Friday, December 31, 2010

Autism as Offense


“The moment when an individual is unwilling to subordinate himself to the established order or indeed even questions its being true, yes, charges it with being untruth, whereas he declares that he himself is in the truth and of the truth, declares that the truth lies specifically in inwardness—then there is the collision.” (Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity)

The autism industry is both popular and large. From autism scientists (all too happy to promote their latest breakthrough, treatment or cure) to autism charity groups (all too happy to raise the next dollar for their "non-profit" coffers) to government officials (all too happy to sponsor namesake legislation credited with easing autism's burden)—every direction one turns, one can find yet another crowd jumping onto the autism-as-blight bandwagon. And who would dare blame them? Because if anything stands as an affront to normalcy, it would have to be autism—that paragon of abnormality. If anything stands as an outrage against the status quo, it would have to be autism—that epitome of deviation. If anything stands as an insult to the bandwagon-jumping crowd, it would have to be autism—that apex of going it alone. Thus we hear the mantra being repeated incessantly throughout the land: autism is a disease, autism is a disorder, autism is a tragedy, autism must be stopped. Many reputations and livelihoods now depend upon that mantra and upon its incessant repetition.

But should an autistic individual defy this established order, confront this multitude, set himself up as one against the many, shout loudly enough to be heard against authority's command, “No, you are all wrong, completely wrong. I am not diseased, not disordered, not a tragedy, I will not be stopped. Autism's truth is to be discovered by listening to those like me, because autism's truth is within me, from me, of me. Let me show you what this condition can be, let me demonstrate what autism can do.” Should this individual be so defiant as to draw attention to himself, he will be met by the bandwagon-jumping crowd with derision, with intervention, with demands he be treated and cured. He will damn near be crucified.

Autism is a rebellious god, and thus continues to offend.


“He wants to save all, but in order to be saved they must go through the possibility of offense—ah, it is as if he, the savior who wants to save all, came to stand almost alone because everyone is offended at him.”

Not that long ago humanity lived as little more than animal, a cognitive and behavioral slave to survival and procreation alone, and left to the typical forms of species-driven perception, man would still be living as little more than animal to this day. But come hither, my friend. Come hither and hear the good news, for autism has brought forth a miraculous transformation. With their perceptions not dominated by species-specific focus, with their perceptions now liberated to recognize the pattern, structure and form of the surrounding, non-biological world, autistic individuals have brought forth the power of atypicality, have brought forth the splendor of paradigm-shifting vision, have brought forth the majesty of rebellious upheaval, have brought forth the miracle of continuous human surprise. In a mere sliver of time—a sliver of time so short it must have left evolutionary history gasping with awe—man has ridden the strength of these strange new perceptions straight in off the hunter-gatherers grassy plain, straight forwards in search of an entire universe.

But should an autistic individual make proud note of these achievements, appeal to these autistic merits, herald these autistic strengths, announce pressingly the good news to a disbelieving, rejecting public, “But don't you see, it has always been the atypical vision that has advanced human understanding, forwarded the human condition. Just look at all the great innovators—Archimedes, Michelangelo, Newton, Beethoven, Turing—not a typical individual among them, only those who have lived far outside the human norm. Do not look to your commonest neighbor, look instead to the unusual one standing apart—there you will find the key to humanity's unprecedented turn.” Should this individual be so pressing as to draw attention to himself, he will be met by the disbelieving, rejecting public with strong words of their own: “Foolish lout! Deluded bastard! Arrogant lunatic!” They will practically spit the words right into his face.

Autism is an accomplished god, and thus continues to offend.


“That a human being falls into the power of his enemies and does nothing, that is human. But that the one whose almighty hand had done signs and wonders, that he now stands there powerless and paralyzed—precisely this is what brings him to be denied.”

Autism presents grave challenges. Because autistic individuals do not readily perceive and attach to other humans, because they cannot easily organize their experiences around the species itself and around what other people do, autistic individuals find themselves detached from the human population, right from a very early age. Deprived of the typical means of development, autistic individuals of necessity mature slowly and awkwardly. Deprived of the typical means of sensory organization, autistic individuals must struggle through an assortment of sensory difficulties. The non-autistic population—so easily in tune with one another, so naturally aware of what other people do, so effortlessly imitative of nearly everyone around them—judges autistic detachment to be a sign of sickness, evidence of a tragic defect. Stubbornly unconvinced that autistic individuals can organize their perceptions in an entirely different manner (a manner which has created profound benefit for the entire human population), the non-autistic population demands of autistic individuals that they learn to perceive and behave exactly as everyone else, and when this effort ultimately fails (as fail it must), autistic individuals are written off as broken, written off as a burden, written off as completely without hope.

But should an autistic individual request a modicum of understanding, ask that his progress be measured by his own standard, seek permission to mature at his own pace, beseech desperately for an ounce of approval from the disapproving throng, “But please, be charitable—my atypicality is not just my strength, it is my weakness as well. Allow me more time, offer me some patience, give me the opportunity to raise myself by my own unusual means.” Should this individual be so beseeching as to draw attention to himself, he will be met by the disapproving throng with a shake of its collective head, with the back of its collective hand: “Your unusual means are the evidence of your sickness, they are what prevents you from being competent just like us. If not so, then prove yourself, heal yourself, support yourself—make your so-called grandeur evident at this very moment, make your powerful abilities apparent so that all can plainly see.” In the silence that immediately follows, both the disappointment and the mockery are ready made.

Autism is a humbled god, and thus continues to offend.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reflections on the Work of Richard Klein

Richard G. Klein is a paleontologist and currently a professor at Stanford University. His work and his writings have done much to provide evidence for and to popularize the out-of-Africa theory of human evolution (known more scientifically as the recent single-origin hypothesis). This theory postulates that Homo sapiens—who have been anatomically indistinguishable from modern humans since about 150 to 200 thousand years ago—experienced a sudden and decisive change in behavior beginning around 50 thousand years ago; and concurrent with this change, Homo sapiens undertook a major migratory expansion out of Africa, soon swamping and extincting the similarly lineaged populations Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus, eventually becoming the overwhelming biological force we now can witness all around this planet. Over the last two decades, this theory has been supported by a growing accumulation of archaeological and genetic evidence, so much so that the theory is now accepted almost universally, and unless and until new contradictory evidence comes to light, the out-of-Africa theory must be considered as the definitive framework for describing recent human evolution.

Richard Klein seems to be a rare beast among modern scientists. He is plain spoken, more attracted to evidence and theory than to academic politics, and—note this especially—he tackles large scientific questions, not the mere trivialities that pad most curriculum vitae. In fact, the central question of Klein's work—what were the circumstances that prompted man to cross that great conceptual divide from simple primate to complex cultural being—stands as perhaps the most important unanswered question currently facing modern science. And if anyone has made more progress in shining a clarifying light on that question than Richard Klein has, I have yet to see it.

Much of Klein's summarization of human evolution can be found inside his two books The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins and The Dawn of Human Culture. However, for the purpose of the central question of Klein's work, there are two short and readily available presentations that encapsulate most of his essential ideas. The first is a lecture entitled Behavioral and Biological Origins of Modern Humans, delivered to the California Academy of Sciences in 1997. The second is a paper published in 2008, Out of Africa and the Evolution of Human Behavior, which can be regarded as an update to the evidence presented in the earlier lecture with Klein's views still essentially intact. These two presentations are both excellent examples of scientific clarity and honesty (so much so that many academicians might have a hard time recognizing them as scientific), and I urge anyone not already familiar with Klein's ideas to devote an hour or so to reading through these two documents—it will be time well invested on what is a fundamental and extremely important topic.

Although there are several scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the out-of-Africa theory, the area where Klein has most distinguished himself is in the painting of a clear, evidence-backed portrait of how sudden the Homo sapiens transformation was beginning around 50 thousand years ago and how overwhelming was its impact and expansive reach. Pointing to the fossil and archaeological evidence, Klein describes three distinct Homo-based populations that existed just prior to 50 thousand years ago: 1. the remnant lineage from Homo erectus, the successors from an earlier (over 1 million years ago) exodus from Africa, living primarily in the habitable areas of Asia; 2. Homo Neanderthalensis, a branch that had been occupying parts of Europe and the Middle East since around 400 thousand years ago; and 3. Homo sapiens, still in Africa and evolved into the anatomical form of modern humans by around 150 to 200 thousand years ago.

Although these three populations were geographically distinct and possessed distinguishing anatomical features, they were also remarkably alike in many fundamental respects. For one, they all had similar brain size, and perhaps more importantly, they all had similar behavior—behavior that could be captured in a single word … unremarkable.

Klein takes great pains to demonstrate that in site after site dating prior to 50 thousand years ago, there is no evidence to be found of form-based tools, artwork, jewelry, clothing, weaponry, etc., artifacts that soon will be making a sudden and explosive appearance on the human stage. He underscores that although Homo-based populations had certainly undergone behavioral changes since branching off from the other primates some seven million years earlier, the behaviors prior to just 50 thousand years ago were still far more comparable to older primate behaviors than to the modern behaviors that were about to emerge. Indeed, one can surmise that if an alien intelligence had visited this planet just prior to 50 thousand years ago, it would have found nothing remarkable about any of these Homo-based populations—these were simply primates scratching out their subsistence, indistinguishable bit players in the massive Earthly chorus of survival and procreation. Considering their meager numbers, and looking dispassionately at the fossil and archaeological evidence that Klein presents to us, we would have to conclude there was nothing in the circumstances of these Homo-based populations that would mark them as anything more than animal.

