitude toward persons with autism spectrum disorder. Rather, it was created by two fathers of children with autism – Billy Mann, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, music producer and Autism Speaks board member, and Alfonso Cuarón, an Academy award-nominated film director. It is based on a personal poem written by Mr. Mann. It is an intensely personal expression by these two fathers. It was their hope that the piece would inspire other voices and artists in the autism community. It has greatly offended some people, however, and we have removed it from our website.

Again, thank you for writing to me and sharing your thoughts. You can rest assured that I will continue to advocate for a respectful and compassionate attitude and support for persons with autism spectrum disorder.


Geri Dawson

Friday, September 25, 2009

Laurent Mottron's Reply

[Dr. Laurent Mottron has replied to my open letter to him, and has given his permission for that reply to be posted here.]

I see three alternative ways to change a damaging system/ideology: fight it directly, build something else which is more convincing, or lastly, become the head of this system, then change it. I would call the last one the gorbachevian position. Whereas I used the first two ways at various levels (specially in our clinical organization, and in various influences we have as policy makers in Quebec), I chose the third way for science. Because no scientific person will listen to you if you are not one of them. So we apply to regular journals, and to regular peer-reviewed grant committees.

I have the same profound repulsion for this video as all of you have. I do not fear the possible consequences on the neutrality of the Autism Speaks jury because of public declarations against some aspect of their work - you know that Gadfly repeatedly writes that Autism Speaks should not finance us. But in the meantime, I will go on applying to these committees, and spend their money when we get it, for the best research we can do with it. For example, I. Soulières' fMRI paper has been financed by these funds. I profoundly think that the long-term effect of this research is more important than the ethical issue raised by the way AS gets this money.

Lastly, this organization (Autism Speaks) is heterogeneous. Its peer review committee functions according to democratic, non-ostracizing and scientific rules, although parts of Autism Speaks' ideology and fund-raising style are terrible. Overall, I do not feel condemned to a global rejection of this organization.

L. Mottron

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Open Letter to Geraldine Dawson

September 23, 2009

Dr. Geraldine Dawson

Chief Science Officer

Autism Speaks

Dr. Dawson,

I am calling on you to denounce the Autism Speaks video “I Am Autism” as hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, and I am calling on you to reconsider your employment with Autism Speaks, an organization that is exploitative of autistic individuals, and unscientific and unethical in its day-to-day practices and fund-raising campaigns.

As the parent of an autistic child who is loved deeply for all his characteristics, including—indeed, most especially—his autism, I can tell you that the “I Am Autism” video is disgusting on every level. It perpetuates stereotypes, it presents as fact statements that are not backed by a shred of scientific evidence, and it exploits the images of autistic individuals without their consent. The video is heinously reminiscent of the NYU Child Study Center's widely condemned Ransom Notes campaign, and it demonstrates the depths of cruelty and ignorance to which an autism charitable organization can sink when that organization deliberately excludes the input and participation of autistic individuals.

A similar exploitative and offensive treatment of a different minority group would be considered tantamount to a hate crime (for instance, can you imagine how a similar “I Am Homosexuality” video would be received): it is no less of a hate crime when it is autistic individuals who are the victims of such abuse.

Your association with this video, as well as your association with the organization that stands behind it, calls into question more than just your reputation as a scientist. It calls into question your very humanity. Denounce this video. Use your influence as an officer of Autism Speaks to demand both its removal and the immediate issuance of an apology. And if such efforts do not succeed, I call on you to consider the wisdom of your continuing employment with such a repulsive organization.

The harmful practices of Autism Speaks survive only on the tacit approval of those who should know better. It is not too late for you to make a difference: remove your tacit approval.

Respectfully and urgently,

Alan Griswold

An Open Letter to Laurent Mottron

September 23, 2009

Dr. Laurent Mottron

Centre de recherche Fernand-Seguin

Hopital Riviere-des-Prairies

Montreal, Canada

Dr. Mottron,

I am calling on you to denounce the Autism Speaks video “I Am Autism” as hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, and I am calling on you to reconsider your acceptance of funding from Autism Speaks, an organization that is exploitative of autistic individuals, and unscientific and unethical in its day-to-day practices and fund-raising campaigns.

As the parent of an autistic child who is loved deeply for all his characteristics, including—indeed, most especially—his autism, I can tell you that the “I Am Autism” video is disgusting on every level. It perpetuates stereotypes, it presents as fact statements that are not backed by a shred of scientific evidence, and it exploits the images of autistic individuals without their consent. The video is heinously reminiscent of the NYU Child Study Center's widely condemned Ransom Notes campaign, and it demonstrates the depths of cruelty and ignorance to which an autism charitable organization can sink when that organization deliberately excludes the input and participation of autistic individuals.

