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.

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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

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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!