And then suddenly everything changed. And it has not stopped changing since.

The astonishing alteration first appeared near East Africa, right around 50 thousand years ago. In that location—and quickly expanding from there—you suddenly could find ostrich shell beads, form-based tools such as needles and awls, evidence of fishing technology, female figurines, clothing, burial displays, weapons galore. These suddenly innovative Homo sapiens soon began reaching into Europe and Asia, leaving behind a trail of newfound abilities literally everywhere along the path. They quickly overwhelmed and extincted the Neanderthals (Klein passionately describes the profound effect it had on him to see the sophisticated remnants of Cro-magnon culture (Homo sapiens) layered right on top of the less sophisticated artifacts of the Neanderthals, evidence of no intervening gap), and although the archaeological record is less complete in Asia, in part due to the ongoing interference of modern governments, it would appear Homo erectus also suffered a similar fate at the hands of these rapidly moving invaders. Their new mastery allowed Homo sapiens to boat to Australia by as early as 40 thousand years ago. Their unprecedented trapping, textile and construction techniques enabled them to inhabit colder climates, including Siberia, thus leading the way across the then dry Bering Straits and straight into the Americas. By ten thousand years ago, humanity had become so technologically adept it could begin trading its hunter-gatherer existence for domesticated animals and crops, and by six thousand years ago the species was building enormous civilizations and recording for posterity its burgeoning feats. By five hundred years ago, man could … well, you already know what man could do by then—just take a good look around.

It is hard to say which has been the more impressive: the suddenness of man's transformation, or the power of his planet-conquering reach. One thing is for certain: compared to the accomplishments of the previous 50 thousand years (or the previous 5 million years for that matter), these post-transformation exploits of Homo sapiens can only be described as stunning—stunning to an infinite degree.

But you need not take my word for it. Richard Klein has already laid out this entire tableau in exquisite detail, and he has seen all the evidence first hand.

As certain and insistent as Klein sounds about the immediacy and effectiveness of the Homo sapiens revolution, he sounds equally uncertain about the reasons why.

Klein has put forth—quite tentatively, I might add—what he describes as the most “economic” explanation for man's great leap forward, positing a sudden genetic mutation, one powerful enough to produce significant and immediate neurological impact, such as the kind that would induce rapidly spoken language. Against this thesis, it is commonly asserted within the academic community that the buildup to the Homo sapiens transformation must have been far more gradual than that, with various kinds of social and cultural evolutionary change—such as additional reliance on the nuclear family, an altered diet, theory of mind acquisition, a budding adaptability to change—all serving as the necessary forerunners to the dramatic upshot still to come.

Klein easily and quite rightly dismisses such counter proposals. In the first place, these explanations would need to be counted as tautological at best, since they are essentially positing that Homo sapiens behavior changed because Homo sapiens behavior changed. But even disregarding that obvious logical weakness, Klein demonstrates with the stubborn insistence of cold hard facts that such explanations are completely at odds with the fossil and archaeological record. Any slow evolutionary accretion of dramatically unique cultural and social conduct—including behaviors that would have been dependent upon a sophisticated use of language—could not have conceivably taken place without leaving behind a conspicuous trail of evidence. But what little (and mostly questionable) evidence has been offered in support of these evolutionary precursors ends up looking paltry and sparse next to the abundantly rich artifacts associated with the post-transformation epoch. Klein recognizes such vague explanations as not based upon the preponderance of evidence but instead as the type of fuzzy, non-committal solution generally favored by academicians—academicians who cannot be bothered by either logic or facts.

Klein is a scientist who insists on being bothered by logic and facts, which is why I suspect he is being so hesitant—for his explanation has myriad problems of its own.

The challenge of uncovering the catalyst behind Homo sapiens' sudden transformation must seem like a type of lock to Klein, one for which he has gauged its characteristics with a painstaking accuracy. He knows the contours of the many tumblers, has measured the keyhole for size, understands all too well the quick-releasing mechanism. He can dismiss the vague academic solutions as scarcely qualifying for keys at all—perhaps more than anyone else he can recognize the need here for something more tangible and immediate. Yet economically speaking, how many reasonable solutions actually exist? After all, Klein seems to be wanting to convince us—and to convince himself—is there not only one? A genetic mutation holds the promise of suddenness; a significantly altered neurological structure carries the potential for effective power. But in appealing to the genome and human brain for explaining mankind's astonishing transformation, Klein falls victim to that same fatal illness now plaguing the entirety of modern science—he has infused both genetics and neurology with an implausible human magic.

Intelligence, language, memory, numeracy, artistry, technological tool-producing vision—the scientific literature is now chock-full of genetic and neurological descriptions accounting for this entire host of impressive cognitive and behavioral skills. In genetic paper after genetic paper, you will find the microarray analysis protocols, the sequence-based samples, all lined up impressively along one side, and matched against that glorious detail you will find the list of unparalleled traits and attributes that have cast Homo sapiens as distinctively modern. Voilà, the genetic scientists all seem to say, and we break into terrific applause. But should an inquiring voice call out from the back of the room and wonder what connects transcription to observable behavior, what bit of mechanism links nucleotide to lyric poem, that voice will be greeted with an uncomfortably lengthy pause. Marvelous genetics here, astonishing behavior there, but in between … not one single connecting step.

The human brain has fared no better. In neurological paper after neurological paper, you will find entire albums of fMRI photographs, brilliant diffusion tensor pictures, all plastered across their pages in a technicolor glory, and matched against that vivid detail you will find the list of unparalleled traits and attributes that have cast Homo sapiens as distinctively modern. Voilà, the cognitive scientists all seem to say, and we break into terrific applause. But should an inquiring voice call out from the back of the room and wonder what connects resonance image to actual behavior, what bit of mechanism links synapse to third root of pi, that voice will be greeted with an uncomfortably lengthy pause. Vibrant images here, rational behavior there, but in between … not one single connecting step.

These connecting steps are not some mere trivial detail, not the mop-up work for a graduate student assistant; and yet even those scientists who can appreciate the importance of such linkages will speak as though their discovery is simply a matter of time. The secrets of human genetics and human neurology must emerge, these scientists all seem a little too willing to assure us, because in fact the scientific community has already accepted genetics and neurology as the driving force behind mankind's cognitive and behavioral splendor—no demonstration is apparently required.

But that state of affairs must seem a bit awkward for Richard Klein, whose mutation hypothesis, perhaps more than anything else, needs precisely that demonstration. Because without it, Klein's hypothesis does not even rise to level of relevance.

Intelligence, language, memory, numeracy, artistry, technological tool-producing vision—the scope and potency of that list can only be regarded as downright shocking, for there is no evidence any of these skills existed prior to 50 thousand years ago. The scene Klein lays before us is extraordinarily surprising, nothing at all like what might have been predicted. Its timeline defies every temporal characteristic of evolutionary history, its details contradict all expectation of species. So unique is the story of the Homo sapiens transformation that it might be more prudent to think evolution and biology must have played no role at all. In any typical approach to animal domains and behavior, genetic mutations would be expected to do their work only gradually, stepwise upon the species—their transmittal spread out across many generations, if not across entire ages. In any typical approach to animal domains and behavior, neurological restructurings would be expected to produce their impact only locally, specific to particular function—not fostering a cognitive reformulation extending from ear to ear.

But there is economy to consider after all, along with the confident assurances from modern science, and so rather than pursuing any unusual solutions to this preeminently unusual story, what could be more pragmatic than to turn to the typical approaches, and just give them a little anthropocentric boost.

In many respects, Klein's mutation hypothesis and modern science's genetic-neurological certainty are now the ideal soul mates, the perfectly matched couple. Klein's hypothesis receives from the promises of genetic and neurological science all the cognitive and behavioral power that his theory so desperately needs, while in turn, modern science gets from Klein's extraordinary anthropological story all the permission it could possibly want in order to study human genetics and neurology with an entirely different approach, with the license, with the justification—no, with the requirement—to ignore and break all the typical biological rules.

But tell me this: with each of these constructs leaning so heavily against the other, and resting apparently upon nothing else, why have we become so certain that they cannot collectively fall?

I think in some sense Richard Klein must already know all this, must feel the reasonable doubt somewhere deep within his tentative bones. I can admire his adamant courage, the plain-spoken insistence that the Homo sapiens transformational lock must have been opened only by a specific and tangible key, and I can understand his pragmatic desire to turn to the common and widely accepted mechanisms, resting comfortably on the assurances of modern science. But even Richard Klein must realize—must realize somewhere deep within his tentative bones—that in casting human genetics and the human brain into the role of Homo sapiens' transformational unlocking key, he must first bend and twist genetics and neurology all out of any recognizable, usable, or plausible shape.

An economic explanation—or should I say a scientifically magical explanation—is not worthy of Klein's extraordinary story.

So where does that leave us?

