MRI Analysis Uncovers Differences Between Autistic and Neurotypical Brains

A new methodology for analyzing MRI scans had helped to uncover two key differences between those with autism and neurotypicals.

“We identified in the autistic model a key system in the temporal lobe visual cortex with reduced cortical functional connectivity. This region is involved with the face expression processing involved in social behaviour. This key system has reduced functional connectivity with the , which is implicated in emotion and social communication”.

The researchers also identified in autism a second key system relating to reduced cortical , a part of the parietal lobe implicated in spatial functions.

They propose that these two types of functionality, face expression-related, and of one’s self and the environment, are important components of the computations involved in theory of mind, whether of oneself or of others, and that reduced connectivity within and between these regions may make a major contribution to the symptoms of autism.

If one has difficulty interpreting face expressions, one has difficulty properly interacting with people. One is even likely to engage in socially inappropriate behaviors and conversations.

Indeed, I have recently discovered I have not just difficulty interpreting facial expressions, but I have difficulty with faces themselves. I recently ran into someone I saw about once a month or so, who used to have a beard. I didn’t recognize him at all. But since he recognized me and was talking to me in a very familiar way, I knew I had to know him. He invited Daniel to his step-son’s and daughter’s birthday party and told me where to be. It was only when I saw the two kids that I figured out who he was. Shaving his beard made him unrecognizable to me.

The article also mentions those areas with weak connections, but one wishes they also mentioned those areas with stronger connections. I am certain those areas provide as much information about the symptoms of autism as do the weak ones. This oversight is a product of the attitude that autism is a deficiency only. These attitudes have an effect on what scientists will look for or even see. This is why it’s so important to change attitudes about autism.

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Link Between Autism Genes and High Intelligence

It is not even remotely surprising to me that there has now been demonstrated a link between autism genes and higher intelligence. The linked study demonstrates that those who have some autism genes have higher intelligence. Autism may, thus, be an extreme expression of these genes such that it becomes disabling. In this sense, autism is similar to Tay-Sach’s disease, in which those who are heterogeneous for the gene have very high intelligence, while those homogeneous for it have the disease (and, in almost every case, a doctorate). Slight expression creates high intelligence alone, while more expression gets you autism.

This drives home the fact that autism is genetic. It also drives home that the last thing on earth we want to do is get rid of it. At the population level, there may be a strong benefit to having these genes in the gene pool. In exchange for a few severely autistic individuals, you get many highly intelligent people. Some of those people have varying degrees of social awkwardness as part of that expression, of course, but some of that comes from the fear people have for highly intelligent people and for people who think or act differently from them.

This also drives home the degree to which there is a spectrum that extends beyond the “autism spectrum.” I suspect that people with ADD/ADHD are also on the spectrum, on the other side of Asperger’s. Not coincidentally, those with ADD/ADHD tend to have high intelligence as well. The inability of schools to deal with the gifted, ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, and autism are all part of the same problem. And the same is true of the fact that contemporary culture is equally incompetent in dealing with the existence of those who are most likely the smartest among us.

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing’s Autism

If The Imitation Game is an accurate portrayal of Alan Turing, there is little question that Turing was autistic. It is difficult to lay out all of the evidence from the film, because practically everything Turing does in the film screams to the audience, “I have autism!” But I will note a few specifics.

Consider Turing and language. He uses language in a very direct, un-nuanced, literal fashion. And he takes what everyone says as though they were using language the same way. Thus, when the announcement that “We’re going to go get lunch” is made, he takes it as an announcement that everyone else is going to go get lunch; what he fails to recognize is that the announcement is an invitation. And he fails at such recognition of the kinds of language games people play throughout the film.

Turing also had a tendency to appear to people to be incredibly arrogant. This is a common complaint against people on the spectrum. But as you watch the film, you come to realize that Turing is anything but arrogant. He is certain, but that certainty is well earned. He is direct in his speech, but that is a combination of the way he uses language and his lack of understanding that such directness comes across as rude. In his experience, people don’t understand what he’s talking about, so he doesn’t see any point in wasting his and their time explaining himself. To someone on the spectrum, that’s courtesy. He doesn’t understand that people won’t just take his word, though, and need the explanation even if they don’t understand it, if they are to provide him with the support he needs.

