Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why would an autistic man want to read a postcode book?

I enjoyed listening to a repeat of an old interview with one of Australia's finest poets on the radio this afternoon. I have no time for trivialities such as poetry or novels, but having once dipped into some of Les Murray's work just for curiousity's sake, I somehow managed to find the time to read most of the book. In the radio interview Les Murray had some interesting things to say about Asperger syndrome, which he has to a degree, and he read aloud a couple of his poems on the subject of autism/AS. Ramona Koval often sounds somewhat flippant on her radio show, but in this interview I thought her mood seemed quite different.

Clark, Sue (presenter) & Koval, Ramona (interviewer)
The Biplane Houses - Les Murray. (a repeat of a 2006 interview from The Book Show)
Life & Times.
August 29th 2009
ABC Radio National.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ridiculous autism awareness adverts on Australian radio and TV?

There have been some most offensive and controversial autism awareness advertisements run in the UK and the US, which have brought lots of bad publicity to the organizations that initiated these awareness campaigns. I thought I was safe from stigmatizing, negative, ridiculous and emotive autism awareness media adverts, as I live in Australia. I forgot how much Australians love to mindlessly copy whatever the Brits and the Yanks are doing.

I'd love to know what you think of the TV and radio ads that can be accessed through the link below:

They are also on YouTube.

I don't watch a lot of commercial TV, so perhaps this ad campaign has come and gone without me noticing. I'd still be offended, as I know that if this campaign made any impact, it would add to the many negative ideas about the autistic spectrum that are already out there, and who needs that?

I found the 30 second TV ad and the radio ads particularly objectionable, on the grounds that they give incorrect information (autistic people are not unable to see or hear, and are not imprisoned, in fact there is good scientific research that has shown that our perceptual abilities are better than normal in a number of different ways, just ask autism researchers Gernsbacher, Mottron and Dawson), these ads are negative and pity-inducing in tone (the tragic-sounding music is such a cliche of cheap emotional manipulation, I could puke, oh, please fetch the bucket from the laundry dear), and some of the ads drag out that ancient autism cliche of the normal child imprisoned in a shell of autism. So many good people have done so much to kill off that cliche, and here it is, resurrected, like a stinking zombie strolling out of a moonlit cemetry in search of a brain to eat.

It appears that Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) is responsible for this tripe.

Katharine Annear made comment in May 2009 at about this ad campaign and other awareness activities of Aspect. As an Australian I find the comments on this blog article quite alarming but not surprising:

I would so much love to see guys from The Chaser lampoon these stupid ads, but I think they might now be a little shy of parodying ads for child-related charities.

Imagine ..... a lifetime without patronizing autism awareness campaigns.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

US Senator shows an enlightened attitude towards autistic people as thinkers and employees!

I must thank ABFH for helping to spread the news about this speech through her blog Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

I don't know a thing about the politics of Sentator Dick Durbin, as I'm Australian and only mildly interested in politics, but I do love what this senator has said about some of the important achievements that autistic people have already made to society, and continue to make, despite the obstacles and unecessary problems created by the many well-meaning or openly prejudiced anti-autistic bigots out there.

I am also rather disappointed that the senator has apparently failed to recognize that autistic people in the world of work often face a different type of obstacle than those that challenge disabled people in general. For many autistic people the big problem is not so much a lack of support or a lack of training, or a need for accomodations, but a need for protection from harassment, bullying and discrimination. I guess it too much to expect a politician to give a speech that reminds the audience about the ugly side of human nature.

SPEECH: Employees with Disabilities--An Untapped Resource
Speech delivered by United States Senator Richard J. (Dick) Durbin
Thursday, August 13, 2009.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

If you say it often enough, it will become the truth

When we view or read journalistic coverage on the subject of autistic spectrum conditions such as classic autism, Asperger syndrome or autism that is secondary to general intellectual disability, the opinions and quotations from so-called experts are sought, to give the story added authority and to provide a nice, concise overview of the topic. This is where speculative ideas about the nature of autism are very often presented by these experts as though these were scientifically proven facts. Experts have never been very good at making clear the distinction between their own pet theories and widely accepted facts. Scientific enquiry being what it is, contrary findings and opinions can appear in the scientific literature, but at the end of the day, it appears that the theory that has the most charismatic expert with the publisher that has the most effective PR department will have his ideas believed and recounted over and over again, regardless of the evidence.

We have been told by those experts that (all) people with autism have trouble recognizing faces. We have been told that some type of inborn brain defect that is unique to autism is the basis of so-called theory of mind deficits. We have been told that recognizing human facial expressions is an essential and basic human ability that all normal people have, with the exception of autistic people. Is this all a load of B. S.? Sometimes the evidence gets in the way of a good theory, dammit!

Ananthaswamy, Anil (2009) Language may be the key to theory of mind. New Scientist. 27th June 2009. p. 13.

