Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Honesty, Loyalty, and Autism

Two of the positive attributes attributed to those with Asperger's/Autism are loyalty and honesty.

People with autism are loyal to those with whom they are in a relationship and they are loyal to their employers (and employees, if they are the boss). Indeed, I have always felt strong loyalty toward my employees. I am fiercely loyal to my wife (though my fierce honesty does sometimes make it appear otherwise -- though I promise [Sweetie] that in my mind the two do not conflict). I am loyal to all my friends and family. It's part of my nature. But it appears that it is in the nature of any with autism.

Now, the issue of honesty is an interesting one. It's not that someone with autism cannot lie. I can lie. My 4 yr old son can lie. I've caught him. But when I do lie, it really, really, really, really, really bothers me. It's like a deep brain itch I can't scratch. So I don't lie. It just bothers me too deeply, and I'd rather not be that uncomfortable all the time.

At the same time, people with autism are known to believe pretty much anything anyone says to them. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that with theory of mind, one attributes others as having the same mind as oneself. I don't lie, therefore others don't lie. Except that's not true. People lie all the time. And when you reach the level of self-awareness I have about who I am, especially in regards to my high functioning autism, you come to realize just how much people lie all the time.

I'm still prone to believe you in the moment, but I can at least now look back and see I've been lied to.

For example, when I tell you I'm going to do something, you can go to the bank on it (unless my terrible memory takes over, at least). I remember things better if I write them down; if I write something down, you can guarantee I'll do it. It doesn't matter what it is; it doesn't matter how small it is; it doesn't matter if I'm tired or if something else comes up. If I say I'm going to do something, I'll do it. However, this is absolutely not true at all when it comes to neurotypicals. I have noticed that neurotypicals will tell you they will do something, then change their minds or come up with some excuse for why they can't, etc. And this is assuming they ever intended to do it at all, and weren't just trying to make you feel better or shut up at that moment.

This is where conflicts between those with autism and neurotypicals can arise. Two neurotypicals will lie to each other without a second thought about doing something together, and then blow it off when minds are changed. Do that to someone with autism, and they will say, "Nope, that's what you said. You said you were going to do it." Thus, those with autism tend to "call out" neurotypicals on their small lies with which they fill the day. And let's face it: people don't like to be called out on their b.s. But since autistics don't like to lie, and therefore don't like to be lied to, they have a tendency to point it out when you lied to them. Thus, a source of our "social awkwardness."

Indeed, people want to be lied to all the time. They want to be told they look nice when they don't. They want to be told their project is good when it isn't. They want to be told they're good people who don't lie all the time just to get through the day. But you know what you won't get from someone with autism? None of those things. They'll tell you you don't look nice in that dress. They'll actually critique your work. And they'll write blog posts telling you that you are all a bunch of petty liars. And that, too, is a source of our social awkwardness.

Of course, the tendency to believe others when they say things can get someone with autism in trouble. Suppose that you have two people, one (A) with autism, another (B) who is neurotypical. They are working on a project together. B is working on something that must be finished before A can work on his part. A asks B how things are going. B says he ran into a problem, but he was working on it and would let A know when it was ready for him. Do you know what A will do? A will believe B and not bother B ever again. Three weeks later, when the boss asks A about the project, A will tell the boss about the conversation he and B had -- and guess who will get in the most trouble? It will be A, who knew there was a delay, but didn't come forward sooner. A of course won't understand in the least what the problem is or why he's suddenly in trouble. If someone points out to him that he should have come forward sooner, he will reply that that make sense, but in reality it doesn't make that much sense to him. Didn't B say he was handling it? If this happens to A enough times, he'll end up fired, but be completely clueless about why he was fired.

Now, I can point all of these things out, but all of this comes about from reading and from thinking through past experiences. I have a head-knowledge that this takes place, but it is unfortunately only intellectual and not useful knowledge. I know I will continue to make these mistakes, and it's frustrating to know that you will and also to know that in the moment, you will "forget" all that you know.

About the only thing I know to do is to beg those who have to deal with those with autism on a daily basis to please always say exactly what you mean and to mean exactly what you say. If you say you are going to do something later, please do it. It's extremely frustrating for the autistics in your life if you don't. Of course, this only translates into the work place if you have told everyone with whom you work that you are autistic. Of course, there are both problems with and benefits to telling; you just have to decide if the benefits outweigh the problems. Of course, that's a socially-based judgment call, and that's precisely what we with autism are bad at.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autism as Strong Explicit Learners, Weak Implicit Learners

I recently discussed the idea that we need to differentiate between learning and acquiring; imagine my excitement to learn that it was recently discovered that there are two different brain areas for implicit and explicit learning. What I was calling "acquiring" they are calling "implicit learning."

Things that are implicitly learned have instinct modules attached to them -- this is what allows for the rapid acquisition of implicitly learned knowledge. Spoken language falls into this category. So do morals.

Things that are explicitly learned do not have instinct modules attached to them, and thus are learned with more difficulty. Reading and writing fall into this category. So does driving a car. Of course, each of these make use of areas where instincts are at play -- it should be obvious that written language is strongly connected with spoken language -- but these are a step removed from the instinct, made more conscious.

It seems, from the research I have done on autism, as well as my own experiences (as someone with Asperger's/autism) and observation of my son, Daniel, who has autism, that people with autism have difficulty with implicit learning/acquiring, and thus have to rely more on explicit learning. This would go a long way to explaining why so many with autism have language delays, as explicit learning takes longer than does implicit learning. The fact that general purpose artificial neural nets can learn to recognize language without the presence of a language instinct points to a way the human brain could learn language without the ability to acquire it. In fact, if we accept Steven Pinker's argument from "The Language Instinct" that in evolution explicit learning precedes implicit learning because anything that is learned and needs to be learned quickly will soon develop into an instinct, then we can perhaps understand that it is not only possible, but necessary, that language be learned explicitly.

This would also explain the "social awkwardness" of those with autism. And coordination problems. What is naturally acquired by neurotypicals must be explicitly learned by those with autism.

Of course, this raises any number of questions. What are the connections between implicit and explicit learning? Is the implicit learning module(s) weakened in those with autism, or is the explicit learning module strengthened in them? Or both?

Given that implicit learning is in fact going to be multi-modular -- social learning is a different module(s) from language learning -- one would expect variations in what instinct-based modules are affected. Some (such as I) are unaffected in acquiring language, but affected in acquiring social skills. My son has delays in both.

If we combine this idea with the Intense World Theory of autism, we might be able to make the argument for stronger explicit learning -- perhaps even to the extent of hijacking some of the implicit learning hardware. This would also help us make sense of some of the mental abilities of many with autism. Things like mathematics and playing a musical instrument are explicitly learned, and these are two areas often associated with autistic savantism.  I learned how to read by the time I was 2.5 (as noted above, I did not have the language delay; also, reading is learned explicitly).

A more hyperconnected brain, as found in those with autism, is a brain that more closely resembles the architecture of artificial neural nets, and artificial neural nets (ANNs) are general use explicit learners. If you feed enough information into an ANN, it will create concepts and thus learn patterns. ANNs are excellent at finding patterns. I do not think it a coincidence that this also describes how autistic minds learn and behave. While neurotypicals can extract concepts from a handful of examples -- perhaps even only one example -- autistics need many more examples before a concept can be formed. The result is a more fragmented world, but also more accurate to reality concepts that do not have to be modified nearly as much once formed.

