Tagged: Autism Spectrum Conditions

Thoughts after a talk by Michelle Dawson

Some thoughts, not yet expanded…

1. Autistic people have been shown to be more emotionally expressive than non-autistics, contrary to some stereotypes. In one experiment, they were also still less susceptible to a framing effect.

2. Seemingly narrow abilities can get one very far, e.g., spotting weird interpretations of results in papers; systematically cataloguing results. They are only “narrow” if judged that way.

3. Everyone needs to find their talents and spot and help cultivate talents in others. Autism is another more visible instance of this.

4. “Interventions” are often poor substitutes for mentoring relationships, which have been found to be so important in, e.g., apprenticeships, Oxbridge undergrad supervision, and PhD supervision elsewhere.

5. Opportunities to try things can be the best intervention.

6. Judgmental observation is a kind of interaction, as when you see something, a trait, behaviour, you assess to be negative, it’s difficult to avoid broadcasting your opinion, even if just in a brief facial expression. This affects the person you’ve just observed.

7. Verbal fluency is still over-emphasised in academia. Visuospatial processing, rapid categorisation, implicit learning – still computationally complex cognitive processes – are often undervalued.

8. Everyone has biases, e.g., results they want to be true, even those pointing out biases in others. That’s where debate and criticism from other folk who are less involved is crucial.

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Visuospatial representations and reasoning

We have a paper coming out (Fugard, Stewart, & Stenning, to appear) relating performance on the visuospatial Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices items, as determined by DeShon, Shah, and Weissbein (1995), to position on the sub-clinical autism spectrum, measured by the Autism-Spectrum Quotient.  The more you report having autistic traits, the better you are at the visuospatial items.  This result fits nicely with the enhanced perceptual processing theory of autism.  It also provides more evidence that Raven’s matrices load highly on g because the test is a package of many kinds of intelligence test.

The forthcoming QJEP paper by Borst and Kosslyn pinged my radar as they use DeShon and colleagues’ classification of the Advanced matrices to further clarify the representations involved in visual imagery tasks.  In brief, their main task requires participants to remember a two-dimensional array of dots.  The dots are removed and an arrow appears.  Participants are then asked whether or not the arrow points at one of the locations previously showing a dot.  The task is neat: for trials where the arrow is pointing at one of the dot locations, and when participants give the correct answer, the distance from arrow to dot is proportional to the response time.  This is consistent with a model of visuospatial representation which requires sequential scanning analogous to what one would do with one’s eyes if the array were still visible.

Back to the visuospatial items of the Raven: correlations were nearly .5 with performance on the dot-arrow task, compared to .04 between the dot-arrow task and Raven’s verbal-analytic items.

There were also correlations between paper form board and paper folding tasks, and visuospatial items (.42 and .52, respectively) again weaker (and p > .05) for the verbal-analytic items (.23 and .24).

Now, what’s the best way to come up with a process model of what’s going on in all of these tasks?  I think work by Maithilee Kunda for Raven’s matrices is very promising.  She and colleagues are coming up with algorithms which operate directly on the visual images in the Raven’s test.  These algorithms tend to work best for the visuospatial items.  A big challenge is to get such algorithms to work across a range of different tasks and to use the algorithms to generate new psychological tasks and predictions.

References

Borst, G. and Kosslyn, S. M. (in press). Individual differences in spatial mental imagery. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

DeShon, R. P., Chan, D., & Weissbein, D. A. (1995).  Verbal overshadowing effects on Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices: Evidence for multidimensional performance determinants. Intelligence, 21, 135-155

Fugard, A. J. B., Stewart, M. E., and Stenning, K. (to appear).  Visual/verbal-analytic reasoning bias as a function of self-reported autistic-like traits: a study of typically developing individuals solving Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. Autism.

Working on your quirk

Another brief interlude from the stats and cog psych, but related to individual differences in reasoning I think! Interesting aside in a book by Robert Sutton on dealing with assholes (technical term here) in the workplace. He clarifies his defintion of the particular breed of asshole (technical term) in whom he is interested (pp. 16–17):

My focus is squarely on screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power. […] I am a firm believer in the virtues of conflict, even noisy arguments.

Here’s a special case he describes (pp. 18–19) of people who can occasionally appear to be assholes (technical term), but are not:

I also want to put in a good word for socially awkward people […]. I was struck by how many successful leaders of high-tech companies and creative organizations like advertising agencies, graphic design firms, and Hollywood production companies, had learned to ignore job candidates’ quirks and strange mannerisms, to downplay socially inappropriate remarks, and instead, to focus on what the people could actually do.

