Sunday, December 21, 2008

Have we given up trying to keep a count of the different types of synaesthesia?

"First cases of touch-emotion synaesthesia discovered"
by Ewen Callaway

December 18th 2008
New Scientist.

I'll bet this isn't a rare phenomenon at all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lili Marlene's Christmas tip for parents of teen and pre-teen kids - make an early Christmas gift of a new address book before the end of the school year, if your teen does not already have one. I like those address books and diaries that have the fancy gold edging (or silver seems to be the colour in fashion at the moment) and contain all manner of useless information, such as the telephone area code for Caracas and the metric conversion from pennyweights to grams. There's no such thing as too much information!

And here's another Christmas tip for edible gift-giving in Australia - give marzipan instead of boring old chocolates. Marzipan doesn't melt and the almond meal is good for the bowels.

And here's another Christmas tip for Australians living in new or decrepit suburbs - plan for the possibility that the power supply infrastructure will fail at some time during the Christmas break, especially if there is a heat wave or a storm.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Who really has the problem with "reading" people? The autist or the "empathizer"?

Tonight I watched a most compelling documentary on the telly, it was broadcast on that religious show that is on the ABC on Sunday nights - Compass. It was about a very dangerous and sinister Australian cult that was headed by some horrible old bloke named Ken. It was quite depressing viewing because it is a scenario that has been seen countless times all over the world. These evil and exploitative cults, and their leaders, all seem to follow a very obvious set formula. It's like some disease or syndrome that is dead easy to diagnose. Why do people keep falling for this same trap over and over again? There should be something in schools to educate people about this stuff.

The thing that I think is interesting about this vile, vile man is that people described him with terms like "charismatic" etc, and obviously many people must have felt some form of attraction towards this man, who was apparently a paedophile many times over. So why did this guy leave me feeling as cold as a dead fish? Why do I feel that there is no way in the world that I would ever have viewed this man as anything but a self-serving arsehole? According to the results of various tests and questionnaires I have the psychology of a person who has Asperger syndrome. That is supposed to mean that I am socially blind; organically unable to tell a con artiste from a true friend. I'm supposed to have no sense at all when it comes to people. I'm supposed to be unable to understand the good and bad intentions of others. Then why did I find this man, and all of the many people of his type, to be basically yuckity-yuk-yuk? When I meet people like this I just can't get away from them fast enough, because I know, and I'm sure they know just as well, that we are just wasting each other's time, as we can get nothing that we need or desire from each other.

Another thing that strikes me as odd about the way that members of his "herd" felt about him is that they must have thought he was something really special; an exceptional human being with a special message for all humanity (as all psychopathic cult leaders are). Well crikey, I think creepy old codgers like this guy are a dime a dozen. Every upper-class suburb in Australia is full of men like this one. They seem to believe that they deserve their wealth and that the poor deserve their lot too, even though they are basically parasites in nice suits. Manipulating others, creating a social heirarchy that you can make a good living off, and exploiting women is just basic capitalism, let's face it. What is so special about this type of person? Only their bank balances.

Am I just kidding myself that I'm so smart? Well, I've never been a member of any group that is anything like a cult. I've been an atheist since late in my religious childhood. But according to all the theories about AS and autism I'm supposed to be ripe for exploitation and as naive as a young child. Perhaps that is true of some autistic people, I don't know. According to the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, men are supposed to have less "social skills" than women, with autists possessing even less social sense than "normal" average males. Then I wonder how Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the champion of this theory, would explain why it appeared that females greatly outnumbered males as members of this truly harmful and exploitative Australian cult? Shouldn't these very feminine-looking women with supposedly superior "mind-reading"abilities have had the inborn people-skills to read what was on this dirty old bastard's mind? It appeared that this creep molested stacks of women and girls, and did such a fine job of conning them that some appeared to feel most grateful for the experience. Maybe if the "victim" is too dim to realize that they have been exploited, then it really isn't molestation? That's one for the philosophers to consider.

At one point in the documentary a loyal young female member of the cult showed the interviewer some framed photos of the cult leader with text printed below. She explained that the brightly-coloured, weird fog above his head was an aura, or some such nonsense. The text under the photo explained the profound meaning of the "aura". I just don't understand how or why some people come to believe this type of rubbish. Why am I not a believer in auras, even though I'm a synaesthete who experiences letters and days of the week and music as being colourful? Some people even think the whole idea of auras may have started with some of the synaesthetes who "see" emotions as colours that surround people. Shouldn't I, of all people, naturally be a believer in auras? I believe the type of situation shown in this documentary, in which the members of exploitative cults choose to subscribe to belief sets that consist of new-age mumbo-jumbo, highlight a problem with Prof. Baron-Cohen's grand theory of autism. I don't believe in auras or astrology or any of the paraphernalia of the new age movement because I am by nature a systemizer, and in addition to that I have had the benefit of an education and access to excellent reading matter. I know this stuff is rot, and I also know that people who promote this stuff are either soft in the head or a crooks. This makes me suspicious of people who push new age nonsense and psuedo-science management fad nonsense (which is just as bad). Even though this is the type of thinking that Professor Baron-Cohen would categorize as "systemizing", it is a valuable aid in detecting con artists and wackos, which is a task that one would think is a social task. So being a systemizer can aid in social reasoning. Well, of course it can. Systemizing is really the same thing as the scientific method in it's most simplified form. Scientists are systemizers. Psychology is supposed to be a science. Therefore all qualified psychologists are supposed to be systemizers. But isn't psychology all about figuring out and predicting human behaviour? Shouldn't that be done by "empathizers" rather than by "systemizers"? As far as I can tell, Baron-Cohen appears to regard systemizing and empathizing as quite seperate ways of understanding the world, although he does acknowledge that autistic people generally do systemize our way through the social jungle, with some degree of success. But at the same time, he really pushes the idea that empathizing is the best way to understand social situations. I think this is a very odd viewpoint for a man who is supposed to have professional qualifications in the science of psychology. I think he greatly under--estimates the utility of the systemizing type of thinking with regard to understanding the social world. I think it is also worth considering how much use the empathizing way of thinking might be when applied to the natural, non-social, world of "mindless" but complex systems. I think it has very little to offer. You can read a whole year of issues of Women's Weekly and a whole shelf of novels, but it wont make any type of scientist out of you. The recipes in the magazines don't even explain the science behind cookery. I'd much rather start life as a systemizer.

I think I've come up with at least one good explanation for the puzzling behaviour of the women who freely choose to join exploitative cults; Professor Baron-Cohen very badly needs to take off his rose-coloured glasses when it comes to looking at the skills and abilities of the type of person that he categorizes as "empathizers" (which is apparently made up of mainly females), because a lot of them also have more blind spots than a one-eyed truck driver with cataracts.

December 7th 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Have YOU seen the light?

While I was listening to The Book Show on ABC Radio National this morning I was wondering what my fellow synaesthetes might think of the passage from a book that was being read aloud. It was the section from Brida by Brazillian author Paulo Coelho that has apparently been nominated for the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Literature Contest. It can be read in an article about the awards on the CBCNews web site titled "No bad sex please, this is literature." But after listening to the naughty bit from the novel I had to wonder, with that blinding explosion of golden light, just how bad could that nookie be? 

I'm sure Coelho's writing isn't the first literary reference to the naughtiest form of synaesthesia. What do you think Stanley in the Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire was talking about when he spoke with Stella about “..the way that we used to get the colored lights going…”? One literature study aid points out that there are sexual connotations here (well obviously), and it offers the interpretaton "that lights, when related to Stanley, are associated with positive images such as vibrancy, life and excitement." I think coloured lights might mean rather more than vibrancy and excitement to some people. ;-) I'm thinking, Nabokov probably isn't the only big name in literature who had or has synaesthesia. 

