Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lab Rats

The best science is descriptive. If you need an experiment to make your point, you've already missed the point.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lateral Glance

What makes a brain non-autistic? That would be an important question too.

Monday, October 24, 2011


You know, to be a scientist these days is to engage in a form of “mandatory hierarchies of processing.” I wonder why people can't choose to be an independent thinker instead.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Novel Approach to Ad Nauseam

Here is the abstract from the latest autism-genetics breakthrough paper (Casey 2011):

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly heritable disorder of complex and heterogeneous aetiology. It is primarily characterized by altered cognitive ability including impaired language and communication skills and fundamental deficits in social reciprocity. Despite some notable successes in neuropsychiatric genetics, overall, the high heritability of ASD (~90%) remains poorly explained by common genetic risk variants. However, recent studies suggest that rare genomic variation, in particular copy number variation, may account for a significant proportion of the genetic basis of ASD. We present a large scale analysis to identify candidate genes which may contain low-frequency recessive variation contributing to ASD while taking into account the potential contribution of population differences to the genetic heterogeneity of ASD. Our strategy, homozygous haplotype (HH) mapping, aims to detect homozygous segments of identical haplotype structure that are shared at a higher frequency amongst ASD patients compared to parental controls. The analysis was performed on 1,402 Autism Genome Project trios genotyped for 1 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). We identified 25 known and 1,218 novel ASD candidate genes in the discovery analysis including CADM2, ABHD14A, CHRFAM7A, GRIK2, GRM3, EPHA3, FGF10, KCND2, PDZK1, IMMP2L and FOXP2. Furthermore, 10 of the previously reported ASD genes and 300 of the novel candidates identified in the discovery analysis were replicated in an independent sample of 1,182 trios. Our results demonstrate that regions of HH are significantly enriched for previously reported ASD candidate genes and the observed association is independent of gene size (odds ratio 2.10). Our findings highlight the applicability of HH mapping in complex disorders such as ASD and offer an alternative approach to the analysis of genome-wide association data.

Allow me to interpret that abstract without the spin: Here are a hundred-some authors admitting that all their previous data-mining techniques have failed to find what they were looking for, but fear not, because they've discovered yet another data-mining technique that alas, also fails to find what they're looking for. But there are some secondary benefits—namely getting one's name attached to yet another massive-author publication—and from that perspective, all autism-related data-mining techniques seem to be equally effective.

(Casey 2011): Casey JP, Magalhaes T, Conroy JM, Regan R, Shah N, Anney R, Shields DC, Abrahams BS, Almeida J, Bacchelli E, Bailey AJ, Baird G, Battaglia A, Berney T, Bolshakova N, Bolton PF, Bourgeron T, Brennan S, Cali P, Correia C, Corsello C, Coutanche M, Dawson G, de Jonge M, Delorme R, Duketis E, Duque F, Estes A, Farrar P, Fernandez BA, Folstein SE, Foley S, Fombonne E, Freitag CM, Gilbert J, Gillberg C, Glessner JT, Green J, Guter SJ, Hakonarson H, Holt R, Hughes G, Hus V, Igliozzi R, Kim C, Klauck SM, Kolevzon A, Lamb JA, Leboyer M, Le Couteur A, Leventhal BL, Lord C, Lund SC, Maestrini E, Mantoulan C, Marshall CR, McConachie H, McDougle CJ, McGrath J, McMahon WM, Merikangas A, Miller J, Minopoli F, Mirza GK, Munson J, Nelson SF, Nygren G, Oliveira G, Pagnamenta AT, Papanikolaou K, Parr JR, Parrini B, Pickles A, Pinto D, Piven J, Posey DJ, Poustka A, Poustka F, Ragoussis J, Roge B, Rutter ML, Sequeira AF, Soorya L, Sousa I, Sykes N, Stoppioni V, Tancredi R, Tauber M, Thompson AP, Thomson S, Tsiantis J, Van Engeland H, Vincent JB, Volkmar F, Vorstman JA, Wallace S, Wang K, Wassink TH, White K, Wing K, Wittemeyer K, Yaspan BL, Zwaigenbaum L, Betancur C, Buxbaum JD, Cantor RM, Cook EH, Coon H, Cuccaro ML, Geschwind DH, Haines JL, Hallmayer J, Monaco AP, Nurnberger JI Jr, Pericak-Vance MA, Schellenberg GD, Scherer SW, Sutcliffe JS, Szatmari P, Vieland VJ, Wijsman EM, Green A, Gill M, Gallagher L, Vicente A, Ennis S. 2011. “A novel approach of homozygous haplotype sharing identifies candidate genes in autism spectrum disorder.” Human Genetics (in press).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Evidence Christ Was Autistic?