In all of the things I have read on autism, I have yet to come across this explicit theory.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking: From Solipsism to Autism

Styles of thinking occur along a continuum. At the center of the two extremes are top-down and bottom-up thinking. In fact, these are not the most extreme forms of thinking, but we have to first establish the norm of each before we can understand the extremes of each.

Top-down thinkers tend to see the big picture first. They start with the answer. The end goal is identified, and then ways to get there are investigated. To flip the old cliché, you see the forest, but not the trees. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a top-down thinker will get a handful of data before developing the ideas, theory, hypothesis, then proceed to try to find ways to prove that theory, as proving the theory is the end goal. Of course, data may not prove the theory, in which case one then posits a different theory. The more top-down a thinker is, the less data is needed to develop an idea, etc., or to prove (or, indeed, disprove) a theory to them, which makes the process faster; however, this means they are more likely they are to engage in confirmation bias. Such thinkers are strategic thinkers.

Bottom-up thinkers tend to see the parts first. There is no clear end goal identified; the process itself is sufficient, and the end will be reached when you get there. These are the people who sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Or, specifically, they need to have a sufficient number of trees in order to agree that what we have here is in fact a forest. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a bottom-up thinker will collect copious amounts of data, work out the patterns within the data set, then develop the idea, etc. from the identified patterns. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more data is needed before they are comfortable developing an idea, etc., but as a result they are very likely to be quite confident in their idea, etc. However, sufficient contradictory data will in fact change their minds, especially after they figure out how to fit the new data in with the old data. Such thinkers are analytical thinkers.

Now please note that these are general patterns. The fact that one is generally a bottom-up thinker does not mean they cannot engage (or learn to engage) in top-down thinking. Or vice versa. However, the more extreme one's natural thinking process is, the less likely one is going to learn (or learn well) how to engage in the other kind of thinking.

Also, one may note that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. If you need to strategize, you need to engage in top-down thinking. If you need to come up with a solution quickly, you need to engage in top-down thinking. However, if you need to do a careful analysis, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking. If you want to understand patterns, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking.

I will also note that both styles of thinking also match the two general patterns of network architecture: top-down, hierarchical networks and bottom-up, scale-free networks. Top-down networks require step-by-step organization. You start at the top and you add things over time to create the network. The most efficient way is to create a hierarchy. Our organizations, including our firms, are so structured. However, bottom-up networks self-organize as the parts interact with each other. Things aren't added; rather, patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts already there. As a result, you get a scale-free architecture following power law distributions of links.

I would further argue that those who primarily engage in top-down thinking are going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, top-down hierarchical networks, or organizations. Those who primarily engage in bottom-up thinking are, thus, going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, bottom-up hierarchical networks, or spontaneous orders. As a result, one would predict that the more top-down a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create more hierarchical organizations and which will organize the world from the top-down. Equally, one would predict that the more bottom-up a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create decentralized networks and reduce hierarchy.

Those who are most typically bottom-up thinkers, though, have been pathologized by the majority, who are primarily top-down thinkers, into Asperger's and Autism. But what if things are more complex than that? Although there are certainly problems -- from a neurotypical's standpoint, anyway -- with those in the autism spectrum, one ought to acknowledge that if the most extreme end of bottom-up thinking is problematic, then the most extreme end of top-down thinking is problematic as well.

What would you expect from an extreme bottom-up thinker? That the -up part is gone, that the world remains fragmented and that the pieces can therefore not be brought together at all. I think this would go a long way to explaining the behavioral situation of those with the most extreme forms of autism. Equally, then, one would expect from an extreme top-down thinker that the -down part is gone, that the world remains an undifferentiated whole. This would mean there is no difference between the person and the rest of the world -- which is solipsism. The solipsist, however, can function in the social world, whereas the extreme autistic cannot. However, the solipsist believes he has the answer to everything, that everyone is the same as him, and that to question his ideas is to insult him personally, as there is no differentiation between him and his ideas. The extreme autistic sees infinite variety; the solipsist sees infinite sameness. The solipsist would then be expected to support egalitarianism, to think wealth disparities are terrible, that differences in opinions from his own are terrible, and thus would seek to create a society that conformed to him and his ideals. The extreme autistic is a problem only to himself (and those who have to take care of him); the solipsist is a problem to society.

Let me now relate all of this to Gravesean social psychology. It seems to me that the more collectivist levels -- purple (tribal), blue (authoritative), green (egalitarian), and turquoise (holistic) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more top-down thinking. Individualistic levels -- red (heroic), orange (entrepreneurial), and yellow (integrationist) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more bottom-up thinking. The more one is able to switch from one style of thinking to another, the easier it will be to move through the levels; extremes of either side will find such emergence more difficult, since switching styles is more difficult. Difficult does not mean impossible, of course; life conditions can certainly give one a strong nudge, to say the least. But if we take the fact that most people are in fact predominantly top-down thinkers, while those with a more balanced style of thinking are relatively rare, we can perhaps make sense of the fact that there are relatively few of the most complex psychologies, even within even the most complex societies.

We would also expect top-down thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more collectivist levels, where they are comforted by top-down organization of society, whereas we would expect bottom-up thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more individualistic levels, where they are comforted by less hierarchical, more scale free social orders. At the same time, we would expect many business owners to be top-down, strategic thinkers, while we would expect analysts and scholars to be more bottom-up, analytic thinkers. All of which clearly problematizes any simple political divisions. Still, it would probably not be surprising if one were to learn that there is a positive correlation between dominance of bottom-up thinking and support for libertarianism.

All of this points to the fact that when it comes to understanding any social order of any sort, you are dealing with very complex situations. The dominance of a style of thinking is going to affect the structure of society and of the culture as well. It also suggests that we need to be careful pathologizing ways of thinking. As a style of thinking comes to dominate in a society, that society will itself shift into being a society more open to that style of thinking, but not to another. Today's pathology might be tomorrow's norm. But if we pathologize, we don't really have to even try to understand; we can simply get such uncomfortable thoughts such as that there are people out there who do not in fact think like us well away from us so we won't have to worry about it or even deal with it. But that impoverishes both ourselves as individuals and society itself as a whole.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


The way my memory works is very odd.

I have a terrible medium-term memory. I cannot remember what someone just told me -- whether in person or on the phone. Especially on the phone. Anna is always asking me what I talked about when I talked with my brother or father on the phone, but I can honestly rarely ever remember. At least, so long as I'm being asked what we talked about. If I am given some time, I can slowly recall everything we discussed, usually remembering things in an associative way. Immediate recall of new information is just not going to happen. But I may remember it at some random time a few days later.

I have an extremely hard time remembering names. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that I have a hard time paying close attention to people, including new people. It takes most of the semester to learn my students' names.

Yet, I have excellent long-tern recall. I can remember almost everything I have ever learned. Most of the time, though, it has to be recalled in the moment. I am full of trivial knowledge that I will recall immediately on a trigger -- some information about some band when I hear the band on the radio. for example. If I am allowed to then engage in associative recall, I can really impress you with what I know. But if I am asked to recall certain things, it can sometimes be a real effort. Of course, it can also sometimes be very easy, depending on how recently I may have thought about that issue or topic.

I am also much better at remembering things about objects and ideas than I am at remembering things about people, including my own autobiography. But I remember much I studied when I was obsessed with dinosaurs (when I was 5-8), sharks (8-11), or orchids (12-16).

I remember pretty much anything I found immediately interesting, no matter how trivial, no matter if I was obsessed with that topic at that time.

