Monday, February 6, 2017

Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Sensory-Friendly Performance

Last night my entire family attended a special concert for families with autistic children put on by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This sensory-friendly performance was the second annual performance, and it is the idea of the conductor himself, Jaap van Zweden. The linked news story is from last year, when the first one was put on. We only learned about it this year.

As it turns out, conductor Jaap van Zweden has an autistic son. It is actually not that uncommon for creative types such as Zweden (or myself---I am a poet, fiction writer, and playwright) to have children on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is famously full of autistic children (and their mildly autistic parents). It should perhaps not be surprising that a combination of strong pattern-detection, strong visual memory, strong long-term memory, weak censor, and weak tendency to follow the crowd (or even be aware of the crowd) is associated with artistic creativity.

Now, I wish I could report that the symphony had the same effect on Daniel as did Balloonacy, but perhaps because there is so much music in our house and perhaps because Melina is taking piano lessons, so he has heard this kind of music before, he didn't seem all that into it. Of course, it may have been just that he was in a new place and was therefore uncomfortable. He mostly slumped in his chair, but then he also sat in my lap for a bit, during which time he seemed to be paying more attention to the orchestra.

Of course, his lack of complete focus may have been because he also had something on his mind about which he was primarily concerned, and therefore was barely aware that there was interesting music taking place. The day before, he had bought a solar system to hang up in his room, and I told him we were going to put it together when we got home from the symphony. And that, of course, is precisely what we did the minute we walked through the door. Because when Daniel prioritizes, he prioritizes hard.

On the other hand, he did say he recognized one of the pieces. J. Strauss, Jr's. On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314. It's sometimes hard to tell when he's really paying attention to something. Things in the periphery are often what people one the spectrum are really paying attention to. Maybe he'll be more into it next year.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have written before about the sensory-friendly performances at the Dallas Children's Theater, particularly Balloonacy, which was turned into a video. I am happy that these sensory-friendly performances are starting to spring up in Dallas. They allow autistic children to get exposure to culture, and they allow families such as ours to be able to go out to places without our worrying about how Daniel will behave or react.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Neurodiversity and Group Selection

Humans are hypersocial, but hypersociality doesn't necessarily mean acceptance of diversity. And yet, humans do manage to be both hypersocial and accepting of difference. Recent research suggests that the acceptance of diversity occurred about 100,000 years ago, and allowed for more general accepting of such diversity as autism.

Why is this important? Well, if wider acceptance of neurodiversity, meaning diverse ways of thinking and behaving, were to be adaptive for groups, we would expect humans expressing such acceptance to have come to dominate. What was later developed as specialization and gains through trade likely started with a general acceptance of different kinds of human behaviors within the tribes.

Why is acceptance of neurodiversity important? Well, neurotypical people are great at copying what everyone else is doing, but it turns out that as a result, they are actually pretty poor at coming up with new things. Autistic people in particular tend to try to solve things without relying on how things have always been done. This results in innovations that improve the material conditions of everyone in the tribe, and which everyone else dutifully copies. As a result, there is a balance between stable copiers and unstable innovators that keeps human populations on the edge of order and chaos, known as criticality. This is in fact the most creative space a self-organizing network process can be in.

 Presently there is not a lot of acceptance of neurodiversity, at least not in the U.S. There is some anecdotal appreciation of a few people who people think may be on the spectrum, but these people are typically seen as outliers rather than a healthy part of our social networks. So much emphasis is put on everyone being the same and acting the same and thinking the same (lip service to "thinking outside the box" notwithstanding) that people who are in fact different in the ways they think and act and experience the world are held in contempt.