Callaway, Ewen (2009) Human facial expressions aren't universal. New Scientist. 13th August 2009.

Wilson, Ellie (2009) Heterogeneity in the ability to recognise faces in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asia Pacific Autism Conference 2009.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A complete guide to Asperger syndrome - I don't think so!

A review by Lili Marlene of The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome by Dr Tony Attwood, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, copyright 2007, paperback edition.

This large book is obviously based on many years of clinical and informal experience with people who have Asperger syndrome (AS), but it does have some major flaws and shortcomings. Trainee library professionals are taught that most non-fiction books are out-of-date as soon as they are published. No book illustrates this truism better than this one.

One could argue that this book is based on theoretical foundations that are out-of-date and selective. Murray, Lesser and Dawson's monotropism theory of autism is given the briefest mention, while Dr Attwood devotes pages to the "weak central coherence" and "impaired executive dysfunction" theories that are not favoured by some other experts on autism and Asperger syndrome. I could not find any of the words "systemising", "systemizing", "hyper-systemising", "extreme male brain", "testosterone" or even "steroid" listed in the book's Subject Index, a major group of omissions. The promising "intense world" theory of autism put forward by Markram , Rinaldi and Markram is too new to be even mentioned in this book, although sensory sensitivity is discussed at length. The term "neurodiversity" cannot be found in this book's Subject Index, even though this term, this concept and this movement are nothing new.

This book is also dated by information that is not included. One IQ test, the Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices, has been found to be a better measure of the intelligence of autistic people than more commonly-used tests of intelligence such as the WAIS, but I could not find the Raven's test listed in this book's index.

Throughout this book Dr Attwood illustrates his points by quoting from autistic people; well-known autistic authors of autobiographies and people with AS who Dr Attwood has met or corresponded with. Unfortunately the group of autistic authors that Dr Attwood has quoted from is now looking dated. I have not found any references to best-selling autistic authors John Elder Robison or Daniel Tammet in this book. Perhaps to avoid controversy, Dr Attwood appears to have made very little reference to the life stories of living or dead famous people who have AS or probably had AS, missing out on a world of opportunities to learn more about AS though reading interviews and literature by and about this large group of very interesting people.

Some sections of this book simply stink. The chapter about long-term relationships appears to be based on anecdotes, the junk science of Maxine Aston, who is cited many times in this book's Author Index, and a book edited by a leader of the notorious anti-autistic hate group FAAAS. The result is a chapter that focuses on dysfunctional marriages that involve a male partner who has AS and a maternal, self-sacrificing female partner who does not have AS. Happy relationships involving one or both partners who have AS, and wives who have AS, are apparently either invisible, unknown or of no interest to Dr Attwood and his associates. Dr Attwood explicitly endorses the central idea behind the very controversial pseudo-scienctific diagnosis of CADD in this sentence on page 307 from this chapter in the paperback edition: "The non-Asperger's syndrome partner suffers affection deprivation which can be a contributory factor to low self-esteem and depression." I was unable to find any acknowledgement by Dr Attwood in this chapter of his lack of knowledge about people with AS who have never had need to contact him or other clinicians. It is quite possible that this group of people who have AS, who's numbers are unknown, could be happier, more functional and have better relationships than the group of people with AS who have been clients of or in contact with Dr Attwood. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has made such acknowledgement in his writing about the limits of the scope of his knowledge about AS, and the selective nature of the group of clients with AS that he meets as a practicing clinician. It's a pity that Dr Attwood has apparently not shown similar caution and humility.

The small section about synaesthesia on page 289, "Unusual sensory processing", is a nugget of misinformation, and it is easy to figure out why Dr Attwood has got this bit so thoroughly wrong - he cites no paper or book from the large body of scientific literature specifically about synaesthesia. The reader is led to believe that synaesthesia causes sensory input in one sensory system to be diverted to a different sensory system, presumably giving the synaesthete no sensory stimulation in the "correct" sensory channel, leading to difficulty in identifying the source of sensory information. This is complete nonsense. Synaesthesia is a group of sensory experiences that are additional to normal sensory functioning. A synaesthete who experiences coloured music can still hear the music just as clearly and fully as a non-synaesthete, but with the added bonus of a free visual show in the mind's movie screen. I have read a lot about synaesthesia and I have never heard of any synaesthete, autistic or not, being confused about the type of sensory input that they are experiencing.

There are many good things to be said about this book. Dr Attwood cares to point out that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of some "therapies" aimed at autistic conditions or aspects of these conditions. He often takes the time to explain things in detail using examples, pointing out positive and negative aspects. Dr Attwood gives good answers some important questions in the "Frequently asked questions" section.

I do not know of any comparable book on the market that explores what AS means in everyday life comprehensively and in detail, but there should be something better than this. The title of this book is simply wrong - this is an incomplete guide to Asperger syndrome.

copyright Lili Marlene 2009.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Monster child grows bigger!