Examples he gives include autistic people and those with Tourette’s syndrome.

Reference

Sutton, R  (2007). The No Asshole Rule. NY: Business Plus.

“Autistic-like traits”

“There is evidence that the discrete boundaries imposed by DSM and ICD-10 are not always respected by the conditions described. For instance Gillberg (1983) wondered whether a ‘common biochemical disturbance’ may cause ASC in young males and anorexia nervosa in young girls, and recently evidence has been found of weak central coherence in anorexia (C. Lopez et al., 2008; Southgate, Tchanturia, & Treasure, In press). Depression is often comorbid with autism (e.g., Ghaziuddin, Ghaziuddin, & Greden, 2002). DSM warns clinicians not to confuse Schizophrenia and Asperger Disorder as aspects of the conditions are quite similar. Given this overlap between conditions, it is unavoidable for measures of ‘autistic’ traits to detect traits associated with conditions other than ASC. […] There seems to be no shortage of continuums, overlapping and distinct, within and between typical and atypical development and clinical and non-clinical conditions of existence.”

“… I would argue in favour of defence of the label ‘autistic-like traits’ as merely shorthand for the class of traits which are of relevance to a study of ASC, so long as it is emphasised that there is overlap between conditions, for instance between ASC, psychosis, and anorexia. As more is known about the purer dimensions of importance, then it becomes easier to move instead towards discussion of these.”

(From here.)

Create your own economy (updated some more)

Recently I read Create your own economy by Tyler Cowen (thanks Michelle for the tip-off!). Interesting page-turner discussing autism, autistic(-like) traits in non-autistics, and implications for society.

Cowen points out (what is thankfully becoming more familiar) that although autism is often associated with tragedy, many autistics and not only savants have cognitive strengths, e.g., being infovores for their preferred areas of interest, better perceptual skills than non-autistics, less suspectiblity to false memories.  He argues that technological tools available today such as iTunes and Facebook allow non-autistics to have the same abilities.  Non-autistics are driven to do the same sort of organisation and searching for information as autistics are, and this is being made possible by technology. He argues that education is even designed to teach non-autistics some of the cognitive strengths of autism.

One side of autism mentioned in the book and not frequently discussed is that autistics are more likely to talk about feelings than make small talk (has this been studied? Is it true? I would like to know more). The emotional experience of autistics is rarely acknowledged.  Cowan gives examples of people who despite appearing outwardly aloof are deeply sensitive, caring, and who are shocked when they’re told otherwise.

There are plenty of examples in the book of people, real and fictional, who appear(ed) to have autistic traits. I found this a tad tiresome (there has been a lot of it about elsewhere), especially when suffixed with hedges saying that of course we don’t know whether they were autistic. The key point is that “what-we-call-what-it-is-that-I-am-talking-about” (to quote Cowan) probably ought not be derived from a name for a disorder. So viewed this way, most of the book is not about autism, but about a cognitive and emotional profile which many people in society have. This is not to say that autistics do not have cognitive strengths—and he discusses some examples in the book—but I do not see what is to be gained by conjecturing that people are/were autistic. What does this explain?  The details matter, not a one word label. (However this could be because I am deeply suspicious of labels in general!)

Lots of good stuff in the book. In general I think it does a great job of defending the eccentric, and argues successfully that many of the traits eccentrics possess are desirable. Good news for academics!

There are plenty of important points on respecting the individual. I like this of course, and am a big fan of positive individual differences research, e.g., discovering the strengths of people diagnosed with various developmental and psychiatric conditions. But I think my favourite sentence in the book is this (relatively unimportant) one:

“In June 2009, a group of Norwegian astronomers broadbast a Doritos ad to a distant star, forty-two light years away.”

This is genius, and I think it’s a good author indeed who can spot and report such facts. It’s these kinds of things that make society fun.

“It’s like you are just a spectator in this thing”

I’ve just read a lovely article by Sara Ryan and Ulla Räisänen [“It’s like you are just a spectator in this thing”: Experiencing social life the “aspie” way. Emotion, Space and Society, 2008, 1, 135-143] who interviewed people with Asperger’s syndrome to explore their experiences of problems like social exclusion. Some excerpts from the interviews:

“… it just sort of highlighted and made me almost feel as though basically sort of like a freak. You know you really had nothing in common with these people and with people in general and it was a very lonely feeling […] You know, loneliness, I think, sort of becomes the default setting.”

“… like you say something stupid, and then realise you have said something stupid, and say something even more stupid, and or say something or do something awkward and then sort of combination of doing something awkward and saying something awkward and trying to make it funny and then making it even more awkward, making yourself look like a complete and utter idiot and then going all sort of red in the face and then hiding for days.”

