Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Was Charles Darwin autistic?

You may have been hearing or reading about Charles Darwin a lot of late in the mass media. This year is the bicentenary of the birth of this world-changer and endlessly curious gentleman scientist. Charles Darwin has been identified as a possible case of Asperger syndrome, and he has been discussed in a number of books in which the autistic traits of famous people have been identified. Where would the world be now if not for the insights and investigations of autistic scientists and thinkers?

Charles Darwin and Asperger syndrome: a reading list

Brilliant minds linked to autism. (2004) BBC.co.uk January 8th 2004.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3380569.stm
[about Prof. Fitzgerald’s book Autism and creativity]
Fitzgerald, Michael, and O’Brien, Brendan (2007) Genius genes: how Asperger talents changed the world. Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2007.
[Newton, Henry Cavendish, Jefferson, Charles Babbage, Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Nikola Tesla, David Hilbert, H.G. Wells, John B. Watson, Einstein, Bernard Montgomery (of Alamein), Charles de Gaulle, Alfred Kinsey, Norbert Wiener, Charles Lindbergh, Kurt Godel, Paul Erdos and other famous people discussed in this book. Parts of this book available to read free through Google Book Search]
Fitzgerald, Michael (2006) Autism, Asperger’s syndrome and creativity. Autism2006: AWARES Conference Centre. October 4th 2006.
[Stanley Kubrick, George Orwell, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Albert Einsten and many other famous people discussed in this conference paper]
Hooper, Rowan (2009) Back to the beginning. New Scientist. February 7th 2009. Number 2694. p.49.
[This brief review of The young Charles Darwin by Keith Thomson mentions the fact that Darwin has been subject of the suggestion that he had Asperger syndrome, but it is not clear whether Thomson addresses this possibility in his book.]

Houston, Muiris (2009) Darwin is the origin of new thesis on Asperger's. IrishTimes.com Irish Times. February 24th 2009.

Ledgin, Norman (2002) Asperger’s and self-esteem: insight and hope through famous role models. Future Horizons, 2002.
[Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Orson Welles, Marie Curie, Carl Sagan, Glenn Gould, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, Bela Bartok, Paul Robeson, Gregor Mendel and other famous people mentioned in this book. Parts of the book available to read through Google Book Search]
Lyons, Viktoria and Fitzgerald, Michael (2005) Asperger Syndrome - A Gift or a Curse? Nova Science Publishers Inc.
[Kinsey, Kubrick, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell, Robert Walser, Joy Adamson, Enoch Powell, William James Sidis, Kurt Godel]

Pickover, Clifford A. (1998) Strange brains and genius: the secret lives of eccentric scientists and madmen. Plenum, 1998.
[Charles Darwin and many other famous people discussed in this dated but entertaining book. Darwin not identified as autistic in this book.]

Smith, Rebecca (2009) Charles Darwin had autism, leading psychiatrist claims. Telegraph.co.uk February 18th 2009.

This list was taken from the references section of my creation:
A referenced list of 138 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum
I invite you to go have a look at this list if you're curious to know who the other 137 "famous aspies" are.

And for more information about Charles Darwin, this is a link to ABC Radio National's page linking to recent radio shows that are related to Charles Darwin:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I've added more stuff to my list of famous synaesthetes. Enjoy! Must go now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lili Marlene's idea re the Victorian bushfires

I was fascinated to see on a TV news story an explanation for why these fires have been so horribly destcructive; apparently it was not so much flames or embers that made homes and vehicles and trees catch fire, it was radiant heat from fire-storms. How could homes and settlements ever be protected from such a destructive force? With dirty great huge solid brick walls surrounding individual homes or surrounding residential areas, not your standard brick wall, but something like the Great Wall of China. I realize that such structures would be a challenge to aesthetics and would isolate many forms of wildlife, but clever architects can find solutions to such problems. Why is this not a good idea?