Here is the abstract from a recently published paper (Izuma 2011):

People act more prosocially when they know they are watched by others, an everyday observation borne out by studies from behavioral economics, social psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. This effect is thought to be mediated by the incentive to improve one's social reputation, a specific and possibly uniquely human motivation that depends on our ability to represent what other people think of us. Here we tested the hypothesis that social reputation effects are selectively impaired in autism, a developmental disorder characterized in part by impairments in reciprocal social interactions but whose underlying cognitive causes remain elusive. When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, matched healthy controls donated significantly more in the observer's presence than absence, replicating prior work. By contrast, people with high-functioning autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer at all in this task. However, both groups performed significantly better on a continuous performance task in the presence of an observer, suggesting intact general social facilitation in autism. The results argue that people with autism lack the ability to take into consideration what others think of them and provide further support for specialized neural systems mediating the effects of social reputation.

It's difficult to read that passage without being reminded of Matthew 6:1–4, from the Sermon on the Mount:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.

What would Jesus do? Apparently not what non-autistics would do.

(Izuma 2011): Keise Izuma, Kenji Matsumoto, Colin F. Camerer, and Ralph Adolphs. 2011. “Insensitivity to social reputation in autism.” PNAS 2011: 1107038108v1-201107038.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Autistics Think Differently, Part 3

[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

In “The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome?” (Soulières 2011), the following sentence appears:

“Autistics can maintain more veridical representations (e.g. representations closer to the actual information present in the environment) when performing high level, complex tasks.”

That's an intriguing statement, and I think I have a rough idea of what the authors are driving at (and I would generally agree with that rough idea). But the sentence as stated strikes me as slightly off key and a bit misleading. Let me see if I can explain.

I'm going to lay out a hypothetical visual scene (something similar could be done in the auditory domain if so desired), and once I've described the scene, I'm going to have three different entities survey it, including one that represents autistic perception and another that represents non-autistic perception. But when it comes to veridical representation, it's going to be the third entity that emerges as the clear winner in “capturing the actual information present in the environment.”

Here's the scene: It's a fairly open and sparse field, maybe in a large park or reserve. Near the front section of the field is a bench, where a woman and a girl are seated and talking. Rising behind them are four tall light poles, evenly spaced and situated so that they form a diagonal across the visual plane. The sky is mostly blue with a few nondescript clouds, and there is nothing else worthy of note.

Here are three entities viewing this scene from the same perspective, along with a rough description of what each perceives:

  • Entity 1 surveys this scene entirely as light and color stimulus. You can think of it as a pixelated view, where the perception of this scene is best described as a series of points, each point determined by its relative position and its light qualities, such as brightness and hue.
  • Entity 2 surveys this scene and is immediately drawn to the woman and girl on the bench. If asked about this perception, Entity 2 might say something like, “Yes, I can see the mother and daughter on the bench over there. See, the daughter is extremely upset—she's crying.” If asked about the light poles, Entity 2 might offer the observation that it's a good thing to have them here, because people can come at night without being afraid.
  • Entity 3 surveys this scene and is struck by the particular arrangement of the light poles. Entity 3 might note that there are four of them, or might point out that they are evenly spaced, or might remark on the angle they form in the visual plane. If asked about the people on the bench, Entity 3 might say they were noticed and there were two of them and they looked small beneath the light poles towering above them.

Although these descriptions are meant to highlight only general tendencies, I think most people would agree that the perceptions of Entity 1 closely match those of a camera, the perceptions of Entity 2 are fairly typical of a non-autistic person, and the perceptions of Entity 3 are more indicative of someone who might be on the autism spectrum. Each entity sees the exact same visual stimulus, but each extracts from that stimulus an entirely different set of information. That is the essence of what we mean when we talk about the concept perception.

In my way of thinking, Entity 1 has by far the most veridical representation here—it comes the closest to perceiving this visual scene as it truly is. The key to a camera creating an accurate visual representation is, ironically enough, not to do much of anything at all with it; in particular, not to impose any form upon the visual scene. No foregrounding. No backgrounding. No extracting of signal from noise. Just reproduce the visual scene as it visually is—that's all a camera is required to do.