As you know, I hold the work of both you and your research team in the very highest regard. Your efforts have contributed to the knowledge about the strengths of autistic individuals and have highlighted the many positive contributions autistic individuals have to make. While I understand the difficult task you face in running a research enterprise and in obtaining adequate funding for your work, you must realize that accepting significant money from Autism Speaks, an organization openly hostile and offensive to autistic individuals, serves only to undercut the very nature of your work. No matter how alluring or seemingly harmless such funding might initially appear, in the end association with an organization such as Autism Speaks becomes all too obviously, and all too tragically, a pact with the devil.

Openly denounce the “I Am Autism” video. Use your influence as a respected autism scientist to urge your colleagues to do the same. And if your efforts to reform the deeds of Autism Speaks do not succeed, I call on you to reconsider the wisdom of continuing to accept funding from such a repulsive organization.

The harmful practices of Autism Speaks survive only on the tacit approval of those who should know better. It is not too late for you to make a difference: remove your tacit approval.

Respectfully and urgently,

Alan Griswold

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the Evils of Co-authorship

Tyler Cowen and Michelle Dawson are both excellent writers. Although I am only recently familiar with Mr. Cowen's work, the popularity of both his blog and his books speaks for itself, and in reading through samples of Cowen's accessible, yet information-packed prose, I can understand how his appeal has become both broad and respected. Furthermore, Cowen recently penned a truly remarkable essay entitled Autism as Academic Paradigm, which infuses a surprising breath of fresh air into the musty, platitude-filled discussions surrounding autism as disorder and disease. My heartiest congratulations to Mr. Cowen for that invigorating effort.

And Michelle Dawson, in her own unique fashion, has also revealed an exceptional talent for the written word. As evidence I need search no further than her early paper The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists, which for whatever flaws of inexperience it might happen to reveal, still stands in my opinion as perhaps the finest example of autism-related literature yet to be crafted.

So individually, Cowen and Dawson need never fear for their abilities as writers. But as co-authors? Well, here I am not so sure.

Mr. Cowen and Ms. Dawson have recently co-written a paper entitled What Does the Turing Test Really Mean? And How Many Human Beings (Including Turing) Could Pass? Now let me be clear: I do not want to dissuade anyone from reading that paper, for it certainly contains some valuable and innovative suggestions about yet another paper, Alan Turing's lovely essay entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, written for the journal Mind back in 1950. Cowen and Dawson open a new perspective on Turing's work, highlighting how Turing's casual argument has as much to tell us about anthropomorphism, education, ostracism and the like, as it has to say about artificial intelligence. Perhaps I as much as anyone else can appreciate that particular aspect of the Cowen and Dawson paper, for I too have been puzzled as to why it has been primarily (if not solely) the Turing test that history has chosen to hand down from Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when in fact the essay itself seems to be pointing in such a large variety of directions. Cowen and Dawson have my gratitude for helping me feel not so alone in that particular puzzlement.

Yet for all its merits in pointing out these wide-ranging aspects of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, the Cowen and Dawson paper still comes off as something of a disappointment. It is not any specific content that spurs my concern; in truth, it is more a question of structure and tone. For a paper that purports to offer a significantly different perspective on Turing's widely read and assumed-to-be widely understood essay, Cowen and Dawson remain remarkably circumspect in their overall approach. The paper's introduction barely tiptoes to its main point, and where the argument might then spring forth as suddenly decisive and bold, it instead continues to pull all its punches, content to offer little more than hints and suggestions about Turing's possible intentions, as though the real wallop were to be found in the secondary sources (it is not). Then in further deference to convention, as though they have already offended too much, Cowen and Dawson choose to adopt many of the accouterments of academic scholarship for their paper, when scholarship appears to be the last thing required. (I would note that when Turing himself resorts to some academic garb—the Thomas Aquinas reference, for instance—as though he had been assured at least a dab of this were necessary, he comes off as somewhat awkward and naïve, and thus decidedly adorable; whereas when Cowen and Dawson accurately employ the structures and paradigms of modern scholarship, they come off as professional and authoritative, and thus decidedly not adorable.)

In the end, the Cowen and Dawson paper sounds fractured and hesitant to me, a bit like subversive treatise meets philosophical fireside chat meets undergraduate term paper. Or to put it more concisely, if I were to use just a single word to describe what seems to be missing from the Cowen and Dawson paper, that word would have to be voice.

And in this sense, it would be useful to compare the Cowen and Dawson paper to its target subject. For the Turing essay too is in many ways not a thing of beauty: it meanders, it is far too self-conscious, its phrasing at times can reach the point of painful awkwardness. Yet for all that, Turing's essay reads with considerable charm, and the source of that charm never strays far from view. What drives Computing Machinery and Intelligence, what holds it together in both substance and form, is the intensely focused, abundantly original intellect standing nakedly exposed behind all its scattered conjecture. Turing takes what might have been construed as (and too often is) simply a technical subject, and turns it into a daring, heartfelt cry against the confines of human convention. Turing's essay has personality at its core, a personality that pervades the essay's entire length—its style, its arguments, even its flaws. Hell, that personality pervades all the proposed machines!

