Saturday, March 28, 2009

New Scientist opinion piece on autism in the media

A quote from a recent opinion article by autism expert Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen in New Scientist magazine, in which he is refering to media stories about the supposed link between autism and MMR:

What seems clear is that for some parents of children with autism, this story provides a convenient explanation for why their child developed the condition. A minority of such parents refuse to let go of the theory, not least because it is difficult if not impossible to falsify conclusively.

Media distortion damages both science and journalism.
by Simon Baron-Cohen
New Scientist. March 27th 2009, Issue 2701.

I'm not at all surprised that the Professor received a strong response from many people as a result of the UK and international press coverage of his team's recent research on prenatal levels of testosterone. The daily newspaper that I read in my part of Australia ran this story on their front page, with an alarmist headline that made reference to ideas of eugenics and ethical questioning. When I saw it I thought "Holy Shit!" and bought a copy, which just goes to show how effective alarmist headlines are.

I do think the professor is being somewhat precious about what he has characterized as media sensationalism. In the end, his research could lead to negative eugenics in practice regarding autism, and there is no point pretending otherwise. Once I read the story through in my local paper, I realised that the story was a call for the public to give serious consideration to the logical and moral consequences of the type of research that the professor and his team are doing, and I think that's a good message.

Another quote from this article:

It is important to stress that these children did not have autism, and that what was being measured was how sociable and communicative they were, as well as how easily they could switch attention, recall small details and enjoy fiction.

The subjects of the study might not have had autistic traits at a level that justifies a diagnosis of some condition that is on the autistic spectrum, but I do believe that the characteristics that were measured in the study are very good indicators of clinical and subclinical levels of autism. In plain English; aspies are good at recalling and noticing small details, and we often do not enjoy fiction in print and personal drama in screen entertainment and some of us do not even see the point of fiction. We spend much less of our time socializing than others and we do not communicate simply for the sake of talking. We very much enjoy activities that entail maintaining our focus of attention on one thing for considerable periods, while often detesting it when we are expected to multi-task at work, and hate being interrupted from whatever it is that we are doing. We are the type of people who shout "@#$% OFF!" when the phone rings. I think the professor understands that.

Pondering the big questions

Which is the funkiest James Brown tune?

Why do New Zealanders make such dreadful-tasting confectionary?

Why do people open shops full of foods from places like New Zealand, the UK and African countries, when it seems clear that people migrate here to get away from deplorable local cuisines?

Which is the most depressing Smiths tune?

Which is the most depressing Morrissey tune?

Which is the most correct plural for the word scrotum? Scrotums or scrota?

What proportion of men have hair growing out of their ears? Why does mother nature do this?

What proportion of men have very hairy backsides?

Can a female be a silent carrier of the hairy backside gene?

Which is the most beautiful Guerlain fragrance?

Why do so many women paint their toenails instead of trimming them?

What state of mind must a woman be in to think that long, claw-like purple toenails look good?

Why is it that whenever the power goes out and I switch on my battery-operated radio for light entertainment, the song Riders on the Storm by the Doors is playing?

Which is the most effective language in which to launch an angry tirade?

Why do so many Maori-looking women love to wear tops that show off their bra straps to great effect?

Why is it that Bollywood actors and actresses are so much more gorgeous in every way than Hollywood actors and actresses?

Why are there so many female actresses with giant, ugly, man-like jaws in popular American TV shows and movies? Do Americans harbour an unspoken desire to look at drag queens?

Why are rigid-based beds with non-spring mattresses so popular when they are absolutely useless for occasional use as a child's trampoline? Why do so many parents buy rigid-based beds for their children when they only end up with a bed with broken slats and a disgruntled child? Why do bed salesmen never talk about bounce when they are trying to sell beds? What kind of pathetic joke of a bed has no bounce?

Why do so many women who have hideous forms of abdominal obesity wear skin-tight styles of clothing regardless?

Why is the best track on a CD usually track number 6 or 8?

How do women's backsides get that big?

