Thursday, October 15, 2015

Autism in the Schools -- A Personal Narrative

After losing a full time freelance to full time position because the company I was working for learned I have Asperger's and, as they put it, they had "no intention of accommodating you," I started substitute teaching for Dallas ISD again. Because I live in Richardson, a suburb just north of Dallas, I am restricted, due to travel time, to which schools I can teach at. And through some sort of bizarre set of coincidences, I have somehow only been able to take special education classes -- meaning, I have been surrounded by autistic children almost every weekday for several weeks.

It has been very eye-opening. I have seen and interacted with autistic children in elementary, middle, and high school. And I have seen how nobody -- not a single special education teacher, not a single teacher's aide, let alone any of the regular teachers in which some of these students have "inclusion" -- has the foggiest idea what to do with these children. I have seen them try to interact (and discipline) autistic children as though they were simply neurotypical children with behavior problems. But this is exactly the wrong way to think of them. Given what we have learned about autistic people, given what we know about why they behave so differently from neurotypicals, one is bound to fail to teach proper behaviors, let alone the rest of the education they need to receive at their schools. As a result, I have seen in the high schools extremely intelligent young men and women who have not received nearly the education they could have received.

At the elementary school, there was about a dozen students, most of whom had autism. When they would "misbehave," they would be threatened with moving colors, etc. that are typically used in the schools. These tactics clearly had no effect whatsoever on their behaviors, as they didn't mean anything to the children. Yes, there were picture cards for the students, but the use of those picture cards seemed to be limited at best. Picture cards are necessary for autistic children, but they have to be used constantly and consistently. But more than that, threats upset autistic children, shutting them down, pushing them toward having breakdowns. If you want to change an autistic child's behavior, you have to use logic and reason -- and use it repeatedly. Also, if they are doing something to another child, you have to get them to empathize with the other child to get them to stop what they are doing.

For example, one of the children was poking another in the back. The one being poked was just sitting there and taking it (probably having gotten used to her poking him all the time), but he was obviously annoyed, as anyone would be. I got down on the floor and said to her, "Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that?" I tried to get her attention, repeated her name, and kept asking the question. After a while, she finally said, "No." I said, "Well then, you shouldn't do that to him if you wouldn't like it." And she stopped. And she never did it again -- at least, the day I was there.

I was in that class with the special ed teacher's aide. During recess, the aide asked me, "How on earth are you reaching these kids?" She had never seen anyone change their behaviors so quickly before. Of course, there's nothing I was doing that I haven't learned from simply doing research on autism and some of the behavior modifications used. It is nothing anyone out there couldn't do or learn about. So I told her what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was a complete revelation to her. I gave a brief explanation of what is happening with children with autism, why they acted as they did, etc., which of course ties back in with how to properly teach proper behavior.

That same day, toward the end of the day, the same girl got upset and ran to the other side of the room. She threw a tissue box and tried to hide among the pillows in the corner. I went over to her and told her she needed to pick up the tissue box. She of course just withdrew. I had noticed earlier that she liked playing a computer game with a gorilla, so I grabbed a toy gorilla and started talking to her through the gorilla. The gorilla asked her if she wanted to come back to story time and if she would pick up the tissue box. She smiled at me, nodded, and stood up, picked up the tissue box and put it away, and then walked over and sat with the other students and listened to the story. Why did this work? Autistic people are object-oriented, she liked the gorilla game, and I got her to focus on an object she liked and had it talk to her. In other words, I successfully communicated with an autistic child. But few truly understand how to do this.

At the high school I have been subbing at, I have been in all three of the special education classes, which range from classes with students so severely autistic that they are nonverbal and can just barely function at all to talkative, intelligent, humorous students who I wonder why they are not in inclusion classes. There are students who are clearly only in school just to give their parents a break -- they won't be learning anything, and whatever they learn, the won't be applying outside of school, as they are not going to be holding any sort of job. But those aren't the students I want to talk about.

The students I want to talk about are those who are together in a special education class that is designed to teach little more than a handful of practical living skills, but who really ought to be in a regular class, because they are definitely intelligent enough to do the work. Many of these students are in fact probably more intelligent than the vast majority of regular students. Why, then, are they not in regular classes? It is because of their "behavioral problems" that have followed them throughout their school years. These have been lucky enough to be identified as autistic, so their behavioral problems were sequestered away in the special education classes rather than the behavioral units (more on that later), but as a result, they have also been sequestered away from a real education. And it is all because nobody understands how to properly modify their behaviors. By the time they reach high school, they haven't been taught how to properly interact with anyone other than other autistic people -- and a dozen frustrated teachers. As a result, we have an army of highly intelligent people who have received no education to speak of and thus will not be able to live up to their full potential. The person who could have been the next Newton may be that socially awkward, "slow" young man or woman who talks funny busing your table before you sit down at the restaurant. That is all they are really being taught to do, and that is a real shame. And it is all because nobody understands how to raise autistic children to be functioning adults.

But, at troublesome as all of this should be to you, I promise you that things can be far, far worse. I know, because today I saw it.

Today I was assigned to a middle school behavioral unit. If you know anything at all about the behavior of middle school students, you can only imagine how over-the-top ridiculously bad the behavior of these students had to have been. We are talking about repeat offender fighters, kids who take offense at everything and anything and who are convinced that beating the crap out of people is the solution to every problem. In here was one student who -- other than cursing like a sailor at the drop of a hat -- quietly did all of his school work and played on the computer. He wanted to be left alone to do what he was doing, but of course none of the other students would allow that to happen. They would harass him, turn off his computer, do anything they could to get him riled up and curse at them. A girl in the class, however, would first harass him until he called her a "bitch," at which point she would get mad and hit him. She hit him four times before she was taken away (by the other adult in the classroom with me the whole time, since there is supposed to be at least two people in there most of the time) to be suspended.

However, there was a time when the other adult had to take three other students away, leaving me with this student and another. This student suddenly came up to me and started talking to me. The first thing I noticed is that he had an odd way of speaking (odd if you're not autistic) and seemed a bit awkward. It was obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He started complaining about the other kids, and I said that if he didn't like these kids, why was he doing things to get in the behavioral unit? His answer?

"I've been in the behavioral unit since I was in first grade. I was put in it after I bit my teacher. I've been in the behavioral unit in first grade and second grade and third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade and now sixth grade."

"You've been in the behavioral unit all this time because you bit a teacher in first grade?"

"Well, no . . ."

Well, of course not. But from what I had been witnessing -- and what I would witness in the last hour of the day -- convinced me that, in a real sense, he was in fact in behavioral units since first grade because he was in one in first grade.

Here is the probable scenario. This kid was/is an undiagnosed autistic. Maybe Asperger's, but definitely on the spectrum. And definitely prone to meltdowns. His odd behaviors were probably enough of a turn off for his fellow students and teachers, but no doubt they considered his meltdowns to be mere temper tantrums. Meltdowns occur when a stressful situation -- or series of them -- becomes too much. Meltdowns can appear to be very violent -- many autistics will also engage in self-harm, especially if they are not allowed an outlet for their frustration. It would not surprise me if more than a few people have gotten bitten by an autistic child during a meltdown if the adult was intervening wrong. And if the child is undiagnosed, he's not an autistic child who needs help (but who won't get the right kind of help because almost nobody understands how to help them), but a serious behavioral problem. So we get a child who gets easily stressed having a meltdown, a teacher who is stressed dealing with it wrong, and therefore get a bitten teacher and a first grader sent off to the behavioral unit.

Of course, the kind of children in the behavioral unit are anything but understanding and kind. They are cruel, bullies, a certain percent are sociopathic, and autistic children are weird and seem to be the perfect victims. So they get picked on, the stress results in violent meltdowns, and the child remains in the behavioral unit. Year after year after year. And the problem is never solved, but is in fact worsened by such an environment.

That is the situation this poor child is in. He's been placed in a never-ending Hell, all because he's an undiagnosed autistic. His fate? He has been taken away to the mental hospital twice. And based on his conversation with me, he is very, very, very angry.

So after being picked on all day, he was told at the end of the day to go outside and get his backpack. He didn't want to, but I talked him into it (which got me cursed out a few times for my effort). He stepped out  to see his papers being blown away, the girl who was being suspended for hitting him all day having apparently dumped out his things. And that's when the meltdown occurred. He began picking up desks and throwing them. Keep in mind that he's eleven. All of the desks and chairs ended up in a pile in the middle of the room. It was a slow-motion rage -- oddly controlled, as he went out of his way to make sure he never threw a chair or desk in such a way that I would be hit by one. And I was close to him the entire time, trying to talk him back.

I never did talk him back. The bell rang, the teachers told me they would take care of it, and I had to pick up my own children from daycare and school. When I walked away, he was outside the portable, banging his head against the metal side. I glanced back one last time to see a chair flying out of the door.

Without a diagnosis of autism, and without parents like us, that child could have been Daniel in 6 years. That is a sad, terrifying, and infuriating thought.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Conversing with an Aspie

Perhaps the most obvious issue people have with Aspies involves communicating with them. I've been told that I intimidate people, that I can be embarrassing to those I'm with, and that I'm too aggressive. All of these come from the fact that I have Asperger's. The way I naturally communicate with people, I often come across as intimidating, arrogant, and aggressive. Those who know me well know better, but those who don't know me well are likely to leave with a bad impression. Naturally, this is bad for social situations, including employment.

Among the handicaps Aspies have when engaged in conversation is an inability to  look people in the eye. If we are far enough away and are looking at your mouth or nose, it looks like we are looking you in the eye when you talk to us, but if we're much closer, it's obvious we're not. Now think about what this communicates to you, if you're not on the spectrum. If someone doesn't look you in the eye, you tend not to trust them. That's a bad first impression, and the Aspie hasn't even opened his mouth yet.

But that's not the only problem with the eyes. Our peripheral vision is on equal par with our centered vision, meaning things around us catch our attention. While you're talking to us, it's not uncommon for us to look around, glance at other people and at things. It appears that we're not paying attention, but in fact we are paying you attention -- we hear everything you say, and we'll respond to it.

Our visual egalitarianism also extends to our hearing. As a result, we hear everything around us at equal volume, while you neurotypicals can focus your hearing on the speaker. This means that your voice can be drowned out, meaning we may ask you to repeat yourself. This can be interpreted as us not paying you proper attention -- being rude -- when in fact you just got drowned out by whatever sounds there are in the room. Now, imagine you are in a situation in which you hear everything at the same volume. You would probably assume everyone else does as well (since you extrapolate others' experiences from your own), meaning you would likely talk in a louder voice. If I end up talking too loud to you, that is why. Also, all of that noise can be overwhelming to us. So do not be surprised if, at least occasionally, we seek a quiet place to let things settle down in our heads.

Of course, all of this requires that we have actually engaged in a conversation in the first place.

If we're introduced, I may or may not greet you. If you greet me first, or if whoever is introducing us is explicit that we're being introduced, I'm fine. But any ambiguity will leave me just standing there.

Also, I don't engage in small talk. I certainly won't initiate it, and my contributions to small talk will be minimal. I don't engage in chitchat for the sake of chitchat, and I'm not likely to engage in much gossip, either. If the topic doesn't interest me, I don't pretend to be interested. But if the topic does interest me . . . then we have a whole other set of problems.

If I am given a platform on which I can speak at length on a topic of interest to me, I'm in my perfect environment. I am full of information on that topic, and I can go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it. It will be less of a conversation than a lecture. If you are a sincere fellow traveler in the search for truth, you and I will have a blast together. If not, I'm afraid I don't suffer fools very well.

Also, it is very important that you don't be wrong. If you are wrong about something and I know it, you may rest assured that I will interrupt what you are saying to correct you. I cannot stand not to correct someone immediately, because I know that if you start with a false premise, everything you are getting ready to say is going to be wrong. To my mind, why on earth would you want to waste your time developing a false argument on false premises? I wouldn't. I actually like being corrected when I am in fact wrong. And it bothers me when I am not corrected when I am wrong.

A good example of this involved my sister-in-law, who was a music major in college. She was with me when I was talking to a friend about music, and I was getting the difference between 3-4 and 4-4 all wrong. She let me go on and on, misinforming this guy, and then only told me I was wrong after my friend left. I asked her why she didn't correct me -- after all, she was the music expert. More, I figured if she wasn't correcting me, I was right in what I was saying. Worse, there was now someone else out there as misinformed as I had been, and it was my fault.  Given that I would welcome correction on points of fact, I have a hard time understanding why others wouldn't. At the same time, I have come to understand that my sister-in-law was being polite in not correcting me in front of my friend, because politeness is an important social virtue. Being right rarely ever is. It is perhaps not surprising that Aspies fall short of the social virtues, even if we do tend to be deeply moral.

Finally, you will discover that I have a tendency to interrupt to say what I need to say. There are a few things going on with that behavior. One, I interrupt because I'm afraid I will forget what I'm going to say. And I have a great deal of experience to back that up. Two, the feeling I get when I cannot say what I need to say when I need to say it is equivalent to if you were trying to tell me something, and I kept interrupting you before you could get three words out -- and I kept doing it and doing it and doing it. At what point would you interrupt me and talk over me? The problem is that I have that feeling immediately upon having something to say. And all too often I act upon it. Naturally, this is interpreted as being rude and arrogant.