The Cowen and Dawson paper is useful because it highlights these characteristics of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, suggesting to readers that they set aside their usual interest in machine intelligence for at least a moment, and concentrate instead on that unusual, misunderstood, yet utterly brilliant intellect haunting the pages of Turing's essay. And yet ironically enough, it is precisely that characteristic, the one they themselves are pointing out, that is conspicuously absent from the Cowen and Dawson paper itself. Whereas in Turing's essay we encounter bold challenges, offbeat drama and cheeky jokes, in Cowen and Dawson we are subjected to academic innuendo, deference to authority, and a reference list. Whereas the Turing essay is held together by the intense, subversive and naïve charm of a uniquely driven mind, the Cowen and Dawson paper is held together mostly by the conventions of community—in this case, a community of two.

In Tyler Cowen's recent book, Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World (a one-author book that is a pretty decent read, by the way), Cowen trumpets the virtues of humanity's new era of massively promulgated information and ubiquitous intercommunication—our brave new world of digital catalogs, search engines, social networks and even Twitter. And far be it from me to disparage anything about these recent innovations, for after all, I am one of those who make a comfortable living navigating the paths of this now electronically intertwined world. But as we continue celebrating these newfound abilities to sort through reams of cascading data, to search for exciting new patterns within a seeming chaos of information, and to enjoy fulfilling opportunities to, yes, more easily collaborate, let us not forget that there remains also—as there always has—an alternative, seemingly less efficient means whereby to achieve significant human advancement.

What is needed sometimes is not more, but less. When floods of information turn into common, all-too-familiar property of all, when searched-for patterns atrophy into nothing but a well-worn groove, when massive collaboration coagulates into a massive conventionality, what is needed then is not further speeding up of the process, not a more abundant reaping of more copious detail, not a greater efficiency at talking things through. What is needed then is something quite different—radically different, I would say, and yet remarkably close at hand. What is needed then is the kind of insight that might be found only in circumstances of near loneliness—say in empty corridors tread well beyond midnight, or perhaps on the gravelly paths of unaccompanied runs about Bletchley Park.

Collaboration, teamwork, co-authorship—I admit they have their place, they can have their value. But when the purpose is revolutionary, even in the smallest degree, how radical can any idea be when it is already shared by more than one. As this world becomes informationally richer and as we gather more detail into an ever more populated space, let us not forget that what brought us into these circumstances, what dragged us out of our animal past and into the glory of a near infinite future, was not the conventionality of community, but instead the daringly unconventional voice of the solitary individual.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Broad Survey of Autism Research Journals

Is it my imagination, or should the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders be renamed Rodent Quarterly?

And while we are at it, why is Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders not called The Matson Mouthpiece?

And did I miss an announcement or something? About the discovery of the molecular basis for autism? For I see we are soon to be graced with a new research journal, Molecular Autism, so I assume there is reason to believe that title makes sense. (Or am I misunderstanding, and this is actually slated to be a fiction review?)

I agree with those who would urge a greater familiarity with the autism science. Now if they would just tell me where I could find some.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Logic for Autistics

As a subject of investigation, logic has undergone a surge in development over the past one hundred fifty years, resulting in enhanced clarification of the topic and a wider application to much of human endeavor. Iconic names such as Boole, Peirce, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Tarski and Gödel all have contributed groundbreaking insights, their advancements leading not only to transformations within the field of logic itself, but spawning also concomitant reappraisals in such areas as mathematics, science and linguistics. This past century and a half has seen logic's golden era.

Yet for all that, critical questions remain unresolved at logic's core. To put it bluntly, we still have not found an effective way to describe fundamentally what gives rise to logical properties, and perhaps just as importantly, we have yet to uncover a plausible explanation for how logic must have originated in man. How is it that humanity has come to possess logical abilities, given that the other animal species display no evidence of possessing similar abilities, and given that the arrival of these characteristics in man—at least their effective arrival—seems to have occurred only quite recently in the species' history?

These questions regarding logic's elemental traits have been pondered by a variety of logicians and philosophers, but in truth only a few have attempted to tackle the problem head on, and only one, Wittgenstein, has danced daringly close to an accurate answer. There is good reason these questions have remained unresolved: in retrospect, we are beginning to realize logicians and philosophers have been hampered in their efforts to understand logic's nature because they have been missing a vital piece of information, and without that piece of information they have been making the tacit assumption that logic must have arisen from an homogeneous form of human perception and cognition. It is only in the last few decades that humanity has begun to realize this tacit assumption is not altogether true and has begun to recognize within itself the condition that stands as the key to unlocking logic's core, a condition that reveals, most crucially, the nature of humanity's surprising cognitive composition.

In this essay I will attempt to shed light on the nature of logic's most fundamental characteristics, and I will offer an answer to the question of how logic first originated in man. I will address these matters not so much logically and philosophically as I will describe them biologically and anthropologically; for in short, it is autism that stands as the key to understanding logic. The thesis of this essay is that logic's fundamental characteristics are generated naturally and spontaneously out of the biological circumstances of autistic perception.

