Monday, April 28, 2008

The standard way that autism is treated in pop science bestsellers; with sweeping statements about things that autistic people in general supposedly cannot do, based on single studies of autistic children that are of questionable relevance (And how’s this for a long title?)

On page 19 of the book “No two alike” by Judith Rich Harris it says “One of the abilities that is missing or badly impaired in autistic children is the ability to recognize faces. There is neurophysiological evidence that autistic people visually process faces the way nonautistic people process objects.” The author then gives a reference in the notes section of the book to one study that compared “brain event-related potentials” of young autistic kids with those of other kids. The text in the book might lead one to assume that a typical autistic adult might have difficulty recognizing a family member’s face in the street, but that isn’t really what the study cited was about. The study was of 3-4 year olds, and as far as I can tell from the study’s abstract, it does not appear that the actual ability to recognize faces in autistic and non-autistic subjects was directly tested. I get the impression that these pop science book writers would rather walk into a speeding bus than make contact with actual autistic adults and ask any of us what we can and cannot do. I did find Judith Rich Harris’s last book interesting, but I’m not sure if I’ll bother reading this book. Judging by the negative language used in the book with reference to autism, I’m sure the “human nature” referred to in the book’s title isn’t intended to include the characteristics of people like us.

Dawson, G., Carver, Meltzoff, Panagiotides, McPartland and Webb (2002) Neural Correlates of Face and Object Recognition in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Delay, and Typical Development. Child Development. Volume 73 Issue 3 Page 700-717, May/June 2002.

Harris, Judith Rich (2006) No two alike: human nature and human individuality. W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Jemel, B., Mottron, L., and Dawson, M. (2006) Impaired Face Processing in Autism: Fact or Artifact? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. v36 n1 p91-106 Jan 2006.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

No one ever looks at my other blog (chin trembles pathetically). :-(
Find a new cliche, music jouralists, because I'm getting sick of reading this one

I'm getting pretty annoyed at reading stuff about The Vines in the press that appears to be all copied from the same ancient music review. The journos always say that The Vines went into some kind of a decline after their first record, or they say the second was a dud. As someone who has been forced by their offspring to listen to all of The Vines CDs hundreds of times over, I consider myself to be something of an expert on their music, and in my opinion all of The Vines releases have been rock and roll classics. While the first one, Higly Evolved is probably their best so far, any of The Vines CDs are a hundred times better than most of the rock music that you hear played on Triple J or any other radio station. The Vines have never released a dud CD, they never had any notable decline in creativity, and Nicholl's AS diagnosis did not negatively impact on his creativity, in fact, if he did not have AS I'm sure his music would not have the wild and extreme energy and the brilliant originality that sets The Vines apart from the herd.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Disposing of the myth of reliable empathizing skills in normal people

Yesterday I read an article in New Scientist that confirmed what I have explicitly believed and asserted for many years now, and have implicitly understood for as long as I can remember. The article suggests that Baron-Cohen’s “Theory of Mind” theory (TOM) is an oversimplification with regard to understanding how normal adult minds think about other minds. The article goes on to discuss research that has uncovered the ways that normal people really reason about the mental states of others, and the flaws and pitfalls in the different strategies that people unconsciously use in this type of thinking. Neurotypical/normal/non-autistic people are not the innately caring and socially skilled empathizers that the professor has made them out to be many times in his writings. This will not be news to the many autistic people who have been bullied and victimized and discriminated against by their neurotypical “peers” since they were little kids. Unconscious “empathizing” as a way of thinking used by normal people, by way of TOM or recognition of facial expressions, is in fact an unreliable way of thinking about the objective realities of other minds, and can lead to delusion. It also appears that TOM thinking is not one simple thing with one corresponding part of the brain that “does it”. It appears that here are different types of TOM thinking which happen in different parts of the brain.

As one would expect from any pop science article that mentions “empathy” or “Theory of Mind”, some research about recognizing facial expressions is discussed, but instead of celebrating the wonders of reading emotions in faces, this article exposes a sinister aspect to this very social form of perception. One as yet unpublished study discussed in the article has results that indicate that the recognition of facial expressions is associated with a particular type of “distortion of reality”.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Egocentrism seems to be a natural part of being human.”