In recent years, I have been making the suggestion that there is an alternative way of looking at Klein's tableau, as well as looking at almost every facet of human behavior associated with it. I have become convinced that Klein's unusual anthropological story has in fact an unusual anthropological solution, a solution that defines—no, actually is—human atypicality. This solution is of course nothing like the cultural evolutionary theories favored by the vague academicians, and it is also nothing like the sudden genetic/neurological mutation hypothesized by Richard Klein. In the context of the entire out-of-Africa discussion, it must seem like an idea that comes from straight out of the blue, if not from straight out of nah-nah land. I understand all that, but must insist on making my suggestion all the same, because nearly everything in Richard Klein's peerless anthropological work points invariably in its direction.

My suggestion of course is autism. Autism is the key that fits that lock.

If we are going to understand the role autism must have played in man's great leap forward (and continues to play in man's ongoing transformation today), it becomes necessary first to see autism for what it truly is, a task made nearly impossible in recent years due to the debilitating grip of modern science. Modern science has already made its pronouncement upon autism, despite not knowing yet exactly what autism is—but never mind that, because the pronouncement has been made and the pronouncement is exceedingly grim. Autism is an illness. Autism is a developmental disaster. Autism is the incomparable tragedy of parents, the unspeakable burden of all mankind. If you listen carefully enough, you will hear inside that pronouncement an unflinching confidence and assurance—it is a confidence and assurance we have already encountered.

In a reversal of ironic proportions, that same collective mindset that has already accepted genetics and neurology as the undoubted catalyst behind all modern human behavior, now becomes the collective mindset demanding of autism that it be the foremost example of genetics and neurology gone bad. In autism study after autism study, you will find the fragmented copy number variants, the brittle axon-fiber connections, all lined up lugubriously along one side, and matched against that woeful detail you will find the list of traits and attributes that have cast autistic individuals as purportedly broken. Voilà, the autism scientists all seem to say, and we break into a respectful applause. But should an inquiring voice call out from the back of the room and wonder what connects fractured genome to unusual behavior, what bit of mechanism links fraying neuron to rhythmically flapping hand, that voice will be greeted with an uncomfortably lengthy pause. Research findings here, atypical individuals there, but in between … not one single connecting step.

The failure to supply these steps was, in the case of human intelligence, language, artistry and the like, an unfortunate circumstance, because along with the unjustified assurance that such steps would soon be found, it has prevented scientists from considering an alternative course. But in the case of autism, this same failure to supply these connecting steps, along with the undemonstrated certainty that autistic individuals are medically doomed—this practice has become the foremost example of unbridled cruelty. This practice denounces, without the first shred of understanding, nearly one percent of the human population as waste—the vast majority of whom must be working quietly and productively among us. This practice denounces, without the first effort towards acceptance, nearly the entire autistic population as pariah—when that population might be better described as mankind's deliverance. Modern science's confident assurance regarding autism is in fact a massive instance of scientific blindness, one that has rendered nearly the entire human population utterly oblivious to who autistic individuals actually are, and utterly oblivious to what they have amazingly done.

Autism can be accurately depicted without resorting to science's insistence on genetic disorder and neurological disease—without resorting to any cruelty. The key concepts are species, recognition and perception. Autism's fundamental description goes essentially like this: autistic individuals, to a significant degree, do not readily recognize or attach to the human species, and thus cannot easily organize their experiences or perceptions around that species and its members (as is the case for non-autistic individuals). In consequence, autistic individuals organize their sensory world instead by an entirely different form of perception, a perception engaged primarily by the symmetry, structure and pattern that inherently stands out from the surrounding, non-biological world.

It is that different form of perception—the autistic form of perception—that has launched Homo sapiens off the East African plains and straight into the modern world.

The Homo-based circumstances Klein describes from prior to 50 thousand years ago are circumstances typical of nearly every animal species. Prior to man's great leap forward, the human cognitive focus would have been directed towards survival and procreation alone, and human perceptual recognition and attachment would have been centered upon the species itself, exclusively upon its own members and behaviors. This intense species recognition and attachment is an evolutionary trait that must run deeply throughout the entire animal kingdom—biologists can see evidence of it nearly everywhere—and this trait of course has been critically important in helping hold species together, keeping their members gathered near sources of shelter, food and sex. The perceptual characteristics behind an intense intra-species focus help account for the behaviors of the genus Homo over many millions of years, and the same perceptual characteristics help explain also the behaviors of the species Homo sapiens for the largest portion of its existence. Intense species recognition and attachment is the primary reason that for a substantially long period of time—right up to 50 thousand years ago—man remained behaviorally indistinguishable from the rest of the animal world.

This intense species recognition and attachment has not disappeared from the human species—not in the slightest. Despite mankind having now undertaken a complete overhaul to its environmental circumstances, an overhaul of nearly breathtaking proportions, and despite humanity having reassembled nearly all its former survival and procreative needs into a more distinctively modern garb, still, for the vast majority of the human population, its primary perceptual focus continues to be directed to all the old familiar targets—food, power, politics, safety, sex. Man still gathers gregariously around what he perceives of as popular; man continues to take his foremost comfort in the presence of others. When you examine carefully the preferred behaviors of nearly every typical human being (non-autistic human beings), you will quickly realize that man has not abandoned in the slightest his intense focus on his own species, has not shed one bit the innate ability to recognize and attach to other humans. For a large percentage of the human population, these species-focused perceptions have been carried forward essentially intact, right into modern times.

Furthermore, this intense species recognition and attachment has not been without value in advancing the human cultural transformation. A key component behind both the widespread nature and the swiftness of human behavioral and environmental change is that most humans continue to be profusely imitative of their own kind. This replicative effect is ubiquitous, but is most critical during the developmental years of children, guaranteeing that each new generation will readily adopt the current circumstances of species—no matter what those circumstances might happen to be. When humans were once hunter-gatherers, their children became hunter-gatherers too. When humans began building civilizations, their children joined right in without skipping a beat. When adults spoke Latin, their children spoke Latin as well, and when adults moved on to modern Italian, their children fell right into imitative line. Just as it once held the human species together for strictly survival and procreative purposes, this trait of intense species recognition and attachment now holds humanity together while it cascades forward through an accelerating, mostly non-biological revolution.

And yet as powerful as these strong species-specific perceptions can be in keeping a species assembled, this trait is also extraordinarily conservative with respect to a species' current circumstances—no matter what those circumstances might happen to be. The evidence of this conservatism is abundant, it can be found in the static circumstances of nearly every animal species. The effect of this conservatism hits extremely close to home, for it cemented the static circumstances of the genus Homo over many millions of years. To catalyze sudden and massive behavioral change would require a crack to appear in this intense intra-species recognition and attachment, would require that a species be able to perceive beyond just survival and procreation, beyond just itself. But if we take into account the ongoing, long-lasting, extremely static circumstances of nearly every animal species—every animal species, that is, except for modern man—we would have to conclude any alternative form of perception not strongly focused upon the species itself would have to be a form of perception exceedingly rare, would have to be a form of perception that, biologically speaking, could only be described as exceptionally atypical.

If autism is, at its root, a significant inability to recognize and attach to other members of the species, as well as to their extant behaviors and conditions, then autism already carries within itself all the difficulties frequently reported for autistic individuals—that is, any of their so-called disabilities are circumstantially earned. Development in typical individuals is heavily influenced by species attachment and imitation, and therefore any corresponding development in autistic individuals is bound to be slow, frustrating and at odds with all the rest. Social adeptness in the non-autistic population is simply the natural result of the common recognitions and attachments within the species, and thus it is not at all surprising that autistic individuals, lacking these common recognitions and attachments, are viewed to exist in a world apart, are judged to be socially disconnected. In fact, the real mystery regarding autism is that it ever managed to take hold within the human population at all, given that its fundamental characteristic runs so counter to a basic support of survival and procreation. But take hold autism has; and thus it would not be unreasonable to ask of scientists that they pause for a moment and contemplate the consequence.

Without a strong species recognition and attachment to help organize their experiences and perceptions, autistic individuals, especially young autistic individuals, are faced with the daunting task of overcoming a nearly complete sensory chaos. Typical individuals organize their experiences around other people; typical individuals organize their perceptions around what other people do. But autistic individuals, significantly detached from the other members of the population, cannot organize their sensory experiences in quite the same way (with a variety of sensory difficulties naturally resulting). Fortunately for autistic individuals, and fortunately for the entire human race, the non-biological world seems to have supplied an alternative form of perceptual organization, one that has remained apparently untapped right up until around 50 thousand years ago.

It would be difficult to describe at its most fundamental level the nature of these self-organizing environmental features, or to explain what it is about them that causes them to inherently stand out. But for the purposes of this discussion it is enough to note that humans have recognized and distinguished these organizing features through the use of such names as symmetry, repetition, mapping, pattern, structure and form. From the sensory chaos that would otherwise be their fate, autistic individuals, especially young autistic individuals, focus on and organize their sensory experiences around these surrounding, mostly non-biological elements of symmetry, structure and pattern. This becomes most evident while observing the characteristic autistic behaviors, often called restricted or repetitive behaviors—lining up toys, spinning wheels, turning on and off switches, rhythmically flapping hands—behaviors abundantly steeped in pattern, behaviors profusely intent on form. Although the autistic perceptual focus will often broaden with age, even to the point of eventually incorporating species and social interests, when we examine carefully the preferred behaviors of nearly every atypical human being (autistic human beings), we will quickly realize that instead of organizing their experiences around other people and around the species itself, autistic individuals gravitate more frequently to those perceptions organized around the various structures that naturally emerge from the surrounding, non-biological world.