"No bad sex please, this is literature."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I see that the famous synaesthete, autist and memory and language savant Daniel Tammet is bringing out a new book in January with the title:

Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Labels incorrectly given to autistic people in the past

Misdiagnosed, miscategorized, under-investigated, mistreated and misunderstood: diagnostic, administrative, research, informal and historical labels that have been given in the past and/or in contemporary times to people on the autistic spectrum
(added to November 2010)

Intellectually gifted
(In a letter to the scientific journal Nature, Temple Grandin wrote “I give talks at many autism conferences. When the milder diagnosis Asperger’s syndrome became popular in the 1990s I started seeing many intellectually gifted children at these conferences. I told one mother that, before Asperger’s syndrome became widely accepted, her child would have received a label of ‘intellectually gifted’.” Of course, a child can be correctly given both of the labels of Asperger syndrome and intellectual giftedness, and many children are diagnosed as such these days.)
Right-brained children
Out-of-sync child
Synaesthesia/Synesthesia? (Anecdotes suggest that giftedness or special talents, synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome or autistic traits are three types of conditions that are found together in some young people, but it appears that possible autism in bright young students is often overlooked or discounted when a diagnosis is sought, with synaesthesia sometimes cited as the biological explanation for characteristics that might be regarded as autistic.)
Mental retardation
Learning disability
Emotionally disturbed
Schizophrenia – childhood type
Childhood schizophrenia
Schizophrenic syndrome of childhood
(label used by M. Creak in the 1960s (Edelson 2006))
Schizophrenia (autism was once very incorrectly thought to be the same as schizophrenia, and was later incorrectly thought to be a type of schizophrenia. Judging by the literature and anecdotal evidence misdiagnosis of autistic people with schizophrenia and it’s numerous sub-types has been very common. Some sub-types of schizophrenia include: paranoid, hebephrenic (disorganized), catatonic, residual, simple schizophrenia, “chronic schizophrenia”, “chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia”)
Childhood psychosis (label used by E. M. Creak for autism in the 1960s (Edelson 2006). This is a quote from a review of the book Autism and childhood psychosis by Frances Tustin; “The author describes her understanding of the etiology of autism, her technique in treatment, and her classification of all childhood psychotic manifestations as types of autistic behavior.” (Leonard 1975). Clearly psychoanalysts and other practitioners were once thoroughly confused about or ignorant of the difference between psychosis and autism. God only knows how a disciple of Freud would define autism!)
Infantile psychosis (label given in France to some autistic people, a misleading label because psychosis, in the currently used medical definition, is not a feature of autism)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Treatment-Resistant Chronic Mental Illness
Psychotic personality disorder
(an old misdiagnosis given to a person who was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, discussed in an online internet forum)
Borderline personality disorder (a misdiagnosis given to some autistic adults (particularly females), according to Grinker possibly also given to autistic children, according to C. Gillberg “borderline personality” is a term by which Asperger syndrome has previously been “alluded to”)
Schizoid personality disorder (a term by which Asperger syndrome has previously been “alluded to” according to C. Gillberg)
Schizotypal personality disorder (a term by which Asperger syndrome has previously been “alluded to” according to C. Gillberg)
Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) (this is a different category to Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) (symptoms of autism/AS and OCD overlap, and these conditions may be linked, has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Anancastic personality disorder (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Avoidant personality disorder (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Social phobia (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Endogenous depression
Affective disorder
General anxiety disorder
Dissociative Disorder
(has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Separation Anxiety (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Sensory integration dysfunction
Sensory processing disorder
Auditory processing disorder
Non-specific developmental delay
Brain damaged
Brain dysfunction
MBD (Minimal brain dysfunction) with autistic traits
(a term by which Asperger syndrome has previously been “alluded to” according to C. Gillberg)
Obsessive compulsive disorder with brain dysfunction
Seizure disorder
Multiple disabilities
PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (including atypical autism)
(although this category is regarded as being a part of the autistic spectrum, it has been thought to be a diagnostic label less likely than “Autistic Disorder” or “autism” to cause distress to the parents of an autistic child when the child is diagnosed)
High-functioning PDD (a non-official term that Grinker claims some parents prefer their child to be labelled with rather than “autism”)
Autism in high-functioning individuals (a term by which Asperger syndrome has previously been “alluded to” according to C. Gillberg)
Infantile autism (term used by Kanner)
Early infantile autism (outdated clinical term)
Kanner’s syndrome
Infantile autism residual state
Childhood onset PDD residual state
Atypical pervasive developmental disorder
Emotional block
(has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)
Psychoneurosis (has been given to autistic people in misdiagnosis)

(stands for “Funny Looking Kid”, a disrespectful code term used between some doctors)
Developmentally disordered (term used by Downs)
Idiot savant (an outdated and insulting term, is still widely used today but usually with quotation marks, a misleading term because autistic savants are not necessarily intellectually disabled)
Idiot (a term that was used to describe “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an African-American blind autistic musical savant and composer who lived in the 1800s. This was a term used to describe autistic savants before the term “idiot savant” came into usage (Sacks 1995)
Autistic psychopaths (term used by Asperger, very misleading because autism is IN NO WAY related to the condition that is currently known as psychopathy or Antisocial personality disorder)
Psychic disharmony (a ridiculous label given in France to some higher-functioning autists)
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) (misdiagnosis given to some autistic children in South Korea, a mother-blaming diagnosis)
Attachment disorder (misdiagnosis given to some autistic children in South Korea)
Nidiniil geesh “state of unawareness” (term for autism used by Navajo Indians)
“Masturbation” (in centuries past masturbation was regarded as a mental disorder or a cause of mental disorder or disability, and was associated with the theory of “degeneracy”, which was associated with negative eugenics theories. According to Rhodes (Rhodes 2000) this was the diagnosis given to artist Henry Darger when he was committed to the Lincoln Asylum for Feebleminded Children in Illinois in 1904 at the age of 12, from which he later escaped. Darger has recently been identified as possibly having been on the autistic spectrum (MacGregor, 2002).)
Othello syndrome (?)
Wild children (?)

Feral children (?)
Blessed fools (?)
Mute (?)
Hebephrenia (?)
Epileptiod personality (?)
Epileptic personality (?)
Interictal personality disorder (?)
Geschwind syndrome (?)
Bear-Fedio syndrome (?)
Waxman-Geschwind syndrome (?)
Gastaut-Geschwind syndrome (?)
Interictal behavior syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy (?)
Temporal lobe epilepsy personality syndrome (?)
Dostoevsky syndrome (?)

“Autistic adults may be labeled (sic) as being simply odd or reclusive, or may carry a psychiatric diagnosis such as obsessive compulsive, schizoid personality, SCHIZOPHRENIA or affective disorder or be labelled as mentally retarded or brain-damaged.”
A quote from page 220 of The Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders and Birth Defects. 3rd edition, but James Wynbrandt and Mark D. Ludman, Facts On File, 2008.


Attwood, Tony (accessed 2007) Diagnosis and assessment: archived papers.
[includes articles by Prof. Michael Fitzgerald and Lawrence Perlman]

Dossetor, D. R. (2007) 'All that glitters is not gold': misdiagnosis of psychosis in pervasive developmental disorders--a case series. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2007 Oct;12(4):537-48.

Edelson, Meredyth Goldberg (2006) Are the majority of children with autism mentally retarded? : a systematic evaluation of the data. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Vol. 21, no. 2, summer 2006.

