Monday, September 24, 2007

On Saturday I also listened to parts of the radio programme on Poetica on Radio National about Les Murray, one of the most respected and well-known poets in Australia. I don't have a lot of time for poetry myself, but even I have to admit that his work is wonderful. To my ear Murray sounds so likeably ordinary when he talks, not at all how a great poet and "literary icon" is supposed to speak. In this programme Murray briefly mentions his "half-autistic" childhood.

Link to programme "Les Murray - the Bunyah poems"
The theory of autism that just won't quit

I do love to listen to the radio while I slave away in the kitchen. On Saturday I heard a story about autism research on the Science Show on Radio National. Apparently the scientists at the ARC at Cambridge University (including Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen) are finding more evidence to support the theory that autism is somehow caused by the influence of testosterone on the developing brain.

The bit that I was most curious about in this interview was the range of variation found in testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid of male and female foetuses.
"Yes, there is definitely a big range. In girls the range is about 0.1 nanomoles per litre, up to about 1.75 nanomoles per litre, whereas in boys it can go anywhere from 0.1 nanomoles per litre, which is in the female range, up to about 2.05 to 2.5 nanomoles per litre."
The size of the range of variation is indeed interesting. I also think it is interesting that there are males as well as females at the extreme lowest end of the range. I guess this explains that rather chubby bloke who appears on Australian daytime TV who is always raving on about celebrity gossip and making catty remarks about people. I'll bet 50 bucks that he was a 0.1. Have I invented a new slang term for an effeminate man?

But there's is one biological phenomenon that I feel that these statistics don't explain; females on the autism spectrum. The top of the range for females is indeed a lot larger than the lower end of the range for males, but males still seem to have the extreme highest end of the range to themselves. I guess the crowd from the Autism Research Centre would explain this by saying that females with autism are rarities, but I still don't buy this. I've met and read about so many girls and women who have Asperger syndrome or some other variant of autism. I still have my money on the theory that females on the spectrum are under and mis-diagnosed. What kind of person is typically given an autism spectrum diagnosis? Little boys who are a lot of trouble for their school teachers or parents (or both). Little girls are typically less violent and better-behaved than little boys. Is it possible that there are, or have been in the past, lots of autistic little girls out there who aren't brought to the attention of those who diagnose because they don't make too much trouble for adults?

It would be the easiest thing in the world to look at the statistics quoted by the researcher and conclude that autism in females is indeed rare, but I think this is just wrong. I believe the testosterone theory is certainly part of the explanation of what autism is and what causes it, but it appears to me that the most interesting parts of the explanation have still not been discovered by autism researchers. Obviously there are some more very important heritable characteristics, that may interact with testosterone, which are the causes of autism, and I'm not saying any more than that, except that I certainly don't believe that vaccines or pollutants are causes.

Link to transcript of "The link between maleness and autism" on the Science Show on Radio National (ABC) September 22nd 2007

Link to Guardian Unlimited "Autistic traits linked to testosterone in mother's womb" by James Randerson September 11 2007

Link to Guardian Unlimited science blog, with many comments, about this subject

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fashion blindness

You know you have fashion blindness when you can't tell the difference between a suit from Armani and a suit from the Salvation Army. Some people see it as a disability, but it certainly saves money.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Gays and Autists and the DSM and why I'm not holding my breath

A few weeks ago there was a two-part American radio programme broadcast on the ABC Radio National's radio show "All in the mind" that I found most interesting. It was all about how in the 1970s activists got homosexuality taken out of the DSM, the diagnostic manual of the American psychiatric profession, thus redefining homosexuality as as sexual orientation rather than a mental disorder.

I'd love to see the same thing happen with regard to autism and AS, but this isn't the 1970s and miracles of social progress and humanist enlightenment rarely happen these days. The wheels of social revolution stopped turning roughly 30 years ago. The only things that people are keen to "come out" as these days are as a drunk, a druggie, a depressive, a person with bipolar, or all of the above at the same time, and quite frankly I find that rather depressing. It's still fashionable to "come out" as something these days, but only if you're hopelessly ill and dysfunctional, and happy to admit it. We are no longer allowed to be stridently confident and happy about just being ourselves. These days that attitude is regarded as insensitivity or boastfullness. These days people apparently love to see the famous and mighty publicly humbling themselves. If I hear another news story about some Australian professional football player "opening up" about their personal problems I think I might scream! I just don't care about football players and their personal issues, even if they cry on national television. Is that perfectly clear? Telling the world that you are gay is no longer exciting or controversial, and if you declare that you are autistic, no one knows quite what to make of that. It's way too complex a subject for the man in the street to respond to.

As I listened to the radio documentary about gay activism in the 1970s I noted similarities between the way homosexuality was regarded by psychiatry and people in general in the 1970s and the way that autism is regarded now. It was very interesting to find out how pathological the condition of homosexuality was made to look through the lens of the mental illness industry, simply because the whole picture was not shown and the whole story was not being told by people who were supposed to be practicing science in an unbiased and objective manner.

"Now prior to Evelyn Hooker, all the research in homosexuality, all of it, was done on people who were already under serious psychiatric treatment. Let me repeat that. In the history of psychiatric research no one had ever conducted a study on a homosexual population that wasn't either in therapy, or prison, or mental hospital, or the disciplinary barracks of the armed services. "

Don't you think the complete body of published research on autism and Asperger syndrome is probably just as biased? For a start, the vast majority of published research on autistic people is of people (adults or children) who have been professionally diagnosed. The research would have little credibility in the world of science if it wasn't done on formally diagnosed subjects, because that is how the world of science defines autism; as a diagnosable medically defined disorder. Generally people don't get diagnosed with something from the DSM unless they have major troubles or are causing trouble for other people (in the cases of troublesome offspring and troublesome school students). Is there a "hidden horde" of generally happy, not-mentally-ill, relatively inconspicuous and functional autists who are invisible to and ignored by clinicians and scientific researchers, just like the sane, functional gays who were unstudied by science before the 1970s? Who the hell can say "No" to this question with any authority?

Link to "All in the mind"

Link to Part 1 transcript of "81 Words: the inside story of psychiatry and homosexuality"

Link to Part 2 of transcript of "81 Words: the inside story of psychiatry and homosexuality"