And it is not just in the preferred behaviors of autistic individuals that we can witness the influence of these non-biological, self-organizing concepts. Intelligence, language, memory, numeracy, artistry, technological tool-producing vision—at the core of each behavioral element on that list, at the core of each behavioral element marking the sudden human transformation, you will find a deep foundational reliance upon these very same concepts, the concepts of symmetry, repetition, mapping, pattern, structure, form. Autistic individuals, through the needful circumstances of their rather precarious biological condition, have opened a perspective onto a world that goes far beyond immediate biological need, goes far beyond the tightly gripping focus of survival and procreation alone. By bringing their unique perspective to Homo sapiens itself, autistic individuals have spawned an unprecedented biological revolution—they have jarred the human species entirely from its former animal course.

Much like Klein's mutation hypothesis, my suggestion regarding autism is a theory not easily falsifiable, not if falsifiability requires measuring the autistic presence and influence of 50 thousand years ago. For the moment, we must remain content with weighing evidence that is more indirect, such as those studies demonstrating that non-autistic children are more naturally drawn to human-derived biological images, while autistic children are more attracted to non-biological contingencies possessing pattern and form (Klin et al., 2009). But perhaps an even more compelling reason for considering autism as the likely catalyst behind man's great leap forward is to recognize that autism-inspired behavioral and environmental change continues apace all around us, even at an accelerating rate. The great leap forward did not come to an end on the East African plains, it was not just a solitary event from 50 thousand years ago. That same transforming phenomenon exists right before our very eyes, we can witness its ongoing impact nearly each and every day.

To take just one instance from many—a prominent instance—we can consider the case of Isaac Newton and his inspired laws, along with the resulting industrial, scientific revolution. Here we find a single individual—an individual known for his unusual demeanor, an individual known for being socially detached—filled suddenly with a strange new perspective upon his surrounding, mostly non-biological world, drawn deeply into the patterns and structures no human had ever perceived before. By reconstructing the form of his unique vision through the use of such tools as language and mathematics—tools which themselves are richly steeped in form and pattern, tools which themselves were greatly augmented by Newton's innovative perception—by reconstructing the form of his vision into the human environment itself, Newton made his surprising perceptions accessible to nearly all. From there, humanity's gregarious, imitative, self-preserving nature took care of the matter of dissemination, and in less than two hundred years time man's cognitive, behavioral and material world had become entirely transformed. The unusual perceptions of one atypical man, followed swiftly by an overwhelming human revolution—it is a narrative that might sound remarkably familiar.

The discovery of Newton's laws of motion, gravitation and optics were obviously not the result of a genetic mutation; the resulting industrial, scientific revolution was clearly not brought about by a universal synaptic rewiring (although I certainly would not put it past modern scientists to attempt those foolish claims). The only plausible, sufficiently pliant location for human intelligence, language, artistry and the like is within the human environment itself. Only there can the features of human revolutionary change be creatively introduced, innovatively modified, by individuals with an unusually broadened eye. Only there can these same features be imitatively multiplied, spread rapidly from place to place, by a species focused on one another, by a species focused on enhancing its self-preserving interests. In this mechanism we see the elements of both suddenness and power, we see the two essential ingredients at the heart of Klein's out-of-Africa story.

If you search the Internet you can find a web site devoted to something called the Neanderthal theory of autism—what appears to be a very loose mixture of dubious anthropology alongside vague suggestions that autism reflects distinctive Neanderthal behaviors passed along through interbred human genes. I will let the dubious anthropology speak for itself, but as for the notion there were any distinctive Neanderthal behaviors that could have been passed along in any particular way, Klein's paleontology sounds the death knell to all of that. Nowhere in the fossil or archaeological record can there be found the slightest indication that Neanderthals behaved in ways differently than those of simple primates; Neanderthals exhibited an unremarkable lifestyle that continued unabated right up to the point of their extinction. The Neanderthals were overrun by the human big bang; they were not its participants.

There is one aspect to this notion, however, that has potentially productive merit. Recent genetic analysis (Green et al. 2010; very preliminary, still subject to verification) indicates there may be a small amount of Neanderthal-derived DNA currently within the human genome, with a strong indication this likely resulted from species intermixture that occurred prior to the Homo sapiens revolution. Such intermixture would not be entirely surprising; the different Homo-based populations shared fluid geographical boundaries, and interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens could have taken place on numerous occasions, with gene flow possible in either or both directions. If so, such an intermingling of genetic material could provide a conceivable mechanism for explaining the characteristics of a species non-recognition. That is, it could be surmised that beyond a certain threshold, the presence of intermixed species genes might produce in certain individuals a difficulty in recognizing and attaching to the other members of the population around them—precisely the characteristic described above as the fundamental basis of autism.

All this would be highly speculative of course, with a good deal still to be explained, and the most that could be suggested for now is that as genetic information continues to be gathered from autistic individuals, Neanderthal fossils, and the entire human species, a comparative analysis is possibly warranted. It should be noted, however, that even if it were true that moderate species intermixture provides a mechanism for a species non-recognition, that explanation would only give rise to a still larger and perhaps more difficult question since such a mechanism would not be uniquely human. Over Earth's vast history we would expect to see thousands, if not millions, of similar inter-species events; but as far as we know, it has been only in Homo sapiens that autism has taken hold. Autism's intrinsic survival and procreative disadvantages do provide some expectation that autism would only rarely gain species traction; but still, it must be answered why the outcome was entirely different some 50 thousand years ago. What was it that uniquely turned that particular moment into such a stunningly explosive event?

Through his stubborn insistence on appealing to the evidence of the archaeological and fossil record, and through his stubborn insistence in arguing for both the suddenness and the power of mankind's remarkable turn, Richard Klein has presented humanity with an exquisite challenge—the challenge of explaining the species' own shocking history. Klein's proposal for how that unprecedented transformation might have come to be—a sudden and rare genetic mutation producing significant neurological effect—it remains true to the parameters of Klein's presentation, but falls victim to the anthropocentric failings of modern science.

Klein's anthropological work has been far too extraordinary, far too clarifying, to be cast as victim; Klein's exquisite challenge deserves an equally exquisite solution. Thus it is that I suggest autism as the key to the out-of-Africa story. Autism—quirky, fragile, misunderstood, too often cruelly treated—autism represents that form of human perception not focused upon the species itself but instead upon the symmetry, pattern and structure to be found in the surrounding, non-biological world. It is that atypical form of perception that has driven humanity's atypical turn, and it is that atypical form of perception that continues to catalyze human change right through the present day.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gazing into the Marvelous Human Brain

You know, the luminiferous ether had potent properties too: vibration frequencies, spatial orientation, saturation limit. It was really quite the impressive thing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Shock and Awe

It might seem like ancient history to those who are jostling shoulders in the laboratory halls, but it was not that long ago—not even a third of Kierkegaard's eighteen hundred years—that science was the province of the near lunatic only, that rare soul born so lonely into his experienced world he could not help but be drawn to its beckoning call. And although even in those former times there were many well established, codified, standardized means for exploring one's experienced world—for instance, one could pray to God and wait for helpful reply—such techniques tended to require infinite patience, and alas, near lunatics are not known for their infinite patience. Thus it was that a few of these miscreant souls began taking matters into their own hands, and how was humanity to have known, there on its knees before God, that the world would not be averse to divulging its dazzlements and amazements directly, even by unapproved, nonstandard means.

How much of that iconoclastic spirit remains alive today? Well, ask the tens of millions of scientists who now live and work among us, but while you are asking, notice how undazzled and how unamazed they all appear to be. Peer review and standards. Funding and credentials. Mind-numbing technique. What science has become—in less than a third of Kierkegaard's eighteen hundred years—is little more than a warm and safe profession, the methodologized, codified road map that runs cowering from shock and awe. As far as modern science is concerned, we might as well return to praying to God.

Friday, November 12, 2010


The philosophers' stone or the human brain, which holds the greater magical power?

The alchemists might be forgiven, for they knew very little of the Earth's enormous history, or of the sliver of human history within it. But the cognitive scientists—with all their years of education and their fancy degrees—how are we supposed to forgive them?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Targeting the Right Species

Since its autistic mice studies have apparently crapped out (who could have predicted it?), Autism Speaks has decided to take the inspired step of ordering up a batch of autistic rats instead. And to think, people were worried the organization might be a hindrance to fruitful research.

On a related note, Autism Speaks also announced today that it is canceling its order with SAGE Labs for the production of some illogical, narrow-minded primates—Autism Speaks discovered it already had an abundant supply running around in the corporate offices.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Here's an excerpt courtesy of Olga Solomon, in Sense and the Senses: Anthropology and the Study of Autism:

“[This review] considers the production of knowledge about autism as a clinically relevant category at the intersection of sense as culturally organized competence in meaning making and the senses as a culturally normative and institutionally ratified sensory and perceptual endowment.”

Is that a sentence? Please don't tell me that's a sentence from the English language. Because if that's a sentence from the English language, I'm going to have to go back to first grade and start over. To be honest, it's a downright shame I felt the need to substitute “[This review]” for “It” in the excerpt, because as far as I can tell “It” was the only word that actually had a referent.

