February 28, 2008

Some scientists are reconsidering the "common sense" about autism, particularly the idea that profound autism is always accompanied by retardation. The article comes at this from both scientific and civil rights angles.

I'm not sure where I stand on the issue of whether autism (particularly severe autism) represents merely a form of "difference" or "disorder," but I do agree that IQ tests are, at best, flawed, and I wonder why so much of the common wisdom about autism is based on these shaky indicators of intelligence.

  • Am I alone in finding this difficult to respond to on a verbal level? It's brought all sorts of thoughts bubbling up that evade my ability to bore your with 12 paragraphs of carefully reasoned analysis. If I said that the fact that I can't dance was really important, would that make a difference?
  • This seems an exaggerated view in both directions. On the one hand, is it true that people believe autism is always accompanied by retardation? I wouldn't have said so. Friends of mine have a son whose autism is extreme - no speech, no eye contact, very little interaction of any kind - but I don't think his teachers or the medical professionals regard him as stupid (not that I know much about them, to be honest - perhaps some are better than others). Even in popular culture, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, autistics tend to be represented as lovable eccentrics who are actually brilliant at maths, or something, not as retarded. On the other hand, representing autism as just another human personality variation seems to me unhelpfully minimising. Of course we're dealing with a wide spectrum here, and mild Aspergers can be virtually indistinguishable from personality variation. But the other end of the spectrum is quite clearly something else. When I think of how my friends basically have to devote their lives, absolutely all the time, to watching out for what their son might be doing, without ever getting a hug, a smile or even direct eye contact, I really don't think you could tell them this is just cherishable diversity.
  • As usual, Pleg, you took the words out of my mouth before I knew they were even there. Sums it up perfectly.
  • I had family and friends who worked in a large residential home for autistic people back home. I understood from them that, to echo Plegmund, autism was kind of a catch-all diagnosis for a variety of behaviours/symptoms that hadn't necessarily been proven to have a common cause but shared apparent similarities. Anyway, among their residents there was a group who lived in sheltered accommodation in a small town with just a couple of live-in care staff, and then people who were really in need of 24-7 close care and supervision.
  • Some scientists are retarded. See how they like that.
  • The purpose behind an IQ test is to predict how well someone will do in school. If you "break" an IQ test by modifying how it's performed, then you will show significant increases in IQ in children with Autism. By the same token, if you change how children with Autism are socialized and taught, then they can be taught useful skills. There are a range of personality disorders grouped with autism, of which Asperbergers is one. Rett's Disorder, Childhood Degenerative Disorder, and a similar catch-all disorder are all grouped together as a "Pervasive Developmental Disorder." The big problem of Autism is one of motivation, rather than one of learning, per se. Children with Autism are not intrinsically inclined to try to please other people, which prevents them from, well, wanting to learn things like language. If this is allowed to continue for too long, then the neurons responsible for the learning start to harden, which makes it harder to learn. Teach early, and it's easy. Teach late, and it's very difficult. The societal problem with autism is that it's exceptionally prone to trends in both treatment and analysis. For an example, look up "facilitated communication." Mind you, I'm only about 40% of the way through my Autism course, but these are some of the things I've picked up so far.
  • Autism linked with rainfall in study Children who live in the U.S. Northwest's wettest counties are more likely to have autism, but it is unclear why, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.