And another matter - would our members of federal parliament like to get back to work and stop wasting their time on pointless sentiment and condolences and hugging strangers for the benefit of TV journalists? A blubfest wont do anything to help rebuild infrastructure or ward off impending ecomonic and natural disasters. There's no point raising money in appeals if you don't have any smart ideas on how to spend it. We would have a great country if we all showed our patriotism by simply doing our regular jobs well and properly, and simply led law-abiding, safe, green, intelligent lives. Tearful politicians who like to take the day off and dickwit drivers who break the speed limit and overtake in front of oncoming traffic while driving a vehicle that has two Australian flags flying off of it are some types of Australians that we can certainly do without.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

If I had a child diagnosed with autism I’d be angry about this

Do you live in Australia? Are you reading today’s edition of a national or city newspaper? If you are, most likely you will come across a story featuring Prof. Fiona Stanley about a new child health research project to be conducted by researchers at the WA-based Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. Why do I have concerns about this? It’s quite clear to me, after reading a story in my local paper, that Stanley and her team either believe that the supposed increases in the diagnosis rate for autistic spectrum conditions in the last decade or so are a reflection of a genuine increase in autism, or at least they are happy to go along with this idea uncritically, as it suits their interests. Here is a quote from Prof. Stanley from a press release published at the web site of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research; “A new approach is needed because of the increases we are seeing in a whole range of problems affecting children, ranging from obesity to autism”. She doesn’t say “increases in diagnosis”, she just says “increases”. By going along with the idea that the increase in autism diagnosis reflects a genuine increase in autism, Fiona Stanley and her colleagues are passively supporting the dangerous and influential movements of assorted nutbars and ratbags who claim that autism is increasing and it’s all due to vaccines or mercury poisoning. As far as I know, the researchers and academics and clinicians who have genuine expertise in the area of autism tend to be openly sceptical about the idea that the rate of autism has really gone up. They tend to support the explanation that the rate of diagnosis is the only thing that has gone up.

I’m even more concerned that Stanley and colleagues appear to believe that autism has, or might have, environmental causes. Prof. Stanley doesn’t bother to mention genetic factors. I find Professor Stanley’s recent media statements to be far from clear, but she does make reference to children “developing conditions such as autism and ADHD”. Her use of the word “developing” implies that autism isn’t inborn and pre-determined, but is something that may or may not happen to a child. This way of thinking about autism is at least 40 years out of date, and very much in conflict with the consensus among autism experts. I don’t think there’s a single credible autism expert in the world who doesn’t acknowledge the major importance of genes in regard to the autistic spectrum, but our esteemed Aussie professor never seems to have much to say about genetics. This is absolutely typical of the thinking and public statements of many leading Australian professionals and academics involved in various aspects of child health and child education. These optimistic people want to believe that all childhood problems are fixable or preventable, so they don’t want to believe that some people have a fate that is set genetically from conception. These nice dreamers don’t want to consider the proposition that the only way to prevent some things from happening is to stop some types of people from reproducing. Ideas such as this are most unfashionable among this left-leaning set of professionals. These eager people want to believe that they can intervene to great and positive effect in the lives of troubled children. I would suggest that if this is someone’s ambition, a career in social work or the police force might be more suitable than working in child health or education.

Prof. Stanley and her colleagues appear to be interested in finding out about the possible impact on child welfare of the increase in women’s consumption drugs and alcohol. Why should this be of concern to parents of children diagnosed with autism? In 2008 it was revealed on the ABC Radio National show All In The Mind that in Australia some parents and carers of children who have foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) are getting their children diagnosed with autism or Asperger syndrome in order to gain access to disability support resources. These kids have the label of “autistic”. If the professor and her research institute count children such as these as cases of autism in their research, as they could well do, they might (erroneously) find that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is a risk factor for having a child who later “develops” autism. I’m sure that would do a lot for the public image of the parents of autistic people. It is an undeniable fact that in Australia children who suffer from brain damage, retardation from genetic syndromes, FAS or other problems are being given diagnoses such as autism, Asperger syndrome and ADHD, not necessarily because such labels are accurate or complete explanations of their conditions, but this may be happening because it is their parents’ easiest or only means of gaining access to services and supports that are needed. As long as this situation continues, researchers who uncritically study populations of subjects who have been labelled as autistic or ADHD will come up with research findings that are skewed, misleading and wrong, and which may have negative consequences for children who are genuine cases of autism or ADHD, and their parents.

My own biggest concern about this research project is that it may not be designed in such a way that it enables the effects of genetic factors to be separated from the effects of environmental factors. I fear that the researchers will simply gloss over this problem and discuss the results as though they are able to be certain that environmental factors are those that are responsible for effects found. Why do I fear that this will happen? Because I have seen this type of misrepresentation of research findings before from this crowd.

I noticed that researchers from the Curtin University are going to be involved in the research project. In January this year an Associate Professor at the School of Education at Curtin University was exposed on the front page of The Australian newspaper for misleading a university ethics committee who were supervising the study of an ADHD drug that she was leading. The subjects in the study were children. I found the whole affair disgusting, and my regard for Curtin University took a big dive after I read that story. I wonder if this associate professor from Curtin will be involved with the upcoming research project with the Telethon Institute crowd? Nothing would surprise me about Western Australian child health researchers.

So there you have it! In 2003 Australia gave Professor Fiona Stanley the honour of being named the Australian of the Year. She appears to have ideas about autism that are not much less outdated and wrong and unfairly stigmatizing as those of Bruno Bettelheim. Her team of researchers have been given a grant of nearly 10 million dollars by the federal government. WTF Australians?

Link to press release from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research:

Link to 2008 story about FAS at All In The Mind:

Link to story in The Australian "Curtin university mislead about ADHD drug":


Friday, February 06, 2009

Chromosome number 2; that's where the weirdness came from

(this posting last altered Feb 11th 2009)

Apparently some UK researchers have made progress in identifying the genes for synaesthesia, and it looks like one synaesthesia gene could be associated with autism and epilepsy. This comes as no surprise to me. The identification of two cases of male-to-male transmission of synaesthesia appears to demolish the old theory that synaesthesia is transmitted genetically via the X-chromosome. The researchers found no evidence to support such a mode of transmission. Once again, I'm not surprised, as the body of evidence upon which this theory was based is suspect, as it was most likely an unreperesentative sample of the whole synaesthete population.

These UK synaesthesia researchers are now talking about a genetic test for synaesthesia. Why should such a thing be necessary, as any synaesthete who can talk should be able to disclose, if they wish, whether or not they have the condition? Well, the researchers like the idea of gene-based screening and early "diagnosis" of synaesthesia so that young children can be identified, so that bad things can be prevented from happening to them. The magazine stories about this study include suggestions that synaesthesia can interfere with learning to read. I've read a lot about synesthesia, but I don't recall reading any anecdote or study that supports such an assertion. My own experience of grapheme-colour synaesthesia suggests the opposite - that this condition is an aid to learing literacy rather than an impairment.

The story in New Scientist magazine is looks to me a bit like one of those mass media scare stories aimed at parents about autism screening and "early intervention". You know what I mean, don't you? - those stories that inevitably use those great journalistic autism-related cliches such as "red flags to look out for" and "alarms bells rang ...." Mercifully, these magazine articles about synaesthesia did not feature any flag-waving or pealing bells, but I believe they are still unecessarily alarmist. Would it be fair comment to say it's just the same old crap applied to another neurological condition?
New Scientist magazine web site article:
Robson, David (2009) Genetic roots of synaesthesia unearthed. New Scientist. February 5th 2009. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16537-genetic-roots-of-synaesthesia-unearthed.html
CNN web site article:
Landau, Elizabeth (2009) Seeing color in sounds has genetic link. CNN.com Febraury 9th 2009.
The original research paper:
Julian E. Asher , Janine A. Lamb , Denise Brocklebank , Jean-Baptiste Cazier , Elena Maestrini , Laura Addis , Mallika Sen , Simon Baron-Cohen and Anthony P. Monaco (2009) A Whole-Genome Scan and Fine-Mapping Linkage Study of Auditory-Visual Synesthesia Reveals Evidence of Linkage to Chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12. American Journal of Human Genetics. February 5th 2009 (online publication).
Link to abstract:


Catalyst are going there again

There's every indication that the upcoming story on autism on the ABCTV science show Catalyst will be as insensitive to the viewpoints of autistic people as last year's stories about autism and Asperger syndrome. I saw a promo for the show on the telly. There was a nauseating voice-over saying something about teaching little kiddies how to love (retch, puke). Please, give me a break, Catalyst reporters! I'm sure that there are inumerable autistic children and adults out there who have been bullied, ridiculed, harassed, assaulted and/or excluded by their neurotypical peers since their earliest forays into the world of social exchange, who wonder what neurotypical people could possibly possess to enable them to teach autists about love and sharing.

I couldn't help noticing that this year the Catalyst people are once again referring to autistic people as minds rather than people; "Teaching young autistic minds to communicate". Yep, just emotionless computers embodied in flesh! No doubt about that!

Link to Catalyst web site: