Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Oh how ironic....

Sometimes life spontaneously throws up odd correspondences or patterns which show us something about the way the world really works, in a way that is hard to ignore. Am I the first or am I only the last to notice the irony in this story? Years ago Professor Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge developed a DVD that is supposed to teach autistic children (presumed to be unable to read emotions) how to read facial expressions. That DVD is called The Transporters, and it features train engines and motor vehicle characters with expressive faces which get into dramas. The Transporters bears a strong resemblance to the popular children's TV series and illustrated books centred on the character Thomas the Tank Engine, stories which are believed to have particular appeal to young autistic boys. The characters in the Thomas the Tank books and TV series also have expressive faces and get into many interpersonal dramas. A week or so ago it was revealed on the Australian TV current affairs show 7.30 that the award-winning artist who created the artwork for the new generation of Thomas the Tank books and associated merchandise, Owen Bell, has been professionally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. A quick look at some examples of Mr Bell's artwork reveals that he has created many images of a range facial expressions which appear to be appropriate and interpretable. They aren't masterpieces of emotional depth or subtlety, but one wouldn't expect that from simplified children's book illustrations. So, how did Mr Bell with Asperger syndrome manage to produce such art if autistics can't even read facial expressions (let alone depict them in art in an anpropriate way)? Please explain, Professor!

"The Transporters"-Dr. Simon Baron Cohen: Beyond the Headlines. YouTube. Uploaded by autismhangout on Jan 8, 2009.

The Transporters.

A Perth digital artist creates award winning images. 7.30 WA. April 13, 2012.

Owen Bell. Wikia.


krex said...

Thanks for the link....His books are a bot after my time...(more of a Bernstien Bears aged person...but I love the art he is doing now .I was pretty perturbed that the mdeia once again describes him as a man suffering with Aspergers when he clearly stated that he experienced it more as a gift...how empathetic is it when NT's not only can't tell what we are feeling but deny our feelings even when we clearly state them . (reminds me of wasted years in therapy )

Lili Marlene said...

Yes, I also noticed the apparently unthinking and inappropriate use of the term "sufferer" by the ABC. It was inconsistent with what was shown in the actual story.

I'm more convinced than ever that the label AS could be in many cases a pathologization and medicalization of high intelligence. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the pleasant state of being that Mr Bell describes exaperiencing when he does his detailed artwork is the same experience that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow" in his theory about gifted students.

Anonymous said...

In looking at the cases of Daniel Tammet and similar I was struck by the way the medicalised label "Savant Syndrome" was used. I wonder if similar issues apply to the Asperger Syndrome label.

Part of it is the meaning of "Syndrome" to start with - my understanding is that all a "Syndrome" is is a set of symptoms or characteristics that often occur together. There doesn't have to be an identifiable underlying medical cause for the symptoms.

Joshua Foer discusses this in Moonwalking with Einstein. He points out that strictly speaking according to the definition of Savant Syndrome, the question of whether Tammet trained and used memory techniques is irrelevant to the question of whether he has savant syndrome or not. If he had some disability, and some high ability, he fits the criteria for Savant Syndrome, whether the cause is medical or not. This contrasts with how the media and public tend to understand the meaning of "Savant Syndrome", which they assume must mean some special ability with a medical cause.

Now turn to the case of Aspergers' and Owen Bell. Owen says "I've always drawn and painted. It's just about all I ever did when I was a kid". Now that might be because of some kind of medical cause, but I suspect it could equally because drawing is fun, and he enjoyed it a lot, and preferred it to other activities.

If we have someone who spends most of their time staying home and drawing, it doesn't seem surprising that they would not develop very good social skills. Someone a lot of time at home could also develop a lot of repetitive habits and routines. So you have someone with an intense interest, lack of social skills, and repetitive habits.

Would that be enough to get him the medicalised Asperger label, even if the underlying cause of his characteristics is spending a lot of time with art, rather than any kind of medical cause? I don't really know enough about Asperger to comment fully, but based on what I've seen with Savant Syndrome this looks plausible.


Lili Marlene said...

My understanding of the medical term "syndrome" is that it is a group of signs or symptoms that are found together, and the cause of it is unknown. But in real life, I think the term "syndrome" tends to remain after medicine has a fair idea what is behind the illness (being a medical term, it should only be applied to illnesses). The odd thing about AS is that it's proper term in the most recent edition of the DSM is I think "Asperger's disease" rather than syndrome, which implies that the cause of it is known to science. Well, if it is known, I wish those in the know would share their elite knowledge! Psychiatry isn't science, and neither is most of medicine. It isn't worth taking too seriously - the doctors don't.

The scenario that you have outlined with the boy who prefers art to socializing sounds plausible, but there are questions about why he would choose it and also what would be the results of such a choice. Art might be fun, but for most kids playing with peers is much more fun. Why is he different? Does he lack genuine peers because his IQ is 140 and he's stuck in an ordinary government school with no access to any gifted peers or gifted program? Does his sensory hypersentitivity which goes along with giftedness make him come to hate being in a noisy classroom, and make him hate his peers after years of such sensory irritation? Or does he simply have an unidentified communication disorder? Does he have an untreated anxiety issue? Does sensory hypersentitivity along with synaesthesia send this boy into a sensory world apart from others, in a way that others can't understand? The thing is, if a young child misses out on a social life, for whatever reason, that absence might alter the development of the child's brain. It might not matter what the initial cause was, the end result being the same as other cases.