Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Few Misunderstandings About Autism

In the past few months after I learned I have Asperger's, I have been overwhelmed by the level of misunderstanding about autism prevalent not just in the general population, but with doctors and even parents of autistic children.

One major misunderstanding about autism involves the nature of our social anxiety. The fact that we have social anxiety does not mean that we don't like to be around people per se, or that we won't do things that involve groups of people. When I told my Aunt Cindy that I had Asperger's and that I suspected her father also had Asperger's, she objected that he went to church and was a member of the Audubon Society (coincidentally, I recently read somewhere that people with autism are particularly good at bird spotting). The fact that he was involved in a social group or two does not prove he did not have Asperger's. The fact that in his diaries there is no mention of the births of any of his grandchildren, and the fact that on the very day I was born, he discovered the nesting site of the upland sandpiper in South Bend, IN (when most grandparents would have been at the hospital where their daughter was giving birth to their grandson), suggest he probably did have Asperger's. My maternal grandfather was not particularly social, and the fact that he was a member of a club and a church doesn't mean he was social. I was not only a member of several clubs in high school and college -- I was elected president of the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists (AUG) at WKU. But I am definitely autistic.

Another example came from a question at the talk my wife and I gave on our experience with autism. A man in the audience was curious how it was that I could stand in front of a large group and talk. Well, standing in front of a large group and talking about something about which I am very interested is in fact pretty easy for me. I am not dealing with people as people, but as an audience; I am not interacting personally, but rather discussing something I want to discuss. There is no small talk involved; there are few if any emotions involved. But when I go with my wife to our bimonthly support group at The Warren Center, I am extremely anxious. I have to chit-chat with people, I am faced with some pretty raw emotions at times from people having a hard time with what they and their children are going through, etc. But if someone asks me a question and I am in the position to talk about what I know about autism, my anxiety tends to dissipate. I can focus on the topic, and thus I am in a more comfortable place.

I have also learned to force myself to do social things even when I don't want to do them. Again, it's not that we don't want to ever do anything social; rather, it is that we don't want to do social things all that often. Sometimes I'm in the mood to hang out with a bunch of friends. Often, I'm not. But I learned that I had to agree to hang out when I really didn't want to so that I would be invited to hang out when I did really want to. That makes me appear to be more social than I really am; in other words, I act more social than I want to act. And I do so to get what I want, not because I feel any social pressure. You cannot use social pressure on me to get me to do anything; that is the very last thing that will work on me.

Another misunderstanding involves the ability to look someone in the eye. Now, I do understand that there is a range involved, that there are those who are severely autistic who can never look someone in the eye. But what many people fail to understand is that there is, in fact, a range involved. More, I have learned over the years to look people in the eye when I talk to them. Again, it is not my preference to do so. But I do understand that it makes people uncomfortable if I don't. And that can create problems for me. I used to look at people's mouths, and I still often do. But I had several people complain about that and demand I look them in the eye. So I learned to look people in the eye. But to do so means I am consciously thinking about the fact that I need to look that person in the eyes. Often, when I am in a meeting, I will look at my notepad and generally avoid looking at anyone. But if I speak or am addressed, I will make the mental effort to look at the person. But it is a mental effort to do so.

Finally, I have had people express surprise that I am a poet. I'm not sure why people don't think someone with autism can be a poet. The singer/songwriter of The Vines and Courtney Love both have Asperger's, and they write songs. So yes, it is possible to have autism and to be a poet. Perhaps it is because people with autism tend to be literal in their understanding of language; but in my case, that tendency to be literal with language has resulted in an interest in metaphors and other figures of speech. I often find what neurotypicals do to be of interest for their very oddity to me. And that strangeness of language use is particularly useful for being a poet.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

What constitutes the "social awkwardness" of those with autism? I have discussed how autistics' discomfort with lying can lead to socially awkward situations, but there is another thing I have noticed by observing my son and reflecting on what I know both through experience with and through reading about autism that definitely leads people to consider autistics as socially awkward.

