Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Andrew Whitehouse tackles myths about autism and empathy

It is indeed a sad thing that after a spree shooting there is inevitably some speculation about the offender and the autistic spectrum, regardless of whatever the evidence might indicate. This is why we need researchers like Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon child health research institute in Western Australia to write clear and rational articles debunking the myths about the autistic spectrum. 

Whitehouse, Andrew (2013) Not autistic, but human. The Conversation. January 7th 2013.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Think it through, fool!

Prime Minister Gillard's male defacto Tim Mathieson has been in the news a lot lately, and among the many images I've recently seen was one of Julia Gillard making an address in front of a banner for Menslink, a free counselling and mentoring the service for young men and their families in Canberra. She would have been doing this in partnership with her partner (I hate that overly-vague word) who is a supporter of that single-sex charity. Mathieson appears to have a particular commitment to male-only charities, with his high-profile support of men's sheds, another male-only charity. Perhaps he is doing this to get away from the traditionally feminine gender-stereotyping associated with his role in politics, as the partner of the leader. Unfortunately, in embracing everything manly in image, he has reinforced gender stereotypes rather than challenged them, and it is a mystery to me why so many political commentators seem to think Mathieson is in any way revolutionary in his role. Mathieson didn't explicitly embrace the supportive role that has previously been associated with women. He didn't dare to do this and then face up to and criticize the sexist jibes that would have followed. Instead he chose to wander into the shed that is only for men, with the other "blokes", thus walking backwards in time five decades to a nineteen-fifties mentality, which many of the retired men who are members of the men's shed movement can probably remember first-hand. 

You might think I'm being harsh about a person who has been thrown into the political spotlight without even being a politician himself. I understand that Mathieson's role would be a difficult one, but nevertheless I wish he had paid more heed to the damage that the ideas about gender that he supports can and does do in Australian society. The CEO of Menslink Martin Fisk recently addressed a reception at the Lodge hosted by Prime Minister Gillard and Tim Mathieson. A post including a transcript of Mr Fisk's speech was posted at the Menslink website a couple of days ago:

Setting aside my concerns about the manipulative use of statistics in claims about mental health issues in this speech (a trick that the Australian public has been duped with many times by Australian celebrity psychiatrists), I wish to take issue with the gender-related assumptions that this speech appears to be based upon. The idea that the genders have important psychological differences has internationally grown in popularity to a striking degree in recent decades, an idea that has been supported by and publicly promoted by some psychology researchers and criticised by others. A prominent supporter of these ideas is the autism researcher Prof Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. I have written many posts in which I have raised questions about Baron-Cohen's research and popular books. The now-popular idea that there are profound psychological differences between the human genders is an element supporting the popular belief that children need parental role models of both genders (or a good non-parental substitute), especially a parental role model of their own gender. It is very clear that this belief is an underlying assumption of the speech recently given by the CEO of Menslink. This popular belief inevitably leads to beliefs that sole parent mothers are insufficient to parent sons and vice-versa, that single parents are insufficient as parents, that same-sex parents are jointly insufficient as parents, and that children from such families are in some way psychologically undeveloped or damaged, especially ones who were raised without a parent of their own gender. A great many individuals and families are condemned by this inter-connected set of beliefs about psychology and gender, which are to my knowledge not supported by scientific evidence. There is rarely any acknowledgement that single-parent families are often living in poverty, and this stressful economic situation is rarely cited as a possible cause of social problems that are thought to be common to this type of family. This is all stupidity of the most insidious kind, with the potential to do much harm in Australian society, and to distract the public and decision-makers from the major social issues in Australian society, such as economic inequality, racism, unemployment, sexism and a large and growing the gender pay gap. Has Mr Mathieson spared a moment's thought about these issues? 

Lili's feminist thought for the day

Cordial in different packaging for boys and girls. Ridiculous idea, but also a cunning way to con parents into buying twice as many bottles of cordial. The advert campaign slogan is "Boys vs girls the oldest showdown ever!" Do we really want to promote the idea of division and animosity between the sexes? Isn't there already too much of that? What a stupid idea to inflict on impressionable children!

New wave and old-fashioned sex segregation in everyday Australian life, and around the world

Lili's thought for the day

I don't see the point of a personalized drink bottle for a little girl named "Bella". Why give your daughter a personalized drink bottle if you didn't first give her a personalized first name? 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

F***tard Brit cops arrest autistic teen girl for no valid reason, and fail to nail the crim

Autistic girl spent ten hours in a cell – because police wrongly thought she was drunk.
by Liz Hull

"Her mother ran to the shop and told officers that Melissa had autism, attention deficit disorder and communication difficulties.'But they didn’t want to know,’ she said. ‘Melissa hadn’t had a drop of alcohol, but they said she was drunk. At the police station, a doctor confirmed she hadn’t been drinking, but still the police tried to pursue her through the courts."

"Merseyside police said a 25-year-old woman who allegedly attacked Miss Jones was later arrested but not charged due to ‘lack of evidence’."

These Keystone Cops arrested the innocent young lady, charged her with being drunk and disorderly and pursued that case with determination in the face of overwhelming evidence that their case was baseless, while failing to arrest what appears to be the real offender who had allegedly drunkenly and viciously assaulted the autistic young lady and another person, and the police failed to collect sufficient evidence against the violent lush to take a genuine case to court. Fail, coppers, fail!

Thank you to Bussorah, who writes the alarming blog Strange Justice about serious issues in law enforcement, for writing about this story, which is how I found out about it. 

Strange Justice

Friday, January 25, 2013

Lili's thought for the Australia Day

The first Australian of the Year who is a declared synaesthete has been superseded by a lady with a lisp.

Tonight on SBS is an episode in the series Creative Minds in which former Australian of the Year Geoffrey Rush discusses his life and career.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Are famous synaesthetes a particular type of person?

Last year I had a crack at writing and publishing a couple of little books through the ebook publisher Smashwords. I was curious to see just how do-able the whole process is, and found it surprisingly easy. What an amazing thing is this age of computers and the internet! One of my books is a freebie about the enigmatic and fascinating Opal Whiteley, and the other is a modestly-priced biographical work which grew out of ideas in the first book. "Famous synaesthetes" is a theme that runs through my two books, a topic that I know a thing or two about since establishing in 2008 and continually adding to my huge online list of famous synaesthetes, which is one of the most popular posts at this blog.

In my second book I drew numerous comparisons between three mysterious, most fascinating, famous and to arguably tragic people: Val Lewton, the respected producer of 1940s Hollywood horror films, Helen Demidenko/Darville, the Australian debut novelist who managed to ignite a fire-storm of controversy on a number of different intellectual fronts in the 1990s in Australia, and Jani Schofield, the tragic Californian girl with a controversial psychiatric diagnosis who was placed at the centre of an international media circus in 2009 by her parents. The fourth unusual personality discussed in my book is a fictional but to an unknown degree autobiographical character created by Lewton, the young girl Amy in the classic psychological movie Curse of the Cat People. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I think I might be the only person in the world to write a book exploring commonalities in the biographies of this particular collection of personalities.

In the course of writing my second book I compared Lewton’s exceptional memory for novels and literature combined with a prodigious ability to memorise such texts at speed with the legendary memory of Solomon Shereshevskii, the Russian memory performer and journalist who was tested and examined over a span of decades by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. Luria’s case study of Shereshevskii was published in the book The Mind of a Mnemonist in 1968. In addition to Shereshevskii’s memory, the variety of types of synaesthesia that Shereshevskii experienced was documented in Luria’s influential book. In my book I also pointed out similarities between Lewton and another famous synaesthete. I noted that the Lewton biographer Joel Siegel had compared the attention to details evident in Lewton’s work with the concern with details shown by the Russian synaesthete novelist Vladimir Nabokov. As I reflected upon the biographical and neuropsychological facts that I had learned about Lewton, Shereshevskii and Nabokov, an ever-growing list was compiled, a list of common traits. The size of this list suggests to me that here is something that needs to be explained. I believe I have seen a pattern, a type of person. What do you think? Just a handful of coincidences?

All three men were born in Russia (Lewton’s birthplace, Yalta, was part of Russia at the time). Two of the men were named Vladimir (Lewton’s real first name). Two had Jewish heritage (Nabokov didn’t, but married a Jew). All three men were probably or definitely born with intellectual gifts; Lewton with a prodigious boyhood obsession with stories and literature, Nabokov passing through a curious early period of mathematical savantism (documented in his autobiography Speak, Memory), and Shereshevskii coming from a family in which intellectual gifts were evident in other family members. Two of the men definitely spoke Russian and also English in childhood (I don’t know whether Shereshevskii knew English as a boy). Nabokov and Lewton were both certainly gifted with words, both published novelists and Nabokov a polyglot. All three men had worked as writers (Shereshevskii was a journalist when he was “discovered” as a case of exceptional memory by Luria). Joel’s point about Nabokov and Lewton both showed a remarkable appreciation and care for details is a valid one, and I would cite Shereshevskii’s detailed accounts of his own synaesthesia in Luria’s book and his savant-level ability to recall huge volumes of seemingly meaningless data as evidence of an exceptional ability to focus on and process details. All three men had memories that have been described as eidetic or photographic. All three men created scenes in their minds for a living; Lewton an uncredited movie director in addition to screenwriter and producer, and also a novelist, Shereshevskii memorizing huge volumes of data apparently in a visual format, and Nabokov creating visual images in his fictional and autobiographical books. All three were synaesthetes (duh!). Two definitely had multiple types of synaesthesia, while we can only assume that the one type of synaesthesia that Lewton had was not an isolated phenomenon, because it is the norm for synaesthetes to experience more than one variety. Two of the men definitely had grapheme-colour synaesthesia (Nabokov and Shereshevskii both gave detailed descriptions) and all three experienced types of synaesthesia associated with graphemes (letters or numbers). One should take care not to overstate the significance of three people all having grapheme-colour synaesthesia, as it is an unusual characteristic, but not nearly as rare as some second-rate scientists have claimed. Nevertheless, I feel that I’ve identified a pattern in common with these fascinating famous men. You could call it a syndrome. I wouldn’t. You could call it a neurodevelopmental pattern and point to genetics as the origin, but I wouldn’t want to overlook the effects of a boy’s place in society. One could argue that these three individuals were nothing more peculiar than highly intelligent, but that would beg the question of whether synaesthesia is that common among the very bright. You could call my pattern a collection of coincidences. I disagree, because when I consider the biographies of some other famous synaesthetes, the pattern appears to be confirmed. Do you want to know what I think is the most intriguing trait that these three men had in common? It’s one of the more odd and scientifically unexplored varieties of synaesthesia, thought by some researchers to be possibly linked with social cognition. What peculiar mental experience is or was common to the novelist Nabokov, the memory genius Shereshevskii, film producer Val Lewton, the fictional child movie character Amy, troubled young Jani Schofield, the enigmatic American child diarist Opal Whiteley who was most famous in the 1920s, and also the author of this blog post? Buy my book and find out!

The Mysterious Mind of Opal Whiteley: Four Unique Lives Compared.
by Lili Marlene
Publisher: Smashwords.

This talk is most entertaining and informative, if you have the time

there's this from 2011 too.....

Lili's thought for the day

Justthisguy would probably enjoy this article immensely, but I find the main theory unconvincing.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Love this quote

Two obsessions are one too many.
- Dr James Watson, controversial Nobel Prize winner

Does your family have someone who lives like this? I think it's a blessing. I feel nostalgic for the feeling. This and more entertaining and thought-provoking quotes can be found in my collection of quotes:

Lili's thought for the day

Olympia Publishing make the best Aussie pocket diaries.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Lili's baffled thought of the day

For every 100 Indian women there are 106 Indian men, but a Washington Post article about "10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem" didn't cite gender imbalance as one reason. What did the Indians think was going to happen when they destroyed the natural sexual balance of their society?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Lili's blogging thought for the day

A big clear-out of my links section could happen. Then again, I have 101 more sensible things I should be doing rather than blogging. 

Mottron, Dawson and associates' paper out since last year......