Gillberg, Christopher Clinical and neurobiological aspects of Asperger syndrome in six family studies.
In Frith, Uta (ed) Autism and Asperger syndrome. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Grandin, Temple (2004) Label of ‘autism’ could hold back gifted children. [letter] Nature. 22 July 2004, vol. 430, p. 399.

Grinker, Roy Unstrange minds: remapping the world of autism. Basic Books, 2007.

Grinker, Roy and Chew, Kristina (2006) If There's No Autism Epidemic, Where are all the Adults with Autism? Unstrange minds. [web site], 2006.

Leonard, Marjorie (1975) Autism and Childhood Psychosis: review. Psychoanalytic Quarterly. 1975 44. p.282-287.

Litman, L.C. (2000) Re: Dr. RG Schnurr: Othello Syndrome or Variation of Asperger's Disorder? (letter) The Bulletin (Canadian Psychiatric Association). October 2000.

Litman, L.C. (1999) Case of Othello Syndrome. The Bulletin (Canadian Psychiatric Association). October 1999. volume 31, number 5.

MacGregor, John M. (2002) Henry Darger: in the realms of the unreal. Delano Greenridge Editions, 2002.

Mental health and behaviour disorders: common mis-diagnoses and co-morbid conditions. (accessed 2007).

Nylander, Lena and Gillberg, Christopher (2001) Screening for autism spectrum disorders in adult psychiatric out-patients: a preliminary report. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Volume 103 Issue 6 p. 428-434, June 2001.

Perlman, Lawrence (2000) Adults With Asperger Disorder Misdiagnosed as Schizophrenic. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2000, Vol 31, No. 2, 221-225.

Rhodes, Colin Outsider art: spontaneous alternatives. Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Ruth, M. and Ryan, M.D. (1992) Treatment-Resistant Chronic Mental Illness: Is It Asperger's Syndrome? Hospital and Community Psychiatry. August 1992. 43, 807-881.

Sacks, Oliver (1995) An anthropologist on Mars: seven paradoxical tales. Knopf, 1995.

Schnurr, R. G. (2000) Othello Syndrome or Variation of Asperger's Disorder? (letter) The Bulletin (Canadian Psychiatric Association). October 2000.

The FAQ: definitions: autism and related conditions. (accessed 2007).

Walton, Henry (2003) Henry Darger: in the realms of the unreal by John MacGregor. The British Journal of Psychiatry. (2003) 182: 85

Wobus, John Autism FAQ – History (accessed 2007)

Wolff, Sula Loners: the life path of unusual children. Routledge, 1995.
[Wolff acknowledges that the children described in her book as “schizoid” resemble the group of autistic children described by Hans Asperger in his famous paper]

copyright Lili Marlene 2008.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Happy Christmas to me: Santa please leave a copy of The Frog who Croaked Blue in my Christmas stocking.

Details of the book:
Ward, Jamie The Frog who Croaked Blue: Synesthesia and the Mixing of the Senses. Routledge, 2008.

In between the many demands on my time from the domestic front, I have been grabbing moments here and there to read this most informative, up-to-date and enjoyable book by Dr Jamie Ward, a senior lecturer in a UK university and a synaesthesia expert. At first I had borrowed this book from a library, but then I decided it will be an early Christmas gift to myself. This paperback looks slim, but a lot of information is packed inside it’s covers. I thought I knew a lot about synaesthesia, but I’ve found that this book has broadened my knowledge on the subject while placing it within the context of the psychology of humans in general (synaesthete and non-synaesthete). I can now understand why synaesthesia is studied by academics who hope to understand more about the way all people think. I’ve learned more than I ever really wanted to learn about the psychology of perception, and it’s been no effort because this book is a joy to read. It has been written for a popular readership, but Ward has avoided the common practice in pop science books of waffling on too much with tenuous analogies and drawn-out explanations that try too hard to make scientific concepts entertaining and easy to grasp. Jamie Ward has also avoided the trap of making speculations or assertions that go beyond the current state of scientific knowledge. He’s clear about what we do and don’t know, while at the same time he clearly knows what he’s writing about. Ward has a gift for giving the reader the facts in an order that makes sense, in a way that is as simple and as clear as it needs to be. I guess the fact that I have a strong interest in the subject matter does have some bearing on the way I feel about this book, but I’m happy to compare Jamie Ward with best-selling scientist-writers such as Richard Dawkins and Judith Rich Harris.

While reading this book I’ve learned why people often hear better after they have put their glasses on, and I’ve thought up a rather horrible practical joke that one could play on the synaesthete who “tastes” words who is described on page 43 (just repeat the word “six” until he feels sick).

There’s just one thing that I believe was not adequately explained in this terrific book. On page 8 Ward explained that research teams in Dublin, Cambridge and in Texas are all trying to find the genes for synesthesia. They are making a serious effort, rubbing DNA off the insides of cheeks of synaesthetes and their kin. Well, if synaesthesia is not considered to be a disorder or an illness, why are these researchers busting their buns to identifiy the specific genes that give rise to syanesthesia? If they only wanted to establish whether or not synaesthesia has a genetic basis, surely less intrusive forms of research could answer that question. Why do they need to know exactly which genes? I wonder.

Web site of the book:

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Did I miss something, or did Obama forget to mention Hillary Clinton in his victory speech?

Today's events have restored my faith in Americans. Here in Australia voting in federal elections is compulsory, so our election results are not as influenced by the level of voters' enthusiasm. Australians are notoriously apathetic, so this is a necessary evil. I'm pleased that so many Americans have made an effort to vote. I hope the people of the USA will get the government that they deserve in January 2009, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Today's psychologically incorrect quote from a famous person:

"I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me."
- President John F. Kennedy
Did punk rock as a musical and cultural trend naturally evolve from the socially non-conforming "extreme male brain" psychology of the autistic spectrum?

I have written about Joey Ramone, Ed Kuepper, and Sid and Nancy in various places in my blog.

Friday, October 10, 2008

At the borderlands diagnosis is matter of a personal choice

I’ve been reading a recent and somewhat controversial brief article in Computerworld by the editor Don Tennant, and I’ve noticed that one of the most interesting and influential people among those living people who have been identified as being on the autistic spectrum, Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, is now claiming to possibly have a “shadow syndrome” or mild version of Asperger syndrome, but not the full syndrome. The reasoning that he gives for this claim doesn’t change my views on the matter. Stallman claims that he doesn’t have AS because he doesn’t have “most of the characteristics of that” and he is able to appreciate complicated musical rhythms. I think just about anyone must be able to appreciate complicated rhythms, but creating such rhythms in a live performance is another thing completely. Ability with regard to timing or rhythms has never been included as a diagnostic criterion for AS in any clinical diagnostic manual that I have ever heard of.

The assertion that Stallman does not have most of the characteristics of AS does not rule out AS as a diagnosis either. No one needs to have all of the characteristics of AS to be eligible for a clinical diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. I don’t think any one person really knows what all of the possible characteristics of AS are. The list could amount to hundreds of different odd traits and signs. In the sections A and B of the diagnostic criteria for “Asperger’s Disorder” in the DSM there are eight different characteristics of AS listed, but you only need to have two characteristics from section A and one characteristic from section B, and the other criteria in other sections, to qualify for a diagnosis. You don’t need to have every single characteristic listed to have AS. The DSM isn’t the only set of diagnostic criteria for AS, every year I hear of another set of criteria or test or questionnaire formulated by some autism expert in some corner of the world. I’m sure that some people would be identified as having AS by some instruments while being categorized as normal enough to be called normal by other diagnostic schemes. I’d be surprised if Mr Stallman turned up average male scores on the questionnaires created by the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, but at the end of the day it’s really his business and his decision as to how he labels himself.