More, when I learn a topic, I also learn how to think about that topic. When I became interested in molecular biology, I thought like a molecular biologist. When I became interested in economics, I learned to think like an economist (and I have had plenty of professional economists tell me I think like one). I also think like a poet, a storyteller, a playwright, a philosopher, an organic chemist, and a complexity scientist. I have little doubt that it is because of my prodigious long-term memory that I can see the patterns amongst a great many things. My mind is always comparing and associating. It is always thinking, and it has a great many things about which to think, thanks to that memory.

I also have a very good working memory -- I can hold a great many things in my mind and manipulate them and compare them. I once had an engineer who was shocked at the number of variables I could work with at one time -- after which, he started to show a little more respect for humanities scholarship. No doubt this good working memory also helps me to see patterns.

So I have a terrible medium-term memory. I can memorize things if I want, so my short-term memory seems fine. But remembering things for a short period of time -- over the medium term, in terms of memory -- is extremely difficult for me. This created a great deal of frustration for my wife, who could not understand how I could remember so many things, and couldn't remember what she just told me. Of course, many people take that as "you're just not listening to me." No, I was listening. It just didn't hold over the medium term. But it's not impossible that I'll remember it in a few days. Of course, if you needed me to remember it today or tomorrow, that doesn't really help anyone.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How My Thinking Affects My Social Views

My research into my son's autism has resulted in my coming to understand myself as well, since one of the results of that research is to learn that I have Asperger's, a form of autism. The result is I now have a causal explanation for why I think as I think.

For example, with the Intense World Theory of autism, one would predict I would have very strong emotional reactions and strong feelings of empathy. However, expressing these strong emotions and feelings of empathy in the intensity in which I feel them is considered to be socially inappropriate. As a result, I engage in suppression, to keep in control. That doesn't mean I don't feel deeply or that I don't empathize deeply -- quite the contrary -- but it does mean that if I don't want to be an emotional nightmare to everyone around me, I have to keep continuous conscious control over it. The overwhelming bombardment of empathy for others can also make one shut down when one is in a crowd. Imagine intensely empathizing with a room full of people! It's often too much. Thus, I appear socially awkward at parties.

People with Asperger's and autism (hereon out, simply "autism") also are more bottom-up thinkers, while neurotypicals are top-down thinkers. What this means is that autistics collect lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of data before creating a hypothesis or theory, whereas neurotypicals will form a theory after collecting a much smaller amount of data. A consequence of this is that neurotypicals will then typically engage in confirmation bias, searching for confirming data for their theories. Autistics, on the other hand, are not so attached to their theories that they won't change their minds if there is enough data to disconfirm their ideas. For my own part, I in fact seek out disconfirming data and ideas. I have changed my ideas quite a bit over time, adjusting my world view as new data becomes available.

Bottom-up thinking also tends to lead to pattern thinking. I am very good as seeing patterns -- especially complex patterns that are not obvious to others. Much economic thinking is based on the ability to see exactly these kinds of patterns. It also means that I can see similarities among ideas that others may miss. I see the commonalities among information theory, self-organization, evolution, emergence, network theory, and Austrian economics -- to such a degree that I quite often interchange them and their vocabularies. This sometimes leads to confusion when I am conversing with someone -- but very often I get them to see that I am really saying the same thing they are, just using a different language from a different model. I can do that because the patterns of each of these theories are actually identical.

Having laid the groundwork, I can now explain how the way I experience the world leads to my social views. I have extreme empathy for those who are poor and who suffer. It deeply bothers me to see suffering. As a result, I have tried to learn the best ways to alleviate suffering on as large a scale as possible. I have collected data over the decades, and come to the conclusion -- based on historical, social, cultural, and economic data -- that free markets in the economy, and other kinds of spontaneous orders in other social spheres. Spontaneous orders are bottom-up orders -- not unlike my thinking. And seeing the patterns in common among the various social systems helps me to see how if one spontaneous order benefits people the most the freer it is, then the same is true of other orders as well. Since I do not have an emotional connection to ideas, as neurotypicals seem to do, but only care about whether what I propose actually has the effects I seek, I do tend to come across as, at best, incredulous when I come across people who will not see the incredible damage their ideas have done, continue to do, and will do.

I will also note that the fact that neurotypicals are top-down thinkers might explain the preponderance of top-down ideas. More than that, if we are looking at thinking as occurring along a continuum, one would expect a few extremes of top-down and bottom-up thinkers. The most extreme bottom-up thinker would never be able to synthesize everything into a theory (they could not see the unity), while the most extreme top-down thinker would never be able to see the pieces, but would have a theory and stick to it no matter what evidence (they could not see the diversity). For the hyper-autistic thinker, everything would be outside of them; for the opposite, there would be nothing outside of them (that is, they would be purely solipsistic). It seems odd that the autistic thinker is seen as pathological, but not the solipsistic thinker, though as I have demonstrated, they are equally pathological. More, their thinking is necessarily going to make them more defensive of their ideas, since their ideas are them, and an attack on their ideas is an attack on them. It would also explain why they care more about their ideas than the outcomes, even at the expense of human lives. It would also explain why so many people think that top-down organizations are preferable to bottom-up spontaneous orders.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Autistic Brain and Bottom-Up Thinking

I recently read The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin. It is a fascinating book that really draws your attention to what is known and what is unknown about autism -- and some of the problems with autism research that are caused by the fact that most researchers into autism are not themselves autistic, and the fact that there is a strong bias against self-reports, meaning there is too much focus on external expressions and not enough on what someone with autism is experiencing. It seems odd that autism research is, in this sense, a final holdout of behaviorism.

It should not be surprising that Grandin, being autistic herself, focuses on how autistics experience the world. But she also points out that autistics think about the world in a different way. Specifically, she notes that neurotypicals think in a top-down fashion (big picture before details), while autistics think in a bottom-up fashion (details before big picture). This has an interesting result. This means that neurotypicals tend to develop ideas from fewer sources, then take that theory and go back to the facts, where as autistics collect far more details and develop a theory from the details, from the facts. This also, coincidentally, is what allows autistics to see and understand patterns better and in more detail.

Also, this bottom-up thinking might help autistics to understand bottom-up processes better. By bottom-up processes, I am talking about self-organizing scale-free network processes like economies and other social systems, developmental biology, ecosystems, etc. They are created by having more and more things interacting with each other. Which is much the same way that bottom-up thinking works. Which brings us to issues of epistemology, specifically how concepts are formed..

 With top-down thinkers, one needs very few examples of something to create a concept. If you see two or three cats, that can be enough to develop the concept of cat. However, bottom-up thinkers require many more examples before the concept is fully developed. Ten, fifty, or a hundred cats may be required. But once that concept is formed, it is well-formed. This can of course create problems with language acquisition, insofar as there is a correlation between words and things, actions, and qualities in the world. But it can also prevent one from developing new ideas before the situation is fully understood -- a quality that could come in quite helpful if you are a scientist, for example.

It is also likely true that a more bottom-up, pattern-based thinker is going to see and understand bottom-up processes with complex patterns better than neurotypicals, meaning they will tend to understand spontaneous orders in general better than neurotypicals.This is because similar complex systems better model each other. Top-down thinking views the social world as hierarchical organizations; bottom-up thinking views the social world as spontaneous orders; the former thus make for better business people, while the latter make for better economists.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Deficiencies in Non-Austistic People

Perspectives matter. How we view things, from what position and perspective, can matter a great deal. Given that I have already written about what the world looks like from the perspective of Asperger's, I thought it would be interesting to talk about how people not on the spectrum look to me.