“When we judge others’ behaviours, attitudes, values and beliefs, we anchor on ourselves and extrapolate – we assume other people like what we like, want what we want and believe what we believe, …”

“Another common approach is to fall back on stereotypes ….”

“It’s only engaged when you think about the minds of people who are similar to you.”

“These delusions serve the practical purpose of smoothing our social interactions, …”

In this article we can find sufficient explanation as to why neurotypical people, with all of their super-powers of “empathy” and TOM, nevertheless generally have not the faintest clue about the psychology of autistic people (unless they have spent time reading a textbook on autism, and even then the information very likely is not reliable).

At the end of the day, the most sensible way to find out what another person thinks or feels is to ASK THEM, and then hope for an honest and full answer. And if you do not receive a full and honest answer, you didn’t really have a relationship going anyway.

The article discussed:

In print:
“You’re so vain” by Ada Brunstein in New Scientist March 22nd 2008, number 2648, pages 30-33.

On the internet:
“Being self-centred is the key to empathy” by Ada Brunstein

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I've heard that The Vines are going to be playing a single from their upcoming album on an awards night this Saturday. YEEEEEAAAAAHHH!!!

As far as I know they only have 3 cds out to date, all of them brilliant, but the trouble is I've heard all of them at least 500 times over since the kiddies became mad Vines fans. Yes, a new album would mean a very, very welcome addition of new music to listen to, but there is always the danger that I may be pushed again to the brink of insanity by being made to listen to the next Vines album 500 times over.
My big list of 134 famous people who may be or are or were on the autistic spectrum now has within it two people who each won a Nobel Prize for economics, and one economist who is the descendant of economist parents who has uncles on both sides of his family who each won Nobel Prizes for economics. Do you think it could be genetic?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hooley Dooley! Stephen Jay Gould wrote a description of a possible case of Hyperthymestic syndrome way back in the 1990s, and the authors of the seminal paper on Hyperthymestic syndrome failed to notice that the subject of the paper is a synaesthete!

I don't know if you have heard about "Hyperthymestic syndrome" yet. It is a term that was invented just a few years ago, and it is supposedly only recently known to the world of science. The two defining characteristics of Hyperthymestic syndrome are very superior autobiographical memory and spending an abnormal amount of time thinking about one's personal past.

On page 172 of the book "Questioning the millenium" by the late Stephen Jay Gould is a description of an autistic savant man who "... can tell you something that happened on every individual day for the last twenty years of his life." Often the events recalled seem trivial. Gould explains that when it is possible to verify these often trivial memories, they are always accurate. The scope, triviality and accuracy of this autobiographical memory ability fits perfectly with the only scientific report of a case of Hyperthymestic syndrome that I believe has ever been published, the case history of the female A. J. published in the journal "Neurocase" in 2006. In this paper the authors wrote that "And although AJ is not autistic , nor do savants remember autobiographical information, there are certain similarities between them." So savants don't remember autobiographical information? A pig's backside they don't!

Does the case described by Gould meet the second criterion for Hyperthymestic syndrome? Does or did he spend an abnormal amount of time thinking about his personal past? Autistic people and savant people always have a tendency to focus very deeply on what is of interest to them/us, and this involves spending an "abnormal" amount of time thinking about the one thing. If anything holds the interest of an autist, one can safely assume that the autist spends an "abnormal" amount of time thinking about it. I like to think of Asperger syndrome as a state that is the opposite of ADD.

So who is the young man that Gould wrote about? He is Gould's autistic savant day-date calculator son named Jesse. The last chapter of this book is about the methodologies of savant day-date calculators and how Gould figured out Jesse's own day-date calculating algorithm. The title of the last chapter is "Five weeks" and it is interesting and well-written (as you'd expect of Gould's writing).