Yes, folks, this is what a postgraduate education can do for you too. Be forewarned.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


As harmful as bad science has been to autistic individuals (and that harm has been considerable) it is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the damage inflicted under the heading of good science. Good science has been the tsunami washing across every autistic land, leaving behind an ever expanding legacy of destruction and mayhem.

What autistic peace was disturbed when good science crashed ashore?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Embarrassment of Riches

So now we have best-selling books decrying “bad science,” do we? Hell, I think I would give my left arm and half a fortune to meet a bad scientist—just as Kierkegaard no doubt would have relinquished the entirety of his inheritance for the off chance to encounter a bad Christian, or a Christian of almost any persuasion for that matter, just as long as he or she was not a good Christian. Those, Kierkegaard realized with utter dismay, could not be avoided.

Bad, vicious, grumpy, lazy—yes, I will accept a scientist of almost any ilk, just as long as for God's sake he or she is not another good scientist. I cannot seem to walk across the street without stumbling over another one of those.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Tripping off Turing's
Tape, like words from human tongue,
Foreground emerges.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond

As regards to the work of John Ioannidis and his colleagues, I have little doubt that it is accurate and revealing, but I remain far less optimistic about where this trend will lead. If our best researchers are now pouring their best efforts into analyzing the methodologies of our worst researchers, then who, might I ask, is actually attending to the science?

And think about what is bound to happen next. Meta-research, now widely regarded as successful and informative, will soon blossom into a distinctive and popular field of its own. How long before the launch of the new and prestigious journals Meta-Science and Meta-Nature? (Might I suggest the latter begin with a thousand-author study on the exponentially increasing trend of co-authorship within the pages of Nature.) Perhaps a Scandinavian committee of committees can begin awarding meta-Nobels for outstanding research into the increasingly trivial results of Nobel prize winners (a surprisingly fertile domain).

But of course as this new field becomes ever more popular and draws in more and more practitioners, the day inevitably comes when the majority of meta-scientists begin doing shoddy work as well, and then how much longer before some enterprising young team, with apparently nothing better to do, begins meta-analyzing the meta-analysis—and so on, to infinity and beyond.

Does anyone remember why humanity turned to science to begin with? I very much doubt it was so that we could learn more about science itself. When the carpenter becomes obsessed with his tools, he forgets to build the house.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Mistaking the current breed of autism researcher for a scientist is like mistaking an all-thumbs carpenter for a brilliant architect—it demeans the value of both brilliant architects and competent carpenters.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Limbo Dancing

Publication—the new standard of scientific evidence.

Statistics software—the new standard of scientific effort.

Postdoctoral fellowship—the new standard of scientific courage.

Peer review—the new standard of critical thinking.

Questionnaire—the new standard of scientific measurement.

Experimental design—the new standard of scientific insight.

Co-authors—the new standard of reproducibility.

Grant proposal—the new standard of scientific innovation.

Grant approval—the new standard of scientific achievement.

Good science—the new standard.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Eloquent Words

Be sure to catch the recent interview of Ari Ne'eman in Wired magazine. While I do not agree with everything Mr. Ne'eman has to say, he does present an eloquent and positive message about the aspirations of autistic individuals, while at the same time being realistic about their ongoing needs.

I have previously noted some concerns about ASAN's methods and policies, and in many ways, Mr. Ne'eman's interview in Wired demonstrates the importance of Mr. Ne'eman and ASAN being open to such questions and criticisms. Mr. Ne'eman and his organization are clearly capable of being a catalyst for constructive change in the community, and thus it is essential that they accept these abilities and responsibilities with courage, wisdom and honesty. When ASAN's actions consistently match the eloquence of Mr. Ne'eman's words, autistic individuals will then have a valuable advocate indeed.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Uninspired Profession

When modern scientists begin talking process, design and methodology, that's when I know that science has left the room.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


If it were up to me, those who are commonly called modern scientists would instead be classified by their more accurate name—technicians. That would not make them any less valuable—indeed, the work of technicians is often precisely what is called for and can often be the most valuable. For instance, as scientists, Michelson and Morley were not in the same league as Lorentz and Einstein, but where might Lorentz and Einstein have been without the clever experiments of Michelson and Morley helping to light the way. Credit must always be given where credit is due.

But these days, both taxonomic groups—scientists and technicians—find themselves gravely damaged by the insistence of the tens of millions of technicians among us on calling themselves the only true scientists, a total eclipse of the former upon the latter. If one truly understood the nature of science, if one truly thought about it for a moment, then the idea of tens of millions of scientists walking among us would of course be laughable. But this is a joke that never occurs to the gathering throng.

When Ben Goldacre exposes the characteristics of bad scientists, what he is actually describing are the characteristics of bad technicians—science in fact never enters the discussion. Indeed, that's the main problem in nearly every instance of this so-called modern age of science—science never enters the discussion.

In an era in which being a good technician is both stubbornly and somewhat obnoxiously mistaken for being a good scientist, count me as one proud to be instead a bad scientist.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Angling for Trouble

The autism buzz fest du jour is the nearly universal outcry against Sharron Angle's recent remarks regarding autism insurance mandates. Let me state from the outset that I have no sympathy for Ms. Angle—her apparent use of quotes around the word “autism” was uncalled for and off point, and her understanding of actual autism issues appears to be pretty much non-existent. Of course, this distinguishes her from most other public officials, and nearly all autism scientists, only in the sense that Ms. Angle has committed the error of making her ignorance both public and obvious.

On the underlying issue, however—that of autism insurance mandates—the situation is far more murky than the many critics of Ms. Angle would have us blithely believe. As I have stated previously, autism insurance mandates are a clear instance of placing the cart before the horse, because the treatments being mandated for coverage—mostly ABA and pharmaceutical interventions—are not only undemonstrated as effective, they carry considerable risk of actually doing more harm than good. Everyone needs to stop and remember that expense is not a synonym for value, and that intervention is not a synonym for efficacy. Mandating insurance coverage for costly treatments that might be ineffectual at best, and harmful at worst, is certainly not in the best interest of autistic individuals. Ironically enough, what clearly would be in the best interest of autistic individuals, yet are often mandated against—acceptance and understanding—these things cost nary a cent.

Adding further confusion to the matter, we now have ASAN weighing in on the issue, in the form of an online petition calling for an apology from Ms. Angle. Unfortunately for ASAN, it has lost all its credibility on this issue by jumping headlong onto the bandwagon of insurance reform, turning a willfully blind eye to the unscientific and illogical nature of its policy. If ASAN really wants to help autistic individuals, then I think it should be far less concerned with Ms. Angle's remarks than with the potentially harmful effects of the dubious treatments ASAN now publicly and vigorously supports. Indeed, if this is going to become a battle between Ms. Angle and ASAN, then I hope it is a battle both sides lose, because trust me, no matter how ignorant and illogical Ms. Angle's remarks and attitudes might happen to be, the remarks and attitudes on the other side of the autism insurance mandate issue—including those of ASAN—sound no less ignorant and illogical.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Some Housekeeping

A couple quick notes, while I have the chance:

In addition to the posts from Kerry Magro that I have mentioned previously, Autism Speaks has published in recent weeks a near rash of additional accounts coming straight from autistic individuals. There have been at least two posts by Lydia Wayman and another by Dave Beukers. All have been well written and highly informative about the autistic experience, and I greatly recommend them.

With these recent posts and a few other small initiatives involving autistic individuals, I'm almost beginning to believe that it has suddenly dawned on Autism Speaks what “in their own words” actually means. Of course, none of this quite atones for the rest of Autism Speaks' many sins, but I do want to give the organization credit where credit is due.

On a more personal note, there has been little blogging here of late (not to mention, all my other writing has come to a halt as well), and that likely will continue for at least another month or so. My most recent work assignment has become intense, taking more time than usual, and until matters ease I'll have to remain content with being a quiet spectator in the world of autism debate, rather than the surly participant I would much rather be. In the mean time, however, please have a good end to the summer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Their Own Words

I want to draw attention to another post made by Kerry Magro on the Autism Speaks blog. Mr. Magro, who apparently is interning for Autism Speaks and will be a senior at Seton Hall this coming year, outlines some of the challenges involved in obtaining “reasonable accommodations” in a college setting. During his description, he provides many helpful insights from his own experience of striving towards independence, with and without support.

Mr. Magro's post is straightforward, accurate and informative, which puts it in stark contrast to nearly all the other posts made on the Autism Speaks blog, including many posts made by non-autistic individuals under the banner of “In Their Own Words” (oh, the irony of it all). These other posts have dealt primarily with such matters as the challenge of being a parent to an autistic individual, the challenge of being the sibling of an autistic individual, the challenge of being an autism researcher working with mouse models, and the challenge of baking autism advocacy cookies. But when it comes to addressing the actual challenges and rewards of autism itself, that mantle is successfully assumed only when Autism Speaks resorts to that rarest of events, publishing the words that come straight from an autistic individual (oh, the doubled-back irony of it all).

It would be hard for me to overemphasize how much this culture can actually learn about autism simply by allowing autistic individuals to speak for themselves and in their own words. Hey, Autism Speaks, are you really listening?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Shocking Words

In a certain sense I of course agree with the many responses given to my recent post that expressed extreme displeasure with that post's choice of words. The use of words such as “cure” and “eradication” to describe individuals and their characteristics is always offensive, insulting, and inexcusable. Count me as guilty. Express your outrage. It's a reasonable thing to do.

