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.


Laurent Mottron said...

This is a thoughtful comment, and I take it, although I wonder how to satisfy to this deep idea. Here are some of my thought on this; my collaborators in this paper may thing differently. We have some excuse for being so thin on non autistic cognition, as the over-focused nature of scientific publication implies to write only on what is not yet covered by pre-existing literature. So by being so vague on typical cognition, we may implicitly refer to the mountains of literature that have covered this topic. Where I take your comment is that, most knowledge being comparative, the heuristic act of comparing autistic and non-autistic cognition is, as you write, informative on non-autistic cognition also. But is there something as a non autistic cognition, otherwise than as the combination of more specific cognitions by more similar persons who are grouped, probably abusively, under multiple Axis I or Axis two ‘’syndromes’’? Is there something as a typical cognition otherwise that a ‘’central tendency’’ in a fuzzy cloud of multiple variations associated to the multiple ways of being a human? Let’s say we use as a comparison group of uneducated elderly, of ADHD baby boomers, of hostile teen agers, of parents of autistics, of New Hebrides natives, of junkies, and transsexuals, of wall-street-white-collars? What would have happened? I realize that when we, as a researcher group, discovered what was the beginning of this Raven story, this was at the occasion of pondering on the matching issue, and realizing that there is hardly any practical, empirical solution to this matching problem. And despite that, I strongly believe we should go on making some science, even keeping in mind these interrogations, specifically because this represent an alternative power for dangerous discriminative non scientific discourses. So whereas I agree on the philosophical aspect of your comment, what is its practical alternative?

amy said...

"The cognition of non-autistics is extremely well adapted to life spent in close proximity to large numbers of unknown individuals and to high-stimulus environments that require rapid responses to changes of circumstance. Non-autistic processing could be glossed as prioritising efficiency and co-operation over accuracy. The preference for simple patterns over complex ones required by their reduced processing speed in practice enables relatively rapid responses and adaptation to novelty. While this can mean that they overlook crucial details, it does confer significant advantages, as situations in which acting hastily and in error are catastrophic or unrecoverable by later adjustments are relatively rare. This efficiency, coupled as it is with the reduced acuity of non-autistic sensory perception, gives them an unusual ability to tolerate and function in high-stimulus environments and large groups. That non-autistics routinely source information from other individuals rather than from independent observation and show a marked preference for consensus over fact not only contributes to this rapidity and efficiency of their processing, but also facilitates smooth group-relations and co-operation."

Non-autistic perception and cognition is *not* independent, flexible, or accurate. Which is fine, because it's plenty of other adaptive things instead. But that's not how non-autistics like to see themselves, so the closest you'll get to finding references for the above is animal behaviour studies comparing wild species to domesticates (ie: the reduced capacity of domestic dogs to make and interpret subtle behavioural cues enables them to form much larger packs than more expressive wolves), maybe some anthropology (if you read between the lines), and maybe some qualitative social psych.

The question you pose is not really (or not wholly) scientific or philosophical, it's political.
The question is "what can the powerful be told about themselves?".

Alan Griswold said...

Dr. Mottron,

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

To some extent, I'm being a little unfair in singling out you and your colleagues: in my opinion, no one in the research community has ever addressed this issue in an informative way. Until now, most descriptions of autistic/non-autistic cognition (as well as other concepts) have gone along the lines of non-autistic cognition constitutes the norm, and autistic cognition is a defective version of this norm. Unfortunately, that approach tells us nothing constructive about either population. The great merit behind the work of you and your colleagues is that you have provided the outline of a constructive description for autistic cognition, highlighting such notions as veridical perceptions, attunement to patterns and structure, creativity with novel material, etc. But short of making some unfavorable comparisons to autistic cognition, I don't see you and your colleagues suggesting any informative description for non-autistic cognition—that side of the equation is left to fall under the vague heading of the word “norm,” or maybe as you would put it, “the fuzzy cloud of multiple variations.”

Listen, autistic individuals also come in a wide variety of flavors, but that has not prevented you and your colleagues from distilling what it is that's common throughout autistic perception and cognition. If we take your intriguingly motley collection of uneducated elderly, ADHD baby boomers, hostile teenagers, parents of autistics, New Hebrides natives, junkies, transsexuals, and wall-street-white-collars, and assume all are non-autistic, we can still ask (and presumably answer) what it is about the perceptions and cognitions of this group that they share in common, and in particular what it is about these shared perceptions and cognitions that affirmatively distinguishes this group from autistic individuals. If it turns out that non-autistics are not so great at veridical perceptions, attunement to patterns and structure, creativity with novel material, etc., that's fine, but there must be alternative strengths that help explain non-autistics' general behavioral characteristics and help explain how non-autistics have been able to flourish as contributing members within the human environment.

I think anyone who tackles such questions would be adding novel information into the scientific landscape, and you and your colleagues have demonstrated you're more than capable of performing this kind of work. But more importantly, I think you and your colleagues need this information if you are going to present your work on autistic perception and cognition in all its glory. As I've said elsewhere, the respective characteristics of autistic and non-autistic cognition shed light and contrast on each other. So far as I can tell, you've been shining the light in only one direction.

[P.S. - My next post, Autistics Think Differently, Part 3, will roughly outline some of my own ideas on how autistic cognition and non-autistic cognition can each be affirmatively described and meaningfully contrasted against each other. I don't presume that you and your colleagues would agree with such ideas, but I ask that you at least consider them. At the very least, they might inspire some productive alternatives.]