Friday, May 27, 2016

Older Fathers and Autism

We have known for a while that there was a correlation between having an older father and having an increased likelihood of having autism. It was once thought that this was because of an increase in de novo mutations in sperm, but recent research says that that can only account for 20% or so of autism cases.

If it's not new mutations, what's the explanation?

The authors of the linked piece suggest that perhaps it's because men with autistic traits marry later in life. In my case, that was certainly true. I started dating very late in life, and I only met my wife when I was 33. My daughter was born when I was 35. My autistic son, Daniel, was born when I was 38. And Dylan was born when I was 40. Dylan does not have autism, but he did have a language delay and he has a degree of OCD. I of course am on the Asperger's end of the spectrum. 

Getting into the kinds of relationships that result in children is difficult at best for us on the spectrum. Some, like Temple Grandin, choose celibacy because these relationships are so complex and difficult. Many solve the problem by marrying someone else on the spectrum. And I'm willing to bet those are also delayed relative to when most people marry and have children.

It will be interesting to see a study on this, to see if it hold up. But given the nature of people on the spectrum, and given the fact that autism is genetic and thus completely heritable, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the explanation were simply that autistic people marry and have children later in life.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Welcome to the World Autism Made

One of the areas in which autistic people seem to excel is computers. A large percentage (perhaps most) of computer programmers are on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is covered in autistic people. Although I never learned to program, I've been online since before the World Wide Web. I started on GopherSpace. Most of my interactions with others have been online, and I even used the internet to meet my wife--using eHarmony.

Now, it may seem odd that there is a group of people who don't do well in regular society but who seem well-adapted to computers. I mean, it's not like computers are in nature, creating evolutionary pressures. And they haven't been around long enough to create any selective advantages.

However, one thing we forget about species is that they are not only adapted to their environment, but they adapt the environment to themselves. In Africa, there are two species of elephants--the forest elephant and the (more familiar) savanna elephant. The latter have a tendency to push over trees. Might there be savannas where the savanna elephants are because those elephants create savannas?

Let me list a few people who we either know or suspect had autism, and their specialty.

Isaac Newton -- founder of modern physics, inventor of calculus
Charles Babbage -- computer
Alexander Graham Bell -- inventor of the telephone
Thomas Edison -- inventor
Nikola Tesla -- inventor (esp. of alternating current)
Norbert Wiener -- information theory
Alan Turing -- mathematician, computer scientist
Bill Gates -- software

One could make the argument that autistic people created the very computer environment autistic people are most comfortable in.

In fact, there is pretty good evidence that most of the science, technology, and arts you enjoy are the products of autistic minds.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Seizures and Autism

I'm currently reading the book Educating Children with Autism, which is a government report--and reads like one. Meaning, it's one of the driest, most boring things I've ever read. It's also not exactly chock-full of new information. I've run across most of what it has to say in various other places (and said better in those places). But that doesn't mean there aren't a few tidbits there.

One tidbit is the fact that "staring spells" are in fact small seizures (30). If you have autism or know of someone with autism, you know they can sometimes fall into "staring spells," or "space out."

Actually, that tidbit can also be found in Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures (6).

A seizure is simply caused by an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain. Getting caught in a positive feedback loop, for example. These kinds of seizures are called "absence seizures" because there are only a few seconds of consciousness lost, with no other symptoms. Externally, it appears that the person is just staring blankly.

I have these seizures all the time. I just didn't know they were seizures until I read about them in the two books above and looked up what kinds of seizures they were. They're not really a big deal, and often one doesn't even know one has had one.

Of course, if you have one in front of a person, it's bound to be noticed. I've been asked a few times whether or not I was okay. If I'm busy doing something and I have one, I've been asked if I'm thinking about something (I usually am, so I usually answer in the affirmative). Once, when I had one at a Starbucks I actually had someone rather aggressively asking me what I was staring at, and even after I told him I wasn't staring at him at all, but was rather thinking about something (I now know better), he told me to stop it. I guess the good thing now is that I if something like that should happen again, I can tell the person I'm prone to absence seizures, and he can feel like the ass he is.

I also have a "twitch" that began as a "head turning" but now mostly manifests itself in a head-shaking. It happens mostly when I'm most relaxed. If I'm focused, I don't have them. It turns out that those are another kind of seizure, a partial seizure known as a simple motor seizure.

Given that these minor seizures are a feature of autism, I now have an explanation for these experiences. Who would have guessed they were seizures?

Shank Genes and Various Autisms

MIT reports they have discovered the role of a gene linked to autism. The Shank gene is involved in the maturation of synapses, and mutations in one of the Shank genes (there are three in humans) accounts for 0.5% of all known cases of autism--the largest known genetic cause. In their research, they have also found that Shank proteins are involved with another protein whose gene has also been linked to autism.

There are no doubt a large number of ways something can go wrong with the ways the brain wires itself, from synapses not forming correctly to too many potential synapses (which can interfere with each other and thus result in the synapses not forming correctly).

I am willing to bet that we will find a variety of autisms caused by certain families of relations. The autism caused by mutations that affect the Shank-Wnt interactions are likely to be quite different from those caused by imbalances in neurotransmitters that likely cause intense world autism. In each case, a variety of mutations can lead us down the same pathways. In the Shank-Wnt interactions, we can have mutations in any of the Shank genes or in the Wnt gene and get the same outcome. In intense world autism, mutations that cause overproduction of glutamate, the underproduction of glutamine, affect the production of serotonin, or affect the binding of vitamin D so the body can use serotonin, or affect the production or absorption of vitamin D can all create the same or similar conditions. Various causes can result in the same effect.

On this blog I mostly focus on what appear to be the causes of my and my son's autism, but of course any of the causes of any of the autisms are worth looking into and understanding. But of course I say that as an information junky--which is practically the same thing as saying, as someone with autism.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Autism, Artificial Neural Nets, and Language

It would benefit people to learn how artificial neural nets (ANNs) work in order to better understand the autistic brain. One of the things I've noticed in my readings on autism is that the way autistic people learn strongly resembles the way one trains up ANNs. It takes many iterations of a perception for the autistic person to develop the concept, whereas with neurotypicals only one or two will do.

Neurotypical people learn language in a more language instinct-driven fashion. A word needs be repeated only a few times, and the person has it. But if you tried to train an ANN, you would find that you would need to train it up many more times, and more than that, the first thing it would do is simply repeat back exactly what you said to it. That is, it would engage in echolalia.

Language is thus structured differently in the autistic brain than in the neurotypical brain. The neurotypical brain has a deep grammar on which the details of a given language are  hung. If autistic brains lack in certain kinds of instincts, like the language instinct, but still have enough complex network structure to build language, then we would expect less-than-typical structures in speaking. The unusual intonations of many autistic people likely derive from this fact as well, since every sentence is being constructed in a more mechanical way--giving us something like the voice of an ANN that learned language--rather than in the easier way generated by an instinct.

So language, in those who can learn it, is one of those many social behaviors neurotypical children learn automatically, but which requires direct instruction for autistic children.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Oppositional-Defiance Disorder, ADHD, and Autism

Anyone who has a child with ADHD should read Diane M. Kennedy's The ADHD Autism Connection. This is perhaps especially true if your child has been diagnosed with both ADHD and ODD (Oppositional-Defiance Disorder), since if you combine the behaviors of ADHD and ODD, you get the behaviors of someone with Asperger's.

Of those with ADHD, 50-65% are also diagnosed with ODD. This would mean that if 3-7% of children have ADHD, and about half of those have ODD, and if children with that combination really have Asperger's, then around 4% (including those diagnosed with Asperger's) have Asperger's.

For those not familiar with ODD, Kennedy lists the behaviors as "stubbornness, defiance, arguing, ignoring rules, hostile behaviors, temper tantrums, and an unwillingness to compromise" (55).

She also quotes the DSM-IV-TR as defining ODD as
a recurrent pattern of negative, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least 6 months and is characterized  by the frequent occurrence of at least four of the following behaviors: losing temper . . . arguing with adults . . . actively defying or refusing to comply with the requests or rules of adults . . . deliberately doing things that will annoy other people . . . being touchy or easily annoyed by others . . . being angry and resentful . . . or being spiteful or vindictive. (cit. pg. 55)
Let's face it. I've been accused of being stubborn, my parents complained that I was always argumentative and that I liked to aggravate people, and I'm easily annoyed by what I perceived to be peoples' endless idiocies. I fight against being angry and resentful. Fortunately, I have never been spiteful or vindictive. But given the fact that I exhibit all the rest, I would be diagnosed as having ODD -- except that I have Asperger's, and these behaviors are already included in my syndrome.

Kennedy also cites Lorna Wing on the ways we with autism use language, with Wing saying we have a "tendency to talk on . . . or to ask repetitive questions regardless of the answers, or most irritating of all, to engage in arguments that are endless because the child always finds a new objection to whatever is suggested" (cit. 50). Kennedy also points out that these are typical of children with ADHD as well.

Now, I want you to think about some of the things listed. What kind of world would be live in if we didn't have people who questioned authority, argued, defied rules, asked repetitive questions, and always found new objections to whatever answers are given? This sounds like the definition of every philosopher, entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, and artist who ever existed. Meaning, these "irritating" features are what are necessary for there to have been any kinds of advancements beyond that of the chimpanzee troupes.

So we again see a list of traits that are presented as negative, but are in fact positive from a social standpoint, since without them there could not have been complex human societies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Long Pauses

Processing speeds in people with autism is typically slow. It can take a few moments to process what has been said to us, then we have to process the (hopefully) appropriate response, and then we respond to what was said to us.

Imagine you are at a party and you are introduced to someone. If you are neurotypical, you respond almost immediately. There is no pause.

However, if you're on the spectrum like me, it may take around three seconds to respond. Coincidentally, the shorter-term/working memory slot is about three seconds in duration. That's the time it takes to both process what was said and how I should respond. And in that time, I've probably been nudged by the person I'm with to respond to the greeting.

Of course, these long pauses are perceived as either uncomfortable pauses or, if you're nudged, as your having ignored the greeting. Neither of which really help one appear "social." It's another way we are perceived as being socially awkward.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Human Intentions, Animal Threats, and Autism

Temple Grandin points out that autistic people tend to live in a state of anxiety and fear much like a prey animal does. Of course, primates are all prey animals, with only a few also predators, so it's perhaps not surprising that we all feel this at some point. But autistic people feel this all the time.

For this reason an article in the Journal of Neuroscience that shows that evaluating animal threats and human intentions uses a common brain network is particularly fascinating.

It turns out that in humans the  brain network that assesses animal threats is the same one that assesses human intentions and identifies faces. One of the primary features of people on the spectrum is that they don't like to look people in the eye. If autistic people have a more neotenous brain, meaning they have some more primitive features, we should not be surprised if autistic people process information in a more primitive way. Meaning, in this case, that rather than evaluating human intentions, we are evaluating threats.

Perhaps not coincidentally, when humans look someone in the eye, the brain rewards itself, but when animals look each other in the eye, the brain essentially punishes itself, so the animal looks away. For social mammals especially, looking another in the eye is a challenge. That is, it's threatening.

Would it surprise you that autistic brains are wired to punish when they look someone in the eye?

With this discovery, it seems we have the mechanism itself. And that mechanism also manages to explain the feelings of anxiety and fear. And it manages to support my idea that the autistic brain is a neotenous brain. The retention of earlier traits can involve not just actual infant traits, but developmentally, evolutionarily earlier traits. Traits such as these.

Monday, May 16, 2016

How We're Happy

Autistic people identify with their work and their obsessions. If they are not allowed to do that work associated with their obsessions, it is much like putting a neurotypical person in solitary confinement--they become antsy, anxious, and increasingly stressed.

For an autistic good mental health consists of being able to do one's work at least daily, in some fashion or other. Even if they are "taking a break" from it, the mind is never far from the topic. It often intrudes. Absent-mindedness is often actually topic-mindedness at an inopportune time.