In fact, it is this contempt in which we on the spectrum are generally held that I try to focus on many of the positive aspects of being on the spectrum. We need to have healthier attitudes toward neurodiversity precisely because groups that don't have such diversity stagnate at best. And really, nature abhors stagnation, meaning there is either growth or death. Dynamic tensions create growth; eliminating those tensions results in equilibrium, or death. A healthy society is a diverse society.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shakespeare and Autism

There is a new autism therapy based on the works of Shakespeare called the Hunter Heartbeat Method. The initial results seem extremely promising. The theater games all make a great deal of sense to me, at least. Even better, from my perspective, is that theater and, especially Shakespeare, the greatest of all playwrights, is being used to help socialize us. He's teaching us to be human all too human.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Literary Interests on the Spectrum -- Fantasy, Comics, and Perhaps SciFi

Of course, reading NeuroTribes means recognizing patterns repeated in me. There's something I share with practically every case study mentioned (Wittgensteinian "family resemblances" to be sure!) But sometimes I recognize patterns found in others. One such pattern is the recurring patterns of people on the spectrum reading comic books, fantasy, and fairy tales (I suspect SciFi is also in there, but that hasn't been mentioned in the book--yet, at least). I've never read a lot of comic books (though I have a small collection), and little fantasy or SciFi (I'm a fan of such movies, though).

One has to wonder what the fascination is with SciFi and fantasy among those on the spectrum. These are magical worlds, different from the world in which we live and experience, but surely such escape is not exclusively autistic. And yet, given the strong connection between the two, what may the popularity of SciFi and fantasy suggest about the true prevalence of autism, broadly understood?

Of course, I may be simply over-extending here. Autistics' interest in SciFi and fantasy hardly means the causation runs backwards, that interest in SciFi and fantasy means autism/autistic traits. But it would be worth researching.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

We Meritocrats

I am currently reading Neurotribes, which I am sure I will continue to comment on as I continue to read it. Today, however, I want to bring up something I keep seeing in each of the autistic cases Silberman mentions, which is that each of them seem particularly focused on merit.

I definitely believe in meritocracy, and I always have. It was only reinforced when I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in which Rand (who was almost certainly a fellow Aspie), provides a epic celebration of meritocracy. Indeed, her primary argument against socialism or even the interventionist state is precisely that people are rewarded for things other than merit.

It is perhaps not surprising that people who identify with their work and who aren't particularly social would think that the best system is one that recognizes people for their actual accomplishments than for their social/political skills. Of course, social skills and political skills are practically the same. Which is perhaps why many on the spectrum I have met have been particularly anti-politics if not outright libertarian. To us it seems a pretty stupid way to get things done, since nothing is getting done while everyone involved get rich and powerful while producing nothing of worth to anyone.

We thus have a tendency to respect creators, inventors, and other such entrepreneurs but not the kind of people who get what they want because of their personalities or their social skills or who they know. We appreciate the artists and the scientists and the inventors but not the social butterflies and the politicians and the demagogues.

But let's be honest. We creators need the kind of people who can promote our work, if we're not natural promoters (and we on the spectrum definitely are not). We autistic creators in particular need a promoter in our lives, someone who will make sure our things are published, sent out, or marketed to the right people.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

More on the Positive Side of Autism

I really do not think that enough attention can be given to the positive side of autism. There are jobs and situations out there where "I am autistic" ought to make people light up. Attention to detail and obsession with a topic to such a degree that one rapidly becomes an expert in a field ought to be popular traits. Of course, our different world view is often a deal-breaker, when it ought to be considered one of our strongest traits. But let's be honest, nobody really wants to deal with anyone who truly sees the world in a new or different way. Until and unless people actually learn to appreciate creativity and different ways of thinking rather than merely giving them lip service while actually demonstrating their overwhelming preference for the same old thinking that they're used to, we on the spectrum are going to continue to have a hard time of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Balloonacy, Again

I have been mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education in a piece on the author of Balloonacy. Scroll down to the second piece, titled Work as Play. They specifically mention my involvement in this video, based on what I had written on this blog about Daniel's reaction to the play.