Monday, March 23, 2009

A turd is not the same colour as an olive, and you can't believe everything that Amanda Baggs writes

A turd is not the same colour as an olive, and you can't believe everything that Amanda Baggs writes

post added to December 2009

In a rare idle moment I've found the time to check something that I've been meaning to check for quite some time. Amanda Baggs has been a part of the neurodiversity scene for many years now. She has gained a huge following and is very influential, but her presentation of herself as a low-functioning autist has been called into question, especially since the news has got around that she was apparently once a student at a college for the intellectually gifted. I remember the days, a few years ago now, when Ms Baggs posted quite often under the name "anbuend" at the Aspies For Freedom forum, complete with a photo of a young adult confined to a wheelchair as her avatar.

Amanda Baggs has also claimed to have synaesthesia, a neurological condition that has rightly or wrongly become associated with autism. I know of two descriptions of her synaesthesia written by Ms Baggs. I have checked them for consistency. I found one clear and unmistakable inconsistency. She gives two completely different colours as her synaesthesia association for the number 5. On her YouTube video titled Synaesthesia (Colored letters and numbers), as viewed on Monday March 23rd 2009, her number 5 is shown as olive green. In a footnote of a booklist that she wrote which was published at years ago she wrote about how very brown her number 5 is thanks to her synaesthesia. Here is a quote from her footnote:

Aquamarine Blue 5 got its title from the synaesthesia of one of the contributing authors. I find myself forced to disagree vigorously. 5 is not aquamarine blue. 5 is brown. The only thing in real life the color of a 5 is a dog turd. The only blue number is 4, and in order to get the color on the cover of that book one would have to mix the colors of K and J. ;-)

The most fail-safe method that I can think of to show that an account of synaesthesia is false is to find clear inconsistencies in different self-reports of a synaesthete's anomalous associations. For example, if a synaesthete claims to have coloured months of the year, with February being a bright salmon pink, if queried 5 years later this synaesthete will report that February is still no other colour except a bright salmon pink if she is a genuine synaesthete, and she will not have to rely on keeping a record or memorizing this association to give such a thoroughly consistent report. The synaesthete will only have to "look" inside their own mind to "see" the "correct" colour for that month. Inconsistency is proof that a supposed case of synaesthesia is not genuine, or that untruth or imagination is involved, because one thing that science knows for certain about synaesthesia - that the specific associations are remarkably specific and unchanging. Consistency of associations is the criterion used in some scientifically credible tests of synaesthesia. As far as I know, as a synaesthete and someone who has read quite a bit on the subject, these synaesthesia associations do not change during a lifetime. There are only two possible factors that might conceivably interfere with the consistency of reports of synaesthesia associations. The first is the strength of the associations. By this I mean the ease with which the synaesthete can gain conscious access to existing synaesthesia associations. While any associations that exist do not change, there can be variation in the ability of a synaesthete to "sense" them or notice them. I never realized that I have colours for days of the week until I took the time to record and re-record my colours for them - then I noticed a complete consistency over time. Another factor is something that is sometimes found in synaesthesia colours; mixed colours or hard-to-describe colours. Colours for things such as numbers or letters are not always simple and plain. They can have textures or finishes, they can "feel" like different colours or be mixed in some way, and they can be hard to describe, but in a way that is consistently weird. I doubt that weird colouring is the reason for inconsistency in Amanda Baggs' reports of her colour for the number 5. There no hint of uncertainty or weirdness in her reports.

I can think of some possible reasons why Baggs might have reported conflicting information about one of her grapheme-colour associations. Perhaps she misreported her synaesthesia just for the sake of joking about in the footnote to her booklist, after all, it was only a footnote, not a scientific journal paper. It is also quite possible that Baggs has deliberately misreported a synaesthesia association in order to deliberately conceal her true synaesthesia associations for the sake of preserving her privacy. You might think this sounds far-fetched, but in fact a synaesthete's associations for groups of items such as colours, letters, months of the year etc are very specific, unique and unchanging, like one's fingerprints or the pattern of colours on one's irises or one's genome, and because of this one's synaesthesia can be used as an identifying code. While a synaesthete's associations cannot detected or recorded without their co-operation, one should still consider any possible privacy implications of divulging one's synaesthesia associations. Of course, if Baggs had wanted to make up details of her synaesthesia to protect her privacy, she only needed to write a brief disclaimer in her writings and multi-media presentations to do the right thing by her readers. She did not do this.