Speaking for myself, self-organizing scale-free network processes (or, spontaneous orders) and literature (particularly writing poems and plays and other forms of fiction) are never far from mind. I cannot help but think of them and on them and about them. Since they both involve reading and writing, if I cannot do either (especially write), I start to get antsy, anxious, and increasingly stressed.

Ideally, one's work becomes one's employment. That minimizes stress. The worst thing that could possibly happen is to have a job that separates  you from your work, that prevents you from doing it. Because then you spend all your time at your place of employment thinking about what you want to work on. And if you have a family, it means what would have otherwise been family time is taken up by the work you must desperately do.

Some people, like Temple Grandin, are fortunate that their passion became their work. I haven't been so lucky. Poems don't pay, and while I occasionally send things out, I just can't muster the passion I need to constantly, consistently send out my plays and prose fiction. I desperately need a secretary. My spontaneous order work has been fed by a series of people asking me to write articles for their journals and collections, meaning I don't have to send anything out cold.

The satisfaction is in my work. That is all. I like sharing it, but in a strange way that's not even the point. I do the work anyway. Because I must. Because my work is me. It's what makes me happy.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Connecting and Communicating on the Spectrum

If you have a verbal child on the spectrum--or adult, for that matter--you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of obsessive interests, and the seemingly intense need for the autistic person to share everything they learned right this very minute. And Heaven help you if you've been away a while while they have been learning about their interests, because you'll be sure to be bombarded with information the moment you see them.

Now, before I address what is going on, I want to make a point by addressing my autistic readers (neurotypicals: keep reading, because this is really mostly for you).

Austistics, if you have a neurotypical person in your life, you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of that person coming home and wanting to share with you everything they did that say and every social interaction they had. While you couldn't care less about any of that stuff, you need to understand that those things are important to them. They think sharing such information is an appropriate way to create social bonds. While we bond over knowledge, designs, and ideas, they bond over gossip and complaining about what other people do. That is their passion, and that's what they get excited and emotional about. So please be patient with them about their interests. It may seem silly or superficial to you, but it's not to them. So let them have their say; don't try to solve their problems (they hate that and only want to express themselves), even though you will likely come up with a clear and obvious solution; and try to at least feign interest by acknowledging them, asking questions, and demonstrating empathy for their position. The best course, too, is to take their side no matter what, even if it's clear to you that they are in the wrong, or could be wrong--especially close friends and spouses, coworkers and bosses. Remember, they only want you to listen and take their side; anything else will offend and upset them.

If you do not have autism, this is how you appear to us. You think it's ridiculous to talk about the application of complex network theory to understanding the economy, designing better slaughterhouses, or blowing up the Death Star (Daniel's latest obsession); we think it's ridiculous to talk about what Bob did to Sally at work, that George is having an affair with his boss, and that Mary is being mean again.

The point is that we're both wrong; neither is in fact ridiculous; both are vitally important to the person; each is desperately trying to connect to the other through their interests. Neurotypical people are primarily interested in people; autistic people are primarily interested in things and ideas. Autistic people, by sharing their interests, are trying to make a connection with you. They are trying to be social. They're not being social wrong, they are being social different. And when you rebuff them, you discourage them from trying to be social and you hurt their feelings. They then retreat into themselves and are less likely to try to be social in the future.

At the same time, if we were to treat the way you connect the same way, you would consider us to be anti-social, rude and arrogant. In fact, we are often considered to be all these things. This is reinforced by the fact that what we want to bond over is typically intellectual, nerdy, and/or geeky. You think our interests are stupid and annoying, and we feel the same about yours. But it is we who have to adapt.

In short, it is the responses and reactions of neurotypical people to our attempts to bond that contribute as much as anything to any sort of unsocial behavior. When our family sits at the dinner table together and Daniel wants to tell us something, we express interest in the topic, asking questions or otherwise contributing to the topic at hand. As a result, Daniel has been talking more and more. And he's grown more interested in us as a result. Imagine that! We express interest in him, and he expresses interest in us.

Neurotypical people develop their identities through their interpersonal social networks; autistic people develop their identities through their interests. They identify with their work and interests, meaning if you dismiss their topic of conversation, you are dismissing them personally. That, at leas,t is how we interpret it. It is similar to if someone told you that your friends were all stupid and hateful and they didn't understand why you would like those people. My guess is that you would distance yourself from that person. Because when they insult your friends, they insult you. For us on the spectrum, our obsessions are our friends. We listen to you talk about your friends; we only ask you listen as we talk about ours.

So that's why we on the spectrum want to share our interests. It's how we try to bond with you. In addition to that, we want to share when we want to share because what we want to say is present to mind. That means we can remember everything and communicate it well. If you make us wait, we may not remember in that moment, and it's likely we will have to search for everything we wanted to say. That means we'll be full of long pauses, uncertainty, and frustration. Frustration you will probably share since you don't understand why we're so hesitant now when we were so enthusiastic before. You need to understand that when the moment passes, it is impossible to recover. And we'll be likely to forget half our points even as we know we forgot half our points, making us more frustrated--and more determined next time to get it all out.

So now you know why it is that we on the spectrum want to talk about the things we want to talk about, and why we feel such an urgency to do so. Part of the urgency is the way our memory works, but part of it is the same kind of urgency you feel in wanting to tell your friends and loved ones about what the other people in your life did. And that's something we should both be able to understand.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

6 Things That CEOs Will Use to Weed Out an Autistic Candidate

I would like to use this wonderful list of 9 Things That CEOs Look For In a Job Candidate to demonstrate the problems we on the spectrum have with even getting a job.