It probably wouldn't surprise anyone that there might be cases of autistic savantism that also appear to meet the criteria for Hyperthymestic syndrome, but there was one thing that really shocked me about the first published paper about Hyperthymestic syndrome. On the top of page 42 of the paper is a very nice description of AJ's two different synaesthesias involving her memory for years and for months. These are variants of the type of synaesthesia known as "Number form synaesthesia", but in AJ's case instead of plain numbers being the concepts arranged in idiosyncratic spatial mental forms, she has years and months arranged spatially in her mind. There is no indication anywhere in the paper that the authors recognized that AJ has a form of synaesthesia. This is a most remarkable oversight in view of the fact that a very famous case of a synaesthete who had a prodigious memory (Solomon Shereshevskii described by Luria) was described at length in the Neurocase paper about AJ. It didn't occur to the highly qualified academic researchers that AJ might have synaesthesia like Shereshevskii? Holy cow! And there is absolutely nothing new about Number Form Synaesthesia. It's not a novel concept in psychology. Sir Francis Galton described it way back in the 1800s in a book and also in a conference paper.

This all supports what I had suspected all along; that the so-called Hyperthymestic syndrome is nothing new and it is linked with autism, savantism and synaesthesia. The authors of the Neurocase paper wrote that AJ is not autistic and is not a calendrical calculator, and they failed to notice that AJ has synaesthesia even though they wrote a nice description of her two synaesthesias in their paper. This whole Hypethymestic business is very much open to questioning and argument. It is even open to questioning and argument from smart-arse weirdo synaesthete housewives who write obsessive blogs.


Gould, Stephern Jay (1997) Questioning the Millennium: a Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. Harmony Books, 1997.

Galton, Francis (1881) The visions of sane persons. Proceedings of the Royal Institution. 9 (May 13) : 644-55.

Galton, Francis (1883) Inquiries into human faculty and and its development.

Number form. (2007, August 20) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:59, April 14, 2008.
[a type of synaesthesia/synesthesia]

Parker, E, Cahill, L, and McGaugh, JL (2006) A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering. Neurocase. Volume 12 Issue 1 February 2006. p. 35 – 49.

Link to my list of references about Hyperthymestic syndrome

copyright Lili Marlene 2008.

Monday, April 07, 2008

There's a new book coming out in May about synaesthesia. I haven't read it yet. Jamie Ward is a synaesthesia expert from the UK, so I'm keen to see what he has written.

Ward, Jamie
The frog who croaked blue: synesthesia and the mixing of the senses.
Routledge, May 2008.

There is a quiz "Are you a synaesthete?" at the book's web site:

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Flippin' heck, bloody hell, stone the crows! This blog has been mentioned in a subpoena. (What exactly is a subpoena? I'm from Australia.) How cool is that?

It's all to do with Kathleen Seidel, author of the blog "Neurodiversity Weblog", being harassed by some lawyer/attorney who is apparently involved with a case that is about autism and vaccines. Kathleen is also I believe the creator of the fabulously informative web site "".

I can't express adequately how much admiration I have for people like Kathleen who spend their time getting involved with exposing the anti-vaccination crowd. I am sadly lacking in patience when it come to dealing with ratbags, cranks, crooks, shysters, hysterics and dimwits.

Read the story for yourself here:
Neurodiversity Weblog

Saturday, April 05, 2008

So this month is supposed to be Autism Awareness Month or something of the sort? No doubt the people behind it are one of those squeakiest-wheel-that-gets-all-the-funding curebie parent groups. If we were being honest with ourselves, wouldn't we be calling this type of campaign "Pity Autistics Month" or "Feel a Little Guilty That Your Kids Are Not Special Needs Month?"

To hell with autism awareness, there are much more urgent public awareness campaigns that we need to be aware of. We can all do our bit to help Chopper to Make Deadshits History.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

As we move into the season of autumn, a welcome end to the Australian summer heat, our young ones are starting to take more and more of an interest in the weather forecasts at the end of the evening news on TV, on the nights that precede school days.

"YAAAAY! It's going to rain and I wont have to do sport tomorrow afternoon!"
Possible alternatives for the word “Aspie”?



Montropic person

Autist (an old clinical term that could be recycled and reclaimed?)


Loner (fans of the book “Party of one: the loners’manifesto” have tried to reclaim this word that has had so many negative connotations attached to it, but I am sure there are many people on the autistic spectrum who would not apply this term to themselves)


Autistic person