Tennant, Don (2008) Editor’s notes: Asperger’s oxymoron. Computerworld. October 6th 2008.

DSM diagnostic criteria for “Asperger’s Disorder”

Web versions of autism-related questionnaires/tests/quotients popularized by Prof. S. Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre
[do have a look at the results of the responses to these online tests, they are interesting as they suggest that autistic women may indeed be less numerous than male autists, but there appears to be a sex ratio in AS that is much closer to even than any of the so-called Asperger syndrome experts have suggested in all of their writings]

I've heard that Mr Raymond Babbitt no longer flies with Qantas Airlines.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The day before yesterday's amusingly insensitive comment from an autistic person:

"If all else fails, you have a fanny and you have a mouth."

Comment from my dear husband while he was watching a young lady crying on a TV show because she is deeply in debt after over-using her credit card. The word "fanny" has different meanings in the Australian and American English languages.

Today's amusingly insensitive comment from an autistic person:

"... I have a job to do. I have absolutely no interest in what YOU are interested in. You can take your favorite way of wasting time and cram it."

This is a comment by Anonymous on an article about AS and the computer industry in Computerworld magazine:

Mr Anonymous has so capably put into words sentiments that so many of us have never dared to express.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The title of a recent article in New Scientist magazine:

"Do supercharged brains give rise to autism?"

Are autistic brains supercharged? Is the Pope a Catholic? Is rain wet? Aint it obvious?

Are you sure that your brain is normal?

The recent report in New Scientist, which is cited after this article, confirms something that I have discovered myself about synaesthesia; that you can have various forms of synaesthesia but not be at all aware that you have them. I know this because for the last couple of years I have been steadily adding to the list of the different types of synaesthesia that I have. I've given up counting. Until now I'd just thought that so many of the idiosyncratic associations that my brain makes between unrelated things were just random thoughts, but once one becomes familiar with the patterns and characteristics of synaesthesia, it becomes apparent that there's so much more to synaesthesia than a colourful alphabet.

When I wear a fragrance I like to match the colour of the clothes that I am wearing that day with an appropriate perfume for that colour. It's interesting that one of the research studies reported in New Scientist seems to have identified such associations as possibly being another type of synaesthesia. I have suspected as much for a while. For me some colour/perfume matches are probably culturally influenced, such as a vanilla fragrance with a white shirt. Some matches are not so obvious. Like many of the study subjects I would categorize lavender as a green smell (which is one reason why I was so fond of an unusual type of lavender that I used to grow in my garden that had green flowers). Lavender is a fragrant plant that has flowers that are generally the "wrong" colour for their floral fragrance. Another obscure example is the African species Pelargonium gibbosum, or the gouty geranium. It has tiny limey green flowers in the summer time that only open at night, and are only scented from around sunset to midnight. I have grown it because of it's strange scent, which is kind of like bubblegum or jonquils, and it is definitely a magenta-coloured smell. I can't help thinking that the colour of this flower is some kind of joke by mother nature; such a grand, feminine smell wafting from such nerdy-looking little blooms. If you do grow this plant in your garden, or wish to grow it, and you live in Australia, please keep it in a pot and don't let any part of it find it's way onto vacant land or bushland, as it has the potential to spread in natural environments and become a terrible weed. I have often wondered whether matching perfumes with colours marks the theoretical borderland between normal cultural and metaphorical thinking, and abnormal synaesthesia. It appears to me that there are non-random associations between the colours of perfume packaging or names of perfumes and the scents being marketed. For example, years ago I used to love a perfume by Guerlain named l'Heure Bleue. It indeed did have a smell that I thought was blue. I wore it with blue clothes. I plead guilty to once owning a bottle of the agressively spicy fragrance "Ambush" which had a hot pink coloured plastic cap that was a perfect match to the smell. A most appropriately named fragrance.

I have a prediction to make regarding synaesthesia/synesthesia: so many newly-described types of synaesthesia will come to light through synaesthetes sharing first-hand anecdotes and researchers describing new case studies, that the synaesthesia researchers who have been keeping a record of the different types of synaesthesia will abandon their list-compiling, and may conclude that synaesthesia is not so much a collection of specific types of experiences, but is more like a different type of brain.

I've got one complaint about the article in New Scientist; I think the title is misleading, as I don't think the research reported is evidence that everyone does or might have synaesthesia. It only appears to be evidence that until now researchers might have mis-identified some synaesthetes as non-synaesthetes. I personally do not believe that all people are latent synaesthetes, and I am sceptical of the idea that all people go through a normal stage of having synaesthesia early in life, which they normally grow out of. Either you have the gene or you don't - that's what I think.

Do we all have some synaesthetic ability?
by Alison Motluk
New Scientist. September 30th 2008.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Are all autistics connected with their computer?

I love this quote from Craig Nicholls in Jmag because it so much goes against the stereotype of the semi-verbal autistic geek who's only contact with the outside world is through his beloved computer:

"I don't have a computer ... I don't know how it works. I don't have a phone, I just write f#$%in' albums."

There's one thing that you need to keep in mind when reading stuff on the internet written by people who claim to have Asperger syndrome or autism, and when reading about autistic people who rely on the internet a lot for self-expression or for social contact or for work; these people (people like me) are not necessarily representative of all autistic people. There are plenty of autistic people who are far too busy making money and/or making careers or raising kids to be bothered with computers or the internet. There are plenty of autistic people who don't even call themselves autistic.


Valentish, Jenny (2008) As long as no one gets hurt … Jmag. Issue 19, July 2008 p. 38-42.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Plagarism and Helen D; it was always a beat-up

I think it's so very funny that so much fuss was made (back in the 1990s) of what has been described as plagarism by Helen Darville/Demidenko in which she supposedly borrowed some words for a newspaper column from an item that was published on the internet. You can read the transcript of a story about Helen D. on the Sunday current affairs TV show that was screened in Australia in 1997:
In this media interview the journalist harps on and on at Helen about alleged plagarism, as though it is an extraordinary sin. These days, any viewer of the ABC TV show Media Watch knows that it is a very common practice for journalists (yes, journalists, especially newspaper columnists) to "borrow" text and ideas from articles published on the internet. You don't believe me? Well have a look at this article published this year on the ABC's web site (yes, the web site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation funded by the government):
Then have a look at this article by a different author, which could possibly have been published earlier than the above article:
I detect a definite similarity between these articles, particularly in one paragraph. It's ironic that one of these articles mentions Helen D. and AS.

In a book that I have recently read the author observes that Helen D. has an extraordinary memory, apparently not a photographic memory, but still a remarkable one. This writer put forward a possible explanation for Helen D's supposed plagarism that it could have been a side-effect of her superior memory. Autistic savants are known to have incredibly accurate memory abilities, as do many less extreme cases of AS or autism. I am certain that Helen D. is on the autistic spectrum. Superior memory as an explanation for Helen's supposed plagarism is something that should be considered seriously.

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

The List grows to 138 names

What do the “Tin Lizzie”, the autobiography An Angel at My Table, the chess “Match of the Century” between Fischer and Spassky, the Helen Demidenko affair, the 1970s TV series Botanic Man, whistleblowing that led to the Wood Royal Commission, the Richter Scale for earthquakes, the La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Pokemon, the book Subhuman Redneck Poems, the first modern abstract paintings, Newtonian physics, the book Born Free, the song Get Free by the Vines, Microsoft Corporation, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, the BitTorrent downloading computer program, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the transistor, Ireland's Constitution, the Blues Brothers, the Turing Test, the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Einstein’s special theory of relativity and this silly blog that you are now reading all have in common? Yes, I know they are all works of original genius, but what else do they have in common?