According to the Autism Quotient (AQ) scale, which goes from 1 to 50, 16 is your typical neurotypical, and you likely have autism if you score above a 32. 26-31 is the "Asperger's" range. I have taken the AQ test a few times, and I score around 35. My early speaking, though, means I have Asperger's rather than autism (though the DSM-5 codes it all as autism).

So if you have an AQ of 1-25, you do not have autism. You thus have a low AQ. I have a relatively high AQ.

Since the majority of people are low AQ, they are the ones who get to define good and bad, normal and abnormal, special and deficient. But let me provide you with another perspective.

To me, people with low AQ are really deficient in the general ways in which they think. Sure, I understand that there are a number of strengths that come along with having a low AQ -- it's easier to be social, due to the existence of social instincts weak or missing in us with high AQ; it's easier and natural to look people in the eye; it's easier to change your mind; etc. -- but let's be honest about the fact that there are a number of clear deficiencies in low AQ thinking.

For example, people with low AQ waste a lot of time and breath on small talk. They rarely have anything interesting to say. Perhaps this is because low AQ people don't spend a lot of time thinking about things and trying to figure things out. Two or three data points, and we have a conclusion! Hardly. We have the first of a dozen errors and false leads. This is fine in the physical sciences, where experimentation will prove you wrong, but it's proven disastrous in the social sciences. In the meantime, a high AQ person will have looked at a hundred data points before coming to a conclusion -- but you can go to the bank with it.

As a result of the above, low AQ people have a tendency to be really certain about things when they have very little to go on. A correlation of this is that they seem to think that controlling complex processes is possible. High AQ people are never completely certain of anything, but when we do express certainty, it's because we have researched the topic in great depth. At the same time, that certainty does not extend to a belief that we can control complex processes. It is part of our understanding to understand that that is impossible. But this is only true among those who study complex processes. Sadly, those not obsessed with this topic continue to believe nonsense about someone, somewhere, at least, being able to control them.

These things are closely related to the obsession low AQ people have with superficialities. There are so many things that do not matter in the least that low AQ people obsess over. Many mountains are made of many, many molehills. Outcomes don't seem to matter compared to fitting a number of criteria while doing what you're doing. For example, when it comes to teaching, what is more important? Students learning? Or my teaching style? I would consider outcomes more important than how I look doing it, but that is apparently not what matters most to low AQ people -- at least, based on their actions. And I tend to look at people's actions. Indeed, I tend to look at outcomes over intentions. But good intentions seem good enough for most low AQ people. I, rather, care that intentions and outcomes match.

To me, low AQ people are too obsessed with hierarchy. The worst are those who most protest hierarchy. They are the same people who support the growth of bureaucracy. And I really don't understand what the obsession is with bureaucracy. It's nothing more than the institutionalization of responsibility-avoidance. It's primary function is to prevent anyone getting any work done.

Which brings me to how much I can't stand hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a standard way of thinking and behaving for low AQ people. Does everyone really have to be a hypocrite for there to be strong social bonds? I suppose one does if one gets offended at any sort of criticism rather than taking criticism as an opportunity to grow. Taking offense seems to be the favored pastime of low AQ people of late, too. Not much offends me.

I am sure I could come up with many, many more. Perhaps I will as they occur to me. But my point in writing this post is to point out that autism should not be understood as a deficiency that happens to have some gifts associated with it. Rather, autism is, in many ways, a different -- and often opposite -- style of thinking from low AQ people's thinking. Those styles are genetically encoded and environmentally affected, and each can, to a limited degree, learn the strengths of the other. But people with high AQs are in many ways no more deficient than are people with low AQs -- the deficiencies are merely different, just as the abilities are different. This hardly means that there aren't high AQ people -- especially very high AQ people -- who have severe disabilities, of course. But in the society in which we live, many of our differences are made disabilities. And it's important to understand both that and the fact that many of our strengths are your weaknesses. But this only becomes clear if you view things from our point of view.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Learning to Act Human, Part 2

After I learned my son had autism, I learned that I probably have Asperger's Syndrome (according to someone who has AS who read my post about learning to act human), and so I have actually taken it upon myself to read some things that might help me.

One book I have come across is the Asperger's Syndrome Workplaces Survival Guide. The first page and a half pretty much described my work history: problems keeping a job over the long term, problems with the fact that I actually want to get my work done and don't want to be bothered with all this nonsense that seems to fill the work day and prevents me from getting anything done, problems with the fact that I'm not all that social, problems with the fact that (until I became aware of it) I would sometimes say inappropriate things. The author asks the question all of us on the spectrum ask: "What is more important: chatting in the lunch room or getting your work done?" People on the autism spectrum (apparently mistakenly) think it is the latter. Worse, those with AS can appear to be rude, hard to get along with, or bullheaded, when in fact none of these are true. Those with AS don't have the same internal censors -- we have to learn those. We are easy to get along with; we may just not understand social cues we haven't consciously learned yet. We aren't bullheaded; we are open-minded and adjust what we believe based on facts and information -- we just insist you provide facts and information.

The book is all about helping those with AS understand what is expected of them, to learn how to navigate the workplace. One could ask, "Why is it I have to do all the adjusting?" Well, because the neurotypicals offer most of the jobs available. More, even if you are entrepreneurial, you will still have to interact with neurotypical people. At the same time, a very high percentage of people with AS have college degrees, including graduate degrees. Businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talent because they are excluding a lot of people just because they "don't get along" with others -- when in fact it's not that they don't get along, but rather that they just want to get their work done. Businesses are too often getting second best people because the first best don't have great social skills. And -- as I can certainly attest -- those with AS are as a result misallocated human resources.

Another book I ran across is The Partner's Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. I read the Foreword, and (though I subscribe to the Intense World Theory of AS and autism -- at least for my son and me -- rather than the less-competent Theory of Mind model presented in the book) I recognized a great deal about me as a husband and father there. In short, everything I read about AS behavior and the social consequences of those behaviors has been a mirror. There is practically no doubt in my mind I have AS. It explains many of my actions, my thinking, my social interactions, my attitudes, etc. The good thing is that in knowing this about myself, I can actually know what to do to fit in better. I have done so over time as it is, without knowing I have AS. When people are bold enough (or asshole enough, depending on their attitudes) to point out my eyes won't focus on them or that I primarily look at their mouths when I talk to them (leading me to working on looking people in the eyes -- a real cognitive effort, I assure you) or that I cannot engage in small talk or that I sometimes say inappropriate things (which I have gotten much better about, being made conscious of it), I can change those things.

So now you know why I've acted weird around you, if you've ever gotten to interact with me personally. Just remember: if I'm working, for the love of God, don't interrupt me! :-)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Social Skills: Acquiring vs. Learning

When Daniel eats, he piles food on the spoon and then uses his hands to try to put the food in his mouth. He also picks up food from off the plate. As a result, there is typically a big mess where he is eating. Rice is the worst. It gets scattered everywhere. And he loves rice.

When Dylan eats, he carefully stabs the food with his fork or scoops up the food with his spoon. All in all, there is minimal mess.

Daniel is 5; Dylan will be 3 in February.