History. In the Western tradition, logic was dominated for more than two millennia by Aristotle's Organon and its emphasis on syllogistic reasoning. The Organon sounds surprisingly modern given its age of origin, but it also lacks enough expressive power to represent the full range of human cognition and inference, and thus in the mid-nineteenth century a revolution began that would quickly overthrow syllogistic logic's enduring reign.

The first stirrings of this revolution can be seen in the work of George Boole, who in likening his laws of thought to the operations of mathematics began a process of treating logic as a type of calculus, one best represented and best manipulated under the guise of a formal symbolism. Shortly thereafter and independently of each other, Charles Sanders Peirce in the United States and Gottlob Frege in Germany introduced several techniques that greatly expanded logic's expressive range—the use of quantifiers, a greater emphasis on relations, and a rigorous employment of functions and variables to illuminate the role of various logical elements. By the time such techniques were gathered under the compilative work of Bertrand Russell, who himself would add important insights on the process of denoting, logic had gained enough expressive power to state precisely nearly all the meaningful assertions that could be made under the headings of inference, mathematics and objective science, and it was upon this foundation that twentieth century logicians Alfred Tarski and Kurt Gödel applied logical technique to logic itself (metalogic) and developed surprising and paradoxical results regarding the power and range of any deductive calculus. Riding the crest of these many developments, modern logic would blossom by the end of the twentieth century (blossom too much, some might say) into a multi-faceted academic industry.

As can be gleaned from the above description, the majority of logic's recent developments have had the effect of changing the manner in which logic is done, but occasionally there have been logicians who have also paused to ask more fundamental questions, in particular to ask what exactly do these new logical developments mean, how are they to be related to human cognition and to the qualities of the experienced world. Gottlob Frege, for instance, frequently pondered the philosophical context of his logical and mathematical innovations, and in such classic works as Concept and Object, On Sense and Reference, and Thought: A Logical Investigation, Frege brings new perspectives to bear upon the notions of meaning, sense, language, object, concept, truth and world. One unusual and highly suggestive aspect of Frege's philosophy is the degree to which he strives ruthlessly to objectify his particular brand of logic. In positing True and False as actual objects of the external world, and in insisting again and again that non-scientific accounts (the stories of the Odyssey, for instance) possess sense but no actual reference, Frege appears to be making a determined effort to banish everything subjective from the privileged domains of logic, mathematics and scientific discourse; and one is left with the distinct impression that Frege's ultimate goal was to purify logic of every last ounce of human influence, as though such influence could only serve to mess things up.

Frege, along with Bertrand Russell, also had the noteworthy impact of inspiring and encouraging a young Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein differs markedly from the other figures in logic's recent history in that he was never interested in developing logic so much as he was driven to describe it and to explain its role (its office, as he was inclined to say). And in a type of subconscious loyalty to his principle regarding the need to show instead of say, Wittgenstein throughout his far-ranging, sometimes fast-changing philosophical career seems to have embodied his most valuable logical insights as much as he managed to state them.

Wittgenstein's early philosophy, crystallized in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, takes as its starting point the logical framework of Frege and Russell, but quickly adds to that framework an orthogonal extension designed to highlight logic's connection to experience, language and the world. And in a surprising twist that would have dismayed Frege (assuming Frege could have understood it), Wittgenstein takes the notion of objectifying logic, of purifying it of all human influence, and turns that notion completely on its head. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein seems to be employing the tools of logic to construct a type of near solipsism, an inspired attempt, as it were, to animate Kierkegaard's cry of “truth is subjectivity” by outlining it with step-by-step instructions. On its surface, the Tractatus still sounds objective and logical, but viewed from within it reads as extraordinarily self-generated—Wittgenstein's startling depiction of the world as he found it, an embodiment of his both unique and universal form of perception.

Although Wittgenstein was initially convinced the Tractatus contained unassailable truth, he grew nonetheless ever more restless with its emphasis on formal logic, and upon returning to philosophy more than a decade after having finished the Tractatus, Wittgenstein began re-examining logic from an entirely different angle. This so-called later philosophy, gathered primarily in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, examines the structure and meaning of ordinary language, and emphasizes not only the role of propositional assertions, but also that of questions, commands and sudden exclamations. Wittgenstein begins to explore the impact of community and what he calls “forms of life” as he attempts to describe the communal scaffolding whereby structure and meaning are shared, and in contrast to both Frege's strident objectivity and to the Tractatus' strident subjectivity, Wittgenstein's later philosophy takes on the style and form of a mutual investigation, an investigation dealing in many ways with a natural history of man.

Academicians like to emphasize the break between Wittgenstein's early and late philosophies, but it should be noted that Wittgenstein's later work does not so much abandon the logic of the Tractatus as it attempts to supplement it. For a period of time Wittgenstein seriously contemplated a project in which the Tractatus would be published side-by-side with his new remarks, each text shedding light and contrast upon the other. Such a side-by-side project would have been visually significant for Wittgenstein, for it would have laid out structurally the nature of the problem most vexing him. Like nearly all the philosophers before him, Wittgenstein had assumed the traits of human logic flowed from a common well, and yet here he had been developing a lifetime of philosophical work—as sincerely as any philosopher ever could—that presented two extremely different aspects of human logic, each of which appeared to be valuable and viable, but each of which appeared to be irreconcilable. Thus it would have been difficult for Wittgenstein to recognize how his two combined philosophies, embracing and embodying these two different aspects of human logic, had managed in a certain sense to unveil logic's mysteries as accurately as anyone ever had, for it would have been difficult for him to reconcile logic's dual emanation from just a single source.