The List now has 138 names in it.

Three very interesting and influential people who are the most recent additions to this list are Henry Ford, Deborah Locke and Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On today's The Book Show on ABC Radio National there is an interview with Pamela Gordon who is the literary executor and niece of the famous NZ writer Janet Frame. Ms Gordon was not at all pleased when a doctor gave Frame a posthumous diagnosis of high-functioning autism last year. I do not think autism is mentioned in this interview, in which Ms Gordon discusses her role, publishing and some of Frame's work. This show is repeated at midnight and audio can be downloaded.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko autistic?

Helen Dale b. 1972, born Helen Darville, changed name to Dale to (reportedly) avoid discrimination in job interviews, literary pseudonym Helen Demidenko, Australian writer, P.E. teacher, winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 1993 (at age 22), the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1995, and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal in 1995, as Helen Demidenko, all awarded for the novel The Hand that Signed the Paper. This novel, it’s author and the awards ignited a storm of controversy in Australia that inspired the publication of four books about the controversy. Helen clearly misrepresented her ethnicity, her surname and her past in her published writing and also in her public appearances, claiming to have a Ukrainian father (untrue), claiming to be a part of the Australian Ukrainian community (untrue) and claiming to have come from a deprived underclass suburb and high school (also apparently untrue). Helen's deception is a part of a long tradition of Australian writers and film-makers exploiting a cultural preoccupation with ethnicity and gender identity politics and multiculturalism by misrepresenting their own ethnic or gender identities. Helen was also accused of plagiarism in her writing, with some justification.

The enigmatic “Helen Demidenko” became a part of Australian popular culture. A measure of her fame/infamy is the fact that some men dressed up in drag as “Helen Demidenkos: Miss Ukraine” in the 1996 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Her fame has faded considerably, possibly due to the fact that the height of her infamy pre-dated the establishment of the internet and is thus mainly reported by archival scholarly documents online, and the printed texts about the Demidenko controversy are now old.

According to an autobiographical article in Quadrant Dale was given phonics tuition and occupational therapy as a child for dyslexia and went from the bottom of the class to the top within 6 months. A number of writers have referred to a university medal awarded to Helen D. and she has claimed to have a very high IQ. Dale has expressed political views that could be categorized as right-wing. She has been involved with the Australian Skeptics. During the Demidenko affair she was defended by Australian poet Les Murray, literary editor of conservative journal Quadrant who himself has claimed to be autistic and considers himself a pariah from a leftist Australian literary establishment. Dale finds commercial law fascinating and is reported to be currently studying postgraduate law at Oxford.

Some quotes from Helen Dale:
“’Doesn’t play well with others’ was on my report card.”

“I didn't have that tendency to conform and I found it easy not to conform. I didn't scare easily. And it amazed to see that people who I respected, who I liked—would just fit in without ever really thinking about the consequences of what they did.”

“…. I saw the Waffen-SS tattoo in his armpit and I knew what it was. It's the kind of obscure thing I knew, but then I never picked up a Dolly magazine the entire time I was at high school.

“My journey through the upper reaches of the chattering classes as ‘Helen Demidenko’ was surreal.”

“I think that if people need to be told that that sort of thing is wrong, then maybe they don't have as sure a grip on their own moral sense as they might think they do.”

“I can't be responsible for other people's feelings.”

“Australian literature is burdened with a level of ideological conformity that would do East Germany proud.”

“Journalists have a remarkable talent for behaving like kiddy-fiddlers.”

“Thinking in this profession [law] is actually a good thing.”

About Helen Dale/Darville
Dale, Helen (2006) My life as a young Australian novelist. Quadrant. May 2006 p. 14-21.
[article with comments, I found Dale’s explanation of why she chose to enter the world of literature, in comment no. 17, interesting]
[not currently in Quadrant archives]Dale, Helen (2006) The Hand Behind The Hand that Signed. Skeptic. Autumn 2006 Volume 26 No 1. (journal of Australian Skeptics Inc.)
[this is the same article as above, info given about childhood, family, the Demidenko affair, her treatment by journalists, “the chattering classes” and literary people at the time, and her life in recent years. Interestingly, Dale described a childhood in an itinerant family with debt problems which seems incompatible with her private (high) school education at Redeemer Lutheran College, which was not explicitly mentioned. Another thing that strikes me as odd is Dale’s most negative description of her father in this article and in other media stories, compared with p.47 of the 1996 book by Prior listed below, which says that Dale/Darville’s father was reported in the press as being the same “Harry Darville” who was a candidate for the Greens in the 1993 federal election (winning 4.5% of the vote in Fadden), “and that Helen was his election manager.” I find it hard to believe that any political party would choose a person to represent them in an election who is as shady as the description of her father given by Dale/Darville in recent writings. In the All in the Mind radio interview listed below Dale/Darville gives 1996 as the date of her father’s appearance in court on a soliciting charge – running for federal parliament in 1993 and in court for soliciting 3 years later? If it is true it is quite a story. No mention of AS or autism in this article.]

Dalley, Helen (1997) Helen Darville breaks her silence. Sunday. Ninemsn. June 8th 1997.
[feature story/interview on a current affairs TV show, I found the bit where they discussed Demidenko as a persona interesting, no mention of AS or autism]

Jensen, Erik & Harvey, Ellie (2008) The pain that may explain Helen Darville. Sydney Morning Herald. May 9th 2008.
[“Helen Darville … suggests characteristsics of Aspergers syndrome may explain her aloofness.”]
Malcolm, Lynne (2006) Whatever happened to Helen Demidenko? All in the Mind. ABC Radio National. April 29th 2006.
[transcript of a radio interview, discusses her childhood, family, the Demidenko affair and recent life, gives a negative description of her father (discussed above), no mention of autism or AS]

*Prior, Natalie Jane (1996) The Demidenko diary. Mandarin.
[an interesting account of the Demidenko affair from the point of view of a writer “friend” of Dale’s who sheltered her while she was in hiding from hostile journalists, “What immediately caught my attention on this first meeting – apart from her striking appearance – was the way she totally failed to be absorbed into the group.” (p. 15), some unusual autistic behaviour (of Dale’s) described on p. 79, after reading this book I became convinced that Helen D. is/was autistic]Wheatley, Jane (2008) Reinventing Helen. Sydney Morning Herald. Good Weekend. May 10th 2008.
West Australian. WestWeekend Magazine. September 6th 2008 p.24-28.
[feature article, Wheatley claims she was considering whether Dale has AS before Dale brought up the subject, Wheatley appears to have summarized and accepted Dale’s description of her childhood in an itinerant family with debt problems from the Skeptic/Quadrant article, which seems incompatible with her private (high) school education at Redeemer Lutheran College, which I could find no mention of in this article, gives a negative description of her father (discussed above),]
Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2008) Helen Darville. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2008) Redeemer Lutheran College. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
[the college gives it’s side of some stories, and this seems to be confirmation that Helen Dale/Darville did attend this school]Wilson, Katherine (2006) The blogger formerly known as Demidenko. Crikey. September 11th 2006.