Neither my wife nor I have taught either child how to eat with a fork and spoon. And neither have most parents. Dylan has learned how to eat mostly through trial and error -- and observing others eat. He learned the proper way to eat because he has the instinct to copy what others are doing. To him, human actions have meaning. This is instinctual, so that when he copies what we are doing, meaning is immediately attributed to those copied actions.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not have a strong instinct to copy what others are doing. He does copy people, but his copying does not have social meaning, like Dylan's copying does. It is social meaning which has to be taught to Daniel, and which his mother and I have to teach in regards to how Daniel feeds himself. In other words, we have to directly teach him how to eat with his spoon and fork and not to eat with his hands and make a big mess. This means repeatedly telling him how to eat properly, until he gets it.

Here is how to understand the difference. Dylan acquired his ability to eat properly because of his social instincts that allow him to copy our actions, which he sees as meaningful. Language is acquired the same way. We have a language instinct, but the specifics are acquired in context, which is where meaning is also acquired. Daniel, on the other hand, cannot acquire these social skills; rather, he has to learn them in a more direct fashion. Reading is learned the same way. There is no reading instinct on which to rapidly build one's reading skills;l this is why learning how to read takes so long.

Now imagine that your social skills were more learned than acquired. That's the situation with Daniel. That's the situation with autism.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Learning to Act Human

In my research into my son's autism, I came to realize a great many things about myself. For example, I have in many ways spent a great deal of my time "learning to become human" -- or learning to "fit in" with normal human beings.

Most of the time, when I talk to a person, I am either looking all over the place or looking at the person's mouth. I have had enough people complain about these things that I have trained myself to look a person in the eye. However, to do so takes quite a bit of concentration. If I think it is important to keep eye contact with you, I can, but it requires mental work to do so. Maintaining eye contact is, of course, natural for most people.

In one of his stand-up routines, Chris Rock observes that when you first start dating someone, you are not actually dating that person, you are dating their representative. This is not just true of dating, but of any initial social interactions. Again, this comes natural to people. Everyone understands you are supposed to present an edited version of yourself to others. This is innate. But not for me. I literally had to read somewhere that you should not put forward all aspects of who you are when you first meet someone, because it's off-putting. This was something that was seriously news to me. I saw the validity of what the person was saying, and put it into practice. My dating life improved considerably -- as evidenced by the fact that I am now married. That this took a while is evidenced by the fact that I am 43 and I only got married 9 years ago. My first actual girlfriend? When I was 26. Who knew that you shouldn't present yourself exactly as you are when you first meet someone? Well, most people, apparently.

I am sure there are many more, but these are the ones that stand out to me. I still haven't figured out how to engage in small talk, though economist Peter Boetkke's observation that in order to get tenure you have to subtract what he calls the "lunch tax" -- which is any off-putting (typically, political) discussion -- has benefited me greatly of late (keep all political views on the down-low, at least until you feel out the person to whom you are talking; keep any controversial beliefs to oneself; etc.). This is really a variation of the previous observation, just applied to work. But, again, I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me.

What this suggests to me is that there are a set of behaviors that are more natural for others that simply have to be learned by me (and, I would guess, others like me). I have often not even realized there is something atypical in my behaviors until they are pointed out -- either directly, by friends (or people who don't like me), or indirectly, by reading. Or perhaps, these behaviors are all learned by others, only my tendency to separate myself from other people resulted in my missing those lessons from life. This would be consistent with the intense world theory of autism.

Indeed, one of the reasons I separate myself from others is precisely because I feel them so intensely. Imagine having extremely strong feelings of empathy for others, then going to a party full of people. Worse, you cannot focus it on one or two people immediately in front of you, but feel it for everyone there equally. If you shut down socially, that intense feeling subsides. Imagine that every sad story makes you want to cry, that even slightly sad commercials or songs make you cry -- if you let down your guard. So you don't let down your guard so you don't spend the whole day weeping. Imagine that you had these feelings of empathy for every emotion. Wouldn't you want to avoid such situations? Or hope you had a mechanism to generally shut it all out? As a result, you are either on or off most of the time. Mostly off, so you can get through your day.

Given such sensitive empathy, one can perhaps understand my political views. They are a consequence of my great empathy for the poor such that I am motivated to learn what will in fact help them rather than just settle for feel-good proposals that end up harming the poor instead. Thus my support for free markets, as my research demonstrates free markets to be maximally beneficial to the poor compared to every other system.

In any case, there are a number of aspects of life which I have had to learn, which were not instinctual for me. The problem is that one cannot learn anything about which one is fully ignorant. I cannot know to learn about gene regulation proteins, for example, until I learn that there are gene regulatory proteins. There are obviously a great many facts like that which we all must learn -- and learn about to know we need to learn them. Now imagine that that included social behaviors. Most people learn social behaviors like we learn language -- we learn the specifics of a given culture, but we learn then innately because we are born with a "language instinct." But I do not. I learned most of my social behaviors like I learned molecular biology. Well, that's the story of my life. Learning social behaviors only after I have had people point out that I was not doing them. Since such things are instinctual for most people, the assumption is that they are instinctual for me as well, meaning when I am not doing them, I am being rude, a jerk, etc. However, when I learn what I was doing was wrong, I have typically tried to change, to normalize my behaviors. It's not that I don't want to engage in typical social behaviors -- it has typically been that I didn't know about them in the first place.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Autism Advantage

Is there an autism advantage? The intense world theory of autism suggests there ought to be. And the evidence of special skills among high-functioning autistics suggests there are and can be advantages. So why does everyone treat autism as a deficit?

It is not uncommon for humans to treat "different" as "deficit." Throughout most of human history, people have typically considered their cultures to be better than all other cultures -- better, not just different. We have learned to overcome this bias in many areas -- race, sex, gender, culture, etc. -- but I fear we are merely shifting those biases to other areas, including ideologies and psychologies. What if we considered people with autism to have a different, but normal, neurology and, thus, psychology? That is, what if we accepted neurodiversity?

Accepting neurodiversity does not mean that we don't try to help people when they make social faux pas. Or we can consider that an "apparent weaknesses (bluntness and obsessiveness, say) can also be marketable strengths (directness, attention to detail)." I'm not as blunt now as I have been in the past, but that is mostly because society beats it out of you after a while, so that you just keep your mouth shut. But I am also extremely honest and very loyal. Now, you would think any business would want someone who has attention to detail and is honest and loyal. But it seems that these are if anything grossly undervalued anymore.  

If we consider the fact that "the autistic mind is superior at noticing details, distinguishing among sounds and mentally rotating complex three-dimensional structures," one can easily imagine a number of things people with autism can and ought to be able to contribute to society. But in my experience, all of these things are overlooked.

As a result of being overlooked, many businesses -- and the economy, and our culture -- are missing out on some great, creative workers. It is a real shame that institutional discrimination, fueled by bias against neurodiversity, prevents so many with autism from being allowed to contribute. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Discovering My Asperger's

You have a child.

He learns to speak very early. He can read Dr. Seuss books by 2.5 years of age. He learns things very quickly. He begins writing at a very early age, and being very imaginative, begins writing stories. He has a fascination with nature. He loves to read everything on every topic, from nonfiction to fiction. He is generally well-behaved, though sometimes argumentative.

He cannot look you in the eye when he talks with you, but rather looks at your mouth or his eyes are darting all over the place (making him hyperaware of his surroundings). He is socially awkward and has difficulty making friends. He prefers to spend time alone, whether in his room or walking in the woods. He obsessively makes lists -- lists of dinosaurs, then lists of sharks, then lists of plants. Everyone agrees he is highly intelligent, but the standardized tests at school suggest he is average. He is exceptionally good at seeing patterns.