For those of you who have engaged me in conversation, you probably recognize every single one of these traits. Social media no doubt tempers or eliminates many of these, and exacerbates others. So if you find yourself in conversation with someone and they are exhibiting all of these traits, they are not being an arrogant asshole -- at least, not on purpose -- rather it's quite likely you are talking with an Aspie. Have patience with us. And don't be afraid to take us aside and point it out when we are doing some of these things. It is natural for us to do them, but it's not impossible for us to -- at least occasionally -- temper some of our own extremes.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Autism Is Not a Behavioral "Problem"

One thing people do not seem to get when it comes to people on the spectrum is that they literally cannot help certain behaviors, and they do not necessarily respond the same way as regular children or adults do to given situations or requests, depending on how they are delivered. To expect them to do so would be equivalent to expecting a blind student to look at you when you speak to her, or a deaf child to listen up or a man in a wheelchair to walk over to you. There is a tendency to think that the issues surrounding people on the spectrum are "simply" behavioral; however, there is a powerful underlying neurology that affects that behavior and the way they interact with the world and other people.

As a consequence, the situation in our schools is, for those of us who understand what is really going on with autism, absurd. We expect autistic children to simply change their behaviors. However, if there were a deaf child, do you think they would refuse to have someone who could do sign language to communicate, but insist that she listen like all the other students? For similar reasons, it is important to understand that there is far more to autistic people than meets the eye, and dealing with them does in fact require training. That training is lacking in a variety of institutions, in schools across this country, including in special education -- I have seen the lack. But that lack needs to be remedied.

Take for example the issue of meltdowns, which are unfortunately not uncommon among people on the spectrum. If you are having a meltdown, you have no control over your behavior whatsoever. This is an unfortunate feature of children with autism, especially younger children. It occurs when they get stuck on something and/or are completely overwhelmed in sensory and social input. This is a feature of autism which many children grow out of, but which some do not. Meltdowns occur when a child is in a situation in which he feels so overwhelmed and threatened by his environment that becomes overwhelmed. This is not an intentional behavior problem. There is nothing intentional in meltdowns.

A meltdown should not be mistaken for a temper tantrum, as the latter are an intentional way for the child to get what he or she wants, while the meltdown comes about from a distressing situation. They can often be mistaken for tantrums because there is typically some object of focus involved. To understand what is happening, you have to think about what happens when there is positive feedback in a sound system. The sounds gets louder and louder until it becomes a deafening screech. The same thing is happening in an autistic meltdown. This is a feature of autism, and it cannot be punished. What must happen is the distressing situation must either be avoided or the person has to be prepared for it.

If someone is having a meltdown, you cannot control having that meltdown, since it is a feature of autistic physiology. Unlike with a tantrum, a meltdown should not be punished, as it makes as much sense to punish someone for something completely out of their control as it would be to punish a deaf person for refusing to listen. Yet, these are seen as "behavioral problems" all too often.

These sorts of problems arise when the adults do not have the training they need to deal with an autistic child, to ensure they are not overwhelmed and so they understand how to deal with things like meltdowns. Our son, for example, is also hyperactive, and as a result he has a hard time sitting still. In a school environment, it is expected that the children sit still for long periods of time. However, Daniel simply cannot do this -- at least, not without giving him something that will keep his mind busy in place of his body. Understanding the nature of autism would go a long way toward helping educators deal with autistic children and help them to get a good education.

Fortunately for Daniel, his mother and I understand these things, and we plan to fight to make sure Daniel is treated well. Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of behaviors we don't put up with. But we also know how to deal with them and how to get Daniel to stop them. Repetition and logic work best for Daniel. And talking him into empathizing with the person, if he's aggravating someone else. But nobody knows these things, including most special education teachers. I have seen plenty trying to treat autistic children like regular children, and they inevitably fail to get the desired results. All because, although (if we include Asperger's and autism, as the DSM-V does) around 2% of the population is on the spectrum, it seems that nobody really knows anything at all about it. That is something that needs to change. That is something I intend to change.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What to Do With Employees on the Spectrum

People on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s have poor executive functioning in their brains. This can have various implications for work. Here are some things bosses can do to ensure their employees on the spectrum succeed in the workplace.

  • ·         Give step-by-step instructions and have your employee repeat them back
  • ·         Make instructions as simple and concrete as possible
  • ·         Break down tasks/assignments into smaller chunks with more deadlines
  • ·         Provide written instructions, or at least have the employee take notes
  • ·         Allow the employee to keep “cheat sheets” around which they can look at to ensure they know what they need to do
  • ·         When possible, provide a daily checklist so your employee can check off what they have finished
  • ·         Provide the employee with a rubric so they know what a successful project looks like
  • ·         Say to the employee “This is important because . . .”
  • ·         Provide them with a routine when possible

All of these things help those on the spectrum keep on track and to prioritize. But do keep in mind that if you do provide them with a way to prioritize, they will prioritize in exactly that way. You have to provide them with any nuances, because such nuances will not occur to them on their own.

For example, let’s say that you have four tasks for your employee. The most important thing to do is task A, then B, then C, then D. D is the least important, but it has to get done too. Also, the times when certain things in each set have to get done varies. So if there is something in A that can get done in two days, the priority is to do something in D due in an hour. However, if you fail to discuss the way time factors into prioritizing, the person on the spectrum will simply get all of A done, then do all of B, then do all of C, and then do as much of D as he can get to. He may not even do any in D, since the others are top priority. As you can imagine, this employee is going to get in trouble for not getting to anything in D. However, since the employer did not explain how to prioritize using time, it is not really the fault of the autistic employee that D wasn’t getting done.

What typically has to be done is to allow the employee to get down prioritizing A-B-C-D, then introducing them to the time factor so that they understand the time element of prioritizing. They can and will learn the entire system, because to them it will be an algorithm by which they work, but it has to be taught to them explicitly and in steps.

Does this sound like a major pain in the neck? Yet, once you have your employee trained, you can rest assured that this employee will do the work pretty much without flaw, and will be a major workhorse. Of course, being a major workhorse can itself be its own problem, since his fellow employees will likely not like the fact that the autistic employee is so focused on work that he is getting more done than everyone else. We all know that when that happens, office politics come into play. Beware of what your regular employees say about your autistic employee, and be aware that your autistic employee is complete oblivious that anyone is undermining him or in any way acting underhanded. His social world can completely fall apart, and he won’t know it. Also, it probably won’t help him that he’s typically too blunt and direct, won’t look anyone in the eye, has no earthly idea how to make small talk, won’t notice when people are bored about his obsession (typically work), treats bosses and employees the same, has a tendency to interrupt during a conversation or walk away in the middle of one, and ask too many questions.