Works by Helen Demidenko
Demidenko, Helen (1994) The hand that signed the paper. Allen and Unwin.
[the novel that started it all]RePublica: issue 3: Scarred for life. (1995) editor: George Papaellinas. Angus and Robertson.
[Other Places by Helen Demidenko is on p. 93-97, about a blonde Ukrainian girl who has won an award and fame, and is invited to make a speech at the outer-suburban Australian public high school that she graduated from. There nothing to indicate whether this is presented as an autobiographical essay or a fictional short story. This volume includes a diverse mixture of genres. There have been accusations that this story contains some content plagiarized from a work by Brain Matthews. I tried to check this out for myself but found that if his work had ever been stocked in our state public library system, it now appears to no longer be in stock.]

About the Demidenko Affair
Cultures of forgery: making nations, making selves. (2003) editors: Judith Ryan & Alfred Thomas. Routledge.
[includes a chapter about the Demidenko affair]
The Demidenko file. (1996) editors: John Jost, Gianna Totaro & Christine Tyshing. Penguin.

Manne, Robert (1996) The culture of forgetting : Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust. Text Publishing.

Manne, Robert (2005) Left right left: political essays 1977-2005. Black Inc.
[includes material from his book about the Demidenko affair]
*Prior, Natalie Jane (1996) The Demidenko diary. Mandarin.
[an account of the Demidenko affair from the point of view of a writer friend of Dale’s who sheltered her while she was in hiding from hostile journalists]*Riemer, Andrew (1996) The Demidenko debate. Allen and Unwin.
[described as sympathetic to Helen D, but even-handed, there is a lot of stuff in the afterword of this book that I believe supports the proposition that Helen D. is/was autistic, including her explanation on p. 263-264 of why was so fascinated with the Ukraine. Some quotes from this book; “She has always had a strongly visual imagination …” “She was the school freak: bookish, brainy, the loner …” “…the thought strikes me not for the first time that she might well be an intensely committed and obsessive writer…” ]Warren, Agnes (1995) Why it took the media so long to write a story about the life of prize-winning author Helen Demidenko. Media Report. ABC Radio National. August 24th 1995.
[“a language therapist” associated with Dale’s high school is mentioned as one of the people who identified “Helen Demidenko” as Helen Darville]
Who's who?: hoaxes, imposture and identity crises in Australian literature. (2004) editors: Maggie Nolan & Carrie Dawson. University of Queensland Press.

Link to a photo from the 1996 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
Helen Demidenkos: Miss Ukraine

Just when I'm sure that the number of new additions to my mammoth, huge, amazing "famous aspies" list is trickling to nothing, and the possiblities for new names have pretty much dried up, I hear about some more thoroughly fascinating and impressive people who are apparently situated neurologically somewhere along the autistic spectrum.

I just can't believe the contrast between the two Australian women that I am researching with the aim of adding them to my list. One is a pillar of our society who stands for truth and integrity, the other lady achieved national infamy at the tender age of 23 due to her ... ???creativity in autobiography? ... fictional behaviour as an author of ... fiction???

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Asperger syndrome on the radio

Asperger syndrome on the radio

Today I listened with much interest to the ABC Radio National’s Science Show. It was the soundtrack to Stephen Ramsay's film, Oops, wrong planet. The show is repeated on Mondays at 7.00pm and audio can be downloaded. Here’s a link:

I found it very interesting, and the picture of AS painted in it is generally a positive one, but there were also plenty of highly questionable and wrong ideas presented. I hated the title of this story on the Science Show “Living with Asperger's”. This “Living with …” as a title of media stories is often given to accounts of media stories about dreaded and unpleasant diseases; “Living with breast cancer”, “Living with colon polyps”, “Living with HIV/AIDS” etc. Obviously it is offensive to refer to Asperger syndrome as though it belongs within this class of conditions. You have been told! It also goes without saying that the use of the words “suffer” and suffering” with reference to people having AS is offensive to many people who have AS. I guess we have here a simple lack of caring about such social niceties when it is only autistic people who have a healthy level of self-esteem who are likely to take offence. There are only about 10 of us in the whole of Australia, so why worry about us? The title of the film that this story is taken from is also a tedious AS cliché “Oops, wrong planet”. Oh yes, the old aspie as alien stereotype, again. My sides are splitting.

I also wondered what the sources of information were for the claims that Woody Allen and Peter Sellers both “suffer/suffered” from Asperger syndrome. In the blurb of the show it said they have it, it doesn’t say they might have it. Maybe I missed something while I was trying to listen with the noise in our house.

I don’t buy Prof. Alan Snyder’s explanation of why autists are often whistleblowers. It’s no secret that I am not a fan of this Sydney-based academic. Prof. Snyder said something to the effect that autistic people don’t see the forest for the trees. I guess his idea is that therefore we tend to focus on the corruption while not seeing the broader social network behind the corruption and not predicting the social consequences for ourselves. Snyder’s theory is most likely based on the “weak central coherence” theory of autism, which does describe an important aspect of autism (the ability to see the whole picture without any mental editing out of details), but I am sure this theory of autism is no longer regarded by many experts as a comprehensive explanation for autism. My explanation for autistic whistleblowing is very much contrary to Snyder’s. I think neurotypical people fail to see the forest for the trees when they are within a network of corruption, because they are blinded by their obsessive focus on the social dimension of their environment. They are often convinced and fooled by the social excuses and social smokescreens that are used to cover up corrupt behaviour. Corporate psychopaths are experts at playing the social dimension of their work environment like a fiddle, in order to hide or excuse their self-serving, corrupt and illegal behaviours. NTs fall for this stuff much more often than they wish to admit. Conning an autistic person is a quite different task, and I’m not going to explain how this is done, for obvious reasons.

There's another important factor that makes so many neurotypical people fail miserably to act on corruption in the organizations that they are involved with. This is the idea that to be a "team member" is an important moral virute, regardless of how corrupt or slovenly the activities of the team, and to choose to not become a team player or to choose to defect as a team member is immoral. Whistleblowers look like a#$%holes and aspies look like psychopaths in the eyes of people who hold such beliefs.

I believe a person needs to have the ability to see beyond the social dimension of their environment, as well as being able to understand what is going on socially, to be a fully effective moral agent. Most people can’t do this, they have both feet in only one camp. An autistic person who is not blinded or morally paralysed by their membership of the social scene might be the type of person who can and will speak out about corruption. And if you don’t enjoy your job and resent the stupidity of your boss and hate your bully co-workers anyway, it would be all the more fun, really.

We shouldn’t forget that many whistleblowers do what they do simply out of sympathy for the victims of wrongdoing, and to prevent more wrongdoing, and this behaviour should need no explanation. I think is is also obviously true that people of all types learn from life experiences, and some autistic people are always outsiders in organizations because they have missed out on normal social learning, rather than having any significant lasting organic disability. Many autistic people are denied the opportunity to learn about the social aspect of life because they are systematically excluded from all of the most important life experiences; as a child many kids with AS have to be homeschooled to escape from extreme schoolyard bullying or because the teaching does not accomodate their different educational needs. Later in life many are excluded from social networks (particularly social networks dominated by women) and some are even excluded from their families of origin, or find that they must escape their families because they are abusive or refuse to accept their difference. Marginalization in the singles market is a common experience, and many well-educated and well-qualified autists are totally excluded from the workforce because they don't smile nicely during job interviews. It's a scandal, and nothing is being done about it in Australia.

It was interesting to hear on his documentary a plain and explicit explanation of why James Watson (of DNA and Nobel Prize fame) is so motivated to discover and exterminate the genes for autism. It is for highly personal reasons; he has still not come to terms with the reality of having an autistic son. Does Watson have too much empathy or not enough empathy? It’s none of my business, I guess. I don’t share Watson’s negative view of the autistic spectrum, but I am interested to know what his motivations are. It’s obvious where his son got his autism genes from.