But of course I did not choose either those words or the target of those words idly. Ms. Stagliano, her supporters and Autism Speaks all routinely employ words such as “cure” and “eradication” to describe autistic individuals and their characteristics, and the application of those words against autistic individuals is no less offensive, insulting and outrageous than in any other instance. I only wish that those who are so quick to take umbrage at my remarks about Ms. Stagliano would be as equally quick to take umbrage when she and others apply such terms to autistic individuals. If that were to happen more frequently, I would gladly accept any humbling that is my due.

It is interesting to note that a similar course of events has already played out for the most part in the homosexual community. Forty to fifty years ago it was a routine practice to describe homosexuals as in need of a cure and to target their characteristics for eradication. Homosexual individuals quite rightly took offense to such terms and ideas, fought long and hard to overcome them, and today such phrases and efforts have all but disappeared from the culture. The few holdouts who continue to spew mindless invective against homosexuality are now widely recognized as being bigoted and narrow-minded; they are actively spoken out against, they are no longer tacitly approved. (And if someone were to suggest to these homophobic individuals that they were the ones in need of a cure and it was their intolerance that was in need of eradication, you can be sure it would be they and their supporters who would be the first to holler about being insulted and offended.)

If one wants to be treated with respect and dignity, then the place to begin is by treating others with respect and dignity—all others. This is a lesson the autism advocacy community is badly in need of learning, because the number one issue facing that community is its ongoing lack of respect and understanding for autistic individuals. The whole point of my original post was to impress upon the members of that community their need to treat autistic individuals with more acceptance and to see the situation more often from the perspective of autistic individuals. My rhetoric might seem a little too shocking and harsh at times, but if this culture is ever going to rise to the level of treating its autistic members with the dignity and respect they deserve, the autism advocacy community is going to have to be disturbed out of its currently offensive, insulting, and mindless ways. Maybe I go too far at times, but sometimes it's of more value to be a prod than to be polite.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Ugly Face of Autism

I agree with Kim Stagliano absolutely. Her latest post, in its entirety, would make an excellent choice for an Autism Speaks advertisement. All the essential ingredients are there:

  • A picture of a beautiful autistic child engaged in an interesting, meaningful and no doubt productive activity for her—clearly delighted to no end.
  • A hovering, disapproving parent describing the entire tableau as “pain,” bemoaning the family's autism fate to the entire world, and wishing for someone—anyone—to do something—anything—to bring this horrible ordeal to an end.

Yes, that captures the ugly face of autism in a nutshell, and Autism Speaks would do well to consider it for its next public service announcement. Now if we could only get Autism Speaks to sponsor some form of cure against the Ms. Staglianos of the world (it can be biomedical, pharmaceutical or behavioral—I really don't care) I might find myself supporting that organization's eradicating mission.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Cup Half Full

I want to comment quickly on two positive Internet posts that have appeared today in two very negative Internet locations.

The first post is a brief essay entitled Coming Out: Autism in College, written by an autistic individual, Kerry Magro. It appears under the heading In Their Own Words on the Autism Speaks blog, which is something of a doubled-back irony since it is an extremely rare event for the In Their Own Words section to actually incorporate the words of autistic individuals. (Autism Speaks seems to think that phrase means non-autistic individuals speaking for autistic individuals, which although par for the course for Autism Speaks, is both illogical and offensive under the heading In Their Own Words.) And Mr. Magro's post demonstrates quite effectively why it is such a terribly bad idea to have non-autistic individuals speaking for autistic individuals, because Mr. Magro—speaking quite capably for himself—demonstrates that autistic individuals—when allowed to speak for themselves—can be uncommonly articulate, insightful and courageous. Addressing both the challenges and the triumphs of his condition with a precision an outsider could never dream to muster, Mr. Magro manages to expose the relentless pity- and fear-mongering of Autism Speaks as little more than an outrageous lie.

I don't always agree with what autistic individuals have to say. I undoubtedly would not agree with everything Mr. Magro might have to say. In some instances (Jonathan Mitchell comes readily to mind), I might not agree with much of anything at all. But I can't stress strongly enough how important it is that we actually hear those autistic voices and that we provide autistic individuals with every possible opportunity to speak for themselves. It is an atrocity—an offensive atrocity—to have non-autistic individuals speaking as mouthpieces on behalf of autistic individuals. I would note that Mr. Magro is described as a staffer for Autism Speaks. He might want to consider questioning his organization about why that organization seems so intent on putting words into his own mouth, when Mr. Magro is so clearly capable of speaking eloquently and rightfully for himself.

The second positive post coming from a negative location arrives courtesy of Mark Blaxill and the Age of Autism web site. In his lengthy report New Autism Consortium Study Proves (Again) that Inherited Genes Don't Cause Autism, Mr. Blaxill outlines the many reasons for his skepticism regarding the recently publicized report in Nature regarding autism genetics. Mr. Blaxill has done this kind of thing before (and I have commented upon it), and as hard as it might be to believe, he's actually getting better at it. This most recent post is detailed, well researched, sanely reasoned, and even manages to avoid (for the most part) Mr. Blaxill's rather unfortunate and common tendency to descend into ad hominem and other lazy forms of argument. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say his use of logic and scientific analysis rises to the standards of say a Michelle Dawson, it does come within a reasonable shouting distance, and it makes a telling contrast to the commentary supplied for instance at Respectful Insolence, a blog for which I have a much greater philosophical affinity in general, but which seems, at least in this instance, to be willing to take traditional scientists at their word instead of looking more carefully at their data. (A skeptic who is skeptical only of opposing points of view is not really a skeptic).

It's not lost on me of course that this is Mark Blaxill we're talking about. It remains utterly dumbfounding to me that someone who can be so thorough and insightful in criticizing a report on autism genetics can also be so willfully dense when it comes to analyzing his own perspective. For instance I shudder to imagine what gobs of illogical and non-scientific drivel will most likely ooze out of Mr. Blaxill's forthcoming book The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Manmade Epidemic (co-authored with Dan Olmsted). Or to consider it another way, if we could only take Mr. Blaxill's post and substitute the word “vaccines” for “genes” and the phrase “environmental toxins” for “copy number variants,” I am sure we would have the perfect outline for an accurate criticism of Mr. Blaxill's own form of autism science.

As I have suggested in other places, what both Mr. Blaxill and many autism research scientists need to do is take a step back from their entrenched positions and find out what they actually have in common. Because in point of fact everyone is beginning from the same place. Neuroscientists assume that autism is the evidence of something gone horribly wrong and begin looking all over the place for brain dysfunction—and get essentially nowhere. Genetic researchers assume that autism is the evidence of something gone horribly wrong and begin looking all over the place for genetic defects—and get essentially nowhere. Mr. Blaxill and his supporters assume that autism is the evidence of something gone horribly wrong and begin looking all over the place for environmental toxins—and get essentially nowhere. My question is, how long do we allow these groups to get essentially nowhere before we begin wondering if perhaps autism is not the evidence of something gone horribly wrong?

Which brings us back to Mr. Magro and his post at Autism Speaks. It is clear from his words (his own words, not the words of others) that it has been impressed upon him quite frequently that his autism is the evidence of something gone horribly wrong. But there remains something defiant in Mr. Magro's words (his own words, not the words of others). There is a defiance in his content, in his tone, in his execution. It is almost as if Mr. Magro is forcing us to address that question, what can possibly be so horribly wrong about an individual who is so hopeful, insightful, courageous and eloquent? And the answer of course is obvious: there is not one damn thing wrong with that individual.

Perhaps it is time to consider autism as the evidence of something gone remarkably right.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Genetic Litany

Chromosome 7q36, engrailed homeobox 2(EN2), the 16p11.2 region, 15q11.2, 15q13.3, 16p13.11; four regions located on 18q (MBD1, TCF4, NETO1, FBXO15); the PON1 gene; MECP2, TM4SF2, TSPAN7, PPP1R3F, PSMD10, MCF2, SLITRK2, GPRASP2, and OPHN1; encoding methyl CpG-binding protein 2; the SHANK2 synaptic scaffolding gene; the 5-HT(2A) receptor gene; neurexin-1 (NRXN1), chromosome 17p13.3, the two genes TUSC5 and YWHAE.

Cell adhesion molecule 1 (CADM1); RELN and GRIK2; MKL2 and SND1; chromosome Xp22.11-p21.2 that encompasses the IL1RAPL1 gene; the GABA receptor gamma 3 (GABRG3); neuroligin (NLGN4X); the FMR1 gene; region 10p14-p15, 7p22.1, the Q6NUR6 gene, JMJD2C gene at 9p24.1, 1p21.1, 6p21.3 and 8q21.13; Mecp2-null microglia; R1117X and R536W; SHANK3 mutations, GABA(A) receptor subunits, ASMT, MTNR1A, MTNR1B; RORA and BCL-2 proteins; DOCK4 microdeletion on 7q31.1, 2q14.3 microdeletion disrupting CNTNAP5; chromosome 2q24.2-->q24.3, telencephalic GABAergic neurons, position 614 of diaphanous homolog 3 (DIAPH3), 22q13.3.