Bagg's synaesthetic colour inconsistency for the number 5 is not the only aspect of her reported synaesthesia that makes me suspicious. After viewing her YouTube presentation of her coloured numbers and letters, and comparing them carefully with my own colours for numbers and letters and many pictorial depictions of those of other synaesthetes that I have seen, I'm most suspicious that Baggs is not the real deal as a synaesthete. At this point of time I'm not going to divulge what aspect of Baggs' colours I believe seems at best atypical. I'd love to know what other genuine grapheme-colour synaesthetes think of Ms Baggs' colours. It would be interesting to see whether anyone else who knows about synaesthesia notices the same thing that I have noticed.

None of this proves that Baggs is not a genuine synaesthete, although I think it is possible that she could be a faker who has done her homework well by reading up on the subject. There certainly are some features of Baggs' colours that are in accord with those of genuine synaesthetes, but this stuff has been written up in the literature for anyone to read. None of this provides any evidence either way on the much more contentious question of Ms Baggs' place on the autistic spectrum. But one thing is certain - you can't believe everything that Amanda Baggs writes. I'm sure that will come as no surprise to many people.

Link to video Synaesthesia (Colored letters and numbers) on YouTube, by Amanda Baggs using the pseudonym Silentmiaow

Link to Autistic Authors Booklist and Facts by A. M. Baggs, which has a footnote about synesthesia, from website

Link to page for the book
Aquamarine Blue 5

Link to a posting titled Stupid Brain Tricks, about synesthesia, with many comments, from Amanda Baggs' blog Ballastexistenz. Nothing that Baggs writes here about her synaesthesia in the posting or her comments has much resonance with me, a grapheme-colour synaesthete of the associator type. Baggs asserts that the criterion of consistency as a defining feature of synaesthesia does not apply to autistic people under certain conditions. I have read widely on the subject of synaesthesia in the popular and professional literature, but I have never read such a thing. Baggs has obviously read a lot on the subject of synaesthesia.

Link to the YouTube video titled Because You Are Not One Of Us, by Amanda Baggs, featuring her own singing voice. Baggs explains that it is indeed her own voice in the full text of her second comment on this video. I think it is a remarkably normal-sounding singing voice.

Link to an article at the blog of Dr. Sanjay Gupta Behind the veil of autism, in which Baggs' habit of using a wheelchair is explained and documented:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Words that have been used as terms for synaesthesia in popular, scientific or clinical literature

Words that have been used as terms for synaesthesia in popular, scientific or clinical literature

synaesthesia - a standard, sensible contemporary term used by writers and researchers in the UK

synesthesia - a standard, sensible contemporary term used by writers and researchers in the US

chromesthesia - coloured musical notes, a specific type of synaesthesia

chromagraphemia / chromagraphemic synesthesia / chromatographemic synesthesia - terms used for colour-grapheme synaesthesia, a relatively common type of synaesthesia, coloured letters, coloured numbers.

synopsia - "the hearing of colors", a specific type of synaesthesia

color hearing / colour-hearing - a specific type of synaesthesia

number-forms / number form etc - a specific type of synaesthesia in which numbers are always visualized in a specific and often most idiosyncratic spatial arrangement when the synaesthete thinks about numbers

photism / photisms

phonism / phonisms

secondary sensation *



colored thinking

Words that have been used for people who have synaesthesia

synaesthete - a standard, sensible contemporary term used by writers and researchers in the UK

synesthete - a standard, sensible contemporary term used by writers and researchers in the US





* a term used by Boris Sidis, psychologist and psychiatrist, in his description of synaesthesia published in 1914. Dr Sidis appears to have had a generally negative view of the mental health of synaethetes, although he asserted that synaesthesia can be found in "normal persons". Boris Sidis is perhaps most famous now for being the father of William James Sidis, a child prodigy with an incredibly high IQ score, who grew up to be a college mathematics teacher and later a recluse. Father and son were both polyglots. They did not have a good relationship. W. J. Sidis has been posthumously diagnosed as autistic. In light of contemporary genetic research linking synaesthesia with the autistic spectrum and anecdotal evidence linking synaesthesia with unusual abilities, I can't help wondering whether synaesthesia was a condition that ran in the Sidis family.