Sunday, October 31, 2010


As I'm sure most longtime readers know, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I always put a lot of thought into jack-o'-lantern designs, and this year, since I didn't have an enormous behemoth of a pumpkin to lavish attention on like I did last year, I carved five small ones.

Here's a shark:
(You can see he's got a double row of teeth there! Had to make sure I picked a thick-shelled pumpkin for that one, so that the second row would sit back behind the first).

Here's a ghoul, with a gaunt, bony face, snaggle teeth and stringy hair falling over its face:
(One of the hairs broke when I was carving the mouth).

Here's a mummy; I peeled the whole face of the pumpkin and tried to do the bandages in a sort of relief, so that they would stand out despite all being the same color. I didn't really see it as I was carving them --- they seem to blend into each other when you look close at it --- but they stand out more from a distance.
There's a second eye socket carved in there, too --- I wanted to give the impression it was covered in gauze, so I didn't cut that eye out. When the pumpkin is lit, that socket glows faintly.

Here's one of an evil smiling face, with long sharp teeth.
Here's me, pretending I'm going to throw it at someone:
And here's me holding the last pumpkin in my lap. It's the smallest one, so I didn't want to try to carve anything too elaborate into it.
I settled for simple, but eloquent, I think. The shape of the mouth, and the size of the eyes relative to the mouth, give the impression that this pumpkin is afraid of its bigger, scarier siblings.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Think I'm Finally Starting to Figure Out ...

I've had an account over at (a nifty aggregator website for posts about peer-reviewed research) for a year or two now, and though I've tried several times over this period to upload posts there, I never succeeded until today.

Even now, my success rate is nothing to be envious of --- today, I think I've tried to upload seven posts (making many separate attempts at each one, for the most part, although sometimes I get lucky and something will go through on its first or second try), and have only succeeded with four.

My problem, in case anyone reading this also posts at, is that the thing that scans your posts for citations can't seem to detect mine. I use their Citation Generator, and paste the code into all of my researchy posts, but for whatever reason posts I try to upload keep getting held up and flagged with "No citation" or "Error" messages.

(When I get an error message, it acknowledges that I included a citation, but it tells me the citation "cannot be parsed as XML". I have no idea what to do when it tells me this).

Anyway, here's my page at --- now with content! Yay!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Green Paua Shell Necklace

I made this necklace sometime last month --- it took a long time to do, and I'm hugely proud of it.
Its centerpiece is this large green paua shell bead, which I've had for years but only now thought up a jewelry design worthy of it:
The things I'm proudest of about this design, from a technical standpoint, are 1) the little square frames of light-green beads surrounding the dark-green faceted glass beads (which you can see pretty well in the top two photos) and 2) the way I managed to taper the wide sweep of beads framing the shell into two little cones that come together at the clasp.
I like wide, many-stranded designs in necklaces and bracelets, but until I hit on this tapering method --- spacing the strands wider at the bottom than at the sides, where only half of them pass through the beaded spacer bar, and leading up to the clasp with two more beaded spacers (this time rings) through which the halving process can be repeated --- I had problems with making my many-stranded necklace drape properly.
When I wear them, they naturally tend to curl up into a tube at the back, near the clasp. Using this method, where four strands radiate out from the clasp and gradually ramify into the thirteen strands supporting the shell, allows the necklace to stay in tube shape until it gets to about the level of the clavicle, where it wants to be flatter anyway.

New Open-Access E-Journal: Molecular Autism

While hunting around the Internet for autism-related research articles I might want to write about here, I found something really exciting: a free, totally open-access online journal dedicated to the molecular biology of autism.

Molecular Autism, from the look of it, was just started up this year. Its editors-in-chief are Joseph D. Buxbaum and Simon Baron-Cohen.

Here is their first editorial, a vision statement of sorts for Molecular Autism:
Molecular Autism joins other journals targeting autism and associated conditions but differs in key ways. First, Molecular Autism is both online and open access. In a field where dissemination of accurate information has become so important, where internationally, scientists, educators, clinicians, and families are tracking the developments and are looking for up-to-date, definitive and accessible sources of scientific information, Molecular Autism will provide such a forum. Open access means that the articles are freely available to all, worldwide, and at no cost to the reader. Online publication allows for no restriction on number or length of articles and for the inclusion of all available digital technologies: large data sets, unlimited use of color, slide shows, animation, video clips, and links to other web pages, all at no additional charge. Articles are published online on the day of acceptance and, very soon after, are listed in bibliographic databases and full-text article repositories. BioMed Central is a leader in online, open access journals ensuring that this mission will be seamless.
The second way in which Molecular Autism differs from other journals in the autism-science field is by having a focus on the molecular level. Whereas other journals have a broad remit, from clinical and educational psychological studies through cognitive experiments to neuroimaging and genetics, Molecular Autism will publish articles that have a bearing on the molecular basis of autism and related conditions. This does not preclude a behavioural or cognitive or neural study, so long as there is also a molecular measure in the study or the implications for the molecular basis of autism are considered. Our reason for this requirement is that part of our mission statement is to accelerate research into the fundamental determinants of the condition. The first 60 years of autism research have had a bias toward the psychological, and we intend - via this new journal - to correct this emphasis.

The third way in which Molecular Autism differs from other autism journals is that it aims to achieve integration across the multiple levels that these syndromes affect. We now recognize that autism will not be understood by a single discipline, be it genetics or neurology or psychology. Rather, each level has to be mapped on to the next, to reveal how mechanisms give rise to the phenotype within each system. This makes autism and related syndromes complex but the response to such a challenge has to be scientific articles that attempt to tackle such multi-level complexity.
We are in a transformative period in autism research. Behavioral interventions have been shown to be effective, and earlier diagnosis, using molecular and behavioral methods, becomes critical to take advantage of these interventions. In parallel, identification of etiological causes of autism has led to novel drug targets, and several large-scale clinical trials are being carried out based on these findings. We underline the important ethical issue that research into efficacy of medications should evaluate not only improvements in areas of known disability, but the lack of unwanted side effects (particularly ensuring that areas of strength in autism are not compromised). Molecular Autism will be at the forefront of these breakthroughs.

There's a lot in that editorial, and some of it (especially that last paragraph) needs unpacking.

First things first: I love, love, love free open-access journals. There's a persistent idea floating around that strong anti-science sentiment in public life is at least partially the fault of scientists themselves, who are terrible communicators walled off from the rest of the world in their insular academic and corporate R&D communities. Making the content of scientific journals freely available online to everyone* seems to me like a great way of letting the public in on what scientists are doing, although I do think it would be even better if articles could be (re)written for public consumption in more accessible language, with more detailed explanation of what individual data mean. (I understand that doing that requires a lot more work from scientists, who are very busy, though, and that if these articles were to be posted online for free, that work might well be uncompensated. I still think it would be an awesome thing to do, I'm just not sure how to make it a less onerous, thankless task for the researchers who'd be doing it).

I'm also very interested in the molecular mechanisms of autism --- I like biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology in general, and obviously I've got an existential interest in learning how my autistic nervous system differs from the standard model --- and not as interested in the fields of psychology and special education, which is where the bulk of autism-related research is being done. (Nothing against those fields, I just find molecular biology more interesting).

So, from a standpoint of pure intellectual curiosity, I'm tremendously glad there's an open-access journal dedicated to the molecular biology of autism. From a disability-rights standpoint, though, I worry about the implications of Molecular Autism's editors' stated ambition to shift the focus of autism research more onto molecular biology and away from psychology and education.

(Not that psychology and education haven't yielded some deeply problematic ideas about autism and methods to treat it --- psychology has given us both the mother-blaming "refrigerator mother" theory of autism and, more recently, the dehumanizing notion that autistic people can't feel empathy; and more educational, learning-theory approaches to autism tend to overemphasize the teaching of how to simulate "normal" behavior).

The trouble with mechanistic, biologically-based autism research, as Sarah discusses in this oldish post --- especially with research focusing on finding genes, biomarkers, or very early behavioral phenotypes characteristic of autism --- is that it's always done with an eye toward eradicating autism altogether.

No discussion of research into autism genetics can be complete without a discussion of the ethical issues of prenatal testing and screening for autism; no discussion of the neurophysiology of autism can be complete without addressing the risks and benefits (and who takes the risks, versus who reaps the benefits) of prescribing drugs to alter that neurophysiology; likewise, no discussion of early behavioral differences between autistic and non-autistic infants is complete without addressing the ethics of intensive normalization training, especially in terms of consent.

The last paragraph of the editorial I quoted does not acknowledge that there are any ethical issues with ABA (the "behavioral interventions" alluded to, which are to be implemented as early as possible), though they do tip their hat to the idea that forced drugging is problematic.

Another criticism of biological research into autism is that it won't improve quality of life for autistic people. I don't agree with this as much as I agree with the earlier criticism about ethics, and autism researchers too often ignoring the wishes, rights and concerns of actual autistic people; I think research into the neurobiology of autism has great potential to lead to better medications for neurological or psychiatric problems autistic people have. We are plagued by anxiety, depression, obsessions and compulsions, phobias, disabling sensory hypersensitivities, distortions or jumbling, and many of us have other problems, like seizures. Our autistic neurology is not always at the root of these problems, but it can certainly interfere with our attempts to treat them. If personalized medicine is the wave of the future, it makes sense that autism-specific drugs (even if those drugs are not *for* any aspect of autism) will be a part of that. Knowing how our nervous systems work, and how they differ from non-autistic people's, could lead to the development of drugs that will be more effective and less risky or loaded with unpleasant, unpredictable side effects in us.

So, while I don't want research into underlying causes of autism to be scrapped --- I want to know what autism is, on a genetic, cellular and molecular level, just as much as these researchers do; and also, I think the knowledge that molecular autism research yields might also yield drugs that could improve quality of life for some autistic people --- I would like to see active engagement with autistic people on the part of these researchers. I want autistic people weighing the ethics of various avenues of research, and I want their opinions published in Molecular Autism alongside the proposals for research they're critiquing.

*Everyone with a computer, Internet access, and the ability to read whatever language a given article is written in, that is --- and they're not all in English!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Awesome Website: Take Back Halloween!

Suzie posted a link to this wonderful website today on Echidne's blog; the site is called Take Back Halloween!, and it's full of cool ideas for Halloween costumes based on powerful female figures from history and mythology.

(The name, Take Back Halloween!, refers to the current trend for women's Halloween costumes to be a "sexy" version of some generic category or character: I've blogged before about unimaginatively "sexy" superhero costumes. The ladies at Take Back Halloween! want to see more thoughtful, creative, personalized Halloween costumes; it's not sexiness per se but rather homogeneity and lack of imagination in Halloween costumes that they lament. See the Take Back Halloween! About page for more details.)

My favorite costume on that site, so far, is actually one that had occurred to me before as someone it would be cool, and relatively easy, to dress up as: the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Here's what Take Back Halloween! says about her:
Hatshepsut (ca. 1508-1458 BCE) was an extremely successful pharaoh whose reign was full of accomplishments --- important trade missions, gorgeous architecture, a booming economy. But the thing she's most famous for, at least nowadays, is that she had herself depicted as male on her monuments. There she is, King Hatshepsut, striding across the ancient bas reliefs with her broad shoulders and her beard ... it's a little weird until you understand what's going on. The role of pharaoh was gendered male in ancient Egypt, and Hatshepsut was just assuming the badges of office. She wasn't pretending to be personally male, and the texts unmistakably refer to her as female: "she" is the beloved "daughter" of Amun, destined to rule, and so forth. But Egyptian iconography and religion called for the pharaoh to have a male form, and so Hatshepsut had herself depicted with beard, kilt, the whole bit.

Take Back Halloween! suggests a standard dime-store Egyptian Queen costume, with the stripey headdress of a pharaoh substituted for whatever crown the costume comes with.

My own idea, when I conceived of a Hatshepsut costume, was to dress as the masculinized "King Hatshepsut" character --- fake beard, stripey headdress, crook and flail, pleated linen kilt, boobs bound down with a strip of the same material I'd used for the kilt. (This would be, obviously, only practical if the weather was warm, or if I was going to wear it to a party or other indoor event. In Kansas, it is usually too cold at night in late October to be running around outside with that little clothing on).
I would also wear a cardboard cartouche around my neck on a string, with (if I could find them) the hieroglyphs spelling Hatshepsut's name painted on it.

Another thing I thought would be fun to add to this costume, to throw a little gamer-geekery into the mix, would be to wear shoes evoking the "Freudian slippers" card from Munchkin, which allow your character in that game to function as whatever gender you say they are, even both at the same time. I thought that would be particularly a propos for Hatshepsut, who is female, but yet also male in her role as Pharaoh.

They also have lots of ideas for mythological-character costumes, which is another area of geekery that is dear to my heart. I was actually just pondering the best way to make a Gorgon costume that wasn't just a bunch of rubber snakes braided into one's hair --- the Gorgons, depending on what version of the myth you're reading, might have talons of bronze, wings of gold, and tusks like a wild boar or hippopotamus, or they might just be scaly and dragonlike; either way, "normal-looking woman with snakes on her head" falls short of the level of fearsomeness required.

Unfortunately, their Medusa costume is just a snake wig and a coat. Blah.

But they've got an impressive array of ancient-goddess costume ideas: there's the winged Egyptian goddess Isis, the Mayan goddess Ix Chel, the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, and the Sumerian goddess Inanna. And those are only the goddesses I'd heard of before going to the site!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who's That in the Mirror? Autism and the Developing Sense of Self

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A small, exploratory British study of preschoolers with either autism or Down syndrome and typically developing toddlers looked at how each group of children acted toward their reflections in a mirror. They looked for trends, both group trends (i.e., how do autistic children differ from their non-autistic developmental peers, represented in different ways by the Down syndrome group and the younger typically developing group, whose chronological age matched the developmental ages found for both developmentally-disabled groups), and within-group trends relating mirror behavior to performance on a test of mirror self-recognition (i.e., do they know that the person in the mirror is their own reflection).

They found that although the autistic children did not differ from the younger, typically developing children in the amount of time spent looking at their own faces, but that they did spend a lot more time looking at objects in the mirror, and that their behavior toward their reflections differed from that of either control group. The autistic children did not generally try to relate socially to the person in the mirror; what they did instead varied according to whether they recognized their own mirror images or not.

(The Evil Queen from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" with her Magic Mirror)

BPS Research Digest spotlighted this study published in last month's issue of Autism, which claims to describe another type of subtle behavioral difference between autistic, otherwise developmentally disabled, and typically developing children.

Autistic children, they hypothesized, would act differently toward their own images in mirrors than either typically developing toddlers or developmentally delayed --- but not autistic --- children (in this case having Down syndrome) of similar ages to the autistic children. They would look in the mirror, and would experiment with it (i.e., doing things to see those things reflected back to them, using the mirror to look at things behind them, etc.), but would not try to engage the person in the mirror socially; would not talk to it, smile at it, or try to show it things.

(Reading this, I was kind of surprised to see that it was normal to treat the mirror image as if it were a real person! It doesn't act like one, and you'd think that if you recognized it as yourself, you'd know you couldn't actually talk to it or interact with it, because it would just do the same things you did. Of course, the children in this study were very young --- the typically-developing ones were about eighteen months old, and the Down syndrome and autistic kids three or four years old.)

Methodologically, the study's not that interesting: the researchers went into the homes of each of their subjects (38 in total: 12 with autism, 13 with Down syndrome, and 13 typically developing toddlers), produced a mirror, filmed the children interacting with it freely for two minutes, and then tested to see if the children recognized themselves in the mirror by having their parents put a sticker on their faces to see if they removed the sticker after seeing it reflected in the mirror. If they removed it, they were said to have passed the "Mirror Self-Recognition" (MSR) test*.

Later, the researchers watched the videos they'd made of the children interacting with the mirror, looking for group differences (between autistic, Down syndrome, and typically developing children, but also between passers and failers of the MSR) in such things as level of interest in one's own face (i.e., how long does the child look at hir own face, rather than at other things reflected in the mirror), kind of actions directed at one's reflection (i.e., does the child greet hir reflection, talk to it, perform in front of it, or show things to it), and affective response to one's reflection (does the child appear pleased to see hirself, do they appear self-conscious, coy or embarrassed, do they smile at themselves).

Compared with the other groups, the autistic children spent a lot more time looking at objects in the mirror. However, contrary to what you might expect given the common wisdom about autistic people avoiding eye contact/looking at faces, though, they did not differ much from the typically-developing ones in how long they spent looking at their own faces. (The children with Down syndrome spent the most time looking at their own faces).

Figure 1, in Reddy et al. (2010). The panel on the left shows the amount of time (expressed as a percentage) that the different groups of children (autism, Down syndrome and typically developing toddlers, each subdivided into passers and failers of the mirror self-recognition test) spent looking at their own faces. The panel on the right shows the amount of time they spent looking at other objects in the mirror. In both graphs, the placement of the bars (i.e., are they higher or lower) is what tells you how much time a given group spent doing a given thing. The size of the bars (i.e., are they long or short) tells you how much variation there is within that group.

The autistic children also differed from the other two groups in what kinds of things they did in front of the mirror; autistic children, whether they recognized themselves in the mirror or not, spent a lot less time trying to relate to their reflections socially. What they did instead varied with whether or not they understood that they were looking at themselves: autistic children who passed the MSR test spent most of their time experimenting with the mirror, tilting it to see things around the room, doing things with toys or with their faces while watching to see those actions reflected back to them, while autistic children who failed to recognize their own reflections spent more time simply watching the person in the mirror.
Children with Down syndrome also spent more time watching their reflections if they failed the MSR test; the typically developing children spent about the same amount of time watching themselves whether or not they seemed to know they were watching themselves. They also spent more time watching themselves, relative to other actions, than either of the atypical groups. The study authors hypothesize that "[a] watchful focus on the self could be due to imminent self-recognition (suggested by the finding of a short-term alignment between watching and self-recognition in typical development, Nielsen et al., 2003)."

The typically developing children also did not show any relationship between MSR and social-relating behavior toward the mirror: whether they recognized themselves or not, they were just as likely to act as if their reflection were a social partner or an audience, as opposed to just a reflection (which is how the autistic children tended to treat their reflections, if indeed they recognized them as such). The children with Down syndrome tended to do *more* social relating with the reflection if they passed the MSR test, which seems counterintuitive to me. You'd think someone would be more likely to try to establish a rapport with something they believed to be another person, rather than with what they knew was only an image of themselves. (Oh, well --- like I said before, I'm no developmental psychologist!)

So, what do this study's authors (the University of Portsmouth's Prof. Vasudevi Reddy and Cristina Costantini, the University of Surrey's Dr. Emma Williams, and Britta Lang) think their results mean?

Their study was published in a special issue of Autism pertaining to how a sense of "selfhood" develops in autism, and indeed they do manage to tie these findings to an alleged autistic impairment** in developing this sense:

Difficulties in interpersonal relatedness in autism appear to extend to difficulties in relatedness with the self, supporting arguments about a reciprocal relation between a sense of self and a sense of other (Hobson, 1990; Mclaren, 2008). In typical development the affordance of the face is almost unavoidably social, with direct gaze attraction attention from birth (Farroni et al., 2002) and acting as an ostensive signal (Senju & Csibra, 2008). In autism, perhaps particularly in mirrors where there is no one else to initiate engagement and no other social behaviour to highlight interpersonal cues, this affordance may be even less potent in inviting interaction. Engaging with the self can also provide opportunities for learning about expressions and interaction. Given the enjoyment that typically developing children and children with some other developmental disorders derive from such engagement, the loss of this opportunity in autism might potentially contribute to further impairments in the development of a sense of self.

This passage, along with a passage I will also excerpt from the Introduction ---

In developmental psychology the mirror has become synonymous with the identification of the self ... . But mirrors can also symbolise and allow a relation with the Other. They can reflect the self back as the Self, as an Other, as seen by an Other (Kernberg, 2006) or, indeed, as just another reflection. How one reacts to the self in a mirror allows us to study the extent to which the self is perceived and presented as a social being.

--- argues that there is a social dimension to the sense of self, which seems to start developing pretty early.

It also echoes the feedback-loop theory I've read about in connection to another early-childhood marker of autism that's been studied recently: eye gaze. Autistic infants have been found not to prefer looking at human faces, which, the theory goes, leaves them without motivation to pay special attention to them, while their typically developing peers, who do derive pleasure from looking at faces, learn to specialize in reading faces. Reddy and her colleagues' suspicion that the mirror does not "invit[e] interaction" for autistic children in the same way it does for their typically developing and Down syndrome peers extends this notion to the broader realm of reciprocal social behavior in general.

I have one more thing I'd like to bring up in connection with this study, and with mirror self-recognition tests in general: this earlier post on BPS Digest describing cross-cultural studies of mirror self-recognition tests. Apparently, children from different cultures perform differently on the mirror self-recognition tests (which involve placing a spot on the child's face and waiting for hir to remove it when ze sees it on hir reflection), with children in some cultures failing to remove the spot even at ages much older than the second year of life, which is when children in the U.S. (and similar cultures) start passing the test. This is not because these children don't understand that they are looking at themselves, but because their cultures have different standards for how children are supposed to behave in adult company. The children may not know if they're *supposed* to remove the spot, so they might choose to do nothing rather than act rudely and be punished for it.

I bring this up, even though I'm not sure it has any direct bearing on the results of this mirror self-recognition study, because I think it is important to remember that autistic children's social behavior, in this (U.S., white, middle-class) culture and others like it, is policed much more aggressively than typically developing children's behavior is. Autistic children learn quickly that their natural ways of speaking, acting and relating to people are wrong, so they might well adopt a more passive social posture until they've seen enough to know what's expected of them.

Again, I don't think that's necessarily at work in this particular study (the children are so young, I doubt they've yet gotten much negative feedback about how they act), but I want to mention it because I don't know that many autism researchers consider the effect of culture and socialization on autistic children, much less ways autistic children are socialized differently than non-autistic ones. Instead, the common wisdom seems to be that we are immune to culture and socialization.

*An explanation of this test, and what it supposedly says about sense of self, can be found here at Noah Gray's blog, Nothing's Shocking, hosted by Basically, if the subject (human or animal) knows to remove the sticker (or wipe off the spot of paint, or whatever) based on having seen it in the mirror, we can reasonably infer that they know the mirror is showing them an image of themselves, not another person or animal.

**I think it's funny, if only from an etymological standpoint, that AUTistic people are now thought to have an impaired sense of self.

Reddy, V., Williams, E., Costantini, C., & Lan, B. (2010). Engaging with the self: Mirror behaviour in autism, Down syndrome and typical development Autism, 14 (5), 531-546 DOI: 10.1177/1362361310370397

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ari Ne'eman Interviewed at

Ari Ne'eman, founding president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and now a member of the National Council on Disability, spoke to back in July, and they have now posted the interview on their Wired Science blog.

Here are some excerpts from the interview that I thought were particularly awesome: Many Wired readers work in the tech and software industries. How could they help improve the lives of autistic people?

Ne'eman: If we put one-tenth of the money currently spent on looking for causes and cures into developing technologies that enable autistic people with speech challenges to communicate more easily --- so-called augmentative and alternative communication [AAC] --- we'd have a vast improvement in the quality of life for autistic people and their family members.

We've already seen some very promising tools for AAC and other assistive technologies start proliferating on the iPad and the iPhone. But Medicaid won't pay for such dual-use devices, despite the fact that having an AAC app running on an iPad may be much cheaper and more functional than carrying around a dedicated AAC device. That should change, because AAC devices are currently too expensive and often not versatile enough to be used in a diverse set of circumstances.

Second, I'd love to see research into ways of using social media to improve access for disabled people. If there was some kind of web-based tool or mobile app that enables people to flag buildings with "very good" or "very bad" access, it could spur a lot of positive social change.

Finally, there should be websites or apps that enable disabled people to rate their service providers and record their experiences, like the websites that already exist for college students to rate their professors. The internet has proven to be very important for autistic people, because it's given us a chance to connect with each other and start to form a culture of our own. We've barely begun to tap the potential of handheld networked devices to assist with the kinds of deficits in executive functioning and life skills that many of us on the spectrum face. Mobile devices and apps could be very helpful in improving prospects for employment and education across the whole life span of autistic people --- not just when we're kids.
I love Ari's ideas about assistive technologies --- I would never have thought of using an iPad or iPhone as an AAC device*, but now that he suggests it, I can imagine it working well for that. I'm also enthusiastic about the web-based accessibility- and caregiver-rating. The accessibility-rating for places could speed up the currently-very-slow process of getting city governments to respond to people's complaints about poor accessibility through the Internet's ability to gather a critical mass of people calling for a given thing much more quickly than traditional, localized grassroots organizing. (Darned if I know how mobile devices and apps could help with education and employment, though, apart from their utility as AAC devices that he already mentioned).

(I can pretty easily imagine why Medicaid officials --- assuming they know about AAC apps for iPad/iPhone, which maybe they don't --- would be loath to use Medicaid funds to cover those things, even if they are cheaper and more practical: can you imagine the scandal if some deficit hawk in Congress were to discover Medicaid funds being used to provide iPhones to poor people with disabilities? The horror!)

More Ari: Some of your critics suggest that as a "high-functioning" person with Asperger's syndrome, you present an overly rosy picture of life on the spectrum. You work in D.C., do a lot of public speaking and networking, and are obviously capable of things that someone who lives in a wheelchair or can't speak cannot do.

Ne'eman: I know quite a few people in D.C. who use wheelchairs, and I know people who use AAC devices and work in public policy. Some of my mentors fall into those categories. So while I'd agree that there are many things I do that some other autistic people can't, I wouldn't say that it's the fact that I'm not a wheelchair user or an AAC user that makes that the case.

I recognize that I'm fortunate in many respects and am able to do things that some other autistic people can't do. But I would also point out that these things didn't --- and don't now --- come easily to me. I've been fortunate to be able to count on the inclusive culture of the broader disability-rights movement to help support me.

There's a strange idea out there that neurodiversity advocates think that autistic life is all flowers and rainbows, but I don't know anyone who thinks that way. Most of us have had deeply personal experiences with social isolation, bullying and abuse, lack of support, discrimination, and plenty of other problems. But it's much more productive for us to focus on how we can improve people's lives than to keep presenting people as pitiable burdens.

No more pity. It doesn't help anybody.

Many of the bad things that autistic people struggle with are things that happen to us, rather than things that are bad about being autistic. Why is that an important distinction? I remember reading a blog post from a parent who pointed to two news stories. One was about a mother who had murdered her autistic child because she couldn't deal with the fact that he wasn't normal, and the other was about a school aide who had abused a child. And the blogger said, "This is what autism is like. That's why we need to find a cure."

I find that kind of thinking despicable: One would think the fault there isn't with autism, but with abusers and murderers! As long as we confuse bad things that happen to autistic people with what it means to be autistic, we're not going to be solving the problems that autistic people face in any meaningful way.
... Though you criticize groups like Autism Speaks for focusing on a cure, if someone offered you a pill to wake up tomorrow without autism, would you take it?

Ne'eman: That's an intensely silly question. How can I draw a line around one part of my brain and say this is the autistic part, and the rest of me is something else? That way of looking at autism is predicated on the strange idea that there was or is a normal person somewhere inside me, hidden by autism, and struggling to get out. That's not reality.

As a society, our approach to autism is still primarily: "How do we make autistic people behave more normally? How do we get them to increase eye contact and make small talk while suppressing hand-flapping and other stims?" The inventor of a well-known form of behavioral intervention for autism, Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who passed away recently, said that his goal was to make autistic kids indistinguishable from their peers. That goal has more to do with increasing the comfort of non-autistic people than with what autistic people really need.

Lovaas also experimented with trying to make what he called effeminate boys normal. It was a silly idea around homosexuality, and it's a silly idea around autism. What if we asked instead, "How can we increase the quality of life for autistic people?" We wouldn't lose anything by that paradigm shift. We'd still be searching for ways to help autistic people communicate, stop dangerous and self-injurious behaviors, and make it easier for autistic people to have friends.

But the current bias in treatment --- which measures progress by how non-autistic a person looks --- would be taken away. Instead of trying to make autistic people normal, society should be asking us what we need to be happy.

*Partly because I can speak, and thus don't need to spend a lot of time pondering AAC, but mostly because I am kind of a technophobe and don't use a mobile computer; I don't always grasp everything they're capable of doing.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

These Are Not the Eternal Verities of Biology - Part II

I wrote this post almost a year ago, but it's always been my plan to add to it. And now Echidne (who is, among other things, a tireless debunker of gender-essentialist pop evolutionary psychology) has inspired me to come back to this topic.

She describes a recent study in Evolution and Human Behavior (full text here) by Jaime C. Confer, Carin Perilloux and David Buss that tried to characterize how men and women choose short-term or long-term sexual partners.

Briefly, what the study did was sit 192 straight male and 183 straight female (the six --- only six?! --- would-be participants who said they were gay were screened out) college students down and show them a (clothed) picture of a member of the opposite sex, whom they were supposed to evaluate as a potential sex partner. (Half of them were told to consider the person as a short-term partner; the other half were told to think long-term). The picture was initially covered up, with one box covering the face* and another covering the body; study participants were given a choice which box to remove.

When evaluating the pictured person as a potential long-term sexual partner, the sexes behaved almost identically: sixty-eight of the men (75%) and sixty of the women (73%) chose to look at the person's face. The sexes also showed a similar change in strategy between long- and short-term conditions: both looked at the face more when they were asked to evaluate a potential long-term partner, and both looked at the body more when asked to evaluate a potential short-term partner. For the men, though, the change in strategy was much more dramatic: they went from three-quarters of them choosing the face in one set of circumstances to half and half in the other (roughly speaking); for the women, it was a much smaller decline, from (a little less than) three-quarters to two-thirds. The men's change, but not the women's, was considered statistically significant.

That's not the narrative Confer, Perilloux and Buss use to describe their findings, though: rather predictably, they see a marked sexual dimorphism in mate-choosing strategies, reflecting deeply ingrained male preferences for fertile mates (i.e., younger women with neotenous, "hyperfeminine" facial features as long-term partners, but also obviously sexually mature, fertile women with low waist-to-hip ratios as short-term partners) and an equally ingrained lack of female preferences for youth or bodily beauty in her partners.

The study, its findings, and the way its authors chose to present those findings are not what I really want to look at in this entry, though. (Echidne has already covered those angles really well). No, what I want to look at is the imaginary scenario the study's authors set up for its participants: what they were asked to do, essentially, is evaluate a third (absent) person's suitability as a sexual partner based on one quick look.

It came up in the comments at Echidne's blog, and I agreed wholeheartedly, that this scenario resembles today's anonymous, superficial meat-market dating scene a lot more than it does the likely pattern of courting and mating behaviors that early humans would've shown. Early humans, like other primates and modern-day humans still living a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, lived in small, close-knit bands, where you would probably have known the people you ended up having sex with for quite a long time before you had sex with them. Accordingly, things like waist-hip ratio, facial symmetry and whatnot would've been less important than, say, each partner's social and family ties (i.e., does she have sisters, aunts or a mother who would help out with childcare? Do these aforementioned relatives *like* the prospective mate? What about his relatives? How does he get along with the other men in the tribe? Is he a social asset or liability?) or lack thereof.

This is another of the weird things I've noticed about much of evolutionary psychology --- it seems to be less a historical science (like paleontology or archaeology) and more an extended thought-experiment in What Human Nature Would Be Like If It Weren't for All This Pesky Civilization Crap. The ev-psych model for heterosexual relationships seems to assume that the man and the woman are both relatively isolated: the woman depends solely on the man for support, for herself and her children; the man, while he is not correspondingly dependent on the woman, and is thought to be impregnating --- or trying to impregnate --- other women whenever the opportunity arises, his relations to other men resemble the Hobbesian state of "war of all against all." (Similarly, other women are invisible unless and until the man in the thought-experiment has sex with them).

This highly individualized, atomistic way of thinking about people is actually very new in the history of ideas, and notably it does not compute to modern-day people who actually live in extended-family communities.

*This experimental setup apparently poses a temptation for commentators to make "butterface" jokes. I am trying to resist this.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Andrea Dworkin on Female Rebellion

In her book Intercourse, Andrea Dworkin includes a chapter on female virginity, citing Joan of Arc and the two female saints who inspired her as examples of celibate women refusing to live the narrow, cramped lives to which their societies consigned them. For these women, their virgin state was both a practical strategy (since it's easier to risk your life when you have no children who depend on you, and no husband whose property you legally are) and a defiant gesture in itself:

The Church that killed [Joan of Arc] may now identify her as a martyr; but for women inspired by her legend, she is a martial hero luminous with genius and courage, an emblem of possibility and potentiality consistently forbidden, obliterated, or denied by the rigid tyranny of sex-role imperatives or the outright humiliation of second-class citizenship. Women have many martyrs, many valiant pacifists, sung and unsung; few heroes who made war. We know how to die, also how not to kill; Joan inexplicably knew how to make war. At her trial, Joan insisted that she had never killed on the battlefield, improbable since the combat was hand-to-hand; but she was known among her own men for standing against the commonplace practices of sadism on the battlefield. It is hard to believe that she did not kill; but whether she did or did not, she was an exemplary martial liberator -- nearly unique in the iconography and history of the European female, that tamed and incomprehensibly peaceful creature. Joan's story is not female until the end, when she died, like nine million other women, in flames, condemned by the Inquisition for witchcraft, heresy, and sorcery. Precisely because she was a hero whose biography brazenly and without precedent violates the constraints of being female until the terrible suffering of her death, her story, valorous and tragic, is political, not magical; mythic because she existed, was real, not because her persona has been enlarged over the centuries. Her virginity was not an expression of some aspect of her femininity or her preciousness as a woman, despite the existence of a cultish worship of virginity as a feminine ideal. She was known as Joan the Maid or, simply, The Maid ("La Pucelle"). Her reputation, her declaration, preceded her, established her intention and her terms; not in the context of being a holy or ideal female but in the context of waging war. Her virginity was a self-conscious and militant repudiation of the common lot of the female with its intrinsic low status, which, then as now, appeared to have something to do with being fucked. Joan wanted to be virtuous in the old sense, before the Christians got hold of it: virtuous meant brave, valiant. She incarnated virtue in its original meaning: strength or manliness. Her virginity was an essential element of her virility, her autonomy, her rebellious and intransigent self-definition. Virginity was freedom from the real meaning of being female; it was not just another style of being female. Being female meant tiny boundaries and degraded possibilities; social inferiority and sexual subordination; surrender to male force or violence; sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world; and civil insignificance. Unlike the feminine virgins who accepted the social subordination while exempting themselves from the sex on which it was premised, Joan rejected the status and the sex as one thing -- empirical synonyms: low civil status and being fucked as indistinguishable one from the other. She refused to be fucked and she refused civil insignificance: and it was one refusal; a rejection of the social meaning of being female in its entirety, no part of the feminine exempted and saved. Her virginity was a radical renunciation of a civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice. She refused to be female. As she put it at her trial [a full transcript of which is available online here - Lindsay], not nicely: "And as for womanly duties. She said there were enough other women to do them."


We have role models; Joan had voices. Her voices were always accompanied by a radiance, illumination, an expanse of light. She saw angels and was visited by saints. Her two special voices, guides and consolation, were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch. While many of the elaborations on their legends show the iconoclastic individuality of the two saints, the main outlines of their lives -- the substance of their heroism -- were virtually identical. Both were desired by powerful men (heads of state), turned them down, were tortured and decapitated. Both were in mortal combat with male power, were militant in their opposition to it, did not capitulate, and were killed for resisting. Both were virgins.

St. Catherine was the patron saint of unmarried girls and also of philosophers and students. She was famous for her erudition, one of the rare and great women of learning. Her father, a king, wanted her to be married but she kept turning down suitors. One night she dreamed that Mary, holding Jesus, asked her if she wanted to be his bride. She said yes, but Jesus turned her down because she was not a Christian. She got baptized; that night Jesus, surrounded by angels and saints, put a wedding ring on her hand. When the Emperor Maxentius ordered all the Christians in Alexandria killed, Catherine went to him to argue for her faith. The Emperor made her debate fifty learned men, skilled orators; she won each debate and the fifty men were burned. The Emperor wanted Catherine for his mistress and promised that her image would be worshipped everywhere if only she would make a sacrifice to the gods. She refused, for Jesus and her faith. The Emperor threw her into prison and she was terribly tortured. The Catherine wheel, an instrument of torture, was invented for the purpose of eviscerating and killing her; but an angel destroyed the wheel. Catherine was killed by decapitation.
St. Margaret was the patron saint of peasants and women in childbirth, the latter not because she had children but because she was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon, and her purity and resistance were so great that he had to spew her up again whole and unhurt. Viewed as someone miraculously reborn uninjured, she became a symbol of hope in the life-and-death agony of childbirth. Margaret's father was a pagan priest, but she was secretly baptized. She tended animals in the fields. The governor, Olybrius, saw her, wanted her, and had her brought to him. She refused him and declared her faith. She was imprisoned, flogged, and terribly tortured. In prison she was swallowed by the dragon; and when she triumphed over the dragon, the devil confronted her again, this time in the form of a sympathetic man who told her that she had suffered too much:
But she seized his hair, hurled him to the ground, and placing her foot on his head, exclaimed:
"Tremble, great enemy. You now lie under the foot of a woman."
She was burned, torches applied to various parts of her body, but she acted as though she felt no pain. She was killed by decapitation.
The legends of both saints were well known in Joan's time and environment, common stories for everyone, not arcane anecdotes for the educated. The narrative details were so familiar that an evil and stupid person was even referred to, in the common parlance, as an "Olybrius." Women were named after these saints and celebrated name days. These saints were figures of mass adoration in stories of adventure, romance, and heroism. There was an elaborate and epic imagery in the churches to communicate visually the drama and scale of their bravery and martyrdom. The artifacts and paintings in the churches told the stories of the saints and their heroism and suffering in dramatic, graphic pictures; a bold, articulate, mesmerizing iconography not rivaled for effect until the invention of the wide screen in cinema. St. Catherine was pictured with the wheel named for her, St. Margaret with a dragon, both with swords. They were shown with swords because they had been decapitated, but the abridgement of the narrative into a martial image conveyed militance, not just martyrdom. Each faced what amounted to a state-waged war against her person: the whole power of the state -- military, physical, sadistic -- arrayed against her will and her resistance and the limits of a body fragile because human. This goes beyond the timorous ambition of today: a woman fights off a rapist. Each of these women fought off a rapist who used the apparatus of the state -- prison and torture -- to destroy her as if she were an enemy nation. Each refused the male appropriation of her body for sex, the right to which is a basic premise of male domination; each refused a man in whom male power and state power were united, a prototype for male power over women; and each viewed the integrity of her physical body as synonymous with the purity of her faith, her purpose, her self-determination, her honor. This was not a puerile virginity defined by fear or effeminacy. This was a rebel virginity harmonious with the deepest values of resistance to any political despotism.

Joan identified deeply with these women ... [s]he learned from them the way a genius learns: she did not repeat them in form or in content; she invented new form, new content, a revolutionary resistance. Joan did not die because men desired her; but because she refused the status, including the outward trappings (female clothing), of one who could be so desired at all. Virginity was one dimension of her overall strategy, one aspect of her rebellion; and, interestingly, her refusal to have sex with a man was not a dogmatic or ideological one. As Marina Warner points out in her book on Joan, the name Joan called herself and by which she was widely known, La Pucelle, "denotes a time of passage, not a permanent condition." Her own testimony at her trial seems to confirm this nuance:
Asked whether it had been revealed to her that if she lost her virginity she would lose her good fortune, and that her voices would come no more to her.
She said: That has not been revealed to me.
Asked whether she believes that if she were married the voices would come to her,
She answered: I do not know, and I wait upon Our Lord.
Had Joan simply learned a Church precept by rote or had she wanted to conform to a theological code of sexual purity, she would have held virginity to be a sacred state of being, one that would ennoble her for the duration of her life, a passive state intrinsically holy and magical with God's blessings. In her society, virginity was "an ideal wreathed in the finest poetry and exalted in beautiful Latin hymns and conventual chants." It was a common belief cited as fact by Church authorities with whom she came into contact that "God had revealed to virgins ... that which He had kept hidden from men." Instead for Joan -- and Catherine and Margaret -- virginity was an active element of self-determined integrity, an existential independence, affirmed in choice and faith from minute to minute; not a retreat from life but an active engagement with it; dangerous and confrontational because it repudiated rather than endorsed male power over women. For all three women, virginity was "a passage, not a permanent condition," the precondition for a precocious, tragic passage to death. As rebellion, virginity amounted to a capital crime. No woman, however, had ever rebelled the way Joan of Arc, virgin, rebelled.
Later in the chapter, Dworkin contrasts Joan's rebellion with the rebellion of a much later --- and fictional --- French heroine, this one created by a male novelist:
[Gustave Flaubert] wrote what a current paperback edition of his masterwork hails as "the greatest portrait ever written of a woman's soul in revolt against conventional society." The book is not about Joan of Arc. It is, instead and on the contrary, about Emma Bovary, a petite bourgeois whose great act of rebellion is to commit adultery. With this woman, called "my little lady" by her creator, the modern era begins: the era of the petite bourgeoisie seeking freedom. Female freedom is defined strictly in terms of committing forbidden sexual acts. Female heroism is in getting fucked and wanting it. Female equality means that one experiences real sexual passion -- driven to it, not faking. There is an equation between appetite and freedom, especially promiscuity (as one form of appetite) and freedom. A romantic distinctly not in the traveling, lyric tradition of Shelley or Byron, indeed, a female romantic with lightness in the head and fragmented fantasies feverish on the brain, "she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women ... who stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven ..." For Emma, Joan was such a comet, a figure of fantasy, in the ether, not ever having lived on earth in the framework of real human possibility. Emma's mind, murky with religious and romantic fantasy, wanted "the rare ideal of pale lives, never attained by mediocre hearts." In her sentimentality, "she loved the sick lamb, the sacred heart pierced with sharp arrows, or the poor Jesus sinking beneath the cross he carries"; and in her effete impotence, "[s]he tried, by way of mortification, to eat nothing for a whole day. She puzzled her head to find some vow to fulfill." Alternately agitated and bored, having a mind filled with fantasies rather than ideas or possibilities, having no purpose or commitment, having no action, no vocation, only the boring chores and obligations of domesticity; too self-involved to find either passion or emotion in commonplace human relations, including motherhood, she is incapable -- to use the language of Iris Murdoch -- of moral or artistic excellence, defeated because she is immersed in personal fantasy, "the chief enemy of excellence," "the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is outside one." ...

Preoccupied with fantasy, Emma does not see or experience the world outside herself except as a deprivation of attention from her inner fog, and so she remains essentially untouched -- by the husband who fucks her and by human possibility in the wider world of real events. Virginity is redefined through her, given a modern meaning: a woman untouched is a woman who has not yet felt sexual desire enough to be made sick by it, experienced sexual passion enough to crave it, and broken rules in order to be carnal; a woman fucked by her husband but feeling nothing, or not enough, no lust, no romance, no brilliance of sensation, is still a woman untouched. This new virginity of body and soul survives marriage, and marriage itself generates new, incoherent fantasies of romantic or sexual grandeur: "Domestic mediocrity drove her to lewd fancies, marriage tenderness to adulterous desires." There is no freedom, no heroism, no ambition, no equality, outside the domain of sex experienced as carnal passion and also as the breaking of a rule. Danger is in the extremity of feeling and the risk of flouting convention; and the danger verifies the authenticity of the event, hidden from history yet having the significance of a male act of freedom inside history. The large, brave world of Joan becomes the tiny, suffocating world of Emma: and in it we still live. The old virginity -- with its real potential for freedom and self-determination -- is transformed into the new virginity -- listless, dissatisfied ennui until awakened by the adventure of male sexual domination: combat on the world's tiniest battlefield. It took Freud to call the refusal to fight on that little battlefield "repression" and to name the ambition to fight on the large one "penis envy." The cell door closed behind us, and the key turned in the lock.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wow, A Blog Award!

Clay and Corina have both decided to give me the Versatile Blogger Award. Thank you, to both of you. You are both good writers, and you both handle such a broad range of subjects so well, it's an honor to be chosen by you.

Anyway, this award, like so many others, comes with a meme: now that I have it, I have to share seven things about myself and then pass the award on to seven other bloggers I like (and, presumably, think are versatile).

Seven weird, random fun facts about me:

1. If you follow pop psychology at all (and I do --- we all need something to snicker at), you'll have heard something about digit ratio; if the ring finger is longer than the index finger, it means you're more masculine. Simon Baron-Cohen has also tried to tie digit ratios to autism, as per his theory that autism = hypermasculinity.

Being a big, butch, queer autistic woman, I naturally wanted to see if I displayed the expected masculine pattern of finger lengths, so I measured mine --- all the while taking it about as seriously as a newspaper horoscope or a fortune cookie, mind --- and found that each of my hands has a different digit ratio. On the left hand, the ring finger is longer than the index finger; on the right, they're the same length.

2. I have enormous trouble telling right from left. At *best*, I have to hold up my hands in an "L" shape and see which one makes the "L" point the right direction to determine right from left; at worst, I forget which way an "L" is supposed to point so I just pick one at random.

This runs in my family; my grandmother and sister are like that too. (My grandmother would always get teased at work about "Polish lefts").

3. I've flown an airplane! A Cessna 172. It was one of those introductory flying lessons, where the instructor helps you do the pre-flight checks and sits next to you while you take off and fly around, then takes over when it's time to land.

4. I love M&Ms, but have "rules" for eating them. I eat them in groups of 3, 5 or 6, either all the same color or one of each color. (If its groups of three different-colored ones, lately I've been only eating primary colors. Other colors I just eat in single-color handfuls).

5. When I was a kid, I was terrified of bees and wasps. Like, if I saw one I would freeze up and have to go inside RIGHT AWAY. I am still jumpy around wasps, as they seem to be less predictable than bees.

6. All Gatorade tastes green to me.

7. My oldest T-shirt, which has a design of a cow skull on the front, a bald eagle carrying off a diamondback rattlesnake on the back, with red, blue and black tie-dye on the sleeves and sides, dates from when I was 8 years old. This is impressive when you consider how large I am now --- I bought begged my mom to buy the shirt not in the size I wore then, but in a bigger size I could grow into. That bigger size was a men's large; as a kid I had the notion I would grow up to be as big as my father. (Yes, I knew I was a girl, and knew I would not grow up to be a man. I still thought I would grow up to be just like my father, only female).

So, now, seven people I think are versatile bloggers!

Amanda Baggs (probably a bit hubristic for me to name her, since her writing helped make up the foundation of online neurodiversity, but she practically defines "versatile blogger," so I'd feel weird not naming her)

... and two more who don't seem to be writing for the general public anymore, but who are both terrific writers who tackle a broad array of topics with aplomb: Anemone Cerridwen and Kowalski.