Wittgenstein, of course, lived well before the condition of autism became widely known and more completely described. If Wittgenstein had known about autism, if he had been given a thorough description of autism's distinctive form of perception, I am certain he would have recognized almost immediately autism's direct bearing on his dual presentation of logic. Wittgenstein, as much as anyone else, would have been able to recognize that here was an actual cause—not a philosophical or logical reason, but instead an actual biological and anthropological cause—for the two differing aspects of logic, aspects that as it turns out indeed warrant presentation side-by-side. With an accurate understanding of autism, we can see that the two aspects of logic have in fact two very real sources, sources emanating from the non-homogeneous composition of human cognition. And it is the first aspect of logic—the aspect Frege had tried to purify of human influence, the aspect Wittgenstein had employed in the Tractatus to construct his near solipsism, the aspect generally grouped by logicians under the heading of formal logic—it is that aspect of logic that arises naturally and spontaneously from the conditions of autistic perception.

Description. Autistic perception differs fundamentally from non-autistic perception.

The main characteristic of biological perception is its providing of a sensory foregrounding. Without foregrounding, each organism's broad array of sensory input would be experienced as undifferentiated and chaotic, and therefore it is critical that each organism be able to perceive some type of signal against its background of sensory noise. In the animal kingdom—and this would include man and his long history as a simple primate—evolution has forged a type of biological perception extremely well suited for survival and procreation, a type of perception best described by adjectives such as species-specific or species-focused. Each species member is born with a natural and spontaneous ability to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the other members of the species and on the species' general interests and pursuits, and this ability allows each member to rapidly imitate the others and to assimilate to the species' overall behaviors. This form of focused perception is of course extremely valuable; it allows each population to coalesce around its own members and around its sources of shelter and food, and thus species-specific perception contributes in a fundamental way to the quest for viability. But it should also be noted that this form of perception is so powerful it blocks alternative forms of perception, and thus has the effect of locking each species into a tight biological immediacy. Nowhere in the natural world do we find evidence of comprehensive, detailed perceptions centered on, for instance, the shapes of geography, the cycles of botany, the patterns of weather, or the course of the celestial seasons, for nowhere in the natural world do these items ever manage to achieve perceptual foregrounding.

Although something has clearly changed man's perceptual capacity—broadening it remarkably in a very short period of time—for the large majority of humans, their natural and spontaneous form of biological perception can still be described unambiguously as being species specific. The early attentive focus of most children continues to gravitate to sensory impressions made upon them by other humans and by the population's behaviors and interests, and as happened not that long ago on prehistoric African plains, children today employ a species-specific perception to rapidly imitate others and to assimilate to the population's current behaviors. And despite mankind's unprecedented departure from circumstances once fraught with the struggles of survival and procreation, humans today continue to display a foremost interest in the biological concerns of species—sex, family, food, shelter, societal ranking. Man has remained for the most part a social and biological being, he has carried his evolutionary inheritance of a species-specific focus right with him into modern times, and it is these strong, lingering, foregrounding traits of a species-specific focus that define the distinguishing characteristics of non-autistic perception.

Autistic perception differs fundamentally from non-autistic perception in that autistic perception, to a significant degree, lacks this species-specific focus. The material cause for this difference remains unknown (a variety of genetic, neurological and biochemical hypotheses have been proposed, but so far none have proven enlightening); the characteristics of the difference, however, are apparent from observation alone. Observation reveals consistently that autistic individuals display considerably less perceptual preference for humans and human biological influences, and show much greater perceptual attention for an entirely different class of sensory features.

Recall that the main task of biological perception is to provide sensory foregrounding. If autistic individuals are not experiencing a natural and spontaneous foregrounding of human-specific features from their surrounding environment, then the question arises, what does foreground for them, if anything at all? Autistic individuals would appear to be at risk of large-scale sensory chaos and confusion, and there is some evidence that such a potential does exist, for many autistic individuals do report a variety of sensory difficulties that do not derive from any known physical cause. In general, however, autistic individuals do not experience complete sensory chaos and confusion; certain features from their surrounding environment do consistently foreground and emerge. These features possess the particular trait of being able to inherently stand out, they form an implicit signal against a background of sensory noise, and these features are what humans now categorize under the headings of symmetry, repetition, pattern, structure, mappings and the like. Unfettered by the strong species-specific focus characteristic of non-autistic perception, and in need of sensory foregrounding to avoid complete sensory confusion, autistic individuals are drawn to elements from the broadly arrayed environment that inherently emerge from the background, elements rich in pattern, structure and form. It is this natural and spontaneous foregrounding of such structural, mostly non-biological features from the surrounding environment that defines the distinguishing characteristic of autistic perception.