..... and I've only just found out. Have you read this? Covers autism Asperger syndrome, sensory perception, savantism, synaesthesia, hyperlexia, perfect pitch, all the interesting stuff. Sadly most of the paper is in technical language that I can scarcely comprehend, but that isn't too much of a deterrent to a housewife know-it-all. "Plausibly, these apparently different phenomena develop through a veridical mapping mechanism whereby perceptual information is coupled with homological data drawn from within or across isomorphic structures." Ay? 

The argument that there is a link between autism/Asperger syndrome and synaesthesia is sure to jar some rings in the synaesthesia community, which is gratifying, but the citing of journal papers about Daniel Tammet as a case study, and the description of him as a case of co-occurring autism and synaesthesia is quite disappointing.

Laurent Mottron, Lucie Bouvet, Anna Bonnel, Fabienne Samson, Jacob A. Burack, Michelle Dawson, Pamela Heaton
Veridical mapping in the development of exceptional autistic abilities. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Volume 37, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 209–228.
Article history: Received 5 July 2012, Revised 22 November 2012, Accepted 23 November 2012, Available online 5 December 2012.

Prof McGorry's pet theory loses battle with reality

I've only just found out about the online publication in late November of last year of a study by former Australian of the Year and influential psychiatrist Prof. Patrick McGorry and his research team, which tested the prof's pet theory that elevated risk for developing psychosis can be identified in young people and treated in an early intervention to prevent a conversion to mental illness.The subjects of the trial were 115 young clients of a PACE clinic in Melbourne. Two supposedly effective forms of intervention were tested: the neuroleptic antipsychotic drug risperidone and cognitive therapy. McGorry's team had planned a couple of years ago to trial a different antipsychotic drug, but that trial was abandoned after complaints from other mental health experts. In this trial only a low dose of the drug risperidone was trialed. Three different combinations of drug or placebo and talking interventions were trialed (check the details for yourself), one being only placebo with "supportive therapy". No significant difference in results was found between the three groups. The supposedly effective interventions apparently weren't found to be any more effective than placebo and a nice chat, and as any true expert in the field of trying to predict risk for developing psychosis could have predicted, a large majority of the youths that had been labelled as being at "ultra-high risk for psychosis" did not become psychotic within the year that the trial was run. Call that ultra-high risk? I certainly don't! The sky isn't falling Henny Penny, and your interventions aren't anything special.

Patrick D. McGorry, MD, PhD; Barnaby Nelson, PhD; Lisa J. Phillips, PhD; Hok Pan Yuen, MSc; Shona M. Francey, PhD; Annette Thampi, MRCPsych; Gregor E. Berger, MD; G. Paul Amminger, MD; Magenta B. Simmons, BA; Daniel Kelly, Grad Dip (Psych); Andrew D. Thompson, MD; and Alison R. Yung, MD (2012) Randomized Controlled Trial of Interventions for Young People at Ultra-High Risk of Psychosis: Twelve-Month Outcome. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Submitted: March 16, 2012; accepted September 13, 2012. Online ahead of print: November 27, 2012 (doi:10.4088/JCP.12m07785).

Thank you Neuroskeptic for the interesting blog post about the trial:

Neuroskeptic (2012) Neither Drugs Nor Therapy Prevent Psychosis. Neuroskeptic. December 15th 2012.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Headspace fact-sheet gives too little and too much info

I don't see anything in the fact-sheet from Headspace at the link above, aimed at professionals, to help differentiate between synaesthesia and psychosis, or epilepsy sensory auras and psychosis, or the many other types of non-psychotic atypical sensory experiences and psychosis, in fact the bit at the end of the info page widens the definition of psychosis but offers no guidance at all in differential diagnosis to help narrow things down again appropriately. I was also unable to find anything at all at the entire Headspace website to help differentiate schizophrenia or psychotic hallucinations from synaesthesia or other non-psychotic conditions and experiences. Synesthesia researchers have written about cases in which synaesthesia has been disastrously misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. I have argued in detail that this is what has happened in the very unfortunate case of Jani Schofield, and at least one other American young child. It happens. It shouldn't happen. It is a tragedy. There is no excuse for it happening, and there is no excuse for failing to try to prevent it from happening, especially a government-funded organization like Headspace.