By contrast, both Entity 2 and Entity 3 come to their particular perceptions by imposing some kind of structure on the raw visual stimulus, which is to say some elements in the visual scene form perceptual foreground while other elements fade mostly unnoticed into the background. The perceptual process is quite similar for both Entity 2 and Entity 3 (and quite different from the perceptual process of Entity 1). What distinguishes the perceptions of Entity 2 and Entity 3 is the material of the signal itself; that is, there is a categorical difference in what tends to foreground within the perceptions of Entity 2 and Entity 3.

It's not obvious yet that Entity 3's representations are more veridical than those of Entity 2, but let's keep exploring all these perceptions in more detail.

It's actually quite fortunate that Entity 1 is not a biological or responsive agent. If it were, having the most veridical representation of the visual scene would manifest as a huge liability. To be responsive to an environmental stimulus requires that information be extracted from it, exactly what Entity 1 cannot do. This has actually been a problem in the world of robotics, where despite having extremely accurate cameras, it has been nonetheless difficult to get machines to respond flexibly and constructively to various visual stimuli, precisely because it is difficult to get machines to recognize what constitutes the necessary foreground and what needs to be dismissed as inconsequential background.

Possessing a perfectly veridical representation of an environmental stimulus is tantamount to experiencing sensory chaos. Everything comes across as noise, nothing appears as signal. And with no signal, there is no information. And with no information, there is no ability to respond with purpose. We must keep in mind these thoughts about perfectly veridical representations and their corresponding sensory chaos, because when we later consider the perceptions of Entity 3 (autistic perception), we'll discover this very same concept comes into play.

First, however, let's talk in more detail about the perceptions of Entity 2 (non-autistic perception). It's my contention that what signifies and distinguishes non-autistic perception is its strong tendency to focus upon human-related events in the sensory environment; that is, it is the human-specific features that most commonly foreground within non-autistic perception, and it is this human-specific focus that provides the necessary structure for extracting signal from the sensory noise. You can see this at work in my depiction of Entity 2's perceptions, where the attention is drawn primarily to the people in the scene—and in a very detailed way—and even the elements which are not so apparently human-related are often tied back to humanity by some indirect means (the light poles, for instance, are comprehended as helping people see at night and not be afraid).

I wouldn't use the terms “global processing” or “hierarchies of processing” to describe this phenomenon, but I would consider such a term as “common thread” to suggest how these people-specific perceptions tie non-autistic cognition together into a cohesive package. And this works at more than just the individual level. Since nearly all humans share the characteristic of these people-specific perceptions, these perceptions serve to coalesce not just individual thoughts and behaviors but also the conventions and actions of the species as a whole. Humans formulate their shared species-specific perceptions into a series of cohesive thoughts, behaviors, conventions and environments, exactly as we might expect from a species-driven, biologically essential phenomenon.

Indeed, it is important to note that it's not just in humans that we observe this common form of species-specific perception. All across the animal kingdom, we can observe abundant evidence that creatures attend most strongly to the other members of their own species and to the species-related elements in their surroundings while most everything else in the sensory environment is ignored as inconsequential background. It is in this sense that I think the word “mandatory” comes into play. The common thread of a species-specific focus is extremely powerful, it has been forged through the long-burning furnace of evolutionary time. I think most organisms inherently rely upon this common thread, and would find it extremely difficult to step outside it.

In my previous post (Autistics Think Differently, Part 2) I complained that the authors of (Soulières 2011) have not provided an affirmative, distinguishing description for non-autistic perception and cognition. If it were up to me to provide that description, I would do it in much the same way I have here, highlighting the species-specific perceptions non-autistics share and that help cement the common cognitions and behaviors across that particular class of the population. I am of course open to criticisms of this idea and am willing to consider alternative suggestions, but so far I've not see much of anything forthcoming, anything beyond that is just a settling for describing non-autistic individuals as constituting the norm.

It is also my contention that what most fundamentally distinguishes autistic perception is that it lacks the species-specific focus that is characteristic of non-autistic perception. For reasons not yet clearly identified, autistic individuals do not tend to naturally foreground human-related elements within the sensory environment, and as a baseline, this would leave autistic individuals in much the same situation as that of Entity 1: autistics would perceive the raw environmental stimulus almost exactly as it is and would have no natural means of obtaining signal from the various aspects of that stimulus.