And here is the direct connection to formal logic: this basic process of implicit sensory foregrounding experienced within autistic perception corresponds exactly to the foundational components of formal logic.

The foundational components of formal logic can be classified in various ways—different logicians will use slightly different approaches—but almost any classification will include a detailed description of the following three core features of logic:

  • Objects

  • Concepts

  • Relations

These three core features of logic are in a certain sense undefinable, but it is possible to cast greater light upon their nature and upon their likely human origin by realizing that each of these core features corresponds to an aspect of foregrounding within autistic perception. Each core feature of logic corresponds to a particular type of implicit perceptual emergence from a background of sensory noise.

The notion object plays a role in all three core features of logic, but as a standalone target of investigation, object is probably best approached through the idea of an unanalyzable entity—an entity highlighted most often within formal logic through the use of a proper name. It would be difficult to suggest a notion more basic than that of object.

If we begin with an image of an undifferentiated biological perception (a sensory chaos, if you will) and envision the spontaneous emergence of a single, unanalyzable entity from within that perception, then we will have a rough model for the type of perceptual foregrounding that gives rise to the notion object. For non-autistic individuals, their natural inclination is to have other humans be the entities which foreground within their perception (and of course the naming of people has become an essential part of human discourse); but for autistic individuals, their basic experience of perceptual foregrounding, by necessity, must be more generic, and in consequence produces a more generalized paradigm for the notion object. Since autistic individuals lack in significant degree the ability to foreground human features from their surrounding environment, it becomes incumbent upon the sensory field itself to provide the characteristics that can implicitly emerge in autistic perception, and from the experience of autistic individuals, we know that such implicit emergence is provided most often by entities that embody such attributes as symmetry, repetition and pattern. The classic example from autistic experience would be the strong perceptual attraction of spinning objects—tops, wheels, ceiling fans. A spinning object strongly embodies visual symmetry and patterned repetition, and in an otherwise undifferentiated sensory environment, items such as ceiling fans inherently stand out, they are more easily (more naturally, more spontaneously) foregrounded against the background of sensory noise.

This description of the notion object is distinctive, because here, it is the entity itself which embodies the structural or patterned characteristic, and thus it is the entity itself which carries the impetus for its implicit foregrounding. As we will discover momentarily, objects encountered under the notions concept and relation are in a certain sense less distinctive, and thus are treated in formal logic more anonymously. But as a first step, it is important to consider separately, as we have here, this more distinctive version of the notion object, because its extremely simple and self-contained nature is highly suggestive of the more basic aspects of logic. For instance, the foregrounding/non-foregrounding dichotomy contained in the notion object hints at the binary nature underlying much of formal logic, including the binary nature of true and false. Furthermore, the essential accompaniment of such non-biological attributes as symmetry, repetition and pattern highlights the unique nature of object as experienced within autistic perception, and thus points to the source of mankind's cognitive separation from the remainder of the animal kingdom. And just as importantly, the solitary distinctiveness of the notion object, its unencumbered simplicity during sensory emergence, provides perhaps the most fundamental example available of the direct link between the characteristics of biological perception and the nature of human logic.

With the notion concept, unlike with the notion object, it is not the entity itself which embodies the structural or patterned characteristic; instead, with concept, it is more commonly the case that objects constitute the structural or patterned characteristic, and it is the characteristic itself, often abstract, that gives rise to the notion concept. Classic examples from autistic experience would include the lining up of toys or the rapt attention paid to a series of sounds produced in a repetitive temporal pattern (evenly-spaced claps, for instance). Note that each object by itself (each toy, each clap) would not tend to foreground within autistic perception, because each object by itself does not embody the structural characteristic necessary for it to be perceived against the background of sensory noise. Instead it is the formed concept (the straight line, the rhythm) which carries the symmetrical or patterned trait that allows it to implicitly emerge within autistic perception, and the constituting objects, in a certain sense, merely come along for the perceptual ride. It is the foregrounding of such structural, often abstract features that lies at the heart of the notion concept.

In formal logic, the notion concept was clarified greatly by the developments of the late nineteenth century, in particular by the introductions put forth by Frege. In adding quantifiers, variables and functions to the discourse and philosophy behind formal logic, Frege helped capture more precisely the essence of the notion concept. For example, in the use of a first-order logical formula such as “For all x: f(x),” it becomes apparent that it is the concrete objects that are being treated iteratively and anonymously, while it is the function itself, representing the concept, that carries all the distinctiveness of the statement. That is to say, it is the concept-representing function that foregrounds in such statements of formal logic, and such functional foregrounding reflects precisely the foregrounding of concepts within biological perception.