  1. IntelligenceThis is usually not a problem with people on the spectrum. Here we're good.
  2. AttitudeOftentimes people on the spectrum come across as negative. Or over-enthusiastic. Or both. We very often come across as having some sort of "attitude problem." We don't, but we also don't necessarily know how to appropriately communicate our actual attitude.
  3. MotivationOne certainly wishes that this were gotten to in interviews, because the motivation of pretty much every autistic person is to work. We are dedicated, focused to the point of obsession, hard workers. We have a great deal of intrinsic motivation.
  4. ExperienceWe often don't have a lot of experience because nobody will hire us.
  5. Cultural fitUnless the culture is "autism," we almost certainly won't fit into your current culture. But there's a good chance that we will change that culture. Or get fired because of it. We want to work, not fit into a social environment.
  6. CommitmentHire us and you won't get rid of us.
  7. PersonalityThere's a good chance that we won't be particularly likable in a first impression, and there's a good chance you won't get our sense of humor--or experience it in the interview. If you experience mine, it's because I'm nervous. Let's face it, we on the spectrum don't come across as amiable people, and our personality can be off-putting.
  8. Good referencesIf the references are from teachers, especially graduate school professors, we'll probably do well. If it is from co-workers, we probably won't.
  9. Ability to admit failuresHire us so we can have some failures to learn from. Further, our failures tend to come from external sources and don't involve our work. Or our failures stem from things we literally cannot help and which we necessarily will repeat over and over and over again. 
We're good on 1, 3, and 6. Two-thirds of the list will result in our never getting hired. Notice how many of these involve social considerations. 5 and 7 are pretty much purely social considerations. Nobody on the spectrum is ever going to be able to get through this list and be hired.

This of course is how you get hired through the front door. And it's why if you want a job, you ought to stop bothering with the front door. Get to know people doing what you want to do, then impress them. Sooner or later, one of them will offer you a job. The back door, the side door, the roof--any entrance but the front door is how you will find work.

Friday, May 13, 2016

On the Brink of Breakthroughs in Diagnosing and Treating Autism in SciAm

Scientific American has a blog post covering recent understandings about autism. The author points out that
Studies have found that long-range connections between different brain regions are weaker in people with ASD. Complex behaviors such social interaction and language depend on the precise coordination of distant brain regions. Some studies have found that people with ASD have enhanced short-range neural connections, which might explain why ASD can be associated with exceptional skills in specific domains, such as visual memory.
This would also go a long way to explain why concept-formation is slower and more bottom-up. If concept-formation requires connections among widely-separated areas of the brain, a strongly connected brain would make them more quickly, while a less connected brain would take longer. Processing would also take longer. But note that the short-range connections are stronger, which suggests why it is that the slower-processing autistic brain is also often a specialized and highly intelligent brain. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Do You Know Me?

Last week Anna and I overheard Melina playing a game with Daniel. She called it "Do You Know Me?" She was asking him questions like "What is my middle name?" and "What is my favorite superhero?" And he was answering.

Anna and I both realized at about the same time that what Melina was doing was absolutely brilliant. She had Daniel engaged through the use of a game format, and the same was a social game. By asking Daniel these kinds of questions, she was letting him know that there were aspects of people that he could know that was similar in nature to his other interests.

She also expanded the questions beyond herself to include the rest of the family. For example, she asked him, "What is daddy's middle name?"

It probably won't surprise anyone that Daniel did quite poorly in correctly answering these questions. (Even I would have guessed "Super Girl", as he did for the superhero question, and would have never guessed in a million years that it was "Black Widow.") But these are the kinds of questions people on the spectrum ought to be asked so they can learn the answers about the people around them. Knowing a bunch of trivia about a person might even make an autistic person want to get to know you even better.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cows Eat Grass, Not Vegetables

Yesterday I was trying to get Daniel to eat some chili I had made. I used to make a kind of chili with beans that he liked a whole lot, but my wife found a new recipe without beans and with a lot of other vegetables that Daniel is less of a fan of.

So I told Daniel we had chili for dinner.

"Is it with vegetables?"

"Yes," I said.

"I don't want it."

"But you have to eat vegetables. They'll make you grow up to be big and strong like Daddy. You want to grow up to be big and strong like Daddy, don't you?" I asked.

"Yes. I want to eat lettuce."

"Lettuce will make you big and strong like a bunny."

"A bunny?!?"

That's when Dylan, who is 4, chimed in.

"I want to eat vegetables and grow up to be big and strong like a cow!"

To which Daniel said, "A cow?!? You want to eat grass?!?"

This interchange tells you a lot about the difference between Daniel and his neurotypical younger brother. Dylan immediately understood that cows eat grass, grass is a plant, plants are vegetables, and therefore cows eat vegetables, meaning that if he ate his vegetables, he could grow up to be as strong as a cow.

Daniel understands that cows eat grass. While Daniel is a genius at cause-and-effect relationships and patterns, he clearly does not (immediately, at least) see conceptual patterns. He clearly does not have a broad-enough definition of "vegetables" so as to include grass, though Dylan could make that connection immediately.

Generalizing from a single example to other situations is difficult for people on the spectrum. This is one reason why we are socially awkward. Every social situation comes pretty close to being new and unique. It takes a lot of similar interactions for us to begin to generalize, and the fact that social situations are all different on some very complex levels makes learning them extremely difficult. As Temple Grandin observes in Thinking in Pictures, "autistic children need to learn everything by rote. One or two warnings won't do" (97). In this particular case she was talking about how telling an autistic child to not cross the street may result in the child not crossing the street in front of their house, but not realizing that other streets in front of other houses is meant in that rule as well. That has to be specifically pointed out.

Grandin also points out that this inability to generalize causes inflexible behaviors (38) precisely because practically every situation is new. Everyone has been in a new situation in which they felt uncomfortable and didn't know what to do or think or say. Most people like to stick to their routines to avoid truly new situations. But for most people there are few truly new situations; most situations have a family resemblance to other situations they have been in. But suppose you went through life and every situation seemed like a completely new situation. Wouldn't you be anxious, fearful, unsure what to say or do, uncomfortable, and want to get back to what you know?

As we can see, the autistic epistemology wherein concepts are built from the bottom-up after many iterations of the perception (an epistemology promoted by Ayn Rand and Nietzsche, both of whom almost certainly were on the Spectrum) results in extreme difficult in generalizing and, thus, more rigid thinking where you have to be taught things more explicitly. With neurotypical people, many concepts are either innate or developed after only one or two examples. This means that generalization is fast and easy.

In the highly social neurotypical world, this means that many classical autistic "individuals usually learn to talk, but they remain very severely handicapped because of extremely rigid thinking, poor ability to generalize, and no common sense" (46). Of course, the last one is really just a poor ability to generalize human behaviors. And all of these have to do with the way concepts are formed.

Cows eat grass. They don't eat vegetables.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

To Disclose or Not to Disclose, That Is the Question

When it comes to work, people on the spectrum have to face the question of whether or not to disclose their being on the spectrum. Naturally, this is going to vary from person to person and workplace to workplace. For many it will make sense to disclose because it helps explain all their seemingly strange behaviors. It may create just enough sympathy for someone to pay attention to the fact that they are extremely talented.

I have tried disclosure, and at least in my case, I have had nothing but bad luck from it.

I disclosed when I was a lecturer at the University of North Texas at Dallas. My review to determine if my contract would be renewed was revised twice to give me a lower score to ensure that it would be low enough for them to justify not renewing my contract. While there has been recent discussion of the lack of ideological diversity on campuses, we have to realize that ideology is not the only different way of thinking that supposedly pro-diversity universities oppose.

I disclosed when I was an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University. In all of the years of teaching as an adjunct, I have always been hired for the Fall and Spring semesters. That's pretty much how every university does it. Yet, SMU did not have me back in the Spring after I disclosed in the Fall. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, one of my students complained that I was teaching at all precisely because I am on the Spectrum. Again, liberal diversity on our campuses doesn't apply to neurodiversity, but only to the most superficial of differences.

Most recently I disclosed when I was hired as a proofreader for a global benefits company. I disclosed on a Friday and was fired on Wednesday because, "We have no intention of accommodating you." I am choosing not to disclose who it is for now because in this case there was a clear and obvious violation of the ADA. And when I do disclose who it is, it will be much more public than this little blog.

So my experience with disclosure is mostly negative. I have discovered that telling people will result in people trying to get rid of you. While one may not be all that surprised that something as social as teaching didn't work out, but even something where I didn't have to actually interact with anyone in a social way, but just work at something I was good at, didn't work out. This is why I have determined to take up not just the issue of autism and autism acceptance, but in particular autism acceptance in the workplace.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Autism and Human Evolution

Although some traits of autism can be observed almost at birth (since we now know what we're looking for), it is notable that it becomes most obvious around the age of two. This is, perhaps not coincidentally, when the first round of synaptic pruning and massive cell death occurs. This massive change in the developing toddler's brain is why two-year-olds go through the "terrible twos."

It is also notable that autistic brains show a lack of synaptic trimming. This results in an over-connected brain. Temple Grandin in Thinking in Pictures notes that autopsies of autistic individuals shows brains that look immature, particularly in the cerebellum and the limbic system, and that EEG scans show brain waves more typical of a 2-year-old's (50), causing her to suggest that "autism is caused by immature brain development" (54).

If you think about it, if we were to understand the autistic brain as being the brain of a two-year-old's that, nonetheless, manages to simultaneously mature in important ways, we can make sense of the traits of autism. Does a toddler understand what is and is not socially appropriate? How often do toddler's embarrass their parents with their honestly and straightforward observations--including that the emperor has no clothes? Two-year-olds are infamous for their tantrums. Toddlers of course tend to be more literal and to not get metaphorical speech. Given the lack of language, it is almost certain toddlers are visual thinkers. When they do talk, their speech seems all over the place, even associative in nature. Toddlers expect everyone to be honest and kind. They don't have fine motor skills. The senses have not yet become fully differentiated, meaning they experience a degree of synesthesia. Etc.

If you were to make a list of toddler traits and place it next to a list of autistics' traits, the overlap would be overwhelming.

Coincidentally, there there is a second time when there is massive synaptic trimming, and that is during puberty. Lack of trimming during this time is associated with the onset of schizophrenia.

Lack of trimming up through the age of two gives you autism; lack of trimming through puberty gives you schizophrenia. This simultaneously suggests that the two are indeed related to each other, and at the same time that it is absolutely right to separate the two.

In the case of autism, what we see is a retention of infant/toddler traits as well as the development of new kinds of traits as the brain simultaneously develops and does not develop. The retention of infant traits in adults even as the adults mature is known as neoteny. And it's not uncommon in nature. And it is particularly notable that neoteny seems to be a central part of great leaps in complexity in evolution. There is some evidence that humans are essentially a neotenous species of ape. And all vertebrates are neotenous sea squirts.

Does this mean that autism is a great leap in human evolution? It's not impossible. That may be hard to believe given the difficulties involved with having autism, but it may also be true that there is nothing unmessy about evolutionary leaps in complexity. In fact, we know from the scientific/mathematical study of such leaps--known as catastrophe theory--that such transitions are both chaotic and often momentarily traumatic to the system. Which means that autism itself may not be the next stage in evolutionary complexity, but may perhaps be a stage to the next stage. Part of the evolutionary discovery process. 

This would in part explain the gradual increase in cases of autism. I say gradual, because the apparent sharp increase is caused by a combination of redefinition and increased identification of autism in the population. At the same time, I'm willing to be there has been a real increase in cases. Again, this is what you would expect in an evolutionary discovery process.

The oddest thing about this potential leap into a new level of complexity is that it seems that people with autism are particularly well-adapted to computers and the internet. If I could manage to make a living only ever being online, I would probably never get offline. I communicate with far more people online than I do in the real world.

More, it seems that autistic brains actually work more like artificial neural nets than like neurotypical brains. I did a great deal of reading about ANNs when I was working on my Master's in biology, and I continued reading about them over the years. I learned how they work, how they create concepts, and when I started reading about autism, I noticed almost immediately that the autistic brain works in almost the same way, create concepts in a bottom-up fashion in pretty much the same way. Also, if you read Temple Grandin's book Thinking In Pictures, you will note that the way she describes the way she stores memories is much like a computer stores memories--exactly as seen/input. A computer cannot store information any other way. And as Grandin observed, "A severely autistic computer programmer once said that reading was "taking in information." For me, it is like programming a computer" (38). I must admit to using the same language when talking about reading and learning new things--I refer to myself as an "information junkie."

Come to think of it, given that people like Alan Turing were almost certainly autistic, it may be that the computer is a co-evolutionary product of autism. It may not be a coincidence that autistics are well-adapted to the very environment we (Alexander Graham Bell, Alan Turning, Bill Gates, and any number of computer programmers) created.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Estrogen Protects Women from Developing Autism

Since today is Mother's Day, I thought I would write about why it is that almost four times more males than females have autism. That is, why are fewer mothers autistic?

The answer, it seems, is the abundance of estrogen. This has an effect on the abundance of serotonin, which has been implicated in autism.

In other words, autism is less common in women because women are, well, women. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

To Sue or Not to Sue, that Is the Question!

Getting into fights with employers about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act may cause more problems than it solves. The legal route is the last resort. Getting into a nasty lawsuit with an employer may get you branded as a troublemaker. There are some situations when a lawsuit is justified, such as being fired after the boss lied to her superiors and told them that you failed to do your job even though you had good performance reviews. Just remember, if you choose to fight, even if you win the battle with an employer, others may be reluctant to hire you. You will be forced to choose between the lawsuit or a career.
--Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy. Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. Appendix. pg 146
While on the one hand this is good advice from a purely personal perspective, this also creates the conditions for continued open discrimination such as I have experienced. Having a child makes one more future-minded, and I hate to have to imagine my son going through what I've gone through.

Whether the battle is worth it depends on what war you're waging. If you're simply trying to get back at the company, it's probably not worth it. It will cost you a lot to get very little. But if you intend to make the lawsuit into a public discussion of discrimination against autism--a discussion that certainly needs to take place--then you should go forward with it.

No one has ever accused those with autism of having a great deal of "public-spiritedness" or of being particularly communitarian, but the fact of the matter is that we need to stand up for ourselves and speak out on our own behalf. I know that this is essentially saying, "Introverts of the world, unite!" but discrimination against us will continue until and unless we do. While I will certainly do as much as I can sitting here at this computer, I am also willing to go out there and give talks and do other social things that will get done what needs to get done. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, as much of it certainly does.

I've already been without a career of any real sort for a long time now. And it is because people have been discriminating against me because of my Asperger's. This was true before I knew I was on the spectrum, and it has proven itself explicitly true since I learned and have made the choice several times to disclose. Each time I have found myself without a job. I could only surmise, of course, that my disclosure affected the decision to not keep me around. At least, until the last time it happened. When you are told, "We have no intention of accommodating you" there is little left to the imagination. And that's when it may be time to sue.

Friday, May 6, 2016

8 Perspectives On Our Autism Talk at UT-Dallas

Yesterday I wrote about the talk Anna and I gave to a graduate class at UT-Dallas. The professor sent us a thank you note and comments from different students that "were taken from the final assignments of the students in Atypical Development. Their task was to think over the past semester and write about the topic that was most interesting to them." Several chose our talk.

"...the guest speakers covered the material which is not available from lectures and readings. ...they validated the relevance of the class content."

"I especially got a lot out of the talk with Anna and Troy about their journey with autism. It was an important reminder that this childhood disorder not only effects [sic] the child, but the family that raises them."

"I am also grateful for Troy's firsthand explanation of why some of the actions of individuals with Autism are socially awkward. I appreciated his detailed description of the difficulty he had with short term/working memory and how it causes him to have a sense of urgency with revealing mundane details in fear he might forget them. His anxiety that tidbits of information never spoken are destined to be forgotten in conjunction with his natural inability to understand social cues gives great insight to the stressful inner workings of an autistic brain. The linearity of his thoughts and need for clear explanations of how to handle specific social situations shows the great difficulty that those on the autism spectrum face and the stresses they go through for everyday social interactions."

"I also greatly appreciated Anna's open discourse on what she faced as the mother of a newly diagnosed autistic child, and later, the wife of an autistic man. Her strength was shown through her open discourse with Troy on social matters and her ability to help guide him and her child while still caring for other children in her family."

"I have spent a while pondering on Troy's comments about how autism can be looked at as a different personality type and not necessarily a disorder and that society as a whole can share in finding solutions for social inclusiveness with those with these types of disorders, rather than putting the entire burden on the affected individual to conform to preconceived societal norms"

"I really enjoyed the guest speakers, Troy and Anna, who came ans spoke to us last class. I found it very interesting to hear a first-hand account from an adult who has Asperger's Syndrome and hear about the unique experiences in his life. Troy and Anna also have the exceptional perspective of dealing with two types of autism within one family (Troy and their son, Daniel). I could relate to Anna saying that she had to be very literal with Troy. (after an undergraduate practicum working with young adults with Aspergers.)

"The family that came to our class to speak about their day-to-day life dealing with their autistic son really brought together all of the concepts we learned about autism this semester. Getting to hear about the family's personal lives truly illuminated what happens beyond the exam room."

"I really liked that the husband and wife were very open and able to answer any and all of the questions that we asked. addition, both the husband and wife expressed how the father was able to interact with their son in his own way. ...I found it deeply eye opening that the father said he appreciated that his parents did not attempt to prevent or break his atypical behaviors. I absolutely loved that he mentioned his unique view of combining the strengths associated with autism and the strengths associated with neurotypical individuals into something spectacular in kids and adults that have autism."

We're very happy the students seemed to get so much out of our two hour talk and Q&A. The great thing is that we can talk about autism from so many perspectives. As a mother (Anna), as a father (me), and as a spouse (Anna), from the outside (Anna) and from the inside (me), both personally and from a scientific standpoint. This may be a unique set of perspectives. I manage to take the scientific information and put it into a personal perspective and use it to explain our thinking and actions. This group, at least, seemed to respond quite well to it.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Our Autism Talk at the University of Texas at Dallas

A few weeks ago Anna and I gave a presentation to a graduate class at the University of Texas at Dallas on our family's experience with autism. We talked about our discovery that Daniel had autism, and the reasons I didn't think there was anything wrong with Daniel--at least until it was clear he had a speech delay. The reasons, of course, were that I behaved much like he was behaving, and I of course was behaving that way because I, too, am on the spectrum.

One of the great things about our discussion with the graduate class is that we aren't a one-trick pony. You can find people who can talk about their family experience with autism, and you can find people who can talk about the scientific aspects of autism, but how many people can do both? Other than Temple Grandin, of course.