But do also keep in mind that your employee on the spectrum also has the following traits:

  • ·         Attention to detail
  • ·         Sustained concentration
  • ·         Excellent long term memory
  • ·         Vast knowledge in certain fields
  • ·         Tolerance of repetition and routine
  • ·         Strong logic and analytical skills
  • ·         Creative thinking
  • ·         Bluntness (which can be good if you want to know what’s really working and what’s not)
  • ·         Honest
  • ·         Loyal
  • ·         Strong desire to do well

These are the reasons you want someone on the spectrum to work for you. They may not be the best employees, but they will typically be your best workers, once you have them trained.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why I Fight

I want you to imagine  someone talking to a deaf person, yelling at them, complaining that they won't listen. Imagine this person insisting that the deaf person be disciplined for refusing to listen and, because he wouldn't listen, to be disciplined for subordination.

We would obviously find the person who behaves like this appalling. They are expecting something from someone they are literally incapable of doing. Their ears do not work the same as yours -- do not work at all in this case. But it would be just as ridiculous to expect a color blind person to differentiate between red and green. Or that a blind person be required to take an art appreciation class. We recognize exactly how ridiculous these things are.

But when it comes to autism, there is a completely irrational expectation that the person simply change their behavior, as though that were at all possible. It's not. The wiring of their brains are different, the workings of their brains are different, and that results in different kinds of behaviors. I can be made conscious of certain behaviors, but it is difficult at best to always, constantly override those behaviors. For someone like my son, who has mild to moderate autism, and is only 6, the expectation that he be able to control himself the way a regular person can is completely unrealistic. As unrealistic as expecting the deaf to listen to you.

Worse, it seems that it is we who always have to accommodate, who have to try to fit in. Why shouldn't others accommodate us -- at least on occasion? Why don't you try to understand us? We are forced to try to understand you, but it seems that nobody even bothers to try to try to truly understand us. It would be as though nobody who spoke ever tried to learn sign language, but simply treated the deaf as mental defectives who we need to get out of the way. Because that is the way we are treated. And it needs to stop.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Executive Functioning and Perceiving the World

The brain's executive functioning creates a hierarchy within the brain itself, with the executive functioning at the top, in charge of setting goals and priorities, preventing one from giving in to whatever urges one would otherwise follow. One can think of it as the CEO of the brain. Those with weaker executive functioning are going to have brains with weak or even nonexistent CEOs. Yet, an organization like the body requires at least a weak EF/CEO for the world to make sense to the rest of the brain and for the body to show control from the brain. Unconscious desires get expressed, resulting in socially inappropriate actions. However, conscious moral construction is able to replace EF, or to at least lend it support.

Hayek observed, and this idea is supported by Stuart Kauffman, that complex systems model the world according to their own internal structures. Hierarchically, ordered brains with a strong EF, would see hierarchy everywhere; spontaneously ordered brains with weak EFs would see spontaneous orders everywhere. Each "sees" the world through their own structures.

Network controls are through negative feedback -- this is cybernetic control. The stronger positive feedback is, the more control is lost. If negative feedback is dominant, the person is very controlled, but not very creative; if they are codominant, the person is creative; if positive feedback dominates, they are on the autism spectrum (including ADD/ADHD). If positive feedback dominates, control breaks down and cycles dominate (just like with spontaneous orders).

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Autism and Our Anti-Hierarchical World

One of the main features of autism is the lack of a foreground/periphery differentiation. This is particularly noticeable in hearing, since we can become overwhelmed by background noises which we cannot filter out in order to focus on the foreground. For most people it is an automatic, natural thing to filter out the background and focus on what you want to hear -- typically whoever is talking to you. However, people with autism get everything at once.

However, this is also true with vision. We are easily distracted by things in our peripheral vision, causing us to look around, glance at everything. This is easily taken as attention deficit, but what it is in fact is attention to too many things at once. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. And it's at least annoying to anyone you're speaking to, who is expecting you to look at them the entire time.

What this means is that on the sensory level, people with autism do not differentiate between the center and the periphery, the foreground and the periphery. That is, we quite literally do not create a hierarchy in our hearing or our vision.

This inability to recognize hierarchy extends beyond the sensory. I believe that people with autism are naturally egalitarian in nature precisely because we simply cannot create the hierarchies in the first place. One result of this is a refusal to recognize work hierarchies -- people on the spectrum are infamous for treating their bosses like their coworkers. This makes sense if there is something about the autistic brain that refuses to either create or recognize hierarchy.

If this is true, it makes sense of some comments that were made about some characters I had created for a novel I was writing for a novel writing class. I had a husband and wife in the novel, and people -- both men and women -- complained that they couldn't tell who was "in charge" in the relationship. Consider the fact that this was a graduate level novel writing class, meaning pretty much everyone in there was left of Stalin, and you can see how deeply ingrained the typical person's thinking is in hierarchy. I created a truly equal relationship, and egalitarian leftists objected! My thinking was able to create a truly egalitarian relationship, and nobody liked that fact.

In fact, I can think of any number of times when my refusal to recognize hierarchies of any kind created problems. Yet, at the same time, it means I refuse to treat women as unequal to men in any way, and it means I refuse to differentiate among races, ethnicity, etc. The poor and the wealthy, the weak and the powerful are all the same to me. Perhaps it is because I simply can't differentiate among them.

Of course, this equally suggests that neurotypical people simply cannot help but to differentiate among people, to place people into hierarchies. It is a struggle for neurotypicals to recognize scale free networks, to think of men and women as equal, to not think in racial and ethnic terms, of people as unequal by any number of measures. This explains why they think social orders can be turned into hierarchical organizations, and why they think it's desirable to do so.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Human Universals and Autism

There are many myths out there about people on the autism spectrum. A recent one I experienced involved an argument that because people on the spectrum aren't naturally social, being social isn't a human universal (since "universal" means everyone does it -- more on that, momentarily). One could make the argument that, because people on the spectrum tend to have opposite tendencies to neurptypicals, the existence of autism either proves that human universals are, at best, only quasi-univeral, or people on the spectrum should not be properly considered "human."

The latter option is nauseous, and the former option I reject. And I reject it because the assumption regarding people on the spectrum is wrong. People with autism are not naturally anti-social. Quite the contrary. There is a strong desire to be social -- only, there are extreme difficulties in actually being social, in doing the right things, in communicating (literally, or properly). If the human universal involves wanting to be social to any degree whatsoever, then sociality is a human universal, since people on the spectrum do in fact want to be social to at least some degree.

Another example one could raise is the fact that neurotypical humans tend to engage in top-down thinking. Is this a human universal? Probably. Does the fact that autistics are dominated by bottom-up thinking disprove this universal? Not at all. Neurotypicals can in fact engage in bottom-up thinking, and autistics can in fact engage in top-down thinking. There is a range of which tendency dominates. It is a natural variation, and there is no one who cannot do both, even if one or the other is preferred.

