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.

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.

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: