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.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What Self-Constructed Means

Let me be clear: when Harold Doherty uses the latest CDC autism prevalence reports to support his oft-repeated claim that 75-80% of individuals with Autistic Disorder have an intellectual disability, he is fabricating that statistic. The CDC reports show no such thing.

Mr. Doherty “arrives” at his number by taking statistics applied to the entire autism spectrum, then waves his magic wand over the number of Asperger's cases that should be excluded, and voilà, out pops the 75-80% figure. That's a self-constructed (fabricated) statistic.

As I have offered to Mr. Doherty before, he can show me to be wrong (and earn my apology) simply by providing two items—his math and the data he used from the CDC prevalence reports. So far Mr. Doherty has declined to do either. Anyone want to take a guess as to why?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Autism and Intellectual Disability

Since Harold Doherty can't seem to stop repeating, ad nauseam, his self-constructed statistic about autism and intellectual disability, I thought I would counter with a real story about autism and intellectual disability, one involving some actual facts and one requiring a little more thought and attention than needed for just making up numbers or repeating the made-up numbers of others. This is a story about my own son.

Although I don't think our part of the country is typically included in the biennial CDC autism prevalence reports, if it were, this is the year from which Brian's records would be examined and tallied towards the total—he turns eight in a few months and thus he is part of the 2002 birth cohort to be counted as of 2010. And if Brian's records were to be included as part of that study, they would show him falling under the following two categories: Autistic Disorder and intellectual disability. In other words, in Mr. Doherty's narrow-minded view of the situation, Brian would officially qualify as one of the more dire autism cases—the cases Mr. Doherty wants everyone to focus on exclusively. So let's do just that. Let's focus on Brian's case.

Both those categorizations—Autistic Disorder and intellectual disability—result from the occasion of Brian's official diagnosis, received shortly after his fourth birthday. They are essentially the only evidence in Brian's records that the CDC would have to go on. When receiving his official diagnosis, Brian was given a thorough battery of tests, enough to extend over the course of two days, with the cognitive tests being given near the end of the second day. My wife was actually present with Brian as he was administered those tests, because someone was needed to help keep him seated and to help keep him focused long enough to be given the questions. Thus she was in a perfect position to report on how the entire episode turned out to be something of an unmitigated disaster.

There were several less-than-stellar moments, but the most telling incident came when the examiner asked Brian to count out loud from 1 to 10, to which Brian replied with complete silence and a little more squirming in his chair. After a brief period of time, the examiner repeated the question, to which Brian answered with still more silence and still more squirming, until finally the examiner noted the result on her chart and moved on to the next question. Needless to say, given this and several similar exchanges, Brian's overall cognitive score turned out to be significantly low.

But here's the thing:

This boy, who among other inabilities was being marked as unable to count from 1 to 10 at four years of age, was also the same boy who had been regularly entertaining himself from around the time of his third birthday by counting backwards from 100 to 1—cheerfully, voluntarily, and without mistake.

Like many autistic children, Brian does not like to sit still for very long, and he does not like to be barraged with an endless stream of questions. Even today, I would be hesitant to predict his performance on an IQ exam, because I'm not sure he would have enough patience to sit all the way through it. But I can tell you this much: anyone who has spent more than an hour with him would laugh hysterically at the notion of him being classified as intellectually disabled. He now reads at the third grade level. He does multiple-digit addition and subtraction. He is eerily adept at logic and probability puzzles. Plus he can talk up a linguistic storm as long as the subject is one that intrigues him (Disney and ceiling fans, for instance, would currently net you at least a ten-minute monologue). There has never been any doubt for those who actually know Brian: he may be highly atypical, but he is also highly intelligent.

Of course, the CDC will never know that.

Administering cognitive tests to any child under the age of about eight is a dubious procedure, but it becomes especially doubtful when applied to autistic children. There are many reasons autistic children will perform poorly and erratically on intelligence tests, with a good number of those reasons having nothing to do with the child's actual level of cognitive skill. If we are going to accumulate valid statistics on the relative intelligence of the autistic population, then the first thing we must do is focus on tests administered at older ages—exactly the opposite of what is currently being done.

And there are other factors to consider. For instance, as Michelle Dawson and her colleagues have been demonstrating, autistic individuals tend to evince a different kind of intelligence than do non-autistic individuals, an intelligence that often leaves behind an erratic trail across the range of standard cognitive tests, but an intelligence which nonetheless remains highly correlated to the types of cognitive skills often valued within the current culture. If we continue to compare autistic intelligence only to the norm, then we are going to continue to overlook many of the more valuable cognitive contributions autistic individuals have to make.

On the other hand, I don't want to be entirely pollyannish about the situation either. Clearly, there are also a significant number of autistic individuals who do experience various kinds and degrees of cognitive difficulty—difficulties that can often extend throughout a lifetime. The reasons for this phenomenon remain poorly understood and are a genuine cause for concern; and indeed, when one surveys the entire landscape of autism and intellectual ability—both the promises and the problems—what emerges is an extremely complex and puzzling picture. Autistic intelligence is different; it is also highly variable. Autistic intelligence is full of intriguing possibilities; it also gives rise to a surfeit of unanswered questions. Whatever else one might say about autism and intelligence, at the very least one must admit that these are fertile grounds for further study and exploration.

And in the end, I think that is what bothers me the most about Mr. Doherty's repetitive fictions. That he makes up his numbers and passes along the concocted platitudes of others—well, that is something I can deal with, because those activities simply mark Mr. Doherty as another nondescript member of the autism advocacy throng. But the facileness—that is what I found so hard to swallow. It can be only pure cognitive laziness that would prompt Mr. Doherty to fabricate statistics, thereby obscuring a wealth of valuable and potentially helpful information about autism and intelligence. And in my opinion, it is that cognitive laziness that needs to be classified as autism's true intellectual disability.