I leave aside the fact that when dealing with complex entities, you have to have a somewhat fuzzier definition of "universal." The fact that there are people who are born without legs does not mean humans are not universally bipedal, and the fact that there are people born without a moral compass (sociopaths) does not mean humans are not universally moral or share a universal moral system. To avoid the problem, one could perhaps argue more for "cultural universals" rather than "human universals," but this really says practically the same things, since humans are always already social. Even sociopaths most of the time pretend to abide by the morals of the society into which they are born. And sometimes pretending is enough.

Indeed, people on the spectrum spend a great deal of time learning how to pretend to act "normal." But this normal is really just part of a spectrum of behaviors and ways of thinking that lie outside the existence of the kinds of universals of which I speak. Indeed, some things -- like rituals -- are even more strongly desired by autistics than neurotypicals. No one would argue that ritual isn't a human universal because neurotypicals are less attracted to them than are autistics.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Executive Functioning, Creativity, and Autism

New research has shown that creativity mostly takes place in the cerebellum, while the executive functioning of the frontal lobe actually restricts creativity.

One of the features of autism (and ADD/ADHD) is impaired executive functioning. Among the things executive functioning does, according to Web MD:
  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience 
When your executive functioning is impaired, you have difficulty with the above abilities. I recently wrote about the problems people with autism have with the last one on the list. The inability to make use of prior knowledge, then, is an executive functioning problem. While this seems to contradict my claims in the previous post, the place where concepts are formed -- the hippocampus -- is also a place where executive functioning takes place. And there are impairments with the hippocampus in those with autism -- in particular, there are issues with oxytocin, about which I have written before.

All of this points to a brain that is structurally and biochemically different from more typical brains. And the connection between executive functioning and creativity also explains why autistic people tend to be very creative.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Problems With Concept Formation May Be Central in Autism

From my reading and my own experiences, I have developed a theory of autism in which concept formation difficulties is central. I have discussed these things in various posts, including here and here and here. Now there is strong evidence for this theory in some recent research.
According to Zaidel, the new study provides support for the idea that people with autism are highly sensitive to incoming sensory information. Moreover, he suggests, they are predisposed toward relying more highly on external stimulation - with less use of prior knowledge - when interpreting the world around them.
"Our results suggest that people with autism may experience a deficiency in what are known in the scientific literature as Bayesian priors - the ability to draw on existing knowledge to understand what we see and to predict what we will see in the near future," Zaidel says. "If you're more heavily weighted toward perceiving the world bottom up - from stimulus to perception - and relying less on rules of thumb from prior knowledge, perception will be both more taxing, and more sensitive to sensory noise."
 In other words, those with autism are taking in information and trying to make sense of that information. If there is a concept available with which to relate the new information, everything is just fine. But if not, it creates confusion and frustration. Imagine being faced with what to you is "new information" all the time. Being presented with new information you don't really know how to integrate can be frustrating -- just ask any student learning new things. Now imagine that your everyday experience is like that.

The farther along the spectrum one is, the more difficult it is to create concepts -- and therefore, the more severe the symptoms. It will be hard to verbalize what you cannot fully conceive. Thus language delays in non-Asperger's autistics. And we must not forget that instincts are concepts with which we are born. Fewer instincts in those with autism would seem to point to a general problem with creating concepts, including those with which we are born.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Vitamin D and Omega-3

Researchers in New Zealand are planning to do research on the role of nutrition in autism -- specifically, they are looking at vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. The latter are commonly found in fatty fishes like salmon.

When I took a physical this past summer, the doctor told me to take vitamin D, as I did not have enough. I have to wonder if Daniel may be low as well. One way of getting vitamin D is to spend time outdoors in the sun, as UV B from the sun converts cholesterol into vitamin D. More outdoor play may be recommended. Lack of outdoor play may be a partial causal factor in the increase in autism, if it is proven vitamin D is connected.

It is known that when you are "hungry for" something, that is usually an indication that your body is trying to get something it needs. I have always been hungry for seafood. Daniel loves salmon especially. Could those cravings be connected to a heightened need for omega-3 fatty acids?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Balloonacy -- A Play Good for Children with Autism

Today the family went to the Dallas Children’s Theater to watch Balloonacy, a cute mime play about an old man who lives in an apartment by himself and is celebrating his birthday alone, when a balloon comes in through his open window and becomes his friend. The Dallas Children’s Theater has special showings of certain plays for children with sensory issues, and we have been going since their first such show. The sound is not as loud and the lighting contrast between the stage and the seats is not as sharp.

Although this was not our first play we attended at DCT, and although Balloonacy was not specifically written for children on the autism spectrum – it is a pretty standard mime play in the French style with light slapstick – I decided to write a little about this play because of Daniel’s reaction to the play, and because I think that this play is particularly good for children on the spectrum to see.

The story is about an old man who lives alone and is trying to eat a spaghetti dinner he warmed up in the microwave and to celebrate his birthday. A red balloon flies in through the window, and the old man tries to put it out – only to have the balloon return again and again. Finally, he slams the window shut, smashing his thumb – which causes him to put a band-aid on it. The balloon is magical – appearing out of the trash and out of boxes, including a birthday present left at the front door. The old man grows fond of the balloon when it appears out of the birthday present, and he begins interacting with it and playing with it. At one point he is playing with a fork, and he accidentally stabs the balloon. The balloon starts to lose air, and it slowly deflates. He puts the balloon in a box, puts the band-aid from his thumb onto the balloon, and the balloon reappears fully inflated. After more shenanigans, the old man tries to eat his birthday cupcake, and the balloon smashes it into the old man’s face – as the old man wipes off his face after putting the cupcake down on his seat, he sits on the cupcake. He gets angry at the balloon and throws it out the window, but quickly regrets doing so. He tries to show hearts out the window, then draws a big heart on a piece of newspaper, creates a paper airplane out of it, and flies it out the window. The balloon returns, and the balloon and the old man leave together. The play ends with the old man flying into the distant sky, holding the balloon.

One of the main attributes of autism is high orientation toward objects. Autistics are more comfortable interacting with objects than with people. They even relate, in a certain sense, to objects. I have used this knowledge to help socialize Daniel by making the Matchbox cars he’s obsessed with talk to each other. He’s then been able to transfer the emotions from the cars to people to a certain degree. Lately he’s started to demonstrate interest in getting things for his brother and/or sister when we go to the store, rather than just think about getting a car for himself. But he still prefers objects over people.

Balloonacy has two characters in it. The old man, and the balloon. Daniel identified with the balloon. He is also a fan of slapstick comedy (I have read that this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum), but there is little doubt he identified more with the balloon than the man. He was utterly delighted with the balloon and its antics (all children are, but not in the way Daniel does, identifying with the balloon – most children are delighted with the balloon the way the old man is). But then something interesting happened. The balloon popped. And Daniel began to cry. And the old man got upset. And Daniel began to cry a bit more, wiping tears away. Daniel was sad the balloon popped, and then when the old man was also sad, he saw the man feeling the way he did, and empathized with the old man.