I didn’t hear all of the doco due to noisy kids, but what I did hear was worthwhile. I’d like to thank Stephen Ramsay (an Australian who apparently has AS) for making the documentary in the first place and I’d also like to thank Robyn Williams for broadcasting it on his radio show.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Asssortative mating and personality psychology: what every marriage guidance counsellor needs to know about but probably doesn't

I'd like to direct your attention to this research study that was first published online a couple of months ago, and has been reported on in New Scientist:

"Only the congruent survive – Personality similarities in couples"
Authors - Beatrice Rammstedt and Jürgen Schupp
Personality and Individual Differences. Volume 45 Issue 6 October 2008 p. 533-535.

This study was done on a German population, but I think it's results are applicable to normal people as well. I find this study's results interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it confims my interpretation of some of the findings of an autism-related study that was done by J. Constantino and R. Todd, which I wrote about in my blog article dated March 4th 2007 "Have autism researchers discovered something very interesting about human relationships and autism as a form of human diversity?"

Secondly, this study highlights the importance of assortative mating in relation to the "big 5" dimensions of personality. I don't think it is much of a leap of logic to argue that this effect is also very much relevant to relationships and the autistic spectrum. Other writers have argued that the personality dimension of "agreeableness" is associated with AS/autism, and this was one of the dimensions that were found to be associated with assortative mating. I would be most surprised if the other personality dimensions that were found to show a high degree of congruence between spouses, the dimensions of "conscientiousness" and "openness", were not also associated with AS. What does this mean? Well, I think it means if you have no personality traits that are autistic or are anything like autistic, you'd be well advised to not look to an autist as a suitable marriage partner, and likewise, a person with Asperger syndrome might be wise to consider the geeky, the technical and the "aloof" as likely partners for life. I'm sure this stuff does not need to be explained to most people anyway, and that's the point of the research; that people tend to pick similar partners naturally, and it's a very sensible thing to do. It is good to be congruent.

P.S. If you are wondering what the "big 5" dimensions of personality are, or would like to know more about this fascinating subject, I recommend this most readable and scientifically credible book by a UK academic:

Nettle, Daniel Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. Oxford University Press, 2007.

P. P. S. There is apparently an interesting scientific phenomenon related to assortative mating to do with facial resemblance (see paper below). It's interesting but I'm not sure how robust the science is. I certainly have noticed many couples who have similar-looking faces. I wonder if such similarity is associated with narcissistic personality traits? I wouldn't be surprised.

Alvarez, Liliana, Jaffe, Klaus Narcissism guides mate selection: Humans mate assortatively, as revealed by facial resemblance, following an algorithm of “self seeking like”. Evolutionary – 2004. 2: 177-194

Monday, September 08, 2008

I knew it!

I always thought there was something very odd about that Helen Demidenko lass. I found her presence in pretence oddly cold and, with the benefit of hindsight, unconvincing. Apparently others also sensed some interesting difference, and some still do. I saw a recent interview on TV with Helen D, and she seemed a lot more confident and much less lost, but once again I thought there seemed to be an unsusal disconnection between the way she viewed her own public persona and the way she actually came across. She seemed to think a quite terrible attempt at a foreign accent was convincing. It wasn't, well, not to my pedantic ear it wasn't. I was also struck by her apparent aloneness. Still an outsider after all these years? Was she born an outsider? And now today I read an article about this still-enigmatic martyr to the Australian literary establishment in which she describes an aspect of her personality as "aspy". And which Australian literary giant defended her during the height of the controversy? Les Murray, who has claimed in many media interviews to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum himself. Does it take a person who doesn't know or doesn't respect the unwritten rules, who transgresses the unwritten rules, to show us how stupid or powerful the unwritten rules are? Is that what happened during the Demidenko controversy?
It just isn’t good enough to call this problem Asperger syndrome and forget about it

I was alarmed at what I heard on this week’s edition of the ABC Radio National show All in the Mind. I have already read in an Australian social science journal that cases of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) are being misdiagnosed as Asperger syndrome (AS) in Australia, and this was amply confirmed by today’s show. It appears that clinicians are deliberately incorrectly diagnosing children who have FAS with autism or AS to give these kids better access to the services that they need (and access to some services that they apparently don’t need as well). This is how I interpreted what I heard on this programme. The written transcript is not yet available to read. I find claims of autism misdiagnosis to be most believable in light of what I saw on the ABC TV show Q & A the other night. A mother of a disabled child was complaining that her child, who I gather has some very rare condition, is excluded from the new government programme of services for autistic children because the child is not autistic, even though the parent thought such services could be beneficial to this child. It is easy to imagine that other parents in a similar position might go doctor-shopping for an autism spectrum diagnosis. Quite a while ago I watched a documentary on TV about a boy with FAS who was adopted from Africa by a UK couple. I recall he was given FAS as a formal diagnosis, but I think his adoptive mother said in the documentary that she advised his teachers to treat him as though he had AS. There was a section of the doco which was supposed to show the boy having an autistic-type sensory overload episode in a train station. I thought the boy just looked lost, nothing particularly autistic about his behaviour.

It’s high time someone raised a strong objection to anything and everything being diagnostically lumped together with AS purely for pragmatic reasons, or by mistake, or stuffed inappropriately into the autistic spectrum. This betrayal of basic scientific principles by people who call themselves professionals must end. While it is a doctor’s duty to do the best thing for patients who have FAS, and she may believe the best way to give such patients access to services is to misdiagnose them as autistic, but these clinical lies must surely have many bad consequences for the general community, and for all of the individuals involved. There are many reasons why sloppy or incorrect diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions is a harmful practice, and must stop:

1. Serious problems shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. If FAS is being underdiagnosed in white populations, bums need to be kicked and people need to be warned. If FAS is being overdiagnosed in indigenous populations that is racism. Social workers must no longer be allowed to turn a blind eye to women who booze their way through pregnancy after pregnancy, creating new families of impaired people. We all know it happens, and we all know it is a disgrace that Australian society does nothing to stop it from happening. The autistic spectrum shouldn’t be abused as a conveniently mysterious set of diagnostic categories that can be applied to the children of parents who wish to avoid facing up to the causes of their child’s condition, be it alcohol or inherited factors.

2. The misdiagnosis of FAS or other conditions as autism, AS or ADD throws a shadow of disrepute over paediatics, paediatricians, other health professionals who make misdiagnosis, the autistic spectrum and ADD. How the heck can an articulate child who has significant difficulty with maintaining a focus of attention as the result of FAS, ever be given a diagnosis of autism, which is a condition characterized by speech and/or communication difficulties and relative cognitive strength in the ability to focus attention and maintain attention? Such a diagnosis invites scorn and ridicule.

3. Misdiagnosis must surely foul up research into autism and AS and skew the clinical profile of the autism spectrum. I am sure most autism experts by now are aware that there is so much heterogeneity among their “patients” that this presents many different problems in their clinical practices and research. I’m sure this is one reason why they are so keen to identify the “genes for autism”.

4. Misdiagnosis could confuse and mislead professionals and ordinary people who come into contact with people incorrectly given autism spectrum diagnoses. I could imagine a teacher might have a bad experience trying to teach a class that includes a student with FAS or some type of brain damage incorrectly diagnosed with AS, who displays behaviour issues but no trace of the cognitive strengths in systemizing or specialized talents that are thought to be associated with AS. She might find that everything that she has read about autism has failed to help her to help her student. She might feel very frustrated. There might be confusion and conflict in her dealings with the parents of this student. She might conclude that it is a waste of time learning about things such as ADD or AS, and gain a bad attitude toward these conditions, and the people who are supposed to have them.