It's primarily in this sense that I think it's fair to say autistic individuals experience more veridical representations—representations that don't come with as many pre-imposed filters, such as the human-focused filters that get routinely and naturally applied within non-autistic perception. But this also means that the natural (beginning) state of autistic perception is one that comes dangerously close to sensory chaos, and I believe this goes a long ways towards explaining why autistic individuals tend to experience sensory difficulties, difficulties that vary in domain and range and seem to have no discernible physical cause. It also goes a long ways towards explaining the developmental difficulties autistic individuals experience in their early years, because both as an individual and as a member of a species that has built its environmental surroundings out of a shared perceptual experience, an autistic individual would find himself closed off from those species-shared experiences and all their coalescing and foregrounding effects. As was stated in the discussion for Entity 1, the possession of a perfectly veridical representation is actually a huge liability when it comes to acting as a biological or responsive agent.

The saving grace for autistics is that there are features within the sensory environment that seem to inherently foreground in the absence of any stronger means of perceptual organization. It's not entirely clear to me (logically or biologically) what causes these particular elements to form signal against an otherwise chaotic background, but we recognize these mostly non-biological features through such names as symmetry, repetition, pattern, mapping, structure, and form. The authors of (Soulières 2011) routinely invoke said features in describing the distinguishing characteristics of autistic perception and cognition [see for instance (Mottron 2009) and Principles 6 and 7 in (Mottron 2006)], and in my depiction of Entity 3's perception, you'll notice the emphasis being placed on such things as number, repetition, pattern, geometry and so on. And just as non-autistics will often apprehend non-biological features in their sensory environment through a referential connection to humanity, autistics will often reverse this process, apprehending humans through such things as number, categorization and measure. It seems to me that there is a good deal of evidence backing the idea that autistic perception is drawn primarily to those environmental features consisting of non-biological pattern, structure and form, and it is out of such features that autistics gain the majority of their perceptual foregrounding. Apprehension of non-biological environmental structure forms the backbone of an autistic individual's atypical means of overcoming sensory chaos, allowing that individual to respond productively as a biological agent.

One of the fascinating aspects of autistic perceptual foregrounding is that it can bring forth incredible variety and novelty. An autistic individual is apt to pull almost any kind of information from a sensory environment (it wouldn't have been all that surprising, for instance, if Entity 3 had ignored both the light poles and the people on the bench and had fixated instead on the harmonious colors in the clouds and sky). Because of the variety, novelty and non-biological (objective) nature of the information autistic individuals tend to gather, this too might be considered a valid reason for classifying autistic representations as more veridical (and I think the authors of (Soulières 2011) actually have something of this consideration in mind). But here I think we should be a bit more cautious. Once an autistic individual has actually foregrounded some aspect of the sensory environment, he has already moved far away from the realm of true veridical representation, is no longer perceiving reality anything at all like a camera. And no matter what structure is being applied to the environmental stimulus—be it the biological, species-driven form common to non-autistic perception, or the more pattern-based variety familiar to autistic perception—it can have equally valid potential to be a good or poor reflector of environmental reality. When we consider the entirety of human history, as well as the entirety of modern human society, I think it's fair to say that all types of human perceptual foregrounding are potentially informative and valuable, we wouldn't want to be deprived of hardly any of these perspectives.

In summary, I think there is merit and truth in the (Soulières 2011) claim that autistic individuals have a tendency to experience more veridical representations under many circumstances, but I wouldn't want to make that statement as obvious, simple fact. To come to that conclusion requires a deep understanding of both autistic perception and non-autistic perception, and in particular a deep understanding of what fundamentally distinguishes them. And this is just one more example of why I think it's inadequate to describe either autistic or non-autistic cognition as merely a deficit or norm. What's needed here are clear, affirmative, distinguishing descriptions—descriptions that enlighten us about both autism and non-autism, descriptions that bring out the essential value in each of these points of view.

(Soulières 2011): Soulières I, Dawson M, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L, 2011 The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? PLoS ONE 6(9): e25372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025372

(Mottron 2009): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I (2009) Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 1385–1391.

(Mottron 2006): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I, Hubert B, Burack J (2006) Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: an update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36: 27–43.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autistics Think Differently, Part 2

In the discussion section of “The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome?” (Soulières 2011), you will find the following paragraph:

“We have proposed that autistics' cognitive processes function in an atypically independent way, leading to “parallel, non-strategic integration of patterns across multiple levels and scales” and to versatility in cognitive processing. Such “independent thinking” suggests ways in which apparently specific or isolated abilities can co-exist with atypical but flexible, creative, and complex achievements. Across a wide range of tasks, including or perhaps especially in complex tasks, autistics do not experience to the same extent the typical loss or distortion of information that characterizes non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing. Therefore, autistics can maintain more veridical representations (e.g. representations closer to the actual information present in the environment) when performing high level, complex tasks. The current results suggest that such a mechanism is also present in Asperger syndrome and therefore represents a commonality across the autistic spectrum. Given the opportunity, different subgroups of autistics may advantageously apply more independent thinking to different available aspects of information: verbal information, by persons whose specific diagnosis is Asperger's, and perceptual information, by persons whose specific diagnosis is autism.”