Chromosome 2q37, 4q35.1-35.2, 8p23.2; chromosome 8p and 4q, P-glycoprotein gene (MDR1/ABCB1); glutamate transporter gene SLC1A1, IL1RAPL1 gene mutations, neuroligin mutants; SCAMP5, CLIC4 and PPCDC; fatty acid-binding protein (FABP7), 5-HT transporter gene (HTT, SERT, SLC6A4); proteins neurexin1 and PSD95; Cav3.2 T-type channels, chromosome 7q22-31 region; neuroligin-4 missense mutation; ADRA1A, ARHGEF10, CHRNA2, CHRNA6, CHRNB3, DKK4, DPYSL2, EGR3, FGF17, FGF20, FGFR1, FZD3, LDL, NAT2, NEF3, NRG1, PCM1, PLAT, PPP3CC, SFRP1, VMAT1; SLC18A1, microcephalin 1 gene (MCPH1).

Genetic polymorphisms of cytochrome P450 enzymes, 2p15-16.1, neurobeachin (Nbea); rs1858830 C allele variant, 3q26.31, serotonin receptor 2A gene (HTR2A); 1q42 deletion involving DISC1, DISC2, and TSNAX; alpha4beta 2 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, adenosine A(2A) receptor gene (ADORA2A) variants; chromosome 1p34.2p34.3, synaptic vesicle gene RIMS3; microdeletions at 17q21.31, linkage loci on chromosomes 7 and 2; 2q37.3 deletion, neuroligin-3 R451C mutation; 2q24-2q31, 7q, 17q11-17q21; synaptic genes NLGN3, NLGN4, and CNTNAP2; dysfunctional ERK and PI3K signaling, ribosomal protein L10 (RPL10) gene, glutamate decarboxylase gene 1 (GAD1) located within chromosome 2q31.

Breakpoints on chromosomes 5 and 18; short arm of chromosome 20, chromosome 20p12.2, serotonin receptor genes HTR1B and HTR2C; genes at 3q25-27, deletion of chromosome 2p25.2, chromosome 10, chromosome 1q21.1; Joubert syndrome gene (AHI1), deletion in 6q16.1, including GPR63 and FUT9; duplication of 8p23.1-8p23.2, NLGN4Y gene, inverted duplication of proximal chromosome 14; SYNGAP1, DLGAP2, X-linked DDX53-PTCHD1 locus; interstitial deletion 9q31.2 to q33.1, methyl-CpG binding protein 1; balanced de novo translocation between chromosomes 2 and 9; contactin 4 (CNTN4), chromosome 2q24-q33 region, PAX6 gene; deletion on 18q12, chromosome 5q31, PTEN, 13q21.

Microdeletions at 7q11.23, chromosomes 1p, 4p, 6q, 7q, 13q, 15q, 16p, 17q, 19q, 22q; FMR1 protein, FOXP2 gene; 2q35 and 8q21.2 breakpoint, sodium channels SCN1A, SCN2A and SCN3A; paternally derived chromosome 13, somatostatin receptor 5 (SSTR5) on chromosome 16p13.3; terminal 11q deletion and a distal 12q duplication, APOE protein, allelic variants of HOXA1/HOXB1; notch4 gene polymorphisms, AVP receptor 1a (AVPR1a), mitochondrial aspartate/glutamate carrier SLC25A12 gene; Arg451Cys-neuroligin-3 mutation, language loci on chromosomes 2, 7, and 13; de novo translocation t(5;18)(q33.1;q12.1), p11.2p12.2.

Mu-opioid receptor gene, chromosome 16p13.3, trisomy 15q25.2-qter; 14q32.3 deletion, autism loci on 17q and 19p, linkage at 17q11-17q21, linkage on 21q and 7q; 3q29 microdeletion, haplotypes in the gene encoding protein kinase c-beta (PRKCB1) on chromosome 16; 6p25.3-22.3, SLC25A12 and CMYA3 gene variants; chromosome 3q25-27, inversion inv(4)(p12-p15.3), partial trisomy of chromosome 8p; locus in 15q14 region, terminal deletion of 4q, duplication at Xp11.22-p11.23; SEMA5A expression Tachykinin 1 (TAC1) gene SNPs, TPH2 and GLO1; biallelic PRODH mutation, recurrent 10q22-q23 deletions, neuropilin-2 (NRP2) gene polymorphisms.

Yes, I know—it might have taken less space to list the genetic features scientists have not implicated in autism's etiology.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Different Perspective on a Likely Mirage

One more thought regarding the report recently published in the journal Nature, Functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders (Pinto et al., 2010):

If someone wanted to put forth the hypothesis that rare copy number variation has no causal relationship whatsoever to autism, he would be hard pressed to find a more supportive set of evidence than the data supposedly backing the claims being made in (Pinto et al., 2010). Desperate people often see fantastic visions.

A Futuristic Vision

I can see where this co-authorship thing is heading. One day in the not too distant future a paper will appear entitled Today, consisting of a single sentence: “We did some stuff.” The authorship list will comprise the names of the six billion some human inhabitants of this planet, and the paper will be published in the journal Nature, which seems to have a hankering for these things. Everyone can then go about their business of applying for tenure, comfortable in the knowledge it will not be denied.

I hope that day comes soon; in fact, it cannot arrive fast enough. Because then maybe someone—anyone—will finally feel free enough to develop an idea on his own.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How To Talk Like a Modern Scientist

Humans were once curious as to why certain homes had an address of Toledo, Ohio while most homes did not. Modern scientists, attracted by some sizable grants, decided to look into the matter. Here is what a few of them had to say about their findings:

“We compared furniture arrangements of a large set of Toledo homes versus controls and found that if we focused on unusual furniture arrangements (those found in less than 1% of the homes), we could get some interesting and hopefully publishable results. At first we were disappointed to discover that both Toledo and non-Toledo homes were equally likely to have unusual furniture arrangements, but when we cast our statistical eye further we noticed that for unusual furniture arrangements involving television sets (rare televisionic furniture arrangements), Toledo homes were somewhat more likely to have such arrangements than controls. This is a major breakthrough.”

“We discovered novel candidate furniture arrangements that significantly increase the risk of having a Toledo address. This will allow us to develop home decorative intervention strategies and get furniture therapists to front doors much quicker—in some instances preventing homes from ever appearing in Toledo, Ohio.”

“Our results substantiate the importance of unusual furniture arrangements in Toledo homes, and this is likely to change how home decoration is viewed in the Toledo area. Most people in the field believed that Toledo homes shared common furniture arrangements perhaps in just a few rooms. But in fact most Toledo homes are probably decoratively quite unique—each having their own form of furniture arrangement.”

“You and I may have just as many unusual furniture arrangements in our homes, but since they don't involve television sets, we don't live in Toledo, Ohio.”

“Of great significance to us was the finding that in seven of the Toledo homes there was an unusual furniture arrangement involving a Go Mud Hens pennant, whereas this unusual furniture arrangement did not show up in any of the controls. We double checked against a broad population of Canadian homes and confirmed that those also did not have any Go Mud Hens pennants. This is consistent with earlier findings of high risk Toledo furniture arrangements—such as those involving cheap bowling trophies.”

“The findings, to some extent, are not unexpected. These unusual furniture arrangements are turning up in a number of other cities so it is no surprise that they may be involved in Toledo, Ohio as well. How significant they are will await further testing as to how sensitive and specific these furniture arrangements are as well as what percent of Toledo, Ohio is involved.”

“We have been trying to put together a very large jigsaw puzzle without having the benefit of a nice colorful picture on the box. The unusual furniture arrangements are like the edges, you might say, and they give us an idea of what the picture may look like. With these findings, we are starting to find some of the edge pieces, and that may provide us with some sort of framework for looking at how these decorative schemes work in Toledo, Ohio, leading to cartological features and how these might work in collaboration with the geography, thus producing some of the Toledo houses that we can see around us.”

“The exciting thing about the findings of this study is that it highlights fashionable pathways that can be targets for renovation.”

“Even with these findings, we are able to explain only about 10 percent of the homes in Toledo, Ohio. What causes the other 90 percent of Toledo homes to be located where they are is still on the table. Every little victory is important, but it's still amazing how little we know.”


Questions Unasked

One of the advantages of being an outsider to autism science is that I get to ask simple questions. Take for instance autism's latest hullabaloo, the paper recently published in the journal Nature, Functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders (Pinto et al., 2010). There are questions about this study that the media will not ask, nor apparently will any of the study's nearly two hundred authors. I, on the other hand, have no such reservation:

  • If particular types of rare copy number variants (CNVs) are only slightly more likely in autistic individuals than in non-autistic individuals (which is what the study indicates), and if the ratio of autistic individuals to non-autistic individuals is approximately 1:99, then aren't the vast majority of instances of these particular CNVs going to be found within the non-autistic population? And if so, how distinctive for autism can these CNVs possibly be?

  • How is it that only the CNVs which are more likely in autistic individuals can produce significant consequence, whereas the hundreds of other CNVs (from both populations) are apparently benign? Is this science—or wishful thinking?

  • How is it that the broad variety of CNVs more likely in autistic individuals (which are apparently the only ones that can produce significant consequence)—how is it that this diverse hodge-podge of CNVs can all lead to the same diagnosable condition? Is this science—or an amazing coincidence?

  • If the purpose of this study was to uncover a genetic signature underlying autism, shouldn't the major conclusion of this study be that there isn't one?

There are reasons that simple questions go unasked, but those reasons seldom have anything to do with the actual results. I have heard the spin being placed on this study in the media, and I have also listened to what the study's authors have had to say, but I can tell you without hesitation that the study's raw data imparts an entirely different story. Let me put it this way: if you are one of the nearly two hundred scientists who has managed to finagle your name onto the authorship list, then the publication of this study is a positive result; otherwise, it is a whole bunch of nothing.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Unique Accomplishment of Laurent Mottron

I have written previously on this blog about the many innovative and original contributions made by Laurent Mottron and the members of his autism research team, but it would appear this time Dr. Mottron has gone and completely outdone himself in the new paper appearing in the journal Nature, Functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders (Dalila Pinto, Alistair T. Pagnamenta, Lambertus Klei, Richard Anney, Daniele Merico, Regina Regan, Judith Conroy, Tiago R. Magalhaes, Catarina Correia, Brett S. Abrahams, Joana Almeida, Elena Bacchelli, Gary D. Bader, Anthony J. Bailey, Gillian Baird, Agatino Battaglia, Tom Berney, Nadia Bolshakova, Sven Bolte, Patrick F. Bolton, Thomas Bourgeron, Sean Brennan, Jessica Brian, Susan E. Bryson, Andrew R. Carson, Guillermo Casallo, Jillian Casey, Brian H.Y. Chung, Lynne Cochrane, Christina Corsello, Emily L. Crawford, Andrew Crossett, Cheryl Cytrynbaum, Geraldine Dawson, Maretha de Jonge, Richard Delorme, Irene Drmic, Eftichia Duketis, Frederico Duque, Annette Estes, Penny Farrar, Bridget A. Fernandez, Susan E. Folstein, Eric Fombonne, Christine M. Freitag, John Gilbert, Christopher Gillberg, Joseph T. Glessner, Jeremy Goldberg, Andrew Green, Jonathan Green, Stephen J. Guter, Hakon Hakonarson, Elizabeth A. Heron, Matthew Hill, Richard Holt, Jennifer L. Howe, Gillian Hughes, Vanessa Hus, Roberta Igliozzi, Cecilia Kim, Sabine M. Klauck, Alexander Kolevzon, Olena Korvatska, Vlad Kustanovich, Clara M. Lajonchere, Janine A. Lamb, Magdalena Laskawiec, Marion Leboyer, Ann Le Couteur, Bennett L. Leventhal, Anath C. Lionel, Xiao-Qing Liu, Catherine Lord, Linda Lotspeich, Sabata C. Lund, Elena Maestrini, William Mahoney, Carine Mantoulan, Christian R. Marshall, Helen McConachie, Christopher J. McDougle, Jane McGrath, William M. McMahon, Alison Merikangas, Ohsuke Migita, Nancy J. Minshew, Ghazala K. Mirza, Jeff Munson, Stanley F. Nelson, Carolyn Noakes, Abdul Noor, Gudrun Nygren, Guiomar Oliveira, Katerina Papanikolaou, Jeremy R. Parr, Barbara Parrini, Tara Paton, Andrew Pickles, Marion Pilorge, Joseph Piven, Chris P. Ponting, David J. Posey, Annemarie Poustka, Fritz Poustka, Aparna Prasad, Jiannis Ragoussis, Katy Renshaw, Jessica Rickaby, Wendy Roberts, Kathryn Roeder, Bernadette Roge, Michael L. Rutter, Laura J. Bierut, John P. Rice, Jeff Salt, Katherine Sansom, Daisuke Sato, Ricardo Segurado, Ana F. Sequeira, Lili Senman, Naisha Shah, Val C. Sheffield, Latha Soorya, Ines Sousa, Olaf Stein, Nuala Sykes, Vera Stoppioni, Christina Strawbridge, Raffaella Tancredi, Katherine Tansey, Bhooma Thiruvahindrapduram, Ann P. Thompson, Susanne Thomson, Ana Tryfon, John Tsiantis, Herman Van Engeland, John B. Vincent, Fred Volkmar, Simon Wallace, Kai Wang, Zhouzhi Wang, Thomas H. Wassink, Caleb Webber, Rosanna Weksberg, Kirsty Wing, Kerstin Wittemeyer, Shawn Wood, Jing Wu, Brian L. Yaspan, Danielle Zurawiecki, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Joseph D. Buxbaum, Rita M. Cantor, Edwin H. Cook, Hilary Coon, Michael L. Cuccaro, Bernie Devlin, Sean Ennis, Louise Gallagher, Daniel H. Geschwind, Michael Gill, Jonathan L. Haines, Joachim Hallmayer, Judith Miller, Anthony P. Monaco, John I. Nurnberger Jr, Andrew D. Paterson, Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Gerard D. Schellenberg, Peter Szatmari, Astrid M. Vicente, Veronica J. Vieland, Ellen M. Wijsman, Stephen W. Scherer, James S. Sutcliffe and Catalina Betancur, 2010).

There you can see it for yourself, in plain black and white, defying what must have been nearly insurmountable odds—Laurent Mottron has somehow managed to get himself not included in the list of contributing authors. What else can I say—this is clearly a unique accomplishment within the current field of autism research.

Indeed, Dr. Mottron's feat is so unusual and amazing that it leaves me wondering how he possibly could have pulled it off. My suspicion is that Geraldine Dawson, panicked at the thought of perhaps being excluded from the authorship list (which would itself be a unique and amazing event), during her mad, entreating rush to track down the head author must have knocked Dr. Mottron over and rendered him totally unconscious for a considerable period of time, thus leading to his name not appearing on the roll. But little matter. In an accomplishment like this—where one has so definitively set himself apart from all his peers—the means are merely a secondary consideration, the accomplishment is the thing. My heartiest congratulations!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Memetic Residue

Can we assume that Richard Dawkins has plunged headlong (and superciliously) into his anti-religion career mostly because the biology gig did not work out?

Bright Dissent

I was thinking of fostering an Atheists Against Richard Dawkins movement, but unfortunately, its first commandment would have to be, “Thou shalt not be so fatuous as to foster a movement.”

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Takeaway from Autism Science

If you cannot conceive the context, and if you have no grasp of the concept, then all the material data in the world will serve only to feed your blindness—even good information turns rancid in the oppressive heat of ignorance.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Linguistics for Autistics

Language is the use of a biologically immediate artifact to represent something not biologically immediate.

Almost any material artifact can serve the purpose of conveying language—gestures, sound, nudges, smears in the mud. The larynx was convenient, but not essential.

Since the locus of language is the external, material world (not the inside of our human skull) language remains open to any life-form. If a species does not use language, it is because that species has nothing to say.

Humans had nothing to say for an incredibly long period of time—this species passed the better part of its existence locked inside its biological immediacy.

What is crucial about language is not its material form, but rather its representational form. That is what connects biological immediacy to conceptual distance.

If you are aware of a pattern, then you are aware of time. If you are aware of symmetry, then you are aware of space. But how do you inform your neighbor?

Among other things, language was a solution to autistic loneliness.

One cannot deceive within one's own biological immediacy. Deception is a consequence of language.

Not only is deception a consequence of language, it is an essential feature of language. The means by which one conveys biologically removed events are also the means by which one conveys biologically removed non-events.

As with nearly every other autism-inspired invention, non-autistics quickly co-opted language for their own use and bent it to their own purpose; and as with nearly every other instance of non-autistic pilferage, the twisted results have been stunningly and humanly prodigious.

Chomsky was doing just fine when he approached linguistics as a branch of logic. He only went awry after he began approaching linguistics as a branch of science.

The underlying structure of language (Chomsky's universal grammar) reflects the structure of the non-biological world: space and time, stasis and change, mass and energy. The underlying structure of language arises from autistic perception.

Language always acts (represents) in the here and now. Persistent forms of language—such as writing—convey the material of language across space and time, but the sending and receiving still occur inside someone's biological immediacy.

Although autistic perception launched human language and gave it its underlying structure, non-autistic perception soon provided a hefty adornment—language gained its biological and social girth practically overnight.

Pronouns are superfluous to language, as is gender—but try convincing the ninety-nine percent who would feel empty without them.

What value is you and I, we and they, he, she and it, when a proper noun would serve just as well? (That is a question asked by someone not strongly attached to the species.)

Small talk is a reminder of this species' former days, when language itself was superfluous. Subtext was once all we had, and all we needed.

Autistic children grow up to a language that has been corrupted—the biological and social adornments constantly throw them off.

Autistic and non-autistic individuals are both exceedingly logical—just not in the same way.

Mathematics, logic, science—these are all salves against deception, and as such belong under the umbrella of language, not the umbrella of the objective world.

An artifact of language can be used to represent language itself, but it is almost never wise to do so. Meta-language is a misuse of the tool.

Language is not an instinct. Even less so is it a human instinct. What most children have an instinct for is to do what other humans do.

There are no language modules inside the human brain, just the magical thinking modules of linguistics professors and cognitive scientists.

Together with self-reflecting mirrors and obsessive masturbators, Steven Pinker reminds us that expansive vision is possible only because cognitively diverse people have the wherewithal to get beyond themselves.