The online information page at the link is published by Headspace, an Australian government-funded service that has been and still is aggressively promoted and offered to "youths", including children unaccompanied by parents. It is given huge amounts of money by the Gillard Government, and it is also given unquestioning support by many organizations and individuals in the community. Youth mental health services are a very fashionable cause in Australia today, often promoted in a way that appeals more to the emotions than thought by Headspace board member Prof Pat McGorry and many other public figures and celebrities. Many organizations and businesses sponsor, support or promote Headspace and related services, including some that market goods or services to youth. We should all expect much, much more from services like Headspace. They are funded by us, you and me who are compelled to pay taxes but have no say in how they are spent, except at election time. Services like Headspace have a huge potential to do harm in the community. This was made very clear when Prof McGorry's planned trial of Seroquel on youth patients at one site of the Orygen Youth Health service was closed down in 2011 following complaints by local and international mental health experts. That trial was known as the NEURAPRO-Q trial. 

Headspace is being promoted to teenagers and young Australians as places where youths can go to talk about issues in a friendly atmosphere. In fact, Headspace centres are funded as mental health services, and that is a euphemism for psychiatry. A Headspace centre could be a lone child client's first ever contact with the world of psychiatry, and there are definite risks associated with that. So the next time you see a rock star or a sporting hero or a kindly professor talking up the profile of Headspace, if you are able to contact that public figure in person or by other means, perhaps you might like to ask them how the many risks involved in providing a psychiatric service like Headspace are managed. I'm sure you will have a most interesting conversation. 

Words of wisdom from a great Australian

You can’t build a sky scraper out of plasticine. And you can’t build a just civilization out of ignorance and lies.
- Julian Assange, 2012

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The high price of Julia

"According to demographer and former Labor senator John Black, by the middle of 2012, with most polls showing Labor's primary vote stuck at 30 per cent, Julia Gillard had cost her party two million votes." 

- Maxine McKew, page three in her recent book Tales from the Political Trenches published by Melbourne University Press

here's another fun quote, from page 160, the beginning of a compelling chapter:

"It's something to think about isn't it? That a first-term Prime Minister was removed because he was insufficiently deferential to a small group of people who see themselves as the 'owners' of the Labor Party. Rudd refused to genuflect and kiss the ring. He was busy with other things."

Read whichever interpretation of the word "ring" that you like. Actually, this quote is a description of the way that workplaces in Australia normally work. I think most Aussies have just come to accept that this is how things are.

This book is my pick as a summer read for Australian readers with an interest in politics. The book is part autobiography, blending with commentary and reporting on the events before, during and after the winter of 2010 when a highly popular Aussie PM in his first term was deposed by lesser beings, throwing the ALP into an abyss of voter unpopularity, pretty much the same abyss that Rudd had only two and a half years earlier pulled the ALP out of. In case you didn't know, McKew had a long and respected career in journalism at a public broadcaster before retiring and successfully later running for the ALP in the 2007 Rudd landslide federal election, and in doing so unseating the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard who till then had appeared to be unassailable. McKew was later unseated in the 2010 federal election which was a choice between political leaders that could be summed up as "dumb and dumber". So, Maxine has heaps and heaps to write about, and she's got the skill in spades to write in a clear and engaging manner. This is probably why this book drew me in, even to read stuff that I'd not otherwise find of interest. The main attraction for me in this book is McKew's debunking of many of the points in the official ALP/Gillard and Swan account of why Rudd had to be removed, and also McKew's general arguments against the integrity and competence of Gillard and Swan. Many anonymous but apparently very senior ALP sources are quoted by McKew regretting the coup of winter 2010. I can completely understand why such sources would insist on anonymity. There's also a quote from Rudd. Two and a half years later, many Australians are still feeling outrage at Gillard and Swan's disloyal grab for power. It must surely go down in Australian political history as the stupidest decision ever.

Lili's disgusted thought for the day

Earn an instant five grand pay rise - grow a dick.

Lili's gardening thought for the day

Sweet potatoes are underground surprise pumpkins, or if you like, underground secret pumpkins, but with no annoying seeds. Sweet potato plants are a low-maintenance ground cover or creeper, with tubers that are so tasty roasted beside a nice fatty leg of pork. Sweet potatoes are fun. Sweet potatoes are yum. Why have bare ground when you could have sweet potatoes there?