That's a lovely paragraph in many respects, highlighting several of the strengths in these authors' approach to describing (affirmatively) the characteristics of autistic perception and cognition. It's practically all there: atypical information processing, independent thinking, patterns, versatility, creativity, veridical representations of complex stimuli, specfic/isolated abilities, and so on. With nary a reference to a neural construct, this paragraph manages nonetheless to capture a broad, descriptive range of autistic cognitive concepts, all translating well into observable and distinctive autistic behaviors. While the rest of the autism research community continues to focus on describing autistic perception and cognition as deficient relative to their non-autistic counterparts, the authors of (Soulières 2011) make an informative rebuttal simply by providing consistent evidence and detailed descriptions outlining what autistic perception and cognition actually are, as opposed to obsessing on what they are not.

On the other hand, the above paragraph also highlights the glaring weakness in these authors' approach. Here we have yet one more time from these authors an instance of an extremely detailed, extremely descriptive, extremely compelling description of autistic perception and cognition that goes entirely unaccompanied by a corresponding description for non-autistic perception and cognition.

In the above paragraph, the description of non-autistic perception and cognition is reduced to a single phrase: “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing.” It's bad enough that this description is so sparse, but what makes it worse is that there is no clear indication of what that particular phrase is supposed to mean—it actually sounds empty to me. When I read it, the questions that pop into my head are: What is the nature of these hierarchies? Are there examples? What's at their root? What's at their leaves? What is it about these mysterious hierarchies that make them mandatory? And above all else, how does any of this shed light on non-autistic perception, cognition, and behavior? Listen, I may be a very poor reader, but I honestly can't find an adequate answer to those questions in any of these authors' work.

If you follow the reference that is attached to the phrase “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing,” you'll be taken to (Soulières 2009). Unfortunately that doesn't help very much, because (Soulières 2009) simply repeats the terminology, not explaining it in any greater detail than does (Soulières 2011). I suppose a subtle interpretation that could be made from this reference to (Soulières 2009) is that the authors are intending the phrase to be taken neuronally: that is, “mandatory hierarchies of processing” is meant to invoke a particular form of non-autistic brain structure and organization. I would note, however, that even if this interpretation is valid, it would only be a theory, not an observation or a description. I would also note it wouldn't let the authors off the hook: these authors have provided similar theories about autistic brain structure and organization, but that has never stopped them from augmenting such theories with a broad array of non-neuronal depictions of autistic perception and cognition—precisely the type of supplementary explanation that is conspicuously absent on the non-autistic side of the equation.

Perhaps a more helpful reference for the phrase would have been (Mottron 2006), which actually does discuss global hierarchical processing in some detail (albeit a bit haphazardly). There you'll find an assortment of loose explanations for the term, including some of which are more neuronal in nature (as was perhaps being suggested through the reference to (Soulières 2009)). But more commonly in (Mottron 2006), global hierarchical processing is discussed in terms of relative autistic/non-autistic performances on various laboratory tasks, with the conclusion from this analysis being summed up succinctly in the statement of Principle 5: higher-order processing is optional in autism and mandatory in non-autistics. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting that autistics can process all the information that non-autistics can, and on top of that autistics can process more. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting non-autistics can process less. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting non-autistic cognition is deficient relative to autistic cognitive processing. Which is to say, the apparent purpose of using the phrase “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing” is to lead the reader back to what must undoubtedly be these authors' greatest autism research discovery so far, namely the deficit-based model of non-autism! (Maybe they'll win a Nobel Prize for that.)

Well really, what am I supposed to think? Look at the above quoted paragraph and consider what it must imply, in the absence of other information, about non-autistic perception and cognition. Autistic thinking is independent. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is flexible. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is creative. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is veridical. So non-autistic thinking is not? After having convincingly rebutted the research community's nonstop reliance on deficit-based models of autism through their use of informative, detailed, affirmative descriptions of autistic perception and cognition, these authors then make the tragic mistake of turning right around and presenting non-autistic perception and cognition as nothing more than a series of unflattering comparisons to autistic perception and cognition. Heck, if I were to rely on what these authors have implied so far about non-autistic cognitive abilities, I would have to conclude early intervention wouldn't even be worth the bother for this population, we might as well just dispatch the poor non-autistic souls straight off to the institutions.

