Conversing With Asperger’s

I cannot turn off background sounds
I cannot help but hear
The chatter that is out of bounds
To every normal ear

To hear you I must first ignore
The fact that you are there
Pretend the rest out on the floor
Speak words I want to wear

I promise that I’m listening
To every word you speak
I look away to hear you sing
And warble from your beak

Don’t turn away I’m interested
I want to hear each word
I promise you that I am fed
I eat just like a bird

A bird you know appears to peck
And barely seems to eat
But food fills double to its neck
Your words they are my wheat

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The Importance of Autism in the Human Population

It is not uncommon to think that everyone is, essentially, the same. Certainly there don’t seem to be any significant genetic differences among different groups, particularly those genes involving the brain. But what if there are differences not among different racial/ethnic/cultural groups but, rather, within the human species as a whole?

About 84% of the genes are expressed in the brain. Given that humans have 20,000 genes, that means about 16,800 genes are expressed in the brain.

We should not be surprised, then, if we were to find more than a bit of variation among human brains.

We should expect to see variation in degrees of creativity vs. copying, on liberalism vs. conservatism, on selfish behavior vs. altruism, introversion vs. extroversion, leadership vs. following, variations in thinking styles, degrees of mental energy, I.Q. and flexibility of I.Q., and of course any of a variety of learning and mental disabilities. These last are of course often disabilities based on a certain accepted mean of learning and/or behavior.

I have noted in some previous posts, linked above, that each of these consists of a spectrum of behaviors, which can be placed in a 20-60-20 grouping of the two extremes and a varying middle. I suspect that the same is true of the autism spectrum as well. The numbers don’t seem at first to support this, but I suspect that the number of people with Asperger’s is grossly underestimated and that ADD/ADHD is properly on the spectrum, such that the true spectrum looks like this:

ADD/ADHD—Asperger’s—autism

Indeed, recent research has found a genetic link among major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. About 11% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD, and while only about 0.2% of the population has been diagnosed with Asperger’s (the distinction of which has been lost by being folded into autism), I strongly suspect it’s more. Many we would just call “introverted” are probably on the spectrum and specifically have Asperger’s. Many upon my telling them I have Asperger’s insisted that, no, I was just very introverted. But as anyone on the spectrum will tell you, much of our “introversion” comes from a combination of complete mental exhaustion from having to negotiate a social environment that doesn’t make much sense to us, and our not understanding how to be social, rather than a desire not to be social.

In addition to the above research, there are a number of other studies that find genetic and structural similarities between autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, autism was once considered to be a form of childhood schizophrenia. It may be that the doctors who thought that were on to something. While there do seem to be significant-enough differences between schizophrenia and autism to make the distinction worthwhile, they may be close-enough related to consider them together–at least for the purposes of this essay.

If we take these things into consideration, we have an expanded autism spectrum that includes something like 20% of the population. If that is the case, what we have here is not really a disorder, but a natural variation that contributes to social complexity and dynamics. At the other end, constituting another 20% of the population, would then be what we could consider solipsistic thinkers, who are in many ways truly opposite of autistic, as I discuss here.

Also, one may note that there are a lot of overlaps in categories. Many introverts are on the autism spectrum, and vice versa (many with ADHD may be considered extroverts because of their hyperactivity, so the correlation, in my expanded definition of autism, won’t be perfect with introversion); many on the spectrum are creative and non-conformists. (It is notable that people on the spectrum, while being non-conformists, also dislike a great deal of change, while the more conformist neurotypicals are more capable of change; this tension also likely contributes to social dynamics in interesting ways that should be investigated.) Variations in thinking styles also maps well onto the solipsistic to autism spectrum.

Variations in brain structure, then, is going to be quite common. Given the number of genes involved in the brain, what should be most surprising is that so much is common among humans. This is in no small part because various streams tend to converge into the same general pathways (as described by constructal theory). This is why there can be a variety of causes of autism, with there being similarities among those who have autism (even with variations in degrees of expression). For there to be complex human societies, it would be necessary to have a variety of ways of thinking or even a variety of kinds of minds so that our societies are neither too stagnant nor too changeable. The most stable societies will be those that both honor tradition and are open to change, that change on the margins rather than abruptly.

Even though we have had literally millennia of species experience with the presence of such variation, we still nevertheless see a great deal of prejudice and discrimination against those who have variations in their thinking. This seems especially true in the postmodern period, where we have developed institutions whose job it is to separate out anyone who has a difference in the way they think, process information, etc. This institutional discrimination is very widespread today, to such a degree that you almost cannot get a job unless you are solidly in the 80% solipsistic-neurotypical range. Businesses quite often, if not almost always, actively discriminate against anyone on the autism spectrum, which is why so many on the spectrum are unemployed.

This discrimination against people who think differently comes from more recent egalitarian attitudes which insist that everyone is/must be identical. Given that these variations in mind/thinking cut across race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, one can actively discriminate against mental variation even while insisting on acceptance of other categories. Worse, because these mental differences are real and are a consequence of structural differences, insistence that all children are the same and learn the same results in the development of the idea of learning disabilities and of behavioral problems.

The politically correct change of this to “learning differences” has not resulted in any real change in attitude toward those differences as being bad. And differences in processing and interacting with the world are treated as behavioral problems to be solved. But the fact of the matter is that people on the spectrum cannot and should not be expected to behave like neurotypical people, because the are literally structured differently. This isn’t a matter of something superficial like culture, which can be written on any individual born into that culture, regardless of race, etc.; no, this is something deep and fundamental that cannot be so readily changed.

And even if the changes can be made–typically, forced–they always feel artificial to the person. It’s much like insisting that gays can just ignore their preferences and act heterosexual; it can be done, but it will never feel quite right, and it will likely make the person feel anxious and depressed. Perhaps not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are typically part of autism.

Our societies have been formed by the majority of those not on the autism spectrum. There are obvious reasons for that–not the least of which being that those people make up 80% of the population. As a result, it is not entirely unreasonable to insist that we on the spectrum conform to them and not vice versa. Of course, this seems easy enough to a group of people for whom conformity is natural. But what they need to understand, what everyone needs to understand, is that it’s not easy for us.

More, by preventing us from being ourselves–at least on occasion–I suspect that our societies are losing out on a great deal that we could and would otherwise contribute to society. Free to be ourselves, with less anxiety and depression, we may feel more up to innovating and creating and thus contributing to society in the many ways we have in the past. That’s all we ask: to be allowed to be ourselves, to be allowed to contribute, to be allowed our humanity.

Daniel’s Literal Interpretations

Sometimes Daniel’s literalism can result in some funny situations.

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Just the other day, Anna puckered her lips and told Daniel, “Give me a smack.”

The minute I heard it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And sure enough, he got a quizzical look on his face, then lifted his hand in the air…

Fortunately, Anna also realized what she had said and caught his hand in time. She laughed and told him, “No, I meant give me a kiss.”

Daniel responded, “Well why don’t you just say what you mean?”

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Every week Daniel has homework. One week the homework was to create a coin. I read the instructions to Daniel exactly as written: “Create a coin and put your face on it.”

So Daniel drew a circle on the paper, then laid his face in the middle of the circle and said, “I don’t know how this is going to work.”

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One day Daniel had a caterpillar on his t-shirt. We all got in the van to go somewhere, and he didn’t want to leave the caterpillar behind. Because it was nice, we rolled our window down. Melina told Daniel, “Roll up your window. The caterpillar is going to fly out.”

“No it’s not!” Daniel said. “It doesn’t have wings!”

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Last Christmas, Anna sang part of Mariah Carey’s Christmas song to Daniel, “All I want for Christmas . . . is you!”

Daniel gave her his quizzical look and said after a few seconds, “So . . . you want a Daniel statue?”

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Needless to say, he also tends to take teasing literally and seriously. The good news is that more and more he’s starting to ask me, “Are you joking?” And just the other day I made some ridiculous claim as a joke, and my daughter said, “You’re lying,” but Daniel defended me and said, “No, sometimes daddy’s joking.” So it seems my relentless challenging of his literalism is starting to work. It will take a while, but metaphors, figures of speech, and jokes will eventually make sense to him. And if he’s like me, he’ll come to find them pretty fascinating.

The Complex Biochemistry of the Autism-GI Connection

From the “I’m not at all surprised at this,” section, researchers have found GI problems in autistic people to be genetically linked to their autism. Now, while I have connected autism to leaky gut through glutamine, these researchers have connected autism and the GI tract through serotonin.

Serotonin is derived from tryptophan, an amino acid, and serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin, three brain hormones that affect social behavior, are all activated by vitamin D hormone. There is recent research that shows a connection between this system and autism. It is perhaps not surprising that a system involving neurotransmitters plays a role in certain kinds of autism.

It turns out that low vitamin D affects the levels of these hormones. And, coincidentally, when I went to see the doctor a few years ago for a checkup, he told me I had low vitamin D.

Consider this fact from Mercola: “vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means if you have a gastrointestinal condition that affects your ability to absorb fat, you may have lower absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D as well. This includes gut conditions like Crohn’s, celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and inflammatory bowel disease.”

All of those gut conditions are caused by leaky gut. Leaky gut is caused by too much glutamate relative to glutamine. This in turn affects the ability to absorb vitamin D, which in turn affects the production of the above neurotransmitters. Including serotonin, which in turn affects the gut. 

I have vitamin D and glutamine tablets in my cupboard. It looks like I’ll be taking them every day from now on. And asking Daniel’s doctor about whether or not Daniel has a vitamin D deficiency. Because Daniel has severe GI problems.

GABA Receptor and Synaptic Pruning

Recent research suggests a role for GABA receptor in synaptic pruning. Autism (and schizophrenia) are often associated with a lack of synaptic pruning, meaning neurons are more active, with positive feedback dominating.

GABA is associated with negative feedback, meaning the brain slows down to a steady-state. Glutamine is similarly associated with negative feedback. Glutamate is associated with positive feedback. All of these are neurotransmitters. More, they are closely related to each other, and can be biochemically derived from each other.

This suggests a few potential pathways to autism. If there is a problem with the GABA receptor, you would not get enough pruning. But if there is not enough GABA being produced, you would have the same effect. A mutation on either the GABA receptor protein or on one of the enzymes associated with GABA production could have pretty much the same result.

Neurons with unpruned dendritic spines get more input than do those properly pruned. The more input a neuron (or other complex system) has, the more is acts as though there is positive feedback. Indeed, it can result in increasing cycles, driving more input. In essence the brain becomes more hyperactive, at least until a physical limit is reached, at which point the system crashes, cycling down.

The result is a more active brain that may have some difficulty learning new things, but which may at the same time show exceptional abilities because of the higher activity. While the senses themselves won’t show increased activity at the source, you would see increased activity in the brain, resulting in the sensory overload associated with autism. One would even expect a certain degree of “phantom” sensory information–as we see with schizophrenia. Indeed, this association between autism and schizophrenia (which I keep coming across in different ways) does suggest that the old categorization of autism with schizophrenia meant that the researchers at the time were on to something.

Also, unpruned dendritic spines is a feature of a child’s brain before they turn two (more or less). The fewer pruned dendritic spines (and less cell death of neurons, which also occurs around the age of two, in conjunction with the pruned dendritic spines) there is, the more an autistic person will act like they are two years old, perhaps even younger. This can explain the neotenous features of autism, even among those of us who are considered to be only moderately autistic. And if the brain is kept in a pre-verbal state by being kept in an even younger state than that of a two-year-old, it can go a long way to helping us understand why there are nonverbal autistics.

Research on Autism in School and Work

SRI International reports some recent research on work, schooling, and autism. They note that although people on the spectrum are particularly strong in STEM areas and the ways of thinking that would make them successful in these fields, we still see too-low college enrollments and too-high unemployment, even among those who graduate.

These are issues we clearly need to address through better education about both the needs and the skills of people on the spectrum. The fact of the matter is that this is an institutional issue. Institutions evolved to meet the needs of neurotypical people expecting to only ever deal with neurotypical people. If we want to change our institutions, we have to change people’s attitudes, understanding about autism, and acceptance of autism.

We need to accentuate the positive even while addressing some of the differences neurotypicals interpret as negatives.