I think most people would be pleased to have the first child. That child is obviously intelligent, but otherwise quite normal. The second child, on the other hand, is obviously autistic. More, the two children seem opposites. Autistic children aren't supposed to be imaginative, and they have speech delays. But if you combine the two, you get a child with Asperger's. Of course, not all children with Asperger's have the same traits. I have read that children with Asperger's have difficulty communicating, even though they don't have the speech delay, and they also have coordination problems. I certainly didn't have the former, though perhaps I was not always the most coordinated.

Since we learned Daniel is autistic, I have read a lot about autism. I recently discovered the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism, which describes my son almost perfectly. And though the researchers don't say, the theory also allows for a kind of autism wherein the child is also creative. Which also describes Daniel. His creativity would make one wonder about his being autistic, given the fact that autistic children are not supposed to be creative/inventive. More, from the description of autism from the IWT, the two people who know me best -- my wife and my brother -- have each independently concluded that I probably "have that."

However, I did not have the language delay. More, my language was quite accelerated. Yet, this might not be inconsistent with IWT autism. If one is raised in a generally quiet, calm environment, might it not be that a child might learn language more quickly, given his neurological structures. This would perhaps result in a kind of high-functioning IWT autism.

Of course, nobody would have thought there was a thing wrong with me growing up. Asperger's was unheard of in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, and autism was practically unheard of. Besides, what is wrong with a child who speaks early and reads by two and a half? Clearly nothing is wrong with that child. And later, when he spends his time in his room reading books and making lists, it's because he's just a little peculiar, because he's so smart. He likes to spend time in the woods because he likes nature. And he does have friends, even if he doesn't really spend that much time playing with them.

The difference between Daniel and me is that he has the speech delay. And he hasn't learned to read yet. I suspect he will learn to read when most other children learn to read, though. His language is improving quite a bit, too. But I am beginning to see much more of a continuation between him and me. His world might be a bit more intense, is all.

Indeed, the fact that IWT autism is dominated by positive feedback also explains much. It explains why I swing between high and low energy -- one would typically consider me to be mildly bipolar. It explains why I am sensitive to food textures and to things touching my wrists and neck -- and general touch-hypersensitivity at times (high energy times). And it explains my extreme empathy -- which makes me socially uncomfortable at times, yet allows me too to really hone in on people's problems. And it makes me particularly interested in stories. I love fiction, and I love to write fiction.

Indeed, IWT does seem to explain so much about me. It is a fascinating insight.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Inside Asperger's

One of the things I think people need to understand is what it's like to experience the world as I do. I can only speak to my own experiences; others may experience the world in ways different than do I. Let me start from the beginning of the day.

When I wake in the morning, it takes a long time for me to get started. I slowly wake, my eyes can take a half hour to focus correctly, processing the world is slow, thinking is slow. I take the dog for his morning walk, and that helps me to slowly wake. I would in many ways prefer to walk by myself; the dog is sometimes too much company. I feel a need for time to myself, time I rarely ever get.

The chaos caused by three children is confusing. I often forget things I am supposed to take to the babysitter's on the days I work. There is nothing relaxing about the drive to work. The chaos of traffic overwhelms me and I simply cannot think about anything. I don't even try. I just listen to the radio.

Everything is distracting. I notice every little thing. My mind jumps from one thing to another. I think about papers I need to grade, papers I need to write, things I need to read for class, books I need to read to write book reviews, an upcoming conference, make that two conferences, I have to pick up the boys by 5, what am I going to make for dinner? The heck with all that -- I'll just browse Facebook. I need to grade papers. Looking through Facebook instead. Facebook changes. I can jump from one thing to another; you never know what you may find. I have to find distractions so my mind doesn't distract itself. If I need to write, I need enough background noise to allow me to concentrate. Nothing I can actually listen to -- no T.V., which I'll watch, no radio, which I'll mentally sing along with -- something approaching white noise. I love going to Starbucks for that reason: enough low noise I cannot differentiate to allow me to concentrate. Without it, as I read or write, I am thinking about other papers, poems, short stories, plays. I am making notes, thinking about new things. I cannot work on the thing I have decided to work on. But I also need quiet to come up with these new ideas to work on later. I stack up notes and notes and notes. Some of them actually get turns into papers or stories or poems. Everything's distracting, and I even distract myself.

Constant demands on my attention are exhausting. I'm always thinking of things, ideas, but rarely ever people. It's not that I don't care about people -- especially certain people -- but ideas and things are what my mind is focused on almost all the time. I'm always thinking about something. Spontaneous orders. A play I'm working on. All the papers I need to work on. I think of my writing all the time. I do not and cannot relax. I am tense, but not stressed. I am very focused on my interests, and I cannot focus on anything that does not interest me.

I prefer overcast days to bright sunshine; the bright sunshine bothers me, is too intense. I cannot stand for anything to touch my wrists. Food textures matter for taste. I hear background noises over foreground noises; I cannot really filter out the background noises. I have to have the T.V. turned up very loud when the children are awake; I can turn it down very quiet and still hear it when the house is silent. If I am talking to you, I sometimes cannot hear you over everything and everyone else. So it seems like I'm not paying attention -- especially when I ask you to repeat yourself. But I really am trying to pay attention. And the fact I'm not typically looking you in the eye adds to that perception. My eyes wander all over the place; I look distracted or like I'm looking at someone else. It takes a lot of energy to look you in the eye, so if you want me to really hear what you're saying, don't insist on it.

If you touch me, it takes about 20 seconds for the feeling to finally dissipate. Right now I can still taste the lunch I ate over an hour ago. Images linger and sometimes travel with me. When I walk the dog at night, I often see images of characters I had just seen on T.V. standing in the darkness.

All of this is overwhelming at times. Some days are better than others; other days are worse. It's all cyclical. I'm moderately depressed, moderately manic, equally cyclical. My interests ebb and flow. I cycle between scholar and artist.

If someone's in pain, I'm overwhelmed with empathy; I feel the pain, mental or physical. I feel it deeply, intensely. When my father lost part of his left arm in a mining accident, my own left arm became racked with intense, throbbing pain. It is so much, I typically avoid situations in which I would feel empathy toward others. I have to switch it off, because if it's on, it's too much. This intensity of feeling can come about with the right song, the right emotional situation. It's either on, intensely, or kept well at bay. Well at bay is preferred.

If you tell me you're going to do something, that we're going to do something -- if you make me a promise of any kind, direct or implied -- I will think about it and think about it until you do what you said you would do. You have to do it, or I get very upset. The problem is that changing mental direction may be easy for most people, but for me it's like turning the QEII completely around. What doesn't seem like a big deal to you in changing a plan (perhaps you're too tired, which is perfectly reasonable), is a very big deal for me. I can understand why you want to change plans on one level, but on another the change is unavoidably upsetting to me.

Patterns, patterns everywhere. I can see patterns immediately. I can quickly learn anything that matches a previous pattern I already know. And these are very complex patterns I see everywhere, in everything. New patterns excite me.

I want to tell you everything I saw and thought that interests me. Now. When you're in the middle of telling me something. Before I forget. And I will forget unless I tell you now. But then, I'll never forget. No, I never forget. My long-term memory is incredible. I remember things I last studied or thought about when I was a child. My children are now into dinosaurs, and I remember those dinosaurs' names, though I had not thought about dinosaurs since I was nine or ten. And yet, I forget everything. My short-term memory is terrible. I can forget something I was told within moments. But I will remember it, at some random time, days later. It will end up in my long term memory, but barely register in my short term memory. Also, my working memory is quite large as well. I can hold a dozen or more variables in my mind all at once, manipulating them to see the relations among them.