Furthermore, it would appear that the genesis of the notion concept seems to be particularly autistic, for nowhere else in the animal kingdom is there evidence of perceptual awareness directed towards structural, abstract concepts and neither is there evidence of such awareness in the early history of man. To contemplate a purely non-autistic version of the notion concept, we would need to consider the perceptual emergence of similar, but more biologically-distinctive features, and although such features are certainly thinkable and likely, these are features nonetheless quite different in kind from those of the usual notion concept. Thus the sudden expansion of human perceptive range, including its impact on the recent transformations in the culture of man, must be attributed in large measure to the introduction of abstract patterns and symmetries—the material of the notion concept—an introduction achieved primarily through the implicit, mostly non-biological foregrounding necessitated by the circumstances of autistic perception.

Relations, like concepts, are also constituted out of objects, but here, what gives rise to the perceptual foregrounding is not that the objects form into a particular structure or pattern, but that the objects consistently map to one another (in fact, under many scenarios, mapping would make a much better term than relation). If we start once again with an image of an undifferentiated biological perception, we can focus on those examples where two or more objects consistently co-appear within the sensory field—for instance, two flashes of light that always happen simultaneously, or one flash of light that always takes place at the same time as a particular sound. Each flash and each sound by itself would not tend to emerge in autistic perception, not without embodying some structural feature (as with distinctive objects), and the collection of flashes and sounds also cannot emerge in autistic perception, not unless that collection happens to constitute a discernible pattern (as with concepts). But the consistent mapping is enough all by itself, it is all that is required to break the background chaos and provide a means whereby to gain sensory foregrounding. It is when the consistent co-occurrence of two or more objects in the sensory field gains perceptual attention that we have a well-formed instance of the notion relation.

Relations have two important consequences. As suggested by the example of a light flash mapping to a particular sound, relations can arise from objects that map across sensory domains, and thus relations provide a useful framework for sensory integration in autistic perception. Note that non-autistic individuals already have a built-in framework for sensory integration; their focused perception on human-specific features provides a natural touch point for gathering experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste. But autistic individuals, without a similar perceptual focus, and with their experiences of objects and concepts frequently taking place in only a single sensory domain, find themselves in need of a perceptual mechanism that can tie together sensory experience, and the cross-domain potential of relations fits that need quite nicely. The other important consequence of relations is that they provide a paradigm for the invention of language. Language is a higher-level construct than the notion relation, but language follows a similar outline, for language is essentially a mapping, a mapping from biologically immediate artifacts onto entities and concepts not so biologically present. And as relations serve an integrative purpose in autistic perception, so too does language serve an integrative purpose for the entire human species: in the first place, language pulls together the expanded cognitive experience brought on by awareness of objects, concepts and relations, and furthermore language brings together the differing aspects of autistic and non-autistic perception, serving as the medium in which to blend autistic and non-autistic cognitive strengths, thereby fostering a perceptual transformation for all mankind.

The remainder of formal logic is by and large built up out of these three core features of logic—that is, the more complex logical components, such as propositions, logical product, logical sum, etc., these are constructed out of the various combinations of objects, concepts and relations. And from the perspective of autistic perception, this climb from simplicity through constructed complexity mirrors the developmental climb from childhood through maturity; autistic sensory foregrounding tends to become ever more sophisticated as basic perceptions, apprehended concurrently, are built into more complex perceptions based upon the emergence of the many permutations. Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in fact, unfolds in exactly this same manner, building up its version of logic out of objects and states of affairs (concepts and relations), combining these into propositions of limitless constructibility, and by extension, building up similar frameworks to describe the development of world and self. In the Tractatus, as no place else, we find constructive logic, developing autistic perception, and the author's own maturing self all being brought together into one tightly organized, self-reflecting mirror.

To be precise, in these discussions outlining the core features of logic, it is only the process of perceptual foregrounding that directly correlates to the topic of logic. The characteristics of what actually foregrounds—that is, the characteristics of structure, symmetry, pattern, and the like—these characteristics belong, technically speaking, to a different topic; they belong to mathematics. Visual symmetry and structure, for instance, make up the core material of geometry, and various types of repetition and pattern, these form the basis of arithmetic. As such, it is interesting to recall the Logicism projects of both Frege and Russell, who attempted to construct the entirety of mathematics on a foundation of formal logic, efforts ultimately dispelled by Gödel's incompleteness theorem. From the perspective of autistic perceptual foregrounding, one sees perhaps yet another reason why Logicism cannot entirely succeed, because within that foregrounding process the characteristics of logic and mathematics reveal themselves as inseparable, they are much like two sides of one coin. The foregrounding process itself (logic) would not be possible if there were not structural features in the sensory environment (mathematics) that could inherently emerge, and on the other hand, from the lack of mathematical awareness in the animal kingdom we know that the environment's non-biological structural features would remain entirely unapprehended if not for the presence of a form of perception in which such features could take a prominent place. Logic and mathematics are intricately intertwined, it appears to be hopeless to build either out of the other. Furthermore, we may as well add objective science into this same mix of inseparability; for with geometry being the basis of space, and with arithmetic being the basis of time, and with logical inference being the basis of scientific method, science's entire modus operandi is directly traceable to the characteristics of logic and mathematics, and therefore directly traceable to the characteristics of autistic perception. In a fundamental sense (and in a biological and anthropological sense), the topics of logic, mathematics and science form an uncleavable whole.