You can see that mixture on this blog. I talk about the latest research I found, but I also talk about personal things, like little things Daniel has done. I think it's important to both understand the underlying genetics/neurobiology as well as particular expressions that result. Of course, those particular expressions can range from meltdowns to taking things literally to various obsessions to (in my case) writing poetry and plays.

While everyone wants to hear about the problems, we also think it's important to talk about the positive things. More, I am of the view that autism is a structural difference that gives rise to a different kind of thinking and a different kind of mind. And I try to communicate that as much as possible. I also try to talk about job-related issues. And, with Daniel, school-related issues.

Indeed, we talked about some of the problems I have had with finding and keeping employment. And we talked about some of the issues we have had with the school. The good news on that front is that Daniel has a fantastic Kindergarten teacher at Arapaho Classical Magnet here in Richardson, and the support staff all seem to like Daniel and think he's sweet.

We hope that we can talk to more groups about autism in the future. We have talked to The Warren Center and now we have talked to a graduate class at UT-Dallas. We hope these are just the beginning.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Importance of Autism in the Human Population

It is not uncommon to think that everyone is, essentially, the same. Certainly there don't seem to be any significant genetic differences among different groups, particularly those genes involving the brain. But what if there are differences not among different racial/ethnic/cultural groups but, rather, within the human species as a whole?

About 84% of the genes are expressed in the brain. Given that humans have 20,000 genes, that means about 16,800 genes are expressed in the brain.

We should not be surprised, then, if we were to find more than a bit of variation among human brains.

We should expect to see variation in degrees of creativity vs. copying, on liberalism vs. conservatism, on selfish behavior vs. altruism, introversion vs. extroversion, leadership vs. following, variations in thinking styles, degrees of mental energy, I.Q. and flexibility of I.Q., and of course any of a variety of learning and mental disabilities. These last are of course often disabilities based on a certain accepted mean of learning and/or behavior.

I have noted in some previous posts, linked above, that each of these consists of a spectrum of behaviors, which can be placed in a 20-60-20 grouping of the two extremes and a varying middle. I suspect that the same is true of the autism spectrum as well. The numbers don't seem at first to support this, but I suspect that the number of people with Asperger's is grossly underestimated and that ADD/ADHD is properly on the spectrum, such that the true spectrum looks like this:


Indeed, recent research has found a genetic link among major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. About 11% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD, and while only about 0.2% of the population has been diagnosed with Asperger's (the distinction of which has been lost by being folded into autism), I strongly suspect it's more. Many we would just call "introverted" are probably on the spectrum and specifically have Asperger's. Many upon my telling them I have Asperger's insisted that, no, I was just very introverted. But as anyone on the spectrum will tell you, much of our "introversion" comes from a combination of complete mental exhaustion from having to negotiate a social environment that doesn't make much sense to us, and our not understanding how to be social, rather than a desire not to be social.

In addition to the above research, there are a number of other studies that find genetic and structural similarities between autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, autism was once considered to be a form of childhood schizophrenia. It may be that the doctors who thought that were on to something. While there do seem to be significant-enough differences between schizophrenia and autism to make the distinction worthwhile, they may be close-enough related to consider them together--at least for the purposes of this essay.

If we take these things into consideration, we have an expanded autism spectrum that includes something like 20% of the population. If that is the case, what we have here is not really a disorder, but a natural variation that contributes to social complexity and dynamics. At the other end, constituting another 20% of the population, would then be what we could consider solipsistic thinkers, who are in many ways truly opposite of autistic, as I discuss here.

Also, one may note that there are a lot of overlaps in categories. Many introverts are on the autism spectrum, and vice versa (many with ADHD may be considered extroverts because of their hyperactivity, so the correlation, in my expanded definition of autism, won't be perfect with introversion); many on the spectrum are creative and non-conformists. (It is notable that people on the spectrum, while being non-conformists, also dislike a great deal of change, while the more conformist neurotypicals are more capable of change; this tension also likely contributes to social dynamics in interesting ways that should be investigated.) Variations in thinking styles also maps well onto the solipsistic to autism spectrum.

Variations in brain structure, then, is going to be quite common. Given the number of genes involved in the brain, what should be most surprising is that so much is common among humans. This is in no small part because various streams tend to converge into the same general pathways (as described by constructal theory). This is why there can be a variety of causes of autism, with there being similarities among those who have autism (even with variations in degrees of expression). For there to be complex human societies, it would be necessary to have a variety of ways of thinking or even a variety of kinds of minds so that our societies are neither too stagnant nor too changeable. The most stable societies will be those that both honor tradition and are open to change, that change on the margins rather than abruptly.

Even though we have had literally millennia of species experience with the presence of such variation, we still nevertheless see a great deal of prejudice and discrimination against those who have variations in their thinking. This seems especially true in the postmodern period, where we have developed institutions whose job it is to separate out anyone who has a difference in the way they think, process information, etc. This institutional discrimination is very widespread today, to such a degree that you almost cannot get a job unless you are solidly in the 80% solipsistic-neurotypical range. Businesses quite often, if not almost always, actively discriminate against anyone on the autism spectrum, which is why so many on the spectrum are unemployed.

This discrimination against people who think differently comes from more recent egalitarian attitudes which insist that everyone is/must be identical. Given that these variations in mind/thinking cut across race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, one can actively discriminate against mental variation even while insisting on acceptance of other categories. Worse, because these mental differences are real and are a consequence of structural differences, insistence that all children are the same and learn the same results in the development of the idea of learning disabilities and of behavioral problems.

The politically correct change of this to "learning differences" has not resulted in any real change in attitude toward those differences as being bad. And differences in processing and interacting with the world are treated as behavioral problems to be solved. But the fact of the matter is that people on the spectrum cannot and should not be expected to behave like neurotypical people, because the are literally structured differently. This isn't a matter of something superficial like culture, which can be written on any individual born into that culture, regardless of race, etc.; no, this is something deep and fundamental that cannot be so readily changed.