5. Everyone deserves and needs a correct diagnosis, even if that means being told they have brain malformation because of something that their mother did, or have such a rare and unknown genetic syndrome that the world of medical science can offer them little information. I am sure this must be better than being offered incorrect information, a place within a community in which one doesn’t really belong, bad advice or false hope.

6. Some people attach a great amount of emotional significance to knowledge of the origins of medical and developmental conditions. Some people might be devastated to know that they, or their child, has a condition that is the result of drinking during pregnancy. Some people might be devastated to know that they, or their child, has an inherited condition. Some might be comforted or relieved to know such things. If it matters a lot to people they deserve to know the truth.

7. I consider it to be something akin to an insult to be told that I have the same condition as people who have had their brains damaged or malformed by events such as encephalitis in infancy, hypoxia during birth or prenatal exposure to toxic substances such as alcohol. It’s not that I think badly of people with these conditions, it’s just that I do have a negative attitude towards brain damage, especially in cases in which it’s most obvious manifestation is aggression or impaired cognition.

Link to the radio show All in the Mind:

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I guess the latest bit of fun in pop psychology must be the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI)

Is it really much more than a measure of the personality psychology dimension of "conscientiousness", mixed up with attitudes resulting from life experiences? I guess I'll have to read the book.

Every time I see a photo of Professor Zimbardo I can't help wondering whether he should be pulling a rabbit out of a shiny black top hat rather than writing psychology books. Does he lead a double life as Zimbardo the Magician? I'd have trouble keeping a straight face if I had to sit through one of his lectures. I'm so immature and I'm so old.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The days and the years start to blur together .....

I was browsing through some online comments about a story about a radio interview with Jill Price, who has written a book The Woman Who Can't Forget about her life with hyperthymestic syndrome, which is a condition in which people have extraordinary autobiographical memory ability. I believe that I have a condition that has some similarities with hyperthymestic syndrome. I have very old and not particularly interesting memories jump out at me for no apparent reason, and it's definitely not PTSD. I was rather stunned by a somewhat rude and skeptical comment that was posted underneath the story about Price, but it wasn't the rudeness that I was struck by.

"If she truly had perfect recall, she would have no way to distinguish between recent memories and distant memories." "For example, she would never know where she parked her car at the office. In her mind, there would be no difference in her memory of parking her car two days ago or twelve years ago. How would she know which memory was the most recent, and in turn, which memory to take action upon?"

It's a good question, and Jill Price is the only person who can answer it. I can say that I have exactly the problem described in the comment, and it is annoying at times. But isn't this type of problem completely normal? Doesn't everyone find it impossible to distinguish between old and new near-identical memories? Am I really a freak? Surely not. The cause of this annoying memory phenomenon cannot be dismissed as absent-mindedness; I know it happens because of a troublesome persistence of older memories, which cannot be distinguished from more recent memories, because the old and the new have nothing much to distinguish between them. The solution to this problem is simple; just park in the same or similar spot each time I visit the same car-park. It does also help to have a car that has an appearance that is unique in some way that is visible over a distance. No white Commodore sedan for Lili Marlene. Does my problem, and my solution, explain why autistic people often have a "need for sameness and routine"? Is this memory phenomenon an autistic trait? Do autistic people routinely suffer from troublesome and misunderstood side-effects of a superior memory ability when people interfere with the self-discovered strategies that they use to avoid such problems? Autistic people are known for having superior memory ability, as are some synaesthetes, so this seems like an explanation that could be applied to the behaviour of other people who share my unusual neurotypes.

One person who was the subject of an old case study from the psychological literature is more famous than any other for being a person who was supposedly had cognitive difficulties because he was unable to forget things. His real name was Solomon Shereshevskii, but being the subject of a case study he was given the anonymous name of "S" by A. R. Luria in his famous book The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Shereshevskii had synaesthesia in abundance, a number of different types, and it appears he experienced synaesthesia as an interference to his thought processes. I have a number of different types of synesthesia, and it is a frequent but subtle experience, and to a minor degree it does influence the direction of my thoughts. Lorna Wing, who is recognized as an expert on Asperger syndrome, has mentioned Solomon Shereshevskii as a possible case of Asperger syndrome, but she has also made it clear that the evidence necessary to make a conclusive diagnosis is no longer available. Like Shereshevskii, in my case there is some evidence implicating me as a case of AS, but this will never be confirmed with a professional diagnosis. I would never have dreamed that I would have so many things in common with some dead Jewish Russian mnemonist neurological case study subject bloke.

Another memory-persistence problem that I have is remembering whether I washed my hair yesterday (or was it the day before?) I strive to wash my hair every second day, but there is no way in the world that I am ever able to pull out my memory of yesterday's shower from all of those other thousands of memories of hugely unmemorable showers past, in the same bathroom. To achieve this would be Mission Impossible. So I stand there in the bathroom wasting time examining the state of cleanliness of my hair each damned morning. If you think this memory-persistence problem means I have a generally infallible memory, you'd be wrong. I have a poor memory for the content of past conversations, and I am not much good at keeping track of my knowledge of the experiences of other people. I guess this could be explained as a deficit in "theory of mind". I often forget to do things that I had intended to do. Memories of past experiences are different to memories of recent resolutions to do things. I am sure two completely different memory systems come into play with these two different types of memory. The thing that stands out as different and possibly superior about my memory is my spatial memory; my memory for cities, highways, homes, kitchens, buildings, regions, workplace computer systems (virtual space), national parks, university campuses, country towns, imagined dream landscapes, gardens, library shelf floor-plans and suburban streets that I have moved through and seen any time in my past. It appears that these memories never die, but that's not the same as saying they are always easy to access. I guess there must be many advantages to having a generally good memory, and I've probably benefited in many ways over the years, but I'll never enjoy the anonymity of driving a white sedan of the most popular make and model.

References and further reading

Elfakir, Abdelhadi (2005) Mémoire et autisme: de la neuropsychologie à la psychanalyse. Le cas de Cherechevski. I’Information Psychiatrique. Novembre 2005, Volume 81, Number 9, p.763-70.
[French paper that appears to be arguing that S. Shereshevskii was autistic]

Gura, David (2008) Woman who can't forget. Blog of the Nation. NPR. May 19th 2008.
[the comment quoted in my blog is from the comments posted here]

Luria, A. R. (1968) The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. (translated from the Russian by Lynn Solotaroff) Jonathan Cape. 1968.

Schacter, Daniel L. (2001) How the mind forgets and remembers: the seven sins of memory. Souvenir Press, 2001.
[an excellent book about memory]

Wing, Lorna (1981) Asperger syndrome: a clinical account. Psychological Medicine. 11, p.115-129.
[Shereshevskii mentioned as a possible case]

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008.
(please don't quote without citing source)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Do you speak Mandarin?

I couldn't help laughing when I heard that the young UK maths genius with AS who was featured in tonight's Catalyst programme has learned to talk Mandarin fluently, just like our clever Kevin here in Australia. Could this be an autistic trait? This maths genius isn't the only Mandarin-speaking autist that I know of either - there is an autist artist in the US by the name of Gregory Blackstock, who learned Mandarin, and a number of other languages, from records and from listening to foreign speakers. My word, there's something most familiar about the appearance of Mr Blackstock. Who does he look like?

Info about a book by Blackstock, with a photo of the artist

Catalyst story about Daniel Lightwing