Autistic Bees

Yes, you read that title right. Researchers looking to prove the sociobiological theories of E. O. Wilson that social behaviors have a deep genetic source have found that socially unresponsive bees have genetic similarities to autistic human beings. Most notably, there were similarities in GABA receptors, voltage-gated ion channels, and heat-shock proteinsheat-shock proteins.

Variations in voltage-gated ion channels are going to affect the speed at which neurons work. This can result in hyperactivation (intense world) or hypoactivation, or even inactivation, if altered.

Heat-shock proteins specifically react to stressful conditions, and many are chaperone proteins (which help guide protein folding and, thus protein function). They are up-regulated during stressful conditions, and given their roles in gene regulation and protein stabilization, it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of detrimental effects changes in these proteins could cause.

The fact that similar differences in similar genes in bees and humans strongly suggests that animal social behavior is deeply conserved. And that means that autistic traits can also emerge in a variety of species when parallel mutations take place.

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A Day at Work with Asperger’s

I think it is important that neurotypical people understand how we on the spectrum experience the world.

I’m a substitute teacher and one day last year I went to a high school I would often sub at. When I arrived, they did not give me the class for which I signed up, but had me help in the counselor’s office.

For most people, I suppose, being reassigned when you show up isn’t a big deal. But it is for me. When I saw the fact that I was assigned something other than that which I had chosen, I felt a wave of dread and anxiety. I cannot stand for my expectations not to be met and I do not like things being changed at the last minute. If you want to put me in a bad mood and make me uncommunicative, that’s a great way to do it.

What was worse was that I had to deliver documents to students. That meant going to different classes and having to interact with different teachers. The first thing I did was put the documents in order of room number because the randomness of the order drove me crazy. Then I went from the third floor down to each floor. There were three sets of documents, so I had to visit several class rooms more than once.

I don’t like doing this sort of thing because for one I don’t like interrupting people teaching. And if the door is open, I don’t really know the proper way to announce myself, so I just stand there until someone notices me.

In once classroom a teacher got mad at me because, like I had done in every other classroom, I announced the student’s name for him to get his document. She informed me that I was to hand the document to her and she was to call the student’s name. I told her I was sorry, but nobody had told me I was supposed to do that.

What I really, really, really wanted to say was, “I have a Ph.D. and I have a higher I.Q. than anyone working here and I have to do this ridiculous job because of people like you, so get off my back!”

But I’m pretty sure that would have come across as uncooperative and arrogant.

Instead, I just did as she told me from thereon out. Even though she was the only one to object. Because a confrontation like that–especially one where, because of the social situation I’m in, I cannot actually respond–freaks me out, causes me anxiety, and causes me to go over and over and over the situation that just happened.

The last class period I was put in the In-School Suspension room. There were only four students. When the school day ended, maybe a minute before the bell rang, the students came up and asked me if they could leave. The clock said it was 4:15. I told them they could go. When I left, a vice principal came up to me and asked if the students had left with my permission. I told him yes. He told me I had to keep students from bell to bell. Then he looked at me and said, “Excuse me, do you have a problem with what I just told you?”

I don’t know what look I gave him, but I decided not to try to figure it out. So I told him, “I’m sorry. I have Asperger’s. Whatever look I gave you…”

He shook my hand and sent me on my way. In my head, I thought that apparently my face doesn’t always reflect the content of my mind and heart. He was the first to point it out. I have to wonder how many just went with their interpretation and didn’t confront me and just went away thinking I have a bad attitude. I have to wonder how often a mistaken look has cost me something.

The Language Theory of Mind

Once while watching one of his favorite cartoons, Daniel said to me, “He’s afraid he’s going to get in trouble, but he knows it wasn’t him who did it.”

I’m not sure one could possibly have a better statement of theory of mind: “he knows it wasn’t him.”

For those who think people with autism do not have Theory of Mind, I present that as Exhibit A. After all, it requires ToM to understand that a person/character both knows that someone else thinks he did something, and that he knows he didn’t do what the other thinks he did.