Or on the other hand, we could just go back to assuming I'm a very poor reader. Here is what I would propose to set me straight:

Start with a clean sheet of paper. Head one column with “Autistic Perception and Cognition.” Head the other with “Non-autistic Perception and Cognition.” Fill in the columns with the descriptions and observations from the authors of (Soulières 2011). I could do the autistic column myself—the material for it is impressively abundant. The above quoted paragraph would be a good start and (Mottron 2009) is practically an entire tone poem in description of autistic perception and cognition. Throw in a couple dubious sentences about local processing and related neuronal theories, and the column is done. But for me, the non-autistic column continues to look mostly blank. Outside some hypothetical musings about non-autistic brain structure and organization, all I can think of to add would be the phrases “global processing” and “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing,” and of course I would have to put an asterisk next to those terms, because I really don't have a clue as to what they're supposed to mean. Now if someone—the authors, anyone—wants to come along and fill in the rest of the column for me, show me what I've been missing, I would be happy to give them thanks, apologize for the trouble, and go on about my sheepish way. But if on the other hand the non-autistic column can't be adequately filled in—not in the same way that the autistic column can—then my complaint remains legitimate and unaddressed, and I will continue to be vocal about it.

As much as I like and generally agree with the authors' descriptions of autistic perception and cognition, I also believe those descriptions fall flat when there is nothing to contrast them against. And on top of that, I'm also of the firm belief that non-autistic perception and cognition has an affirmative, distinctive richness all its own, a richness that possesses deep inner logic, a richness that has been biologically essential, and a richness that provides ongoing and immense value to the entire human population. It's long past time for that richness to be acknowledged and described.

(Soulières 2011): Soulières I, Dawson M, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L, 2011 The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? PLoS ONE 6(9): e25372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025372

(Soulières 2009): Soulières I, Dawson M, Samson F, Barbeau EB, Sahyoun CP, et al. (2009) Enhanced visual processing contributes to matrix reasoning in autism. Human Brain Mapping 30: 4082–4107.

(Mottron 2009): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I (2009) Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 1385–1391.

(Mottron 2006): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I, Hubert B, Burack J (2006) Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: an update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36: 27–43.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Autistics Think Differently, Part 1

I would encourage everyone to read the recently published paper “The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome?” (Soulières 2011). It appears in the online journal PLoS One (which happily is open access) and although there appears to have been a glitch with the original publication of the paper (wording changes that were made without the permission of the authors), all seems to be rectified now.

I would also encourage a quick glance at this paper's predecessors, (Dawson 2007) and (Bolte 2009). Although there are some subtle variations among these studies, the general theme remains quite consistent, namely that individuals across the autism spectrum evince a markedly different cognitive profile compared to their non-autistic peers, a profile that consistently reveals many affirmative signs of intellectual capacity while also displaying a significant atypicality in the presentation of that capacity.

This is an important finding not just in the world of autism research but also in the world of intelligence research. Intelligence researchers routinely compare individuals by their intelligence performance (as measured by the standard battery of intelligence tests), and these comparisons have been shown to have predictive value in the real world. But until now, such differences have been characterized almost entirely by reference to the level of individual intelligence. With (Soulières 2011), (Dawson 2007), and (Bolte 2009), researchers have been given a clear-cut instance in which individual intelligence differences are more meaningfully characterized by reference to the type of intelligence being displayed. In other words, in the titles of (Dawson 2007) and (Soulières 2011) it is the word “nature” that needs to be emphasized—autistic individuals are displaying an entirely different kind of perception and cognition. That the level of autistic intelligence is also being underestimated is due primarily to the fact researchers routinely assume autistic cognition is little more than a damaged version of its non-autistic counterpart. (Soulières 2011) is helping put another nail in the coffin of that assumption.

(Soulières 2011): Soulières I, Dawson M, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L, 2011 The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? PLoS ONE 6(9): e25372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025372

(Dawson 2007): Dawson M, Soulières I, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L (2007) The level and nature of autistic intelligence. Psychological Science 18: 657–662.

(Bolte 2009): Bolte S, Dziobek I, Poustka F (2009) Brief report: The level and nature of autistic intelligence revisited. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 39: 678–682.