While this may seem a normal thing to do – because, for a neurotypical person, it is – for Daniel this is major. Not only did Daniel feel sad for the balloon, which is something that we might in fact expect from him, but Daniel also felt sad that the old man felt sad. The feelings he had for the balloon was transferred to the old man. It was obvious from his body language and the ways he reacted to first the balloon and then the old man reacting to the balloon. Daniel hugged up on me to get some comfort when the old man was visibly upset, and had merely slumped in his seat when the balloon popped.

It seems to me that Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object the autistic children could relate to, and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum need a certain degree of empathy development. This play is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of transference and the redirection of the autistic child toward human emotional responses and interactions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Employing People on the Spectrum -- Good For Business

Word is starting to get out that it makes good business sense to hire autistic people. Apparently, Microsoft is making a push to hire more people with autism. They have discovered that people with autism have capabilities neurotypicals do not, and that those capabilities are great for the bottom line. Who, after all, doesn't want someone who can find 10% more coding errors than can the average population? (This, by the way, is why I'm a good editor and proofreader.)

It turns out that people with autism seem to have increased perceptual awareness, which makes us appear distracted or not able to pay attention, but which in fact means we are taking in more and more and more information. If this is also what is happening with ADD/ADHD, this would suggest that ADD/ADHD is on one side of Asperger's like autism is on the other side of it. In any case, this would suggest that there is a group of people we have pathologized, but who are simply hyperperceptual. Such people are taking in and processing more information than are neurotypical people. Which would go a long way to explaining why so many people on the spectrum (especially if we expand the spectrum to include ADD/ADHD) are scientists, artists, and creative types.

While processing extra information does cause sensitivities -- to touch, to light, to certain sounds (like the high-pitched screech from my son that overwhelmed me for a few seconds while I was trying to write this) -- and background noises becoming foregrounded, making hearing conversations in a crowded room difficult, it also means strong attention to detail, high degrees of pattern recognition, and a strong ability to differentiate sounds. Different people will have different skills, meaning there will be some better with sounds, others better with language, and others better with math and programming. And there may be combinations. I'm not sure how good I may be with sounds, as I never learned to play an instrument, but I am a poet in no small part because I am obsessed with the sounds of the words -- I love alliteration, and I used it even before I started writing with regular rhythm and end rhyme. I am equally obsessed with patterns -- which is why I study complexity (love of patterns also is important in writing poems and studying literature).

Despite all of these benefits, people on the spectrum are woefully underemployed. I have read that people with Asperger's have about a 20% unemployment rate. The linked article reports that in the U.K., only 15% of people on the spectrum have full time employment. But 60% say they want to work. That's a terrible situation. And it's one I've been familiar with myself. In truth,
employers need to be better educated about the value autistic employees can bring. Businesses need to know about potential difficulties that autistic employees might experience, the simple adjustments that can accommodate them and the wide range of skills and interests that they can bring to the workplace.
One adjustment that needs to be made, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that employers need to decide whether or not they want good workers or good people with whom to socialize. I would also note that people on the spectrum are probably not going to mention during the interview that they are on the spectrum -- and as a result, give an interview that they will think is fine, but which is, in the view of the interviewer, a disaster with someone whom they would never hire. Who would hire someone who won't look at you and rambles on and on? In my experience, very few.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Polymath or Know-It-All?

It is apparently not uncommon for people with Asperger's to be thought of as "know-it-alls." But what, exactly, is a know-it-all?

I have been called a polymath, a Renaissance man, extremely knowledgeable, and, yes, a know-it-all. What is the difference among these things?

A polymath is someone who knows a great deal about a great many things. I have published on economics, sociology, literature, theater, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, networks, complexity, organizations, spontaneous orders, and morals. I have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology with a minor in chemistry, and I have two years of grad school in molecular biology; I have a M.A. in English; and I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, the dissertation for which was titled "Evolutionary Aesthetics." I am also the author of Diaphysics, a book that covers all of those topics as well as physics.

A Renaissance man is a polymath who is also an artist. I write plays and poetry.

Obviously, "extremely knowledgeable" is a general term for polymath.

So what about "know-it-all"? It is obviously intended as an insult. In my experience is it wielded by those who have lost the argument to my superior knowledge on a topic or who feel overwhelmed by my unrelenting barrage of facts on the topic at hand. That's when you get slammed with the epithet "know-it-all." Those who are accused of such ought to take comfort. Receiving the accusation is an admission of ignorance and defeat by the person delivering it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Autism and the Questioning of Cultural Conventions

Cultural conventions border on the arbitrary. They are "real" only in the social sense of reality. They are meaningful only because we give them meaning. But that doesn't mean that they don't evoke real emotional responses from people when they are violated.

One example of a cultural norm in the U.S. is the removal of price tags on gifts. We all know to do this, because we were told by our parents to do that. But why do we take off the tags on gifts? It's a cultural convention. There could be a culture in which one leaves them on in order to make sure people know the value of the gifts. There were plenty of gift cultures in the past which emphasized the size and value of the gifts which could have evolved, in a modern context, to giving gifts with the price tags still on. In each case, people practicing the cultural norm would be offended and appalled at violations such as leaving the price tag on, or taking it off, respectively.

I have always been able to see through cultural norms and conventions such as these. And I suspect this is a general trait of those on the spectrum. It would explain why people with Asperger's marry people from other cultures at a much higher rate than the general population. If cultural norms are merely conventions, they aren't "real" in the physical sense, and therefore one can easily adjust to different norms. If you are on the spectrum, at least.

This ability to see through cultural norms as merely conventional is also one of the things that gets autistics in trouble with neurotypicals, who do not think them conventional, but take them seriously. This would create a great deal of social awkwardness, some interpreted as rudeness, if autistics are constantly ignoring social conventions because, seeing them as merely conventional and arbitrary, they don't think them all that important. They fail to take into consideration the fact that everyone not on the spectrum does take them seriously. Sometimes deadly seriously.

Yet, for there to be cultural change, there have to be people around who question the cultural norms, pointing out that they are in fact social constructs. Thus, people on the spectrum could contribute to cultural evolution; they would keep things changing by always questioning. As such, they are an important part of any society, even if this role is utterly unappreciated and often outright disdained.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

April is Autism Month -- On the Gap Between Knowing and Acting

April is Autism Awareness Month.

I recently found a poem I had written in which I discuss my sensory issues. The poem was written well before I learned I have Asperger's. It was untitled, so I gave it the title An Intense World. One of the great things about discovering I am on the spectrum is that it provides an explanation for how I experience the world.

I'll be honest, that experience is frustrating much of the time. There are things I understand on an intellectual level, but which I have exceeding difficulty in realizing. The importance of social networking for any kind of success, for example. The fact of the matter is that anyone who is successful at anything at all tends to be a brilliant social networker -- at least within their area of expertise. It is all about the number and quality of social links.

But this sort of thing is precisely where I fail. Making social connections creates anxiety. And the perception that I'm strange and/or arrogant strains the few social connections I have.

In addition, there is a certain degree of "I want to do only what I want to do" that I find it hard to get out of, even if I know I have to do so to succeed. The ideal situation for me would be to have a lot of time writing -- poems, plays, books, blogs, articles and essays -- and a secretary making sure that everything I was writing was being sent out.

I have 473 poems on my poetry blog, either posted or scheduled to be posted. Shouldn't I have a few chapbooks at the very least? I decided to publish them on my blog because that was the best way for me to get them out there for someone to read. Further, I have numerous plays, but I have only had one performed, while another made it to a stage reading. Given that the one that was performed won first place, I should have had more plays performed by now. Had the theater in which I managed to get involved stayed open, I'm sure I would have. But I have a great deal of anxiety even trying to figure out how to get into another one.

What I really need is a secretary or a partner who does the work of making sure my work is sent out. Once arrangements are made, I can typically deal with people; it is often creating the situation where I am frustrated. I'm never sure what to do, and I just abandon things and do back to doing the work I'm comfortable doing. I have found some success in doing work on Austrian economics precisely because people keep inviting me to write articles and to attend conferences. I haven't had to pursue them, so I have found success in getting work published. This is also how I have managed to network, with the people at these conferences.

I am best when my work "speaks for itself." But of course, rarely does work speak for itself. More often than not, you have to speak for it, push it, insist upon it -- all while not appearing to be arrogant. Unfortunately, the confidence which arises from obsessively learning something until you reach a high degree of certainty creates the appearance of arrogance. Especially if it is combined with social awkwardness. If you don't know how to sell your knowledge/understanding well, you will always come across as arrogant. So such accusations seem inevitable.

In any case, all of this means that I need some sort of representative, a go-between to ensure I actually interact with the world, and interact well with it. Without that  kind of partnership, it is difficult to succeed. Constant creation is not enough; you also have to get that work out there. I am good at the former, but cannot seem to achieve the latter to the degree I should and must. Which is itself frustrating for so many reasons.

Friday, March 20, 2015

New MRI Analysis Uncover Differences Between Autistic and Neurotypical Brains

A new methodology for analyzing MRI scans had helped to uncover two key differences between those with autism and neurotypicals.
"We identified in the autistic model a key system in the temporal lobe visual cortex with reduced cortical functional connectivity. This region is involved with the face expression processing involved in social behaviour. This key system has reduced functional connectivity with the , which is implicated in emotion and social communication".
The researchers also identified in autism a second key system relating to reduced cortical , a part of the parietal lobe implicated in spatial functions. 
They propose that these two types of functionality, face expression-related, and of one's self and the environment, are important components of the computations involved in theory of mind, whether of oneself or of others, and that reduced connectivity within and between these regions may make a major contribution to the symptoms of autism.
If one has difficulty interpreting face expressions, one has difficulty properly interacting with people. One is even likely to engage in socially inappropriate behaviors and conversations.

The article mentions those areas with weak connections, but one wishes they also mentioned those areas with stronger connections. I am certain those areas provide as much information about the symptoms of autism as do the weak ones.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Link Between Autism Genes and Higher Intelligence

It is not even remotely surprising to me that there has now been demonstrated a link between autism genes and higher intelligence. The linked study demonstrates that those who have some autism genes have higher intelligence. Autism may, thus, be an extreme expression of these genes such that it becomes disabling. In this sense, autism is similar to Tay-Sach's disease, in which those who are heterogeneous for the gene have very high intelligence, while those homogeneous for it have the disease (and, in almost every case, a doctorate). Slight expression creates high intelligence alone, while more expression gets you autism.

This drives home the fact that autism is genetic. It also drives home that the last thing on earth we want to do is get rid of it. At the population level, there may be a strong benefit to having these genes in the gene pool. In exchange for a few severely autistic individuals, you get many highly intelligent people. Some of those people have varying degrees of social awkwardness as part of that expression, of course, but some of that comes from the fear people have for highly intelligent people and for people who think or act differently from them.

This also drives home the degree to which there is a spectrum that extends beyond the "autism spectrum." I suspect that people with ADD/ADHD are also on the spectrum, on the other side of Asperger's. Not coincidentally, those with ADD/ADHD tend to have high intelligence as well. The inability of schools to deal with the gifted, ADD/ADHD, Asperger's, and autism are all part of the same problem. And the same is true of the fact that contemporary culture is equally incompetent in dealing with the existence of those who are most likely the smartest among us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing's Autism

If The Imitation Game is an accurate portrayal of Alan Turing, there is little question that Turing was autistic. It is difficult to lay out all of the evidence from the film, because practically everything Turing does in the film screams to the audience, "I have autism!" But I will note a few specifics.

Consider Turing and language. He uses language in a very direct, un-nuanced, literal fashion. And he takes what everyone says as though they were using language the same way. Thus, when the announcement that "We're going to go get lunch" is made, he takes it as an announcement that everyone else is going to go get lunch; what he fails to recognize is that the announcement is an invitation. And he fails at such recognition of the kinds of language games people play throughout the film.

Turing also had a tendency to appear to people to be incredibly arrogant. This is a common complaint against people on the spectrum. But as you watch the film, you come to realize that Turing is anything but arrogant. He is certain, but that certainty is well earned. He is direct in his speech, but that is a combination of the way he uses language and his lack of understanding that such directness comes across as rude. In his experience, people don't understand what he's talking about, so he doesn't see any point in wasting his and their time explaining himself. To someone on the spectrum, that's courtesy. He doesn't understand that people won't just take his word, though, and need the explanation even if they don't understand it, if they are to provide him with the support he needs.

Turing's simultaneous desire to work alone and to not be alone is something people with autism experience. It is a strange tension that most cannot understand. I want to be left alone to do my work, except when I don't want to be left alone. Interruptions upset me (but not as much as they used to), so I tended to drive people away when I was working. But then they tended to stay away, which is not necessarily what I wanted. The same was true of Turing.

Finally, there was Turing's rational calculation of allowing people to die so the Germans wouldn't know Enigma had been cracked, and his argument for the development of statistics to determine when to use the information they had, to prevent the Germans from ever learning the English had cracked the code. Everyone in the room was ready to send in the cavalry to save the people who were going to be killed. That's the most human reaction of all. But if they had done that, they would have lost all the work they did, the Germans would have known Enigma was cracked, and the English couldn't have used it to shorten the war and win it. Turing could see all of that because the way his mind worked allowed him to bypass those emotions and reach the most rational conclusion. People on the spectrum are (in)famous for making such calculations.