The cartoon in question is slapstick with no language use at all. And yet, Daniel managed to figure out who knew what about whom, including the necessary recursiveness of knowing what he himself had or had not done.

Autistics Proven to Have Empathy

Here’s a little something from the “I told you so” file. It turns out that, as I have argued before in this blog, autistic are hardly cold and unempathetic; quite the contrary, they are very empathetic and deeply moral.

The connection to being deeply moral has already been made in the past, but many have continued to insist autistics are unempathetic. Which would seem odd, given the research that shows a connection between morals and empathy. At the same time, this article continues to insist on “mind-blindness,” although it would be quite odd indeed if one could empathize without theory of mind, as I’ve noted before.

They suggest that around half of people with autism have alexithymia, which is also found in some non-autistic people. People with alexithymia have difficulty understanding emotions, both theirs and others, and this can lead to the perception that they are “cold.” I would also argue that a tendency toward rationality and practicality can also create this perception.

It seems that the study of autism has gone through a stage of creating a ton of misconceptions about the condition, and now we are seeing studies that, to someone on the spectrum, makes much more sense.

Prodigies and Autism

Although not all autistics–or even a majority of autistics–are prodigies, for a long time people have noticed that there is an extremely strong correlation between the two. Thus, it is not in the least bit surprising to me that a connection has been found between autism and child prodigies. It’s not surprising to me because we already know about the “idiot savant,” who as we now know are/were almost all people with autism. The thing that is notable in this study is, of course, that child prodigies seem to have all the advantages of autism with none (or few) of the deficits.

Of particular note is a suggestion for how to treat your autistic child:

When parents of prodigies realize that their child has an extraordinary talent in art or math or astronomy, they understandably try to nurture that talent, even if it seems to border on obsession.

Children with autism also often have obsessions with particular subjects or talents. But because of their troubles communicating and showing emotions, parents often don’t let them follow these obsessions.

Ruthsatz has uncovered a few instances, however, where parents have let their children with autism pursue their passions.

“Instead of focusing entirely on trying to teach the children to speak or to make eye contact, the parents let their child do the thing they love to do, whatever that is,” she said.

“In some cases, the children get excited about their particular talent, they get good at it, and they want to communicate about it. The speech and communication and social skills come along with their growing ability.”

This is treating children with autism as if they were prodigies by focusing on their strengths and ignoring the deficits, she said. In some cases, those deficits become less pronounced as they follow their talents.

While (as noted in the article) this may not work with every autistic child, I would note that absolutely no harm could possibly come from it, it’s almost certainly almost nothing but helpful to a child to allow him/her to be happy (as following their passions makes them), and this might not be all that bad a suggestion for pretty much any child.

Autistic Truth-Telling

If you’re on the autism spectrum, the only thing that matters to you is the truth. Now, you may be wrong about the truth, you may be misinformed or partially informed, but in the end all you care about is the truth.

And that can get you in trouble. Because, let’s face it, nobody actually cares to hear the truth. This is something I know at an intellectual level, but which I keep forgetting when engaged in any sort of practical interaction with people.

Do you have a problem, I want to solve it. Is there a social problem? I want to solve it. And that means facing the truth of the situation. And that can include uncomfortable truths. But most people prefer their comfortable lies, the comfortable lies they tell themselves or at least tell to each other (while secretly telling the truth to a small number of trusted others). And it’s this that autistics have difficulty with. We tell the truth to everyone equally all the time.

This of course results in socially awkward situations. It may even get us fired. It causes social strain among friends and family. And yet, we tell the truth anyway. Not because we don’t care about people’s feelings–we’ll try to fix things if we find out we caused harm–but because we think the truth is what matters. And we often make the mistake of thinking people who say they want to let people know about this or that truth are sincere. And then we make the mistake of spreading the word–words which we are then told should have been kept quiet and private.

There is an old story titled “Rhyming Thomas.” In this story, he is given the “gift” of always telling the truth.  But Thomas argues that he’s actually been given a great curse, since now he’ll have to tell kings and princes and powerful people the truth, and the truth told to them will get him killed. He is thus granted the additional gift of always speaking in rhyme–that is, he’s made a poet–and thus nobody will take him quite so seriously when he speaks the truth.

In other words, maybe I just need to stick to poetry.

Autism, Memory, and Executive Function

Weak working memory is part of the deficit in the “executive functioning” of the brain. The brain’s executive function manages, regulates, and controls many of the brain’s functions, including attention and planning. The working memory holds multiple pieces of information in the mind, to be manipulated. If you have a poor working memory, you will likely have a hard time proving you remember something when you are tested on it. In other words, it may seem that the person has difficulty learning, when in fact the person can learn a lot, but they simply have a hard time demonstrating that knowledge through standard forms of testing.

People on the autism spectrum actually do best when they have an opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge in context. In a conversation, for example, the person will talk about all of the things they know about that given topic. But if you had given that same person a test on the subject instead, they may not be able to recall all of the information in the same way. Especially if demands are being made on working memory, as is often the case with testing. People on the spectrum often have quite good associative memory, verbal working memory, and recognition memory. Recognition memory is what we typically just call “remembering”, also known as recollection memory, and “knowing,” or familiarity memory. Recollection is a slow process, and familiarity is a fast one. Associative learning is learning that takes place in a given context, and is often recalled in a similar context.

In addition to working memory, people on the autism spectrum have problems with temporal order (when things happen in time), source (inability to remember when, where, etc you learned something, while remembering what you learned), and free recall. The latter is, again, central to testing and is not at all indicative of whether or not a child is in fact learning anything. If you require someone to simply recall information in a random way, they can typically do so, unless they are on the spectrum. People on the spectrum typically have to have a stimulus or context in which to remember everything. Then they will spill the beans. And more. There is also a tendency to do better with visual memory and cues than verbal ones. While temporal working memory seems to be impaired, spatial working memory (images, maps, etc) often seems to work better.

Children on the autism spectrum also have to be explicitly taught strategies to recall information, strategies which neurotypical children have naturally. If you want a child to do well on a test, for example, you need to not only teach them information, but teach them how to retrieve the information. People on the spectrum have difficulty with organization and performance skills, but have exceptional abilities to follow rules, so long as the rules are explicitly laid out. You cannot imply the rules or suggest the rules or have unspoken rules—all rules must be explicit, detailed, and clear if you want someone on the spectrum to follow them. And when you do that, they will follow those rules. Also, people on the spectrum have extremely powerful implicit memory. Implicit memory is the ability to remember something or how to do something without conscious awareness of those previous experiences. What this means is that a student, for example, who is on the spectrum and doesn’t seem to be paying attention is in fact learning, gaining information implicitly, which can then be easily recalled later.

The main issue with autism spectrum disorder is the impaired executive functioning, which affects attention, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving, and planning. As you can imagine, these are going to affect school. The autistic student will appear not to be paying attention, will have a hard time inhibiting behaviors and may therefore sometime act inappropriately, will be rigid in her thinking, have difficulty with some kinds of reasoning and problem solving, and have difficulty planning and prioritizing. The child can be taught some of these things and the executive functioning can be developed, but it has to be explicit in the way it’s taught. The more explicit you are about the rules and what you expect from the student, the more the student will learn and behaviors will improve.

Another important element to understand is that the person on the autism spectrum typically has to have things repeated and related to each other to a far greater degree than has to be done for other students. In many ways the autistic brain works in opposite ways from the neurotypical brain. Teaching and testing methods developed for neurotypical students often cannot work well for autistic students. They will show “deficits” where there are really only differences. Teachers need to learn how to teach autistic students, because in many ways everything they are doing is wrong, from the perspective of teaching the autistic brain.

The issue then is that the memory in people on the autism spectrum works and expresses itself differently than it does in other people. The way we test for knowledge and learning, it is not uncommon for us to “find” the student hasn’t learned much of anything or retained much of anything. However, if we test the student in the right way, we will find that they probably have retained far more than the regular student has.