This sort of detail of what it feels like to be an “aspie” in an (in general) non-aspie friendly society is sadly missing from the psychological literature.

It would have been lovely if they’d also included a matched non-Asperger group. For instance after discussing how it felt for one of the participants to try to have a conversation, the authors comment:

“Of course, this is an experience that is probably familiar to many neuro-typical people but the level of intensity and frequency is substantial for people with AS who are unable, or find it difficult to, internalise social norms and values.”

So, how does it feel for a typically developing person to have a conversation? There must be a tremendous amount of variation! Where do people typically get their ideas from? Where does it feel like they come from? Do they just pop into memory? I’ve been in many fairly unpleasant social situations where people simply have nothing to say to each other. Wine is then wheeled in before disaster strikes. I’ve seen a professor digest a copy of the Guardian just before going to lunch; from the conversation that followed it seemed that he was replaying much of what he read, but the result was that people had interesting discussions. To make sense of the autism spectrum experience, the worries of typically developing folk must also be carefully understood.

How the participants thought of topics reminded me of the distinction between stimulus-oriented versus stimulus-independent thought. I wonder if results from the cognitive end of the literature combined with interviews could give ideas for “coping mechanisms”, both for autistics and for NTs. This would fit in nicely with the authors argument that “Moral obligations … include being sympathetically aware of the kinds of ways in which others present can become spontaneously and properly involved…”—maybe conversation partners can help autistic people to ignore local stimulus cues, so the interaction goes beyond words to include explicit joint planning.

I've just read and enjoyed your article on how people with Asperger's
experience life.  A few thoughts came to mind.

Have you done anything similar with a neurotypical comparison
group?  You make an interesting side comment:

"Of course, this is an experience that is probably familiar to many
neuro-typical people but the level of intensity and frequency is
substantial for people with AS who are unable, or find it difficult to,
internalise social norms and values."

So, how does it feel for an NT to have a conversation?  Where do people
typically get their ideas from?  Where does it feel like they come from.
 Do they just pop into memory?  I've been in many fairly unpleasant
social situations where people simply have nothing to say to each other.
 Alcohol tends to lubricate proceedings.  I've seen a professor quickly
digest the contents of an issue of the Guardian just before going to
lunch; from the conversation that followed it seems that he was
replaying much of what he read.

Also how the aspie folk in your sample think of topics, reminded me of
the distinction between stimulus-oriented versus stimulus-independent
thought.  Perhaps this is further evidence that autistics (or those with
ASD, depending on your terminological preferences!) are more stimulus
dependent.  I wonder if results from the cognitive end of the literature
combined with your ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism approach
could give ideas for coping mechanisms, both for autistics and for NTs.
 This would fit in nicely with the idea that "Moral obligations ...
include being sympathetically aware of the kinds of ways in which
others present can become spontaneously and properly involved..." -
maybe conversation partners can help autistics to ignore local stimulus
features.

A shockingly bad characterisation of autistic-like traits

Have a look at the article by Stewart Dakers in the Guardian (October 22).

He begins with a description of a violent young man named Bender, who smashes another young man’s face against the protective grill on a shop front. Dakers’ diagnosis of Bender and co:

This disaffection is characterised by indifference to the interests of others, self-preoccupation, by behaviours that are aloof or aggressive. They are “extreme blokes”, endlessly competitive, combative, techno-whizzes, system obsessed, vocabulary-lite, emotional and social misfits. Top-gear masculinity.

There is an uncomfortable resonance in this hypermaleness with a condition that has begun to assume epidemic proportions. Indeed, those mates of Bender’s fortunate enough to be assessed for special educational needs all have an autistic spectrum diagnosis. Autism has most recently been rebranded as AQ, the autistic quotient, implying that it is an inherent human condition, like IQ. As such, it surely affects us all, capable of being excited, both chronically and anecdotally, by experience of trauma.

It is still open for debate whether Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is actually on the increase, or whether diagnostic criteria are weakening or more cases are being spotted.

I am aware of no work connecting ramming peoples’ faces into shop fronts and ASC, and it’s downright irresponsible to suggest there is a connection.

ASC has not been “rebranded” AQ.  There is a self-report screening questionnaire named AQ which is used by some researchers.  AQ may be used to predict whether someone has Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, but it also detects traits which are not specific to these conditions.

I can’t bring myself to quote from Dakers’ causal explanation.

There is more info about the autism spectrum at the National Autistic Society’s website.