There are plenty of other little things in his behaviors that make it clear Turing was on the spectrum. But I will also note that one of the most intelligent people in the world, the man who invented the computer, who theorized on artificial intelligence and came up with the Turing Test, who was a brilliant mathematician, was clearly on the spectrum. The man who may have won World War II for the Allies and saved the lives of millions of people was someone most of those he saved would have shunned as "weird."

One would probably be amazed at the number of such "weird" people have revolutionized the world. And the primary beneficiaries would (and perhaps have) treated those people as Turing was typically treated throughout his life. People need to see The Imitation Game precisely for this reason. They need to experience the world through an Alan Turing, so they can empathize with those of us who are "weird" and unappreciated and shunned for it. We just want to do our work. And we don't want to have to justify ourselves and our work to everyone in the process. The latter may be impossible, but can we at least, at last, get some understanding regarding who we are?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why So Many on the Autism Spectrum Are Creative

Why aren't you a creative genius? Is it because you're not smart enough? Perhaps you're not crazy enough. Perhaps the problem is that you're neither smart nor crazy enough.

According to Dean Simonton, "The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant." But that's hardly enough. This describes the mentally ill as well, including anyone on the autism spectrum. What differentiates the inability of the mentally ill to filter out things from creative people is that the latter also have high I.Q.s that allow them to filter the world in a more conscious way.

Given that an inability to filter out information from the world is a trait of autism, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people on the spectrum are creative. Even if high intelligence among those with ASD had the same distribution as the general population, the ASD population would have a much higher percentage of creatives, since the general population has a low percentage of people with cognitive disinhibition.

I'm a good example of this phenomenon. Little things I see, little things I hear spin out into stories and poems all the time. A fragment of conversation, an odd thing noticed out of the corner of my eye, random things which pop up in my mind, into my consciousness. I have to consciously filter out these things. Things others, apparently, filter out unconsciously.

This lack of filter means I am bombarded by sensory information and mental concepts. I can get easily distracted by them. They keep my attention. I could be mistaken for having ADD, but perhaps that's not a mistake. Perhaps ADD is a manifestation of cognitive disinhibition -- perhaps enough to create an attention deficit, but not enough to make mental illness. Again, intelligence makes the difference. Intelligence is the filtering device, what turns the noticed things into something new. The instinctive filterer is replaced by a more conscious one. But that means one has to learn how to do it.

How does one create the discipline necessary to turn one's cognitive disinhibition into creative genius? Intelligence is not enough, though it is a necessary element. What is needed is the right environment, one which praises and values creativity. Not in an abstract way, but directly, to you, in your life. Parents telling you that your picture you drew is awesome. Teachers praising your art work and writing skills. Encouragement is positive feedback, driving you to want to turn all those little details you've noticed into something new for others to see. This encouragement can turn internal, acting as a self-selector, a way of concentrating those noticed bits and pieces into creative works.

The difference between madness and creative genius can often be the difference in environment, in the encouragement of others. A support network can make you become your best; the lack of one can drive you mad. The example of John Nash is apt: he was at his most creative and least mad when he had a supportive network.

Does our current culture support the creative genius? Or does it drive them underground, into the shadows, attempt to medicate them all away? Such people are disruptors of the status quo, keep the world off kilter, challenge preconceptions. Conformists cultures such as ours (being a collective guilt culture, our culture is doubly conformist) despise disruptors, challengers, creative geniuses. This is why the genius is in retreat. It is culturally rejected, denied and medicated away when possible. But without it, society will meet with stagnation, merely maintain without creating nearly as much value and wealth in the world as it would with them. Only if a creative genius happens to have the right family support can he or she develop and create. But our institutions increasingly do not support such people. In fact, too often, they actively discriminate against them. Because they do, there is less value, less wealth, less beauty in the world than there could be. All exchanged for the sake of the kind of comfort one can only have in an impossibly unchanging world.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Intense World Theory of Autism and Problems With Understanding Metaphors

Given what I have read here and there about mirror neurons, I was somewhat interested in reading Gregory Hickok's "The Myth of Mirror Neurons. However, after this excerpt in which he discusses autism, I am definitely going to have to get the book.

Hickok provides evidence against the idea that autism is a deficit; rather, he argues, autism is an excess. People with autism are too sensitive to sounds, touch, others' emotions, etc. We look away from others' eyes because the emotions there are too intensely felt by us. Indeed, I have always felt people's presence quite intensely, and it gets to be tiring, overwhelming after a while. Of course, if you're looking away, if you're paying attention to everything else as much as you are paying attention to a person's face, you are bound to miss any number of social clues.

So the Intense World Theory of autism seems to be gaining support. 

But does the IWT explain things like autistic literalism and a tendency to fail to understand metaphors? Obviously, there is a logical connection between literalism and failing to understand metaphors. Even if one takes everything literally, one can eventually learn to understand metaphors -- but it's a learned skill rather than a natural one, as occurs in neurotypicals. But this still doesn't tell us why autistic people do either one.

However, if we look to why those with autism experience an intense world, we may see why.

One feature of autistic neural structure is the overabundance of synapses. This creates a hyperconnected network with more inputs. One result is increased sensory processing -- which is why many with autism don't like being touched or are sensitive to sounds or smells or tastes. Another is that other kinds of information are processed in a way that more closely resembles how artificial neural nets (ANNs) process information and produce outputs. ANNs tend to be "hyperconnected" relative to the way real neurons are connected to each other. As a result, ANNs take longer to turn inputs into concepts, but once they do so, those concepts are much more concretized.Things are put into pretty solid categories, without much if any overlap.

To understand -- and create -- metaphors, there has to be conceptual overlap. At least a certain degree of it, anyway. For the neurotypical, "Achilles was a lion." evokes notions of fierceness and nobility. For an autistic, "Achilles was a lion." evokes an image of a large tan member of the cat family named "Achilles." That is because "lion" and "a person named Achilles" are two completely separate conceptual categories. A person can't be a cat.

This would also explain why people with autism tend to think more concretely and less abstractly. However, if one can learn certain abstractions, connections among various concepts become much clearer. Clear categories also make patterns more obvious because one sees patterns when one sees all of the distinctness of each category. Those with autism may have difficulty with metaphors (this is on some level literally that), but similes (this is like that) are another thing entirely. A simile notes both the difference and the similarity -- the latter being the shared patterns. "Achilles was like a lion." signals there is some sort of pattern shared between Achilles and lions.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I'm noting a number of similar patterns and concluding similar things may underlie them. But I'm not sure what else make sense if we reject the theory that autism is a deficit and, rather, is an excess of neural connections -- inputs and processing.

Coincidentally, it has been suggested that Kafka had Asperger's. The fact that he never used metaphors is highly suggestive that he indeed may have.