Thursday, October 30, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory: Executive Summary

This series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III) was written in response to this article by Amherst College Professor of Women's Studies and Political Science Kristin Bumiller, which appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of the feminist journal Signs.

In her article, Bumiller describes the neurodiversity movement, sketches a history of knowledge about and attitudes toward autism, and draws analogies between the social model of disability and feminist theories about the social construction of gender. Both movements, she argues, seek to enable their constituencies (women, people with disabilities) to participate more fully in democratic societies by reorganizing those societies so that those groups are no longer disadvantaged.

She calls those "antinormalization" strategies for social integration --- rather than seeking to enable more people to meet society's standards for full citizenship, they seek a loosening of standards. I chose to highlight two issues where feminism and neurodiversity (and disability-rights activism in general) both urge antinormalization strategies: caregiving and gender roles. As it stands, caregiving is done primarily by women, either within families for no pay or within institutional settings for little pay, and the relationship between the caregiver and the person with disabilities tends to be a hierarchical one in which the person with disabilities has relatively little autonomy, dignity or control. I think that if there were more choices between full independence --- home ownership, full-time employment, car ownership, etc. --- and total dependence --- the institution or group home --- everyone would be able to live in the way that best meets their needs, and pressures would be lifted from both women (who currently do most of the work of caring for elderly or disabled relatives) and disabled people (who don't want to be burdens to their families, and are easily guilted or browbeaten into choosing living arrangements that don't suit them but are convenient for their families).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Eight Houses

So, I got tagged with a meme by HellOnHairyLegs, and I have to list eight places where I'd like to have a house if I were like a certain presidential candidate and had eight houses.

Here goes:

1. A smallish, passive-solar house in the community my friends and I are planning to start near Hohenwald, TN. We would make it ourselves, pipe in filtered rainwater from cisterns, plant fruit trees and vegetable gardens and keep chickens and sheep. Why Hohenwald? Well, Tennessee has great growing conditions, and is the nursery capital of the world (which is handy for would-be fruit growers). Plus, it's near The Farm.

2. A cabin near the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, because I love canoeing.

3. Anywhere in Alaska, because snow and ice and cold make me ridiculously happy.

4. One of the colorful old Victorian-looking houses in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, because I like Lawrence and have friends there whom I'd conceivably want to visit.

5. Salem, Massachusetts, because Halloween is my favorite holiday and my sister tells me it's a very big deal in Salem. I'd use my backyard to grow pumpkins, and carve a couple dozen or so every year. The rest, I'd learn to cook with. Pumpkin pie for the whole town!

6. A castle on the wide, unsettled plains of North Dakota or Montana. My father and I would build it ourselves, stone by stone.

7. Iowa City, Iowa. I like Iowa a lot, I've got family there, and Iowa City is a pretty cool college town, like Lawrence only with the campus and the cool downtown shopping area next to each other. Plus, the Amana Colonies are nearby, and there's a great chocolate shop there.

8. Portland, Oregon, for the climate and the mass-transit system.

I'm not going to tag anybody, since these things annoy a lot of people, but if anybody wants to answer it, feel free.

Now, the question is: of these eight residences, all in different states, where the heck would I be registered to vote? Could I pick whichever I wanted? If so, I think I'd vote in either Massachusetts or Oregon, since they're probably the most hospitable to my politics. Though Minnesota wouldn't be a bad place either, since they sent Paul Wellstone to the Senate and Keith Ellison to the House.

I'm also going to ignore the logistics of multiple homeownership for a person who doesn't drive. Am I going to walk from Alaska to Tennessee?

Maybe in this fantasy I have an airship of some kind.

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part III)

The last issue I want to address from Bumiller's article is the relationship between neurodiversity in particular (and the disability-rights movement in general) and feminism. She thinks they complement each other well in terms of agitating for, on many fronts, a more open, pluralistic and free society:

The neurodiversity movement, despite its own understanding of itself as engaged in a civil rights struggle, represents a novel form of group-based advocacy. Under present conditions, antidiscrimination principles provide an inadequate basis for the large-scale provision of services and educational opportunities for people with autism (O'Brien 2005). Many typical citizens resist inclusion of people with autism to avoid exposure to uncomfortable interactions with people whom they perceive to be antisocial, gender-inappropriate, or simply odd. More serious obstacles to inclusion result from the failure to support the high costs of treatment programs and the perceived threat of autistic people as dangerous. The responsibility of assuring disabled people's place in society goes far beyond the commitment to preserving individual rights; it necessitates a broader agenda as formulated by feminist disability studies. A more expansive model of inclusion needs to counteract the pull toward normalization and stake a claim about the harmful effects of devaluing all kinds of diversities, including those relating to gender, sexuality and race (Baglieri and Knopf 2004). Moreover, it involves challenging a de facto scheme of social exclusion created by a diminishing welfare state and the provision of fewer resources for supporting people with disabilities (Baker 2004).
... Many aspects of [neurodiversity] effectively articulate a nascent feminist agenda and contribute to the antinormalizing efforts of feminists supporting diverse causes such as the rights of intersexed persons, support for alternative family forms, and genetic diversity.
On their own, in other words, the normalization strategies might make it easier for disabled people (or women) to meet the standards applied to able ones (or men), but they'll never entirely erase the gap, or do anything about the fact that people with such widely varying circumstances are asked to conform to a single standard in the first place.