And even if the changes can be made--typically, forced--they always feel artificial to the person. It's much like insisting that gays can just ignore their preferences and act heterosexual; it can be done, but it will never feel quite right, and it will likely make the person feel anxious and depressed. Perhaps not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are typically part of autism.

Our societies have been formed by the majority of those not on the autism spectrum. There are obvious reasons for that--not the least of which being that those people make up 80% of the population. As a result, it is not entirely unreasonable to insist that we on the spectrum conform to them and not vice versa. Of course, this seems easy enough to a group of people for whom conformity is natural. But what they need to understand, what everyone needs to understand, is that it's not easy for us.

More, by preventing us from being ourselves--at least on occasion--I suspect that our societies are losing out on a great deal that we could and would otherwise contribute to society. Free to be ourselves, with less anxiety and depression, we may feel more up to innovating and creating and thus contributing to society in the many ways we have in the past. That's all we ask: to be allowed to be ourselves, to be allowed to contribute, to be allowed our humanity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Daniel's Literal Interpretations

Sometimes Daniel's literalism can result in some funny situations.

Just the other day, Anna puckered her lips and told Daniel, "Give me a smack."
The minute I heard it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And sure enough, he got a quizzical look on his face, then lifted his hand in the air...
Fortunately, Anna also realized what she had said and caught his hand in time. She laughed and told him, "No, I meant give me a kiss."
Daniel responded, "Well why don't you just say what you mean?"

Every week Daniel has homework. One week the homework was to create a coin. I read the instructions to Daniel exactly as written: "Create a coin and put your face on it."
So Daniel drew a circle on the paper, then laid his face in the middle of the circle and said, "I don't know how this is going to work."

One day Daniel had a caterpillar on his t-shirt. We all got in the van to go somewhere, and he didn't want to leave the caterpillar behind. Because it was nice, we rolled our window down. Melina told Daniel, "Roll up your window. The caterpillar is going to fly out."
"No it's not!" Daniel said. "It doesn't have wings!"

This past Christmas, Anna sang part of Mariah Carey's Christmas song to Daniel, "All I want for Christmas . . . is you!"
Daniel gave her his quizzical look and said after a few seconds, "So . . . you want a Daniel statue?"

Needless to say, he also tends to take teasing literally and seriously. The good news is that more and more he's starting to ask me, "Are you joking?" It will take a while, but metaphors, figures of speech, and jokes will eventually make sense to him. And if he's like me, he'll come to find them pretty fascinating.

The Complex Biochemistry of the Autism-GI Connection

From the "I'm not at all surprised at this," section, researchers have found GI problems in autistic people to be genetically linked to their autism. Now, while I have connected autism to leaky gut through glutamine, these researchers have connected autism and the GI tract through serotonin.

Serotonin is derived from tryptophan, an amino acid, and serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin, three brain hormones that affect social behavior, are all activated by vitamin D hormone. There is recent research that shows a connection between this system and autism. It is perhaps not surprising that a system involving neurotransmitters plays a role in certain kinds of autism.

It turns out that low vitamin D affects the levels of these hormones. And, coincidentally, when I went to see the doctor a few years ago for a checkup, he told me I had low vitamin D.

Consider this fact from Mercola: "vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means if you have a gastrointestinal condition that affects your ability to absorb fat, you may have lower absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D as well. This includes gut conditions like Crohn's, celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and inflammatory bowel disease."

All of those gut conditions are caused by leaky gut. Leaky gut is caused by too much glutamate relative to glutamine. This in turn affects the ability to absorb vitamin D, which in turn affects the production of the above neurotransmitters. Including serotonin, which in turn affects the gut. 

I have vitamin D and glutamine tablets in my cupboard. It looks like I'll be taking them every day from now on. And asking Daniel's doctor about whether or not Daniel has a vitamin D deficiency. Because Daniel has severe GI problems.

GABA Receptor and Synaptic Pruning

Recent research suggests a role for GABA receptor in synaptic pruning. Autism (and schizophrenia) are often associated with a lack of synaptic pruning, meaning neurons are more active, with positive feedback dominating.

GABA is associated with negative feedback, meaning the brain slows down to a steady-state. Glutamine is similarly associated with negative feedback. Glutamate is associated with positive feedback. All of these are neurotransmitters. More, they are closely related to each other, and can be biochemically derived from each other.

This suggests a few potential pathways to autism. If there is a problem with the GABA receptor, you would not get enough pruning. But if there is not enough GABA being produced, you would have the same effect. A mutation on either the GABA receptor protein or on one of the enzymes associated with GABA production could have pretty much the same result.

Neurons with unpruned dendritic spines get more input than do those properly pruned. The more input a neuron (or other complex system) has, the more is acts as though there is positive feedback. Indeed, it can result in increasing cycles, driving more input. In essence the brain becomes more hyperactive, at least until a physical limit is reached, at which point the system crashes, cycling down.

The result is a more active brain that may have some difficulty learning new things, but which may at the same time show exceptional abilities because of the higher activity. While the senses themselves won't show increased activity at the source, you would see increased activity in the brain, resulting in the sensory overload associated with autism. One would even expect a certain degree of "phantom" sensory information--as we see with schizophrenia. Indeed, this association between autism and schizophrenia (which I keep coming across in different ways) does suggest that the old categorization of autism with schizophrenia meant that the researchers at the time were on to something.

Monday, May 2, 2016

An Autistic Teacher Teaching Autistic Students

The Washington Post has a wonderful article on John Miller, a language arts teacher who works with autistic students and who himself has Asperger's.

These are the kinds of stories we need to see about autism. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Research on Autism in School and Work

SRI International reports some recent research on work, schooling, and autism. They note that although people on the spectrum are particularly strong in STEM areas and the ways of thinking that would make them successful in these fields, we still see too-low college enrollments and too-high unemployment, even among those who graduate.

These are issues we clearly need to address through better education about both the needs and the skills of people on the spectrum. The fact of the matter is that this is an institutional issue. Institutions evolved to meet the needs of neurotypical people expecting to only ever deal with neurotypical people. If we want to change our institutions, we have to change people's attitudes, understanding about autism, and acceptance of autism.

We need to accentuate the positive even while addressing some of the differences neurotypicals interpret as negatives.