Turing’s simultaneous desire to work alone and to not be alone is something people with autism experience. It is a strange tension that most cannot understand. I want to be left alone to do my work, except when I don’t want to be left alone. Interruptions upset me (but not as much as they used to), so I tended to drive people away when I was working. But then they tended to stay away, which is not necessarily what I wanted. The same was true of Turing.

Finally, there was Turing’s rational calculation of allowing people to die so the Germans wouldn’t know Enigma had been cracked, and his argument for the development of statistics to determine when to use the information they had, to prevent the Germans from ever learning the English had cracked the code. Everyone in the room was ready to send in the cavalry to save the people who were going to be killed. That’s the most human reaction of all. But if they had done that, they would have lost all the work they did, the Germans would have known Enigma was cracked, and the English couldn’t have used it to shorten the war and win it. Turing could see all of that because the way his mind worked allowed him to bypass those emotions and reach the most rational conclusion. People on the spectrum are (in)famous for making such calculations.

There are plenty of other little things in his behaviors that make it clear Turing was on the spectrum. But I will also note that one of the most intelligent people in the world, the man who invented the computer, who theorized on artificial intelligence and came up with the Turing Test, who was a brilliant mathematician, was clearly on the spectrum. The man who may have won World War II for the Allies and saved the lives of millions of people was someone most of those he saved would have shunned as “weird.”

One would probably be amazed at the number of such “weird” people have revolutionized the world. And the primary beneficiaries would (and perhaps have) treated those people as Turing was typically treated throughout his life. People need to see The Imitation Game precisely for this reason. They need to experience the world through an Alan Turing, so they can empathize with those of us who are “weird” and unappreciated and shunned for it. We just want to do our work. And we don’t want to have to justify ourselves and our work to everyone in the process. The latter may be impossible, but can we at least, at last, get some understanding regarding who we are?

Goosebumps at the Dallas Children’s Theater

We love attending the sensory-friendly performances at Dallas Children’s Theater. We have attended since their very first sensory-friendly performance, and though we don’t go to every show, we try to attend at least several times a year.

This time we watched “Goosebumps, the Musical: The Phantom of the Auditorium.” It was probably the most complex play we’ve seen at DCT, with the possible exception of “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.” We have noticed that by taking Daniel to the theater that his theater etiquette is improving considerably, and was very well-developed this last time so that he’s sitting and quite the entire time (a few humorous asides aside). He was even annoyed that others were interrupting the play (it being a sensory-friendly performance, he was hardly the only autistic child there).

Many of the plays we have watched recently have involved magical and fantasy elements. “Goosebumps” has a ghost, “Mufaro” has several magical elements, “James & the Giant Peach” of course has the magical peach, and of course “Jack & the Beanstalk” has magic beans. These are all very troublesome to Daniel, who typically has a hard time with magical/fantasy elements because they are of course metaphorical, not literal. And he’s hyper-rational, so magic is right out.

His trouble with these elements is most obvious when the magical elements are introduced later (Mufaro) rather than being woven into the story from the beginning (James). He is always of the opinion that since this or that can’t actually happen in real life (like the singing trees in Mufaro), why would they show them on the stage, in the story? Along these same lines, his literalism tends to make it so he has a hard time understanding joking and silliness, though he is learning to understand these things through watching plays Mufaro, James, and “Frog and Toad.” Also, I am relentless in my joking and silliness with him, so now he asks me, “Are you joking?” when I am in fact joking, and then seems to (more or less) accept it when I tell him I am.

The good thing is that he seems to be getting better at accepting these elements within stories, as part of the storytelling process, as symbols for something.

While as recently as Mufaro (which we saw last Spring), Daniel was still asking questions throughout the play about what was happening, it was clear Daniel understood quite well what was happening in Goosebumps. In Goosebumps, the story is that there are these high school kids putting on a play with their theater teacher–a version of The Phantom of the Opera. Daniel immediately leaned over to his mom and said, “This is a play about another play.” He laughed, acted spooked at all the right times, and he absolutely loved the Phantom. And he’s beginning to understand how a play actually works.