It turns out that the playwright, Barry P. Kornhauser, had in fact written the play to reach children who were either deaf or couldn't speak English--meaning, he had disabilities and language difficulties in mind, even if it wasn't specifically autism. I'm certainly pleased that he was touched by my words, even as Daniel was touched through his play's lack of them. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Autism and the Neanderthal (and Denisovan and other apes) Connection

There is a cluster of genes that is found in Homo sapiens, but which is not found in any other ape, including Neanderthals. It turns out that the deletion of this segment (essentially, reversion of the genome to pre-Homo sapiens, at least in this section) can result in autism. They point out that
researchers determined that this structure, located at a region on chromosome 16 designated 16p11.2, first appeared in our ancestral genome about 280,000 years ago, shortly before modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged. This organization is not seen in any other primate – not chimps, gorillas, orangutans nor the genomes of our closest relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.
This certainly seems to support my contention that autism is in a real sense neotenous, at least if we consider retention "earlier traits" to be a form of neoteny. And given that it seems to result in a brain that is structurally more similar to a young child's (2-4), it may be neotenous in the more traditional sense as well (especially if the cluster of genes in question are turned on during childhood development). While there is a great deal they do not know about this gene cluster, they determined that one gene produces a protein binds with another protein that "allows the cells to capture iron more efficiently and make it available to proteins that require it."
"This ability to help humans to acquire and use this essential element early in life might confer a significant enough benefit to outweigh the risk of having some offspring with autism," Eichler said.
As I've pointed out here and here calling autism a "risk" is shortchanging all of the positive contributions autistic people (and perhaps only autistic people could have) made to the human race.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Don't Be Rude

"Why didn't you do X?"

"Because Y."

"I don't want to hear your excuses."

"Well, you asked the question."

"Don't be rude!"

To an autistic person, the first question is a direct question, to be taken literally and to be answered literally. The answer isn't an excuse; it is an explanation. So when you get mad at the answer, the autistic person doesn't understand why you're mad and will respond that you're the one who asked the damn question in the first place, so why the hell are you mad about the answer? And that observation is not at all meant to be rude. It's an observation.

Something I have never understood (and I'm writing this on this blog because of the very distinct possibility that my inability to understand it is a consequence of my autism) is why people cannot tell the difference between an excuse and an explanation. More, I don't understand why people get mad at your answer when I am pretty sure they know what your answer will be. Why even ask the question. To me, asking the question makes you the rude asshole. Just get to the point. Say what you want to say and stop playing games designed to justify your yelling at me.

Many of the things we on the spectrum say sound rude to those who are not on the spectrum, but the same is true for us: neurotypical people sound rude all the time to us, when what you're saying is clearly understood by everyone.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Autism is a Pervasive Developmental Disorder

Those familiar with autism are perhaps also familiar with the designation PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified), but I don't think many understand that autism is itself a PDD.

I can provide some very specific examples of the degree to which autism is both pervasive and a developmental disorder.

Most people associate autism with being a communication/social disorder, but the fact of the matter is that it very often affects the body itself in a variety of ways. The fact that autism is a different form of neural construction and information processing should make us not all that surprised that other parts of the body are affected. The gut, for example, is often strongly affected in many of us on the spectrum. My son and I both have gut problems. As I have written about before, our apparent glutamate-glutamine imbalance results in leaky gut, which results in an immune response to gluten. Taking daily glutamine has helped us both. The leaky gut is an aspect of our autism, but it is at least treatable with glutamine supplements.

But there are other factors at play. I have come to understand autism as potentially neotenous, meaning the retention of infant traits while still continuing to develop into a sexually mature adult. In my case, that has meant developmentally underdeveloped heels and arches, meaning I have considerable physical pain in my feet. I also have twisted femurs such that my hip joints rub, also causing pain (especially if a strong low pressure system comes in), which may be related to the DPP since it is in fact a developmental problem.

I've also never been particularly coordinated. I'm not outright clumsy, but I'm nowhere near being able to be an athlete, and I never have been. Daniel is much the same way. Poor coordination is a common element among those on the autism spectrum, and it's part of the PDD aspect of it.

Feet pain, hips pain, gut pain -- all seem part and parcel of my own autism. So in my case not only do I have to deal with communication breakdowns and various misunderstandings, but a considerable amount of physical pain and diet restrictions as well. All just part of the fun of being on the spectrum.