Finally, it should be noted that if foregrounding within autistic perception is to be identified as a logic—in this case, a formal logic—then foregrounding within non-autistic perception must also be identified as a logic. Humans have yet to develop a precise language for depicting this more species-specific version of perceptual foregrounding—its characteristics can be hinted at through the terminology of Darwinian and sociological principles, but such terminology is often too murky. It would be of immense value, however, to develop a more precise language for depicting species-focused forms of logic; for with such a language, alongside the language of formal logic, researchers could more accurately compare and contrast autistic and non-autistic perceptual characteristics. And nowhere would that precise investigation be more informative than in the area of linguistics.

Linguistics—the logic of human language—encompasses much too large a topic to be taken up here, but a general approach to linguistics emerges quite naturally as an extension to this current investigation of formal logic (thereby traveling much the same road as Wittgenstein did in proceeding from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations). To outline it quite briefly, ordinary human language cannot be analyzed accurately until we recognize that human language derives historically and anthropologically out of a blending of both forms of human logic. The formal logic that arises out of autistic perception provides the impetus and much of the underlying structure for human language, while the biological, species-specific logic that is the birthright of non-autistic perception provides a substantial and significant addendum, one that above all else helps to disseminate language across the entirety of the human species. And until we can recognize and tease out these dual roots of a now thoroughly blended human language, we will continue to find linguistics to be a most puzzling subject, puzzling with respect to language's content, structure and origin. (See, for instance, Chapter 2, Section 2.3 of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and the “problem” described therein. Much of this so-called problem can be traced to the dual logical roots of human language, and although Chomsky's solution of dividing linguistic processing into a base phrase grammar—incorporating much of formal logic—and a separate supplemental lexicon—incorporating much of species-specific logic—although this solution points to a dual aspect and a dual origin of human language, Chomsky and his acolytes never seem to recognize this possibility for what it truly is.)

Two Concluding Observations. An observation to make regarding the history of modern logic is that nearly all its significant contributors have been individuals who have displayed behaviors and interests consistent with those of an autistic personality. With the possible exception of Tarski (who, although atypical in many respects, was clearly the most outgoing and collaborative of the group), modern logic was developed almost entirely by men who tended towards introversion, eccentricity and obsession, men whose biographies are filled with a clear preference for facts, objects and rules, and a clear discomfort for people, society and the demands of human convention. The autistic characteristics of Frege and Wittgenstein, for instance, seem nearly indisputable, and yet even these two examples would have to be described as mild compared to the more extreme cases of Peirce and Gödel, each of whom displayed eccentricities that might easily be interpreted as pathological.

There is nothing coincidental about this observation. The fields of logic, mathematics and science have always been saturated with personalities possessing autistic-like characteristics, a fact made more prominent when focusing on those individuals who have made the most significant and transformational contributions. Autistic individuals are drawn to such disciplines, they display a preternatural ability to be creative in such domains. The characteristics of logic, mathematics and science reflect exactly—indeed, were originated out of—the basic conditions of autistic perception. And it should be noted how recent and sudden has been the appearance of these disciplines within the culture of man; there is little, if any, evidence of their existence in mankind's more animal-like past. Thus the rise of logic, mathematics and science cannot be described as an evolutionary event but instead mirrors the rise of these disciplines' more proximate cause, mirrors the increasing significance and presence of autistic cognitive traits within the human population.

An observation to make regarding this essay's basic description of formal logic—as the process of inherent, non-biological foregrounding emerging from an autistic individual's background of sensory noise—is how closely this description matches the spontaneous activities of young autistic children. There exist many studies now that reveal autistic children's preference for perceptions and activities rich in non-biological pattern and structure over the perceptions and activities heavily influenced by human or biological form (see, for instance, here). And in a more informal sense, the many commonly reported behaviors of autistic children—lining up toys, spinning wheels, spinning tops, spinning selves, fascination with digits and letters, listening to the same song over and over, watching the same video again and again—such activities reveal the almost compulsive manner in which young autistic children focus primarily on the features of non-biological pattern and structure to be found in the world around them (exactly as this essay's basic description of logic and autistic perception would directly predict).

That autism researchers have been unable to make this observation themselves is indeed one of modern science's greatest travesties, for it derives from autism scientists not trying to understand autistic behaviors so much as they have been trying to destroy them. Drugs, behavioral therapies, other atrocities that go under the heading of early intervention—these have fast become the sole scientific means by which autism researchers now “investigate” the activities of young autistic children, and thus scientists remain entirely blind to the rich information these children have to impart.

The travesty must end.

If humanity's goal is to understand more fully the foundations and origin of its logical thinking, and if humanity's desire is to describe more accurately man's sudden transformation from animal into logical being, then humanity must end this all-too-common practice of brutally misunderstanding the key to its most vital logical questions, humanity must end this all-too-common practice of brutally misunderstanding its autistic individuals.