Daniel and his brother and sister have a long history of putting on “plays” for their mother and me. Naturally, most of them are a collage of silliness; this last time, however, Daniel actually created a small story, did voice-over narration to set the story up, and prevented it from going on and on and on. Afterwards, he and his siblings told us to come to the living room and to bring our programs to them so they could sign them. At DCT, after each show the actors all come out and sit for pictures and signatures. The kids all get signatures and pictures; they replicated that experience here at the house.

This past performance was a real breakthrough for Daniel. He was excited to go, his stamina at the play was much better (and this was a 2 hour play), and his theater etiquette was much improved. True, he was annoyed that he could actually see the people moving the props–but this time he just leaned over and whispered about it to his mother rather than yelling out (as one child in the audience did, saying, “Hey! Where are all the actors?” during a brief scene change, which we thought was cute and funny, but which we are happy Daniel no longer does, no matter how cute and funny it can be).

And Daniel is now going even further and expanding his understanding of how theater works to understanding how films work. He understands that there has to be a writer and that the actors have to memorize the lines. He recently told me that he wants to write a future Star Wars movie, and he then went on to point out that the writer writes the words, the actors say the words, and it’s all put on film and then shown to people. This he mostly figured out on his own. As fine a summary of how to make a film as any 8-year-old could put in words.

Also, Daniel was excited to learn that there are many Goosebumps books, and he asked me to get him some. Considering the fact that he has said in the past he doesn’t like reading fiction because he doesn’t see the point in it, this is a major coup. And it’s all thanks to the theater.

Civil Rights and Mental Differences

Differences in thinking is the next area in which there needs to be social reform. We insist that people accept women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays, transgendered people, and cultural differences, but people continue to insist that everyone think exactly the same way.

I am not talking about ideology here (though there is a case to be made for more ideological heterogeneity in many situations, such as the social sciences and the humanities). No, I am talking about truly different ways of thinking — what we all too often call mental disabilities.

Of course, we once considered homosexuality as a mental illness. Sexual orientation has since been normalized. We need to do the same with a variety of mental differences, and ceasing to call them mental disabilities is a step in that direction. Of course, mental differences result in differences in behavior, the same way that differences in sexual orientation result in differences in sexual behavior. A person who has autism is going to behave differently from someone who is neurotypical, yet everyone expects people with autism to behave like everyone else, and to respond in the same way as everyone else. But those are completely unrealistic expectations.

Of course, there are degrees of autism. There are people you may not suspect of being on the spectrum (I present myself as Exhibit A), but who clearly are if you fully understand the features of autism, the behaviors that result, and the interactions with others as a result (which very few do). These — people with Asperger’s or who are mildly or moderately autistic — are people who could contribute in fantastic ways to society if just given the chance. But too many are not given the chance. Or, given a momentary chance, find themselves without a job without understanding why. Because who wants to work with the “weird” guy who (because you don’t know he’s on the spectrum) you just know can help his behavior — he just doesn’t want to, or whatever people tell themselves about people they find “strange.” And given all of the barriers our governments create to prevent people from starting new businesses (and given the fact that people on the spectrum are easily discouraged), alternatives to working for others are all too often far out of reach.

I understand this first-hand. I have had a difficult time keeping a job. On paper I look great (except to those who do not understand what they are seeing when they view my C.V.), and yet I have a hard time keeping a job. I never quite understood why, until I read a book about work and having Asperger’s. That book was practically a catalog of all the problems I had in every job I ever had. All to often I found myself without a job without understanding what happened. But now I know.

Now, you would think that knowing would help, but as it turns out, knowing you do certain things and being able to do something about it are quite different things. Imagine if in order to keep a job, it was very important that you never, ever make eye contact with anyone, and if you do, you will get a mark against you, and ten marks will get you fired. Only nobody tells you how many marks you have. This is what it’s like trying to do something unnatural, even knowing the rule. And this is why it’s important to have workplaces where people are prepared to deal with and interact with people on the spectrum.

This is important not just because only about a fourth of people on the spectrum are even working and only a fourth of those working are working full time or because people on the spectrum are almost twice as likely to get fired from a job as anyone else, but because they bring traits that ought to be of great value to a business.

People on the spectrum have a lot to offer the world, and it’s a real shame that the rest of the world is almost completely unaware of that fact. Part of it is because people are truly afraid of people who think differently than they do. It is the last allowed and allowable prejudice — to such a degree that if you tell your boss you have something like Asperger’s, you can find yourself let go. And the person won’t think anything of it. They would never fire someone because of their sex or race or sexual orientation, but if they find out you are on the spectrum, you could in fact get fired. But at the same time, if you don’t say anything, you could end up getting fired anyway because of your differences in social behavior, learning, and thinking.

We hear a lot of lip service about the importance of different kinds of thinking, of creative thinking in the work place. We need more “diverse” work places to ensure we have a more creative environment. But in fact the vast majority of businesses want nothing but identical ways of thinking, so they hire people who will fit in perfectly, provide the same ways of thinking, and not rock the boat at all. This would be fine if we did not have laws on the books that enforce this prejudice throughout society. That they target what could be some of the most intelligent, most creative people in society — in no small part because they are too often labeled as mentally disabled — is all the more shameful and harmful to society.

While I have talked mostly about autism, since I know most about it, this is also applicable to many other mental differences, from dyslexia to bipolar to schizophrenia. Many such people could be contributing members of society, if only people accepted their eccentricities more. True, at the most extreme, help (like medication may be needed by many of the kinds of people I’ve discussed here, but at the same time, one has to wonder how much better many of these people’s lives would be if we simply accepted them as they were and accepted them into society, cherishing their different ways of thinking. How many of their problems with living in society would disappear if the stigma associated with their differences in thinking were no longer stigmatized?

This is a civil rights issue. And we who are heterogeneous thinkers need to make it a civil rights issue. Like others who were Others before us, we need to stand up for ourselves and insist that we be treated like fellow human beings — albeit differently-thinking human beings. We have much to offer, and there is nothing more shameful than the fact that practically everyone keeps rejecting the gifts we offer.

Why So Many on the Autism Spectrum Are Creative

Why aren’t you a creative genius? Is it because you’re not smart enough? Perhaps you’re not crazy enough. Perhaps the problem is that you’re neither smart nor crazy enough.

According to Dean Simonton, “The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.” But that’s hardly enough. This describes the mentally ill as well, and anyone on the autism spectrum. What differentiates the inability of the merely mentally ill to filter out things from creative people is that the latter also have high I.Q.s that allow them to filter the world in a more conscious way. Of course, this also explains why so many creative people are also bipolar, schizophrenic, etc.

Given that an inability to filter out information from the world is a trait of autism, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people on the spectrum are creative. Even if high intelligence among those with ASD had the same distribution as the general population, the ASD population would have a much higher percentage of creatives, since the general population has a low percentage of people with cognitive disinhibition.

I’m a good example of this phenomenon. Little things I see, little things I hear spin out into stories and poems all the time. A fragment of conversation, an odd thing noticed out of the corner of my eye, random things which pop up in my mind, into my consciousness. I have to consciously filter out these things. Things others, apparently, filter out unconsciously.

This lack of filter means I am bombarded by sensory information and mental concepts. I can get easily distracted by them. They keep my attention. I could be mistaken for having ADD, but perhaps that’s not a mistake. Perhaps ADD is a manifestation of cognitive disinhibition — perhaps enough to create an attention deficit, but not enough to make mental illness. Again, intelligence makes the difference. Intelligence is the filtering device, what turns the noticed things into something new. The instinctive filterer is replaced by a more conscious one. But that means one has to learn how to do it.

How does one create the discipline necessary to turn one’s cognitive disinhibition into creative genius? Intelligence is not enough, though it is a necessary element. What is needed is the right environment, one which praises and values creativity. Not in an abstract way, but directly, to you, in your life. Parents telling you that your picture you drew is awesome. Teachers praising your art work and writing skills. Encouragement is positive feedback, driving you to want to turn all those little details you’ve noticed into something new for others to see. This encouragement can turn internal, acting as a self-selector, a way of concentrating those noticed bits and pieces into creative works.

The difference between madness and creative genius can often be the difference in environment, in the encouragement of others. A support network can make you become your best; the lack of one can drive you mad. The example of John Nash is apt: he was at his most creative and least mad when he had a supportive network.

Does our current culture support the creative genius? Or does it drive them underground, into the shadows, attempt to medicate them all away? Such people are disruptors of the status quo, keep the world off kilter, challenge preconceptions. Conformists cultures such as ours (being a collective guilt culture, our culture is doubly conformist) despise disruptors, challengers, creative geniuses. This is why the genius is in retreat. It is culturally rejected, denied and medicated away when possible. But without it, society will meet with stagnation, merely maintain without creating nearly as much value and wealth in the world as it would with them. Only if a creative genius happens to have the right family support can he or she develop and create. But our institutions increasingly do not support such people. In fact, too often, they actively discriminate against them. Because they do, there is less value, less wealth, less beauty in the world than there could be. All exchanged for the sake of the kind of comfort one can only have in an impossibly unchanging world.

Intense World Theory of Autism and Problems With Understanding Metaphors

Given what I have read here and there about mirror neurons, I was somewhat interested in reading Gregory Hickok’s “The Myth of Mirror Neurons.” However, after this excerpt in which he discusses autism, I am definitely going to have to get the book.

Hickok provides evidence against the idea that autism is a deficit; rather, he argues, autism is an excess. People with autism are too sensitive to sounds, touch, others’ emotions, etc. We look away from others’ eyes because the emotions there are too intensely felt by us. Indeed, I have always felt people’s presence quite intensely, and it gets to be tiring, overwhelming after a while. Of course, if you’re looking away, if you’re paying attention to everything else as much as you are paying attention to a person’s face, you are bound to miss any number of social clues.

So the Intense World Theory of autism seems to be gaining support.

But does the IWT explain things like autistic literalism and a tendency to fail to understand metaphors? Obviously, there is a logical connection between literalism and failing to understand metaphors. Even if one takes everything literally, one can eventually learn to understand metaphors — but it’s a learned skill rather than a natural one, as occurs in neurotypicals. But this still doesn’t tell us why autistic people do either one.

However, if we look to why those with autism experience an intense world, we may see why.

One feature of autistic neural structure is the overabundance of synapses. This creates a hyperconnected network with more inputs. One result is increased sensory processing — which is why many with autism don’t like being touched or are sensitive to sounds or smells or tastes. Another is that other kinds of information are processed in a way that more closely resembles how artificial neural nets (ANNs) process information and produce outputs. ANNs tend to be “hyperconnected” relative to the way real neurons are connected to each other. As a result, ANNs take longer to turn inputs into concepts, but once they do so, those concepts are much more concretized.Things are put into pretty solid categories, without much if any overlap.

To understand — and create — metaphors, there has to be conceptual overlap. At least a certain degree of it, anyway. For the neurotypical, “Achilles was a lion” evokes notions of fierceness and nobility. For an autistic, “Achilles was a lion” evokes an image of a large tan member of the cat family named “Achilles.” That is because “lion” and “a person named Achilles” are two completely separate conceptual categories. A person can’t be a cat.

This would also explain why people with autism tend to think more concretely and less abstractly. However, if one can learn certain abstractions, connections among various concepts become much clearer. Clear categories also make patterns more obvious because one sees patterns when one sees all of the distinctness of each category. Those with autism may have difficulty with metaphors (this is on some level literally that), but similes (this is like that) are another thing entirely. A simile notes both the difference and the similarity — the latter being the shared patterns. “Achilles was like a lion.” signals there is some sort of pattern shared between Achilles and lions.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I’m noting a number of similar patterns and concluding similar things may underlie them. But I’m not sure what else makes sense if we reject the theory that autism is a deficit and, rather, is an excess of neural connections — inputs and processing.

Coincidentally, it has been suggested that Kafka had Asperger’s. The fact that he never used metaphors is highly suggestive that he indeed may have.