Another area I see feminism and disability-rights perspectives reinforcing each other is on the question of caregiving. This might not seem like an obvious choice, since you often see feminists and disabled self-advocates at odds over this issue: when disabled people assert our right to adequate care in our own homes (or wherever we choose), feminists argue that we are also claiming entitlement to the underpaid or unpaid labor of women. (See the feminist blogswarm over Ashley X for ample evidence of this conflict).

But when you think about it, modern industrial capitalist society's way of dealing with children, disabled people, elderly adults and every other group that needs help with daily tasks is exactly what you'd expect from a society in which women are invisible second-class citizens. When women are not valued as highly as men, women's work is not regarded as real work, and obligations that fall under the umbrella of "women's work" (say, care for the old, the sick and the disabled) will be more likely to be dismissed as "family responsibilities" in which government meddling is unwarranted.

Making society more inclusive, therefore, means not only eliminating the barriers that keep marginalized people from participating fully in society, but also allowing for a far greater range of available lifestyles. As it stands, the options for attaining housing form a continuum between complete independence (i.e., renting or buying a home of your own, and living in it by yourself) and complete dependence and lack of agency (i.e., living in an institution or group home), with a range of options (in-home care, living with relatives, etc.) in between. I do not think any of these options should be abolished --- with the possible exception of institutionalization --- but I would like to see other kinds of choices added to the list. What about cohousing projects tailored to certain groups' needs? What about neighborhoods that are more like extended families or groups of friends than strangers who just happen to live near each other? I can't come up with many examples offhand, but the kinds of supported-housing options I'd want to see are more relational and egalitarian than institutional. As it is, the relationship between the nonfamily caregiver and her client is a very impersonal one; the caregiver is getting paid (not much) to do certain things, and she has very little incentive to go beyond those duties. It's also a hierarchical relationship, in which the caregiver has power over the client and can make (some) choices for the client, with any objection the client might voice likely to be taken as further evidence for his or her instability and need for further supervision and restraint. I think that if there were more flexibility in community planning and housing development (to take one example among many), more cooperative supported-living schemes would crop up, with groups of disabled people sharing the responsibilities of living together, with a reduced need for external care and support.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part II)

This post, in case it's not clear from the title, is a continuation of the previous post, which ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated. Also, because I spent all of the previous post grappling with Kristin Bumiller's taxonomy of disability-rights-promoting strategies, it will be here that I address the gender issues I alluded to at the beginning of that post.

I'm not sure if I mentioned this in the first post, but the primary sources Bumiller uses --- what she considers the founding texts of the neurodiversity movement --- and quotes liberally in her article, are blogs and websites:, Autism Diva and Whose Planet Is It Anyway? all show up in her bibliography. It gave me particular glee to see a lengthy snippet from this old post of ABFH's reproduced in a scholarly article, complete with the citation "Autistic Bitch from Hell."* Seeing that in an academic journal made my day, and very possibly my week, too.

The context for quoting ABFH was this discussion of the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism:
While the validity of this research is subject to debate within the scientific community, it nevertheless promotes a view of autism that reinforces cultural stereotypes of gender. From a feminist perspective, the essentialist version of autism is a disturbing reconstruction of gender and disability stereotypes in the guise of new scientific knowledge. Baron-Cohen's explanation for autism has the twin effect of normalizing the condition (by suggesting that it includes all of us) while essentializing gender differences (by rooting the condition in biological maleness). On the one hand, this easily popularized idea buttresses the kind of stereotypes that the neurodiversity movement hopes to counter. For example, it furthers the idea of autistic genius as an expression of an exaggerated male attribute (Bombaci 2005). On the other hand, it is also problematic to suggest that treating autistic children is akin to treating the usual problems associated with socializing boys, an analogy that potentially reassures those who believe that mainstream education can easily respond to these children's needs.
A gender-based theory of autism grossly oversimplifies the enormous complexity of the autistic condition, including its range of atypical sensory, physical, psychological, and perceptual manifestations (Keane 2004). Autism is a neurological condition that fundamentally affects how a person experiences the world.
I highlighted in bold text the part of that passage I found most useful; indeed, apart from its mere inaccuracy, that tradeoff is the thing that most bothers me about Baron-Cohen's idea. Yes, it provides a way to think of autism as just another flavor of human experience, and one not all that different from the other flavors, but it does this by splitting human experience in two --- male experience and female experience --- and claiming autism as belonging to the male. Autism, then, might "include all of us," but only if "all of us" are men. Women, apparently, are "them," yet again. (And autistic women are not women).

The rest of the passage was hard for me to decipher. The dichotomy Bumiller sets up at the end of the first paragraph seems like both of its branches are going the same place. Her "one hand" option has Baron-Cohen's theory "buttress(ing) ... stereotypes the neurodiversity movement hopes to counter" --- i.e., the theory works against the interests of actual autistic people --- and her "other hand" has the "problematic" aspect of making people complacent about mainstream education's adequacy for autistic students --- i.e., the theory works against the interests of actual autistic people, which presumably include more and better educational supports. This doesn't seem to be a dichotomy so much as the "other hand" gives a specific example of the general trend held in the "one hand." There is, indeed, a stereotype that autistics --- autistic children in particular, but it is also applied to adults --- don't really need any special help at all, and aren't really experiencing any distress when they are overloaded; they're just bratty and looking for attention/throwing a tantrum. So maybe all she needed to do was drop the either/or phrasing and instead phrase it as "trend x, with examples y and z."

The other thing I found interesting about this article was her treatment of gender variance in autism. It came up in the larger context of normalization strategies, and the need to ask whether a given strategy is really in the best interest of the disabled person in whose name it's being implemented. She brought up ABA, which she mentioned is often used simply to get autistics to appear more "normal":
This tendency [of caregivers to try to get their disabled clients to appear as "normal" as possible, and value/reward them according to how successful they are at it] is particularly strong when applied to people with autism, whose disability is in fact medically defined by an inability to understand social conventions. The social development of children with autism is often measured in terms of their progress toward acquiring normal social skills (Gross 2003). Since autism is a form of bodily difference that interferes with the person's ability to process information (sensory, language, tactile, and visual) in a typical fashion, children learn to cope by either imitating norms of behavior or making sense of the world within their unique perceptual systems (Nikopoulos and Keenan 2004).
There is enormous pressure on parents to seek intensive behavioral training because autistic persons' lives are replete with situations where their differences matter. In their lives at home, school, and work, they constantly encounter reactions, usually negative, to their failure to conform to and understand social norms. Even relatively minor differences in social behavior are met with disapproval and rejection and are sometimes grounds for exclusion.
One of the "norms of behavior" that autistics frequently violate is gender-role compliance. I like the way Bumiller describes it:
School-age children with autism often develop likes or dislikes for possessions without attributing relevance to gender demarcation. For example, a boy could become attached to a Barbie lunch box because it relieves stress to repetitively fiddle (sic) with the latch mechanism. When professionals see such preferences as merely gender inappropriate behavior they are disregarding the child's own conception of gender relevance and/or attachments to objects that reduce anxiety. (emphasis mine)
I like her conception of gender variance in autism as simply the failure to attribute gender significance to every tiny detail of one's manner, appearance, taste and choice of hobbies. I've said before that I think gender is one of the most intensively socialized pieces of behavior a person can learn, so it would certainly follow that people who aren't very good at social learning in general would tend to develop a much smaller repertoire of gender signals. A corollary that I failed to add earlier, which I think Bumiller is getting at in the above passage, would be that people who aren't good social learners wouldn't learn to invest as many things with gendered (or other social) meaning. To someone who hasn't been marinating all their life in a culture where gender takes on such a monstrously huge significance (or someone who can't absorb that culture's messages very well), it becomes just another bit of personal data, like having blue eyes or being short. It won't have any bearing on most of the choices that person makes in their daily life.

As you might expect, this failure to take every opportunity to perform one's assigned gender is taken as another autistic "deficit" in social skills:
The process of teaching children to understand social cues, such as teaching children to smile when they are happy to see someone, is often broadened to areas like gender appropriateness, in which children are forced to conform to conventions that are irrelevant to them. Many adolescents with autism consider themselves to be gender neutral, and when confronted with the prospect of dating either withdraw socially or choose to be regarded as androgynous. In social skills training, young autistic persons are explicitly taught about the relevance of gender performance to finding sexual partners. For example, books designed to teach autistic adolescents about sexuality often list specific examples of how potential dates will perceive their appearance or behavior as masculine or feminine. These instruction manuals for entering intimate relationships explain that gender performances have social meaning and tell why they are important to rituals of dating and marriage.
I will probably post later about my wishlist for such a reference book, but in itself I don't see explanation of gender performance as a bad thing. The important thing would be that the book isn't heteronormative or sexist --- that, though it should say what people will likely think of certain gestures, speech patterns or clothing choices, it should not contain any value judgment on those choices. And it should be aware that whoever is reading the book might well have a different goal in mind than they would --- my high-school self would have been looking to convey a masculine self-image, whether to male or female potential dates.

*The one thing I've experienced comparable to that would have to be when my Spenser professor let it slip that one of the earliest Spenser critics was named Batman. (Stephen Batman, also spelled Bateman. The professor hypothesized that he became "Bateman" because scholars felt silly citing Batman as their authority. I don't know why; I'd certainly be interested to know what the Dark Knight thinks about sixteenth-century English poetry).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part I)

There's an interesting article by Amherst College's Kristin Bumiller in this past summer's issue of the University of Chicago's women's-studies journal Signs, titled "Quirky Citizens: Autism, Gender and Reimagining Disability."

It's a long article, but it still seems to jump around a lot between subjects. That's one of two major gripes I have with this piece, that once Bumiller gets deep enough into a topic to say really interesting things about it, she moves on. (The other gripe I have is with her tendency to depict the neurodiversity movement in what I think are overly broad strokes, which might be remedied by providing more quotes to back up assertions about what neurodiversity is, and by acknowledging controversies within neurodiversity where they exist. It would be really hard to do all that and have something short enough to have much of a shot at publication, though, so I can hardly blame her for oversimplifying the stuff that's not part of her argument).

The article is kind of complicated, narratively and structurally: she seems to tell the story of the history of autism, and the slow change in attitudes toward it, but at the same time she takes frequent breaks to discuss questions of gender as they arise. Since she does not advance a single, sustained argument but instead jumps around to look at a bunch of different topics, my responses to (some of) her points will be similarly scattershot.

The most interesting thing that stuck out to me was her categorizing of the different strategies of integrating autistics into society: she draws a distinction between "normalization" strategies that seek to bring marginalized groups more in line with the majority group (and thereby enjoy a wider range of social privileges) and "antinormalization" strategies that, rather than make it easier for more people to act like the standard white, male, middle-class person, try to make society more tolerant of differences.

Here's Bumiller explaining the rationale for "normalization" strategies:
Feminist theories have emphasized how in modern capitalist societies the privileges of citizenship are contingent on one's ability to embody the norm. In fact, citizenship often defines the primary dimensions by which we measure normality; the good citizen is an avid consumer in the market, makes appropriate demands on the state, and conforms to conventional family forms. The disabled, who experience a disproportionately high poverty rate in most Western societies (Burchardt 2004), are a variant of citizen outside the norm and are often seen as presenting an unwanted drain on the market economy like other groups that are considered undesirable because of their class, race or criminal record.
...Disability programs often state their objectives in terms that suggest their capacity to assure more normal social participation (e.g., promoting independent living, employability, functional social skills, and self-management). As applied, such goals often preclude individuals with disabilities from resisting norms that counter the political ideal of independence (like choosing to live in the company of one's family of origin rather than independently). (Smith 2001)
Now, here's her explanation of "antinormalization" strategies:
Antinormalization strategies potentially form the basis for a more far-reaching project whose aim is to shift the goal of the disability movement from simple demands for inclusion to a utopian vision of a society that values human diversity. This kind of activism has been adopted within the gay liberation movement, including, for example, actions that deliberately destabilize assumptions about proper sexual conduct in public places. To a lesser extent it has caught on among disability rights activists and has been applied in protests that hope to destabilize conventional images of the disabled. In its most radical form, antinormalization is devoted to pushing for the acceptance of difference and its full expression in an open democratic process. As it is put into practice, activists are likely to promote antinormalization side by side with normalization, either as mutual or contingent empowerment strategies (Meeks 2001). This grander scheme for social inclusion raises expectations for accommodating those identities that traditionally have been marginalized. This is important to a feminist politics that hopes to value disabled people's lives, respond to gender-based disadvantage, and expand our views of meaningful citizenship. (emphasis mine)
This scheme --- normalization vs. antinormalization --- makes for a pretty odd way of grouping different approaches to social integration. In the article itself, both the Americans with Disabilities Act and ABA for autistic children --- two things that could hardly evoke more markedly opposite reactions from most autistic self-advocates --- are classed as normalization strategies. Because of that, I'm not sure how useful those terms are for someone trying to navigate the confusing thicket of choices available to a novice advocate or self-advocate. Particularly, I think the "normalization" group ought to be broken down further, possibly along the lines of what is being normalized, and to whose benefit. For instance, there's a world of difference between, say, environmental supports that allow greater participation by disabled people in "normal" society by removing whatever physical, logistical or social barriers had previously kept them out, and "educational" strategies geared toward teaching socially or behaviorally "disordered" people to look, act and speak in ways that are already socially acceptable. The first benefits all disabled people; even if not every disability is accommodated immediately, the legal framework and political precedent exists to make it likelier that they will be. The primary beneficiary of the second strategy is society, whose institutions do not have to reconsider their approaches to dealing with a diverse population when the outliers can just be persuaded to suppress their differences. Also, besides its fundamental conservatism, the second strategy also creates a hierarchy among disabled people that favors those who can more easily pass as normal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Arty Aspie Strikes Again

This is the same character I drew in my earlier Arty Aspie post. I revisited her for two reasons: first, that I wanted to do a painting that gave a better view of her --- the other painting is a top-down view, which shows her only as a skirt, a ponytail and a pair of outstretched arms. That made for an interesting composition, but I wanted to do a picture that was more about her. So here it is.

I also wanted, at some point, to find a way to render, graphically, the way in which I see the world --- the perceptual hyperacuity that characterizes my autism and makes my world such a vivid, dreamlike and sometimes scary place. This picture, with its colorful background, is a step on that path. Now, the trick is to incorporate that level of intense color and light/shadow contrast into a more detailed scene.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"More Focus on Compliance": An Addendum to My Last Post

While I was writing the last post, it occurred to me that the emphasis on "compliance" within classrooms that Stephen Camarata noted in that AP article might be a resurgence of the educational philosophy of the Cold-War 1950s. When I talk with my mom about education, she always tells me that her classwork was mostly rote learning --- she learned French by memorizing dialogues, she memorized and recited speeches and poems --- while my siblings and I have tended to get a lot more creative or analytical assignments.

A few factors stick out to me as possible reasons the pendulum might be swinging back: first, we're in the middle of a huge panic over a perceived loss of American "competitiveness," economically and militarily. We're losing a lot of good-paying, high-skilled jobs overseas, and every year our students seem to fall further behind the rest of the world on science and math tests.

I wonder if this kind of cultural climate of fear of losing status in the international community might be one reason for periodic vogues of "back-to-basics" educational philosophies. After all, in the Cold War Americans worried mightily about what would happen if Russia's engineers and scientists got ahead of ours in the Space Race. Now, we might not be as worried about military threats (all the wars we're involved in, after all, are hugely asymmetrical in terms of firepower), but we see ourselves as extremely vulnerable economically. Globalization means that companies will probably choose to base most of their production in other countries, where labor is cheaper and fewer regulations are in place, while more and more countries are turning out bright, well-educated young workers from their colleges and universities. The West in general, and America in particular, no longer holds a monopoly on highly-skilled labor, and the model of pure, untrammeled capitalism America espouses (as opposed to Europe's more tempered, safer version) will admit of no incentive but profits, which leaves no room for policies geared toward growing a local economy.

Of course, the need corporations have for highly technically skilled grunt workers is only part of the equation describing educational policy in America. Much of the standardization of education can also be blamed on No Child Left Behind, which makes standardized testing just about an annual event, and distorts curricula accordingly. Finally, a related factor that surely contributes to it is the chronic lack of funding and staff that make it down to the classroom level. If a teacher is already taxed to the extent of his or her abilities just by the sheer number of students and volume of material, they're going to place a high value on sitting down, shutting up and letting them get on with it.

Back to the theme of the changing global economy, and its ramifications for education, I've wondered for quite some time why it is that when people see that their institutions are leaving them behind, the idea that comes first into their heads is, not to abandon or reform the institution, but to change themselves to keep up with it?

How Not to Handle "Behavior-Disordered" Kids

This article in today's Kansas City Star is appalling.

The short version, for those who don't want to click the link, is that schools are increasingly choosing to lock disruptive children --- often children who have autism or other developmental disabilities --- in small, isolated "time-out rooms," sometimes for hours at a time.

There's a quote, midway through the article, from Vanderbilt University's Stephen Camarata, that I think is right on the money:
I believe [the use of time-out rooms by schools is] because classrooms are much less flexible, with more focus on compliance.

That's probably the worst possible outcome of mainstreaming: that the special-needs kids' special needs are completely forgotten, and they are either ignored (if they're quiet) or punished (if they're not quiet).

When I think about myself as a child (and, really, even up into young adulthood), I see someone who takes what she is told absolutely literally, and who has a hard time recognizing the signs of physical distress. While a normal child, if she were getting hungry, dehydrated, feeling faint or having to go to the bathroom, would raise a fuss or decide to leave the room anyway to take care of herself, I would not have had the maturity or the self-awareness to do that.

I don't think teachers always realize just how vulnerable their autistic students are.

Rational Choice Theory: Not as Dead as You Think

ResearchBlogging.orgThough much of classical economics and political theory is based on the idea that each person makes choices by carefully weighing each option's effect on their own self-interest and choosing the one that benefits them the most, it's now believed that people mostly make emotional snap judgments which are easily swayed by the terms in which the choice is cast.

That's called the "framing effect," and it's usually tested by proposing a hypothetical choice to groups of volunteers in different terms: the same choice described in terms of what they could gain or what they could lose. When the choice is "framed" in terms of potential gains, people tend to take more risks than people faced with the same choice framed in terms of potential losses.

However, not everybody ultimately responds in the same way to the framing effect. This 2006 study (summarized in the above-linked BBC article) by Caltech neuroscientist Benedetto de Martino had 20 people (all college students or college graduates) make a choice, given some hypothetical sum of money, to either keep a portion of it or to "gamble," with a 40% chance of keeping the whole sum and a 60% chance of losing it all, while inside an fMRI machine. While there was a definite overall framing effect --- the subjects for whom the choice was framed as a gain (i.e., "out of $50*, you keep $20, or take a chance to win, or lose, all of it") tended to be more conservative, opting for the smaller, surer payout, while those given the opposite spiel ("out of $50, you can either lose $30 or take the chance") --- not everybody ended up making the choice suggested to them by the framing.

So far, so predictable, right? Most people are susceptible to the framing effect, but individuals differ in their degree of susceptibility, some to the effect of not being swayed at all. That's hardly earthshattering news.

No, the interesting tidbit to come out of that study is this piece of fMRI data: amygdala activity did not differ between those people susceptible to the framing effect and those who are not. What distinguished those two groups was, instead, activity in the medial and orbital prefrontal cortex, where higher reasoning and suppression of impulses occur. In anatomical terms, that means everybody, regardless of how "rational" their ultimate choice was, reacted emotionally to the choice; the people who resisted the framing successfully were just better at second-guessing their emotional reactions with calculations.

And now, finally, the thing I really wanted to talk about: in this study published in last Wednesday's Journal of Neuroscience (summarized here on Science Daily), de Martino and his colleagues posed the same scenario (i.e., the decision to keep a portion of the money or gamble for all or nothing) to a group of fourteen people on the autism spectrum and fifteen age-, sex- and IQ-matched NT controls. However, instead of using fMRI to track the subjects' brain activity during the choice, de Martino et al measured skin conductance, which is a measure of physiological arousal (i.e., anxiety). I was not as impressed with that choice of metric, as skin conductance seems to be a much less direct measure that gives us less insight into what's going on in the brain.

Quibbling aside, what they found was that the autistic group a) showed no significant framing effect and b) showed no difference in skin-conductance response to different frames. (The control group had lower skin-conductance measurements for the "gain" frame than for the "loss" frame, indicating a lower level of anxiety when the choice was phrased as one between gains rather than losses). The autistic group did show a higher overall level of skin conductance, which the study's authors attribute to greater anxiety levels in general. The inference they draw from these findings is

...that ASD subjects, although having an absolute emotional response, crucially fail to differentially engage (sic -- split infinitive!) emotional processes in response to the framing manipulation. (Italics and emphasis mine)

I thought I would pre-empt any objection that this research might be used to justify the "emotionless robot" stereotype of autistic people. Nowhere does this article deny that we experience emotions --- indeed, the autistic group was the group with the higher recorded emotional responses! It's just that our emotions aren't as readily influenced by external cues, and maybe also that our emotions are not as closely involved in our decision-making process.

De Martino leans more heavily on this latter hypothesis than I do --- I think only the former is demonstrated by this study.*** Here, he enlists his own earlier study, and some other studies of the neuroanatomy of autism, to try to bolster this point:

In a previous fMRI study (De Martino et al., 2006; Kahneman and Frederick, 2007), we showed that the engagement of an amygdala-based emotional system played a key role in underpinning a framing effect. These previous results, combined with the [skin-conductance] data shown here, suggest that the failure to assign emotional salience to contextual cues and the consequential lack of behavioral bias in ASD may result from an amygdala based mechanism. A wealth of empirical data supports this hypothesis. First, histopathological abnormalities of the amygdala such as increased cell density and a reduced dendritic arborization have been described in autism (Bauman and Kemper, 1994). Moreover, Howard et al. (2000) suggested that persons with high-functioning autism showed a similar neuropsychological profile to that seen in patients with amygdala lesions ... Last, several imaging studies demonstrate blunted activation of the amygdala in ASD during tasks which involved processing of facial expressions (Baron-Cohen et al., 2000; Critchley et al., 2000).

Interestingly, I took the findings from de Martino's 2006 study as indications that autistic people aren't necessarily detached from their emotions during decision-making. If you scroll back up and look at the results of that study, you'll find that all subjects, regardless of susceptibility to framing effect, had the same level of amygdala activation. The difference was in the prefrontal cortex. At minimum, I'd want to see the 2008 study replicated with fMRI rather than skin-conductance, so that investigators could look at the roles played by both of these brain regions in autistic decision-making.

That said, this is exactly the kind of autism research I like to see. It's descriptive, and highlights the differences between NT and autistic cognitive styles without assuming that autistics simply aren't thinking.

*In the original study, the amounts are in British pounds. I didn't bother to convert because it's a hypothetical scenario, and will work with almost any** arbitrary sum of money.

**An exception to this rule would be really large amounts of money. This game has been played with huge hypothetical sums of money, like $1 million for the sure payout and $2.5 million for the gamble. The ratio between those sums is the same as the $20 and $50 mentioned above, but more people choose to keep the sure payout in the high-value game because both numbers are so high. With those stakes, people would rather play it safe and get rich for sure than take a less-than-favorable chance to get even richer.

***You could make an argument that the lack of a risk-aversion corresponding in significance to the skin-conductance readings in the autistic group argues for a disconnect between emotions and decision-making in autism, but I don't think there's enough of a basis here to proclaim that as fact.

De Martino, B. (2006). Frames, Biases, and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain Science, 313 (5787), 684-687 DOI: 10.1126/science.1128356

De Martino, B., Harrison, N., Knafo, S., Bird, G., & Dolan, R. (2008). Explaining Enhanced Logical Consistency during Decision Making in Autism Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (42), 10746-10750 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2895-08.2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blog Love!

So, I got this blog award from Shiva, and now I need to pass it on to seven other blogs.

This is kind of a tough decision, since I would ideally pick less-widely-read blogs than my own to help clue new people into them. Unfortunately, I don't know that many Cool Little New Blogs that more people should be reading, so my list will be a mix of Cool Little New Blogs, older blogs that still aren't as widely read as they should be, and blogs that are fairly well-known but still awesome.

Here goes:

Sarah of Cat in a Dog's World certainly qualifies as a new blogger, and I really like what she has to say. She mostly blogs about autistic self-advocacy, and has recently critiqued both presidential candidates from an autistic-rights perspective.

Another autistic-rights blogger who writes insightful, informative posts about politics is ABFH from Whose Planet Is It Anyway? Most of you probably already read her, but she's awesome and I'm going to nominate her anyway.

The third autism blogger I want to recognize is Ettina from Abnormaldiversity, whose blog is sort of a mix of personal reflections and critiques of autism research and autism in the media.

No blog-love list of mine would be complete without Arthur Silber, whose blog Once Upon a Time is hard to explain briefly. It's a political blog in the sense that all social life is political; he writes about subjects as diverse as American exceptionalism, Wilsonian Progressivism and its relation to American imperialism, racism, misogyny, torture, authoritarianism and the psychology of Alice Miller, and manages to tie them all together in a cohesive picture of American mass psychology. I don't think his work is of interest only to Americans, either, so don't let that stop you from going over there. Also, while he doesn't seem to allow comments, he does read, and answer, reader emails.

Another blog you should all be reading, if you aren't already, is Junkfood Science. Sandy Szwarc is a nurse, and does a great job debunking hysterical news articles (and, sadly, equally hysterical journal articles) about the grave dangers of being fat.

There's also Body Impolitic, which deals mostly with feminism, body image and disability, although it touches on a lot of other ways in which human bodies can fall outside the standards and categories people try to shoehorn them into.

Finally, there's Hell On Hairy Legs, an Australian radical-feminist blogger who's still in high school. She blogs mostly about gender, sexuality and race, and is unusually smart, perceptive and funny. (I'd say she is smart and perceptive for her age, but that's patronizing and, really, she's smart and perceptive period.) Anyway, I direct you to her, not only for that reason, but because I think that, as a high-school student, she probably experiences a lot of sexism, heterosexism, and other bigotry in her daily life and would likely appreciate all the friendly, non-bigoted readers she can get.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Animals in Translation, revisited

While poking around Science Daily, I came across this article summarizing a recent essay in PLoS Biology disputing the central thesis of Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation --- the idea that animal cognition and autistic human cognition share an ability to "think in detail," to perceive consciously (and remember) all the raw sensory data that normal humans' brains filter out and replace with a simplified mental construct. (An example of this tendency would be what happens when you look at a field of grass --- or a beach, as in the example given in the article. Odds are, you don't register every individual blade of grass or grain of sand as you walk along; you just notice grass or sand. For Grandin, for me and for most, if not all, autistics, these vistas that seem boring and uniform to an NT person are as dynamic and heterogeneous as a crowd of people appears to that same NT. We see each part individually, note the movement of each blade of grass in the wind, or the glare of each grain of sand in the sun).

Grandin had posited in her book that many animals shared this characteristic --- that birds, for example, used this amazingly detailed visual memory to remember where they had hidden food caches, or that horses and cattle might panic at the sight of some intense visual signal, like a brightly colored T-shirt flapping in the wind, that most humans would not even register. While the authors of the article (Giorgio Vallortigara, Allan Snyder, Gisela Kaplan, Patrick Bateson, Nicola S. Clayton and Lesley J. Rogers) do not dispute that animal intelligence can involve this kind of specialized storage of massive amounts of sensory data, they disagree that all animal cognition is like that. They reference studies done on pigeon perception and intelligence, and found that pigeons (and other birds) are capable of both holistic, gestalt-type "global" perception and detailed, piecewise "local" perception. They also observe that animals with the capacity for prodigious spatial memory do not ever seem to experience sensory overload, nor do they show "deficits" in other areas of cognition or behavior*, both of which they identify with autism in humans. Other discrepancies they find between animal brains and autistic human brains are the intact mirror-neuron systems** that have been found in some animals, and the lack of a relationship between social behavior and intensive use of spatial cognition. These things lead them to decide that certain animals' highly-developed use of visual and spatial perception and memory are not so much features of a larger cognitive style as they are specific adaptations to each kind of animal's environment and lifestyle.

Temple Grandin has also written a response to this article (it's in the green box embedded in the article's text), in which she says that more study is needed to verify Vallortigara et al's claims about the cognition of spatially-gifted animals; specifically, she would want to test their abilities in areas related to but distinct from their particular skill, to see if that skill is "hyperspecific," or restricted to a particular context, which she claims would make it more like an autistic savant's skill.

*I don't think every autistic savant necessarily has "deficits" in skills that are not his or her savant skill; Daniel Tammet is one example I can cite right off as a savant who is also thought to have a high level of general intelligence. I think the defining characteristic of a savant would be the highly developed, hyperspecific "islets of ability," regardless of the person's level of ability in other areas. I think the stereotype of the "idiot savant" might lead people to notice savantism more in people with profound impairments in other areas, and also that those instruments we have to test intelligence are so narrowly specific to one type of intelligence that it is reasonable to suppose that it would tend more often to fail to identify intelligent people whose minds work in unusual ways, like savants.

**At some point I intend to do a post on mirror neurons. They're the Latest Thing in autism research, but I'm still not sure there's any there there.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Postscript on Demand Avoidance

Though the bit about having an involved fantasy life and doing a lot of pretend play definitely describes me, the rest of the description of Demand Avoidance does not hold true for me. Indeed, my capacity to pretend is the one way in which I am not a textbook Aspie.

Specifically, the things in Newson's diagnostic criteria for PDA that stick out as obviously not me are "essentially socially manipulative" avoidance strategies, normal ability and inclination to interact socially, people-directed interests, and demand avoidance*. In all of those things, the notes in the sidebar contrasting PDA children with autistic/AS children are more likely to describe me than is the main body of text describing only PDA children.

PDA characteristics I do have are (obviously) imagination, but also mood lability, passivity and identification with adults/ignorance of what is age-appropriate. Many of these are also part of AS, and the last one would seem to go hand-in-hand with any kind of atypical development pattern. If you aren't developing at the same rate or in the same order as your peers, of course you'll have a shaky grasp of what's "normal" for your age!

I think my lack of social awareness and total inability to read the emotions of people around me clearly mark me as AS rather than PDA, imagination notwithstanding.

*When I do avoid demands, it tends to be more incidental than purposeful. I miss a lot of socially relevant signals, and missed even more as a child.

The Autism Spectrum Is (Still) Expanding

Ettina recently piqued my interest with a comment she left on one of my earlier posts, referring to "Pathological Demand Avoidance" as a subtype of autism/PDD. I follow autism research pretty closely, and had never heard of such a category, so naturally I had to read all about it. I found not only a description of PDA, but also of several other emerging autismlike categories.

Not surprisingly, there is a considerable gap between Ettina's writing about her own demand avoidance (she does not consider it "pathological") and the official descriptions I've been able to find online, which emphasize manipulation of others and deliberately provocative acts. The areas in which Ettina's self-assessment matches the official description are:

  • clumsiness
  • vivid imagination*
  • good eye contact; able to pass as NT
  • flying into sudden rages when told to do something
  • mild, often barely-noticeable social difficulties**
Where the accounts begin to diverge is in the interpretations offered for the sudden defiant or emotional outbursts. Elizabeth Newson (who first described PDA) says people with PDA are "obsessed" with avoiding the "ordinary demands of life" and lack the core of personal identity (and the corresponding faculties for self-discipline: pride and shame) that normal children begin developing by around preschool age. Digby Tantam, in his brief article describing a bunch of PDA teenagers (whom he labels as having a subtype of Asperger syndrome) says people with PDA create confrontation and chaos because they cannot read other people's emotions, and desire situations in which the emotional content is obvious (i.e., crises).

In her open letter to Tantam, Ettina contradicts the latter hypothesis.

I am terrified when others are mad at me, and very upset when others are sad around me. It would make no sense for me to deliberately induce such an unpleasant situation. If I'm scared because I don't know how someone is feeling, I withdraw and try not to be noticed. I don't try to provoke them to attack me or induce sympathetic anguish in me by being upset!

She clearly doesn't need to provoke extreme reactions in order to notice other people's emotions; indeed, so sensitive is she to what others are feeling that such scenes cause her great distress. Neither does her writing give any indication of an underdeveloped sense of self. However, these two experts' bafflement at PDA children's unexpected outbursts and noncompliance --- and the insistence that it must be either willful or indicative of some profound lack of selfhood --- evoke earlier autism experts' confusion over sensory overload. It took a long time, and listening to the voices of actual autistics, before unusual sensory experiences were accepted as being part of autism, and autistic people's reaction to those experiences began to be seen as reactions, rather than bizarre behavior indulged in just to annoy others. I think that Ettina, and others with PDA, are probably so hypersensitive to the emotions of people around them that tension and conflict, however slight, literally incapacitate them, as certain sensory stimuli are already known to incapacitate some autistics. That would mesh with the inclusion of PDA under the PDD umbrella, since the inability to mute or filter one's perceptions figures in both PDA and autism.

*Interestingly, vivid imagination and a love of pretending are characteristics that often show up in autistic girls and women. Probably not coincidentally, PDA has a much higher female-to-male ratio than do autism or AS (1:1 as opposed to 1:4 and 1:9, respectively).
**Ettina describes these as specific to particular areas of social understanding. She does perfectly well at reading emotions and nonverbal signals in one-on-one interactions, but has trouble recognizing group dynamics.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Human Diversity and the Surveillance State

This post by ABFH got me thinking about all the ways in which the climate of suspicion that prevails in post-9/11 America (and in police/surveillance states in general) tends to single out those who differ in some way from social and cultural norms for scrutiny, harrassment and disenfranchisement. People of color, immigrants, foreign nationals (especially those from non-European countries), youth, members of religious, cultural, ethnic or linguistic minorities, people with disabilities or mental illnesses, civil libertarians and left-wing political activists are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to civil-rights violations; as the margins of society are slowly pared down closer to the core, all it will take to flag a person as suspicious may be a left-of-center voting record, unorthodox books checked out on a library card, donations to the wrong charities, or even buying habits that don't match the typical pattern for your demographic. (Make $100,000 a year and haven't bought a new car? Why not? You're not planning to blow yourself up, are you??)

I've mentioned previously how the TSA's methods of screening for terrorists using subtle behavioral cues would also implicate many disabled, mentally ill or simply stressed-out air travelers with no criminal intent whatsoever. Proposals for requiring voter identification at the polls, which are ostensibly to prevent fraud but would have the effect of screening out voters without proper identification, like those without driver's licenses (disproportionately elderly, poor or disabled) or birth certificates (disproportionately elderly and black), constitute another example of how difference can be criminalized.

The last piece of the puzzle I want to address is the use of personal data of the type I listed in the first paragraph --- travel history, TV viewing habits, movie rentals, online purchases, library checkouts --- to create electronic dossiers on every American for whom such data exist. Since no one owns these data, anyone with the power to dig them up and analyze them (which, given the processing power needed to do that for any appreciable number of people, limits that pool to fairly large corporations and the government) can do so.

According to the "Talk of the Nation" segment linked above, those tools are mostly being used by corporations (and political candidates --- they're selling something, too) to develop precision-targeted advertising, but there was a brief mention of counterterrorism applications as well. Specifically, agents would be combing through those banks of personal data looking for anything "suspicious." An example that had actually been considered (although scrapped) was to track falafel consumption nationwide, and boost surveillance of areas where the rate rose sharply!

As silly as that sounds, there are serious implications to it. If the general MO is going to be tracking innocuous cultural markers like food, reading and media consumption, that sets the stage for Fahrenheit 451-style policing of culture. Indeed, it's already happening a bit; among those detained at Guantanamo Bay are a number of scholars of Islam whose areas of study flagged them as potential terrorists. The technology doesn't distinguish between an Islamic scholar researching a book on, say, the theological underpinnings and historical context of Wahhabism and an al-Qaeda recruit reading Wahhabi texts to psych himself up for a suicide bombing. In the eyes of the surveillance state, all contact with the Forbidden Other is equally suspect.

This is why a surveillance state can't handle human diversity. If the goal is to be able to tell, at a glance, which individuals in a large, ever-changing crowd might make trouble, the ideal scenario is one in which law-abiding citizens all look one way and terrorists all look another way.