Problems With Concept Formation May Be Central in Autism

From my reading and my own experiences, I have developed a theory of autism in which concept formation difficulties is central. I have discussed these things in various posts, including here and here and here. Now there is strong evidence for this theory in some recent research.

According to Zaidel, the new study provides support for the idea that people with autism are highly sensitive to incoming sensory information. Moreover, he suggests, they are predisposed toward relying more highly on external stimulation – with less use of prior knowledge – when interpreting the world around them.

“Our results suggest that people with autism may experience a deficiency in what are known in the scientific literature as Bayesian priors – the ability to draw on existing knowledge to understand what we see and to predict what we will see in the near future,” Zaidel says. “If you’re more heavily weighted toward perceiving the world bottom up – from stimulus to perception – and relying less on rules of thumb from prior knowledge, perception will be both more taxing, and more sensitive to sensory noise.”

In other words, those with autism are taking in information and trying to make sense of that information. If there is a concept available with which to relate the new information, everything is just fine. But if not, it creates confusion and frustration. Imagine being faced with what to you is “new information” all the time. Being presented with new information you don’t really know how to integrate can be frustrating — just ask any student learning new things. Now imagine that your everyday experience is like that.

The farther along the spectrum one is, the more difficult it is to create concepts — and therefore, the more severe the symptoms. It will be hard to verbalize what you cannot fully conceive. Thus language delays in non-Asperger’s autistics. And we must not forget that instincts are concepts with which we are born. Fewer instincts in those with autism would seem to point to a general problem with creating concepts, including those with which we are born.

Vitamin D and Omega-3

Researchers in New Zealand are planning to do research on the role of nutrition in autism — specifically, they are looking at vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. The latter are commonly found in fatty fishes like salmon.

When I took a physical this past summer, the doctor told me to take vitamin D, as I did not have enough. I have to wonder if Daniel may be low as well. One way of getting vitamin D is to spend time outdoors in the sun, as UV B from the sun converts cholesterol into vitamin D. More outdoor play may be recommended. Lack of outdoor play may be a partial causal factor in the increase in autism, if it is proven vitamin D is connected.

It is known that when you are “hungry for” something, that is usually an indication that your body is trying to get something it needs. I have always been hungry for seafood. Daniel loves salmon especially. Could those cravings be connected to a heightened need for omega-3 fatty acids?

Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Sensory-Friendly Performance

Earlier this year (in February), my entire family attended a special concert for families with autistic children put on by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This sensory-friendly performance was the second annual performance, and it is the idea of the conductor himself, Jaap van Zweden. The linked news story is from last year, when the first one was put on. We only learned about it this year.

As it turns out, conductor Jaap van Zweden has an autistic son. It is actually not that uncommon for creative types such as Zweden (or myself—I am a poet, fiction writer, and playwright) to have children on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is famously full of autistic children (and their mildly autistic parents). It should perhaps not be surprising that a combination of strong pattern-detection, strong visual memory, strong long-term memory, weak censor, and weak tendency to follow the crowd (or even be aware of the crowd) is associated with artistic creativity.

Now, I wish I could report that the symphony had the same effect on Daniel as did Balloonacy, but perhaps because there is so much music in our house and perhaps because Melina is taking piano lessons, so he has heard this kind of music before, he didn’t seem all that into it. Of course, it may have been just that he was in a new place and was therefore uncomfortable. He mostly slumped in his chair, but then he also sat in my lap for a bit, during which time he seemed to be paying more attention to the orchestra.

Of course, his lack of complete focus may have been because he also had something on his mind about which he was primarily concerned, and therefore was barely aware that there was interesting music taking place. The day before, he had bought a solar system to hang up in his room, and I told him we were going to put it together when we got home from the symphony. And that, of course, is precisely what we did the minute we walked through the door. Because when Daniel prioritizes, he prioritizes hard.

On the other hand, he did say he recognized one of the pieces. J. Strauss, Jr’s. On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314. It’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s really paying attention to something. Things in the periphery are often what people one the spectrum are really paying attention to. Maybe he’ll be more into it next year.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have written before about the sensory-friendly performances at the Dallas Children’s Theater, particularly Balloonacy, which was turned into a video. I am happy that these sensory-friendly performances are starting to spring up in Dallas. They allow autistic children to get exposure to culture, and they allow families such as ours to be able to go out to places without our worrying about how Daniel will behave or react.