I have just updated my awe-inspiring, massive and carefully researched list of famous autistic people, replacing dead links, adding more fascinating information and references and generally giving it a spruce-up. I have also added a new name, Caiseal Mor, an Australian writer of novels in the fantasy genre who has been interviewed by Donna Williams.

So if you are interested in reading about dead or living people who are or who may be or who may have been autistic, or if you are interested in any individual famous person who is or who may be on the spectrum, and you want to know in which published document(s) or broadcast their autism is mentioned, my list is the place to start your search. It includes links and references about all of the people included in the list in the references section, organized alphabetically by name. Claims made are backed up by references. I don't conjure this stuff up out of thin air.

A referenced list of 139 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

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A synaesthesia-like effect is a part of the charm of a little kids' picture book

I've noticed something interesting in a children's picture book - Mr Pod and Mr Piccalilli by Penny Dolan and Nick Sharratt. It's a sweet story with nice illustrations that has been featured on Play School on ABCTV. Have a look at the picture (on page 4?) that shows Mr Pod and Mr Piccallili relaxing in their different sitting rooms in their flats. Both characters have cats who have names that rhyme with their surnames - Pod and Tod and Piccallili with Millie, and they also have sitting rooms with a decor in a style that in some hard-to-define but obvious way suits their surnames. Have a look yourself if you can access a copy of this book. There is a correspondence between the sound of the names and the shapes in the decors (and the shapes of the characters).

The effect in this book is just like the so-called "bouba-kiki effect" that has been researched and publicized by synaesthesia researchers V. S. Ramachandran and Ed Hubbard. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman have done some research on this type of effect with autistic study subjects (and a control group). They have apparently found that autistic subjects show an impairment in "the bouba/kiki task". They have argued that this might show that the so-called mirror-neurons in autistic people do not work properly. I can easily think of an alternative explanation of why autistic subjects might not respond to "the bouba-kiki task" in the way typical of non-autistic subjects. The bouba-kiki effect follows no known system of logic - there is no logical, objective rule for matching sounds with shapes. This effect is the result of subjective, creative type thinking. It is this lack of logic that makes this effect similar to synaesthesia, we know something odd, something different to the normal processes of rational thinking is going on when people insist that (in their own mind) a specific colour corresponds with a specific letter of the alphabet, or a specific name corresponds with furniture of a certain shape. Synaesthesia is the most subjective way of thinking that I know of. Most, if not all, synaesthetes recognize that our quirky associations only apply to us individually - we know these are not observations about the world outside of our minds. There is no social convention that the letter S is navy blue coloured. We also realise that there is probably no other synaesthete in the world who's synaesthesia associations are exactly the same as ours. It is a truism that many autistic people prefer to devote our energies to work or pastimes that are objective, logical and rule-based in nature. Autistic people like to deal with stuff that could be described as the opposite of synaesthesia. I would argue that this does not necessarily indicate any deficit in other ways of thinking, this could simply be a conscious or unconscious strategy to avoid situations in which conflict or interaction with other people might arise. Are there acromonious debates, personality cults and bitter factionalism in rule-based, logical academic disciplines such as engineering or mathematics? If there are, I've never heard of them. These unpleasant things can be found in the world of psychology, a more subjective and less rule-based academic discipline (evolutionary biology has also had some pretty lively moments). Would you expect a person who prefers to limit their thinking or communication to logical, factual and rule-based areas to give the "correct" answer to any bouba-kiki test? Of course you wouldn't, silly.

I wonder how the researchers that I have mentioned would explain the fact that I have been able to identify an effect that is much the same as the bouba-kiki effect in a kids' picture book. Might they suggest that I am really not autistic, or might they suggest that my synaesthesia has compensated for any autistic bouba/kiki deficit that I might otherwise have suffered from? This is where their ideas fail to make sense - if failure at "the bouba-kiki task" is a sign of a central feature of autism, and at the same time synaesthesia is similar to or the same as the neurological process that enables people to succeed at " the bouba-kiki task", then it should surely be impossible for any person to have both synaesthesia and autism at the same time. But many people do. People like me. People like Daniel Tammet. People like the late Syd Barrett. I am a problem for many people, and it is most amusing to know that my very existence is a problem for Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran.

Link to page for Mr Pod and Mr Piccallili at Amazon:

Link to Wikipedia page about the bouba-kiki effect:

Link to Wikipedia page about Synaesthesia:

Link to research by Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman about Autism and the bouba/kiki effect:

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

600% rise in Oppositional Defiant Disorder?!?!

".. schools in New South Wales are pressuring parents to get their children diagnosed with behavioural disorders to secure additional disability services funding." A student with ODD attracts more school funding than a kid with ADD, and a student with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome is apparently a little goldmine. Could this be explanation for the so-called autism epidemic?

Link to the story on ABC Radio: