Autism and the Emergence of Art

Around 30,000 years ago, extremely detailed, realistic art emerged in cave paintings. Believe it or not, there are many scholars out there who believe this occurred because the artists were autistic.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaelogy at the University of York, said: “Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist. This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.”

Which itself raises some interesting issues regarding the history of art and the proliferation of realism during periods such as the Renaissance.
A related article also suggests that human societies really took off only after they learned to tolerate the presence of people who thought and behaved differently. Oddly, we seem to be losing that trait even as we are gaining acceptance of people who merely look differently.
Either way, it’s obvious that autism has been around for a very long time indeed. The idea that autism may be adaptive for humans at the level of group selection is something I myself have suggested. It would appear that autistics are important for the development of artistic styles and a concentration on extreme realism. Of course, that means that during artistic periods dominated by iconoclasm, such as we saw in Modernism and Postmodernism, select against autistic artists. It is likely, though, that we will again have our day.

Who is up for another autistic-lead renaissance?




Oxytocin and Autism II

Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter, and one which has been implicated in autistic behaviors. Known as the “love hormone,” there’s a lot more to it than that. According to Psychology Today,

It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.

As I have noted before, oxytocin has a dark side, meaning low levels of oxytocin not only reduce one’s desires for social interaction, but also reduces the tendency to engage in “groupthink,” the worst versions of which are racism and sexism. To the extent that autistics don’t engage in in-group/out-group thinking, we have a general tendency to not engage in racism and sexism.

However, do note many of the behaviors noted above. I suspect that it’s not just any empathy that’s affected by lower levels of oxytocin, but the specific kind autistics have problems with. Coincidentally, the kind of empathy we autistics have problems with is the same empathy that actually makes people favor their in-groups over out-groups and thus can make people behave in racist and less moral ways.

Also note that oxytocin is as much the sex molecule as the love molecule. I have read that many autistics have little to no interest in sex. While that’s certainly not universal (I’m sure other hormones, etc. are involved and affect sex drive as well), it seems to be much more common among autistics than neurotypicals. Low levels of oxytocin would explain this phenomenon. Ironically, since having sex increases oxytocin levels, those who lack interest in sex due to low oxytocin levels are behaving in such a way as to maintain low oxytocin levels.

The connection to trust is a bit odd to me, as I find autistics to be generally quite trusting. However, it may make sense if trust is tied to in-group members, and distrust to out-group members. Without that distinction, it may be that we are simply more trusting of out-group members, and thus we seem more trusting overall.

Here is an interesting overview of the research to day on the connection between oxytocin and autism. I have also written about the connection between touch and increasing oxytocin levels in a post titled Hugs Help.

The Mesolimbic Reward Pathway

The mesolimbic reward pathway is a neural system that helps people be more social. The larger it is, the most social a person is. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s smaller in people with autism.

What this pathway seems to do is make social interactions pleasurable. Again, the larger it is, the more pleasurable one’s social interactions are going to be. That is, you get rewarded for being social. While it’s likely social interactions aren’t actually made painful by having a smaller pathway, social interactions simply aren’t as pleasurable. If you’re not being rewarded for something, how likely are you to do it?

The authors point out that they haven’t untangled cause and effect quite yet on this. Do more social interactions cause the mesolimbic reward pathway to increase, or does its size increase social interactions?

This makes me wonder, though, why it is that many of us on the spectrum find pleasure in certain things–more so, it seems, than do others? For example, my clipboard gives me pleasure. I use it to do most of my writing. My books give me pleasure. I’m very happy just looking at them in my library. Is there a pathway in the brain for object-pleasure? Or does the mesolimbic reward pathway make social interactions so much more pleasurable that neuroptyicals prefer social interactions over the pleasure things give them?

NYT Op-Ed Educates People on Autistics

The New York Times has a fantastic op-ed in which the authors argue that autistics  are really social, only we get our actions misinterpreted as being uninterested in being social. For example,

Take eye contact. Some autistic people say they find sustained eye contact uncomfortable or even painful. Others report that it’s hard to concentrate on what someone is saying while simultaneously looking at them. In other words, not looking someone in the eye may indicate that an autistic person is trying very hard to participate in the conversation at hand. Unfortunately, this attempt to engage often gets interpreted as a lack of interest.

I have certainly told people exactly this, that I can either look them in the eye or pay attention to what they’re saying, but I can’t do both. Of course, most people interpret lack of eye contact as a lack of interest in what you’re saying, but when it comes to autistics, it really means quite the opposite.

The rest of the piece is quite good, and I’m thrilled the New York Times ran it. It’s gratifying to be treated as a fellow human being for a change.

New Social Environments Are Exhausting

This past week I have had trainings for my work. I have been hired as a paraprofessional in a middle school behavioral unit in Plano ISD, and that means I had to go through four days of training. I have been utterly exhausted for four days.

I have had to be in a room with about 30 strangers for four days. On day one, I’m not sure I could have stimmed more or faster. My legs shook and I was fiddling around with my pen. I stimmed less each day, but I didn’t seem to get any less exhausted. I fortunately didn’t have training today, so I was able to sleep in (not to mention going to be a little early)—I got 10 hours of sleep (I usually wake up naturally right before I get 8 unless I’m that exhausted).

My wife noted that I seem to get exhausted that way if I have a day full of meetings. I also get this way the first week or two of a new job. One can only imagine what impression that makes. After that first week or so, though, my brain adjusts to the new situation, and I am back to my old normal self and degree of energy.

Given that this is what a new situation does to me, one can also perhaps imagine why I may not want to participate in these kinds of meetings or trainings, why I may not want to start a new job or switch jobs, or why I may want to avoid situations in where there will be a large number of people I don’t know and with whom I have to interact. I can only imagine what I must look like to others.

Coincidentally, having this level of self-awareness only makes things worse in these situations, because it only makes me more anxious, which only makes me stim more and harder. It’s a positive feedback nightmare. And when your brain is running at full blast for hours on end, it’s exhausting.

The Cerebellum and Autism

The cerebellum, which contains the overwhelming majority of neurons, even though it is much, much, much smaller than the rest of the brain, is proving to be of central importance to the traits we commonly find in autism. The cerebellum is important to processing emotions, processing language, memory, and implicit vs. explicit learning. While the article mostly talks about communication deficits, what’s of interest to me is the point about implicit vs. explicit learning, as that’s a difference I have noted several  times before. This suggests that I am right about autistics being strong explicit learners and weak implicit learners, and it also suggests why autistics have this feature of learning.


Intelligence Genes and Autism

The article is a little vague, but I suppose if you’re talking about hundreds of genes, it’s hard not to be (especially in such a short article). Using new statistical methods, scientists have found 939 new genes associated with intelligence. The article notes:

Many variants of genes associated with higher intelligence turned up in people who also lived longer and did not have Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia, the team reports today in Nature Genetics, suggesting that intelligence protects against these disorders. On the downside, genes associated with intelligence correlated with a higher risk for autism.

I have talked about genes and other features associated with high intelligence and autism on this blog before. While they say the connection between genes associated with intelligence and autism is “unfortunate,” I think scientists need to start wondering if this connection is more of a feature than a bug. In some forms of autism at least it may be a problem of too much of a good thing.