I love showers. I can think in them, with the white noise. When the falling sparkling water doesn't fascinate me.

Nature walks give me the silence and visual complexity without overwhelming me into fascination I need. I used to take them all the time growing up. The closest I get now is walking the dog. That's no nature walk.

The world is exhausting. Especially the social world. Bureaucracy is the greatest evil ever created. It is the social world gone rabid. I just want to work. To work and be left alone. The world won't let me be, won't let me be who I am. I'm exhausted. So very exhausted. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Intense World Theory of Autism and Daniel

Since learning my older son, Daniel, has autism, I have spent a great deal of time reading about it. With my undergraduate degree and two years of graduate school in molecular biology, the things I typically read are on the molecular biology and neurobiology of autism. Since I can understand the most recent research, that's what I prefer to read.

My interest in the brain precedes my even having children, as my dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, shows. In my dissertation I review some of the neurological underpinnings of artistic production and creation, with a focus on language and literature. Since then, I have mostly published, though, on self-organizing scale-free network processes -- including spontaneous orders -- in which negative and positive feedback is present. When such a system is dominated by negative feedback, the system tends toward equilibrium. When such a system is dominated by positive feedback, you get regular cycles -- booms and busts, in economic terms. When such a system has both positive and negative feedback present at the same time, you have what is called a biotic system -- such systems are complex and creative. Spontaneous orders are biotic systems -- especially in combination with other spontaneous orders, other scale free networks, etc.

All of this leads me to something I read on the Intense World Theory of autism. It seems that the main complaint about this theory is that it does not explain all forms of autism. Given a recent metastudy suggesting there are at least three different kinds of autism, I would hardly think this is in fact a real a problem of the theory. In fact, this is good news, since we will begin to understand more clearly why some things work for some autistic children, but not for others. If they don't actually have the same syndrome, you wouldn't expect the same things to work for everyone. That being said, the Intense World Theory, as described in the above linked article, makes a lot of sense to me -- in no small part because of what it says about the parents.

But first, the similarities between Kai Markram (the son of the neuroscientist who developed the IWT of autism) and Daniel are remarkable. Both were precocious babies. Daniel is a bundle of energy. Daniel also alternates between social anxiety around strangers and just running up and hugging strangers. There are the tantrums -- which in Daniel's case, are fortunately getting better over time, as we continue to expose him to social situations. Daniel also on occasion lines things up. And he is sometimes very sensitive to sounds -- he will sometimes turn off the radio, and he is bothered by applause. We also noticed that if we hugged Daniel when he is most upset, he has calmed down. In no small part, I came up with this idea after I read that autistic children who are given nasal injections of oxytocin became more social for a while. Since oxytocin is made naturally in response to skin-on-skin touch, I began making sure I held and hugged him more -- which has had a remarkably positive effect. We have been fortunate that Daniel is apparently better with the food than Kai was, though. He'll try most foods, but when he's made up his mind he likes or dislikes something, that's the end of it.

Given these similarities, what Henry Markram concluded was very interesting to me. The conclusion that "autistic people take in too much and learn too fast" fits well what I know about Daniel. For example, Daniel, since age 4, understands cause-and-effect and can therefore engage in deductive reasoning. One day, when Daniel was 4, as we were driving to the local grocery store, we drove by a restaurant with a large number of cars in the parking lot, and Daniel said, "Look, Daddy! They have lots of customers!" We then went to the grocery store, and when we came out, as I was putting Daniel in his car seat, he said to me, "Daddy, we were customers, weren't we?" My wife, who teaches 1st grade, says her 6-7 year old students cannot do that.

But this is what really spoke to me, what made me understand that, at least in the case of Daniel, IWT explains a great deal:
The more he [Henry Markram] investigated the idea of autism not as a deficit of memory, emotion and sensation, but an excess, the more he realized how much he himself had in common with his seemingly alien son.
Like Henry Markram, as a small child I wanted to know everything (that hasn't changed). I did a little better in high school than he did, but not by much, and it was not until my Senior year that I turned things around. Oh, and one of the main predictors of someone having a child with autism? Having a Ph.D.

Henry Markram and his wife discovered that in the mouse models they were studying, the inhibitory cells (negative feedback) worked normally, but the excitatory cells (positive feedback) "responded nearly twice as strongly as normal—and they were hyper-connected," and "were hyperactive, which isn’t necessarily a defect: A more responsive, better-connected network learns faster." In other words, autistic people with hyper-connected, hyperactive excitatory cells learn too quickly, and they learn irreversibly. Which can be a problem -- especially when what they are learning is a fear response.

They also discovered that autistic brains have more minicolumns, "which can be seen as the brain’s microprocessors." Coincidentally, "extra minicolumns have been found in autopsies of scientists who were not known to be autistic, suggesting that this brain organization can appear without social problems and alongside exceptional intelligence." This suggests a kind of continuum. It seems that your "average" extremely smart person has enough extra minicolumns, enough of a ramped-up brain, to become a scientists (and, likely, an artist, inventor, etc.). Slightly more, and you might develop Asperger's Syndrome. Slightly more, and you develop autism. This would suggest, as the article does, that brilliance in those autistics who are also savants is a feature, not a bug. Many autistics develop very advanced cognitive abilities, including those necessary to be good at math, music, and science. In fact, "Mathematics, musical virtuosity, and scientific achievement all require understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure. Both autistic people and their family members are over-represented in these fields, which suggests genetic influences." My own proclivities are in "understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure" in my scholarly work (on complex network processes) and poetry (formal verse -- patterns and structure).

What this suggests is that Daniel is an even more intense version of me. I have many social difficulties precisely because I "feel too much and sense too much." I am deeply empathetic, and my intensity of feeling is what led to my becoming an artist. I am sensitive to fabrics, to anything touching my wrists or neck, to the textures of foods (spaghetti and fettuccini both taste very different to me because of their very different textures). I experience the world very intensely, and it can be too much at times. If this is my experience, and Daniel is (if Asperger's is one level, and autism is two) two levels more intense in his feelings and senses, his behaviors make a great deal of sense to me.

More than this, the fact that it is excitatory neurons that are working more also explains quite a bit, if we take a complex systems view. As I mention above, complex systems like the brain have both positive and negative feedback working simultaneously. That is a normal brain. In a brain in which the inhibitory neurons were more active, we would expect to see a brain moving more toward equilibrium -- low activity. In a brain in which the excitatory neurons were more active, though, we would expect to see cyclical activity -- periods of hyperactivity and mania followed by low energy and depression. Many autistics are also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though undiagnosed, I am almost certainly at least mildly bipolar. I have seen Daniel have very low energy and cry and "be sad" for no reason at all; at other times, Daniel is extremely hyper. Fortunately, Daniel rarely crashes into the really sad depressive mode, but he does cycle between low and high energy. This would make perfect sense if his brain were dominated by positive feedback, as the Intense World Theory suggests.

However, this aspect is nowhere mentioned in the article. It seems an important thing to consider, though. But to understand this means one has to take a complex systems perspective. Perhaps further research will show others have in fact made this connection -- but if not, I think it's an important insight that needs to be investigated further.

