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.

 

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Reflections on Being a Student on the Spectrum

Having taught 2nd grade summer school Reading and Math, and now working as a sub, I cannot help but reflect upon my own elementary school education. I was always considered to be a very intelligent child by pretty much everyone, including my teachers. Any bad grades were considered to be laziness on my part.

One area in which I struggled throughout my years as a student was math. I particularly had a very hard time with word problems. I also had some problem with certain areas of multiplication, and fractions made no sense whatsoever to me until I took high school chemistry. I failed 8th grade math, made a C in Algebra 1 (Freshman), Cs and Bs in Geometry (Sophomore), a B in Algebra II (Jr), and an a in Calculus and in Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Sr). In college, I made a C in Calculus I, and I failed Calculus II so miserably that I managed to make a fairly low F even doing all of the extra credit.

Math in elementary school has now gone almost completely over to word problems. When I was in elementary school, tests would have almost all numerical problems, and only about 2 word problems. That meant I could miss the word problems (which I almost inevitably did) without failing the test. But today, the quizzes I have had to give involved nothing but word problems. Meaning there’s a very good chance that I would have been failing math well before 8th grade.

While there is no question that we need to teach children how to formulate problems (which is what word problems do), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach formulating math to children who cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That is, you absolutely must have the mathematical skill in place before you can move on to mathematical reasoning and formulation of problems. The latter may be most important overall, but you cannot skip establishing the foundation.

Now it may be that this way of doing things is the best way for certain students. I won’t deny that possibility. But it’s coming at the expense of other children. And if this is true, then the way I was taught it came at the expense of the kinds of students who do well in the way math is taught today. There are trade-offs. In this particular trade-off, I would have been the one traded, from doing well enough in math to pass to failing very much earlier on.

Another thing I have noticed about education today is that it’s designed to be much more social. There’s more group work and “shoulder partners” and sitting together on a rug and so on. None of this is exactly inviting to anyone on the spectrum, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked school nearly as much if it had been run like it is today.

Indeed, though I was perhaps seen as highly intelligent but quirky (to put it nicely) as a child in the 1970s, I think there is little doubt that in the current school environment that I would have been identified as having something “wrong” with me. I would have been seen as refusing to participate and I probably would have had some quite negative reactions to a lot of this forced sociality (something perfectly fine for neurotypicals, who don’t find it forced at all). I would have likely been identified as having ODD, if not Asperger’s/autism. I probably wouldn’t have been identified as having ADD/ADHD, because I was never outwardly hyperactive (inwardly, I’m in a dead run almost all the time), but I would have likely been sullen and I wouldn’t have liked the classroom environment at all.

In other words, I think I would have done worse in school today than I did in the 1970s.

If it’s true that I would have done worse under the way teaching is done today, then we may have some explanation for why none of the education reforms we’ve tried have ever worked to improve scores. It’s because while the reforms help some children learn better, it ends up acting as an impediment to others. It also may explain the “rise” in ADD/ADHD and autism, since the way students are taught today seems to draw out many of their identifying factors.

But we ought to be a little disturbed that someone like me would probably no do well in today’s system. The system I went to school in put me on the path to succeeding in college and graduate school. I fear that this system would have had me identified as a problem student and perhaps even having the autism I do in fact have. That is a problem because even though there is a lot of rhetoric around people with disabilities being able to succeed, the fact is that nowadays we are put on a pathway to “succeed” outside of a college trajectory–mostly because we are left unprepared to go. My brother, who has dyslexia, was discouraged from going to college in high school–and he now has a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. You cannot tell me that autistic children aren’t discouraged, directly or indirectly, from going to college.

What is worse is that, if I am right that the majority of advancements in the world were made by autistics, then we are doing a terrible disservice to the world at large by creating an educational system that educates perfect copiers well, but leaves reformers/inventors/creators on the sidelines.

Autism, Artificial Neural Nets, and Language

It would benefit people to learn how artificial neural nets (ANNs) work in order to better understand the autistic brain. One of the things I’ve noticed in my readings on autism is that the way autistic people learn strongly resembles the way one trains up ANNs. It takes many iterations of a perception for the autistic person to develop the concept, whereas with neurotypicals only one or two will do.

Neurotypical people learn language in a more language instinct-driven fashion. A word needs be repeated only a few times, and the person has it. But if you tried to train an ANN, you would find that you would need to train it up many more times, and more than that, the first thing it would do is simply repeat back exactly what you said to it. That is, it would engage in echolalia.

Language is thus structured differently in the autistic brain than in the neurotypical brain. The neurotypical brain has a deep grammar on which the details of a given language are hung. If autistic brains lack in certain kinds of instincts, like the language instinct, but still have enough complex network structure to build language, then we would expect less-than-typical structures in speaking. The unusual intonations of many autistic people likely derive from this fact as well, since every sentence is being constructed in a more mechanical way–giving us something like the voice of an ANN that learned language–rather than in the easier way generated by an instinct.

So language, in those who can learn it, is one of those many social behaviors neurotypical children learn automatically, but which requires direct instruction for autistic children.

Social Cognitive Development Through Games: Do You Know Me?

Over a year ago, Anna and I overheard Melina playing a game with Daniel. She called it “Do You Know Me?” She was asking him questions like “What is my middle name?” and “What is my favorite superhero?” And he was answering.

Anna and I both realized at about the same time that what Melina was doing was absolutely brilliant. She had Daniel engaged through the use of a game format, and the same was a social game. By asking Daniel these kinds of questions, she was helping him learn about her, including aspects that that were similar in nature to his own interests. And by asking explicit questions, she was also giving him explicit answers, meaning she had him engaged in explicit learning of things that many children learn in more indirect ways, through more passive observation or social interactions.

She also expanded the questions beyond herself to include the rest of the family. For example, she asked him, “What is daddy’s middle name?”

It probably won’t surprise anyone that Daniel did quite poorly in correctly answering these questions. (When Melina asked, “What is my favorite superhero?” even I would have guessed “Super Girl,” and would have never in a million years guessed that it was “Black Widow.”) But these are the kinds of questions people on the spectrum ought to be asked so they can learn more about the people around them. Knowing a bunch of trivia about a you might even make an autistic person want to get to know you even better.

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.

Nietzsche’s Autism and (Possibly) Learned Greek Sexuality

I recently read two biographies of Nietzsche, and to someone who is himself on the spectrum, it seems abundantly clear that Nietzsche had autism. Of course, neither of these biographers see it, and as a result they come up with explanations of Nietzsche which would make Freud proud.

I’m not going to go into all of the evidence I see for Nietzsche having autism. He had a speech delay — he didn’t speak until he was three (like my son, Daniel) — but then rapidly learned how to read and write. He was socially awkward in ways that sound familiar, and yet he also had a dominating personality (again, in ways that sound familiar), especially his writing persona, while often seeming soft-spoken and unassuming (we learn to be unassuming as we learn nobody cares about our obsessions, but become dominating under the right conditions). He also didn’t exactly know what to do with himself around women. This one of the biographers, Joachim Kohler, interprets as Nietzsche being a closet homosexual, but Nietzsche seems to have been a disaster around women in exactly the same way I was (thank goodness eHarmony had been invented in the meantime!).

But what I want to note is the degree to which Nietzsche seemed to have learned how to behave from books. I cannot emphasize enough the degree to which I have learned how to behave around people from the books I have read. Where neurotypicals have a variety of instincts that allow them to learn how to behave from the most casual of observations, autistics have to be taught almost everything. If one reads Kohler carefully, one can see that Nietzsche learned about love and sexuality from the ancient Greeks in a way that makes sense from my theory that autistic are explicit social learners.

Of course, anyone who knows about the ancient Greeks on love and sexuality will immediately understand just how messed up this could make someone. Imagine that you are raised in home in which there are nothing but very religious women, where sex and sexuality are hardly discussed. This would make things hard enough for a neurotypical; the situation is almost impossible if you are autistic. The autistic person would grow up sexually ambiguous at best, not really knowing what to do or think or feel. He hasn’t been explicitly taught. Then, when he goes to high school — Schulpforta — he concentrates on religion and philology and, thus, on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nietzsche reads works that rarely if ever mention women — and when they do, in strongly misogynistic terms. When love is discussed, it is between men, or between men and boys — teachers and students. Eros is the god of erotic love between boys — the offspring of Ares (War) and Aphrodite (feminine Love). And then, Socrates, with whom Nietzsche identifies because they both share the presence of a daimon  (something I have as well–a guiding voice or spirit–making me wonder how common this is in autistics), simultaneously expresses Eros while remaining chaste toward men and boys. It would be no wonder if Nietzsche had no clue what to do in areas of love and sex.

Kohler doesn’t just use this as “proof” of his thesis. He also uses the fact that Nietzsche, as a boy and young man, had very intense friendships with other boys and men his age. However, this is also a trait of autistics. A friend in a real sense becomes a “project” on which the autistic person spends a great deal of time and effort. It can be flattering at first, but it can also become intense and overbearing and, likely, weird after a while. The autistic will, of course, never notice the increasing discomfort of the friend. If the person is a love interest, this is often interpreted as evidence of how much the autistic is in love. And that’s not untrue. But equally, intensity of friendship is not evidence of erotic feeling in the case of friends. But it may easily be misinterpreted as such.

If autistics are explicit learners, including in social areas of life, what they see or read to get their information is going to be very important. It will mean that it’s important for parents to be open and clear about areas of love and sex and sexuality. Making sure the autistic person is reading and watching the right things is also important, as those will perhaps have the biggest impact. You probably want to make sure your autistic is not reading a lot of ancient works on sex relations and sexuality (nor a lot of the surrealists, who were perhaps a bit too influenced by the Marquis de Sade), at least, not early on in life.

My own experience of learning how to act more and more seemingly neurotypical by reading books and watching movies and T.V.  helped me to see that this was taking place for Nietzsche as well (though in his case, it was obviously just reading). I hope that this insight can be used to help my son — and perhaps others.