The good news is that many of Daniel's social anxieties and repetitive behaviors seem to have been decreasing over time. And his language skills have been improving. Fortunately, while he is clearly autistic, his symptoms could have been much worse. Based on the article, it seems his social anxieties are not even as bad as Kai's, whose symptoms do not sound all that bad compared to others I have read about. And Daniel is more likely in recent months to look at you when you talk to him. Much of this improvement has been since I read about how autistic children have low oxytocin levels and that increased levels of oxytocin help with these behaviors. Since skin-on-skin touch increases oxytocin, I have made sure to hug Daniel more and to make sure there is skin-on-skin contact. I am convinced this has helped. I have seen the behavioral changes. He will always have them to a certain degree, but if Daniel can overcome some of these social issues, while retaining the benefits of autism, Daniel should have a great life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thoughts on Theory of Mind

One of the theories of autism -- including Asperger's -- is that those on the spectrum do not have a Theory of Mind. However, as I have read more and more examples of the evidence that supposedly supports that view, I have to come to the conclusion that it is the neurotypicals who believe this who don't have a proper Theory of Mind.

Those who have Theory of Mind (ToM) believe that others have a mind like theirs. Please note that those who have ToM believe others have a mind like THEIRS. Neurotypicals believe others have a mind like their mind, and  those with ASD believe others have a mind like their mind. However, both are wrong. Both are overgeneralizing.

One can view the human ToM as an evolving history of ToM. Those in our tribe have minds, but others do not. Those in our extended culture have minds, but others do not -- or theirs is not as developed. Read some of the work by European scholars prior to the 20th century, and you will see a great deal of ink spilled on the "fact" that primitive peoples do not have minds like the more advanced Europeans. This, of course, is false. But it took a long time for humans to come to realize this -- and there are those who still do not believe it.

More recently, we have come to understand that animals have minds as well, even if they are not as complex -- or at least the same -- as human minds. We moved from treating animals as automata to being vaguely aware to having varying kinds of consciousness.

It seems that with the theory that ASD in a problem in ToM we have another version of the above. The problem is that it's working both ways. Since those with ASD are treating everyone else as though everyone else has the same kinds of minds as them, and neurotypicals don't recognize themselves in the way they are being treated by those with ASD, the theory (developed by neurotypicals studying ASD) that ASD is a ToM deficit emerges. The problem is that each side is looking at the other and thinking, "What's wrong with them?" The problem is that both are wrong to think that way.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we have two different groups -- neurotypicals and autistics (including AS) -- with two different kinds of minds, each theorizing everyone has the same kind of mind they have, and coming into conflict. Many of the comments made by autistics that are interpreted by neurotypicals as rude or arrogant are perfectly well understood for exactly what they are by fellow autistics. In the same way, things that seem bizarre or a waste of time to autistics (like small talk) are perfectly well understood by neurotypicals for what they are by other neurotypcials.

Given that neurotypicals far outnumber autistics, it is the latter who have had to do most of the adjusting. However, as the number of people with autism seems to be rising, the adjustments might soon have to be more mutual. And if neurotypcials don't want to miss out on all of the benefits that come with hiring autistics, the adjustments will have to become more mutual. Those neuroptypicals who figure this out will be the ones profiting most.

Monday, November 3, 2014

An Introduction to Daniel

Daniel is 5. When he was around 3 and still not speaking very much, we took him to the Richardson school district to get him evaluated. Indeed, it was more than his speech delay that prompted us to take him -- there were his behaviors, many of which my wife insisted were odd, but which I had insisted were within the realm of normal, using myself as a standard; there was a tendency to collect and carry around Matchbox and Hot Wheel cars rather than play with them; there were sensory sensitivities; there were the tantrums. All of this taken together resulted in the diagnosis of autism.

Shortly thereafter Daniel was put into PPCD. We have to say that we are generally quite pleased with the outcomes there. His language and social skills have improved. He is friends with several of the children there -- in particular two boys how behave just like Daniel, and who in turn seem to think Daniel is just the greatest thing since chocolate ice cream. Daniel has moved from merely playing next to children to (sometimes) playing with children -- including his two siblings. Of course, Daniel tries to direct the play so that everyone is doing what he wants them to do, but it's a level of interaction we had not seen before this year.

Daniel is very curious. He wants to know what things are made of and how they work. He is a deductive thinker, is able to make associations, and can see right through to the correct cause-and-effect relationships. For example, in the book Wacky Wednesday, there is on one of the pages a car on the road; it is missing its back wheels, and the person in the back is walking the back of the car with his legs. I asked him what was wacky in the picture, and that was one of the things at which he pointed. I asked him why it was wacky, and he said, "The wheels are missing. And the bottom of the car is missing so his legs are sticking out." You cannot actually see that the bottom of the car is missing; Daniel correctly deduced it was missing. To say your average 5 year old cannot do that is an understatement.

Daniel has a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to doing things. I have to encourage and encourage him. A good example of this was with drawing. He was having me draw him cars and trucks (of course), but he would not draw the pictures himself. One day, I just kept insisting that he draw. He was getting upset, but I kept insisting. Finally, he drew a "road" and asked me to draw a car on it. Well, that was something, so I drew his car. I kept getting him to draw the "roads" until one day I insisted he draw the car. He, again, started getting upset, insisting he couldn't do it. I told him I wanted him to try, that I wanted to see his cars. He asked me if it would make me happy. I told him it would. He drew some circles, and some were actually quite good. Of course, Daniel could immediately tell which ones were good and which ones were not, and he wasn't going to put up with being told the bad circles were good. "Yes, but look at how good these are" did manage to work, and I managed to encourage him to draw a car. His cars are boxes on circles, but he's drawing. And now he draws all the time, making cars and houses.

Daniel also love building things. He loves blocks and Legos. And he's showing more and more interest in building things. He loves going to the Perot Museum and building things there.

His language has been improving quite a bit since his diagnosis. He still primarily uses language to inform others and to ask for information, but several weeks ago he did actually carry on a real conversation with Anna while we were driving home from somewhere.

Daniel is a bit sensitive to sounds, but he also has a tendency to use that sensitivity as an excuse when he doesn't want to hear something, like "Clean up your toys." What this says to me is that he knows we understand he is sensitive to sounds at times and that we sympathize with him about that, so he is trying to exploit that sympathy to avoid doing something he doesn't want to do. For those who think that there is a deficient theory of mind in those with autism, I invite them to explain that level of metaunderstanding.

I spend a lot of time with Daniel, perhaps in no small part because I get him. Of course, I get him because the two of us have very similar minds. We may have difficulty getting neurotypicals, but we have little difficulty getting each other.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Troy's Introduction

We decided to create this blog because we think we provide a unique perspective on the topic of autism.

For example, I am the father of an autistic son, Daniel. But I discovered, because of the research I did on autism after learning Daniel was autistic, that I have Asperger's. Indeed, I score 33-35 on the Autism Spectrum Quotient test (over 33-50 is autism; 26-32 is Asperger's). I spoke early and read early, and a lack of language delay has typically been considered Asperger's rather than autism. But recently the DSM has defined it all as autism.

My wife is, of course, not just a mother of an autistic son, but the wife of an autistic husband. As my co-blogger, I will leave her perspective to her.

We also have two other children. Melina, our daughter, is the oldest, and our son Dylan is the youngest. Dylan has a speech delay, but does not seem to have any other autistic traits. Melina seems to have some traits of having ADD.

Many people with autism are also diagnosed with ADD, but the two may not be entirely separable that way. At least, among those whose autism is, as I believe Daniel and my autism are, due to the features described by the Intense World theory of autism. Indeed, that is why we chose to call our blog "An Intense World." Daniel and I live in a very intense world. If you follow us, you will get to know more about that world.