Neurotypicals are naturally social, and the reason they are naturally social is that they are uncomfortable unless they are conforming to the group they are in. If you are a Catholic, you would feel uncomfortable not kneeling to pray when everyone else is. Or pick any social situation and refuse to do what everyone else is doing -- that anxiety you feel is how people with autism feel in pretty much any social situation. Neurotypicals of course know how to solve the problem: conform. Conforming does not solve the problem for autistics.

More, autistics don't feel the need to conform. We will join in if we want to join in -- or we will not join in if we don't want to join in. How is this going to be perceived by neurotypicals? As socially awkward behavior. Neurotypicals think everyone should conform, because after all, if they are uncomfortable not conforming, then others must be as well. This feeling gets transferred into a social rule (sometimes into an explicitly moral rule), and those who do not conform are at best perceived as socially awkward, at worst as not being a member of the social group at all. Yet, this failure to conform may be a source of a great deal of social change. How many cultural changes have been made because someone with autism did something different? Perhaps more often than we realize.

Someone with autism is going to only do something if he or she wants to do it. There is no social pressure felt by them. They may try something everyone else is doing, simply to see what it's about, and if they like doing it, they will continue doing it, but if they don't like doing it, they simply won't do it. Like everyone else, though, they aren't likely to merely say they aren't doing it because they don't want to; rather, they are likely to rationalize it after the fact, declare it "stupid" or "irrational." It's likely neither (from a cultural standpoint), but rarely do people allow you to say outright that you don't like something because you simply don't like it. They demand a reason, and in the end, you will get one -- though it may be expressed in a "socially awkward" fashion.

So it seems to me that autistics' tendency to not conform would be interpreted by neurotypicals as being "socially awkward" behavior. However, it might be the very behavior that makes us question what we are doing, and which can sometimes lead to cultural changes and social transformation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Social Problems and Bottom-Up Thinking and Learning in ASD

If you really understand the difference between top-down and bottom-up learning and thinking, you can begin to understand much of what is happening with people with autism. And the more bottom-up the learning and thinking, the slower learning is going to take place.

Those who are top-down learners and thinkers typically only have to experience something once or twice before they "have it." For example, a top-down thinker only has to experience a social situation once or twice for that social experience to be generalizable to other, similar social situations. However, bottom-up learners have to have many more such experiences before they can become generalizable. Thus, oftentimes, a social situation is experienced as being completely new, even if it is similar to other social situations experienced in the past.

Let us say that we have a bottom-up thinker for whom 10 similar social experiences are needed before those experiences can be generalized into similar experiences so that the 11th experience is familiar enough for the person to have a proper response to that experience. If it is a common experience, such as a daily school routine, those ten experiences will accumulate fairly quickly, and the person in question will soon know how to properly respond to that situation. If this person is fortunate enough to have someone around who can point out that certain social situations are in fact similar, he might even be able to learn more quickly (since bottom-up thinkers are also more explicit learners). But if the social situation is a rarer one, the bottom-up thinker might not learn how to negotiate such situations for a decade or more. And, of course, if some situation is spaced out enough, it might take more than the typical ten times for the patterns to become apparent.

Worse, imagine this same person is working at a job, and he has the social experience of someone failing to do their job in a timely manner, which is required for him to do his job. The top-down thinker will maybe get burned by this situation once or twice before they learn the proper thing to do in such a situation. The bottom-up thinker will, given the one we have posited here, get burned ten times before he learned the right thing to do. What are the odds he will have gotten fired before then?

Many top-down thinkers will have learned most social rules by their early twenties. However, bottom-up thinkers may take years or decades more to learn those same rules. The former will thus be more likely to keep their jobs for long periods of time; if not the first job or two, certainly the second or third. The latter, however, will be faced with the same situations in more and more jobs, and fail to understand they are really facing the same situation each time. Thus you can end up with someone in their forties not understanding a social situation that they "should have" learned by the time they were twenty. How stable will that person's work history be? Not very.

The most extreme bottom-up thinkers are those on the autism spectrum. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more severe that person's autism will be (or vice versa). All learning will be slower, but social learning will be particularly slow, because social situations cannot typically be repeated as often as can facts. Learning language is going to be equally slow, because words have to be associated with concrete reality, and words have to be repeated in their proper context, for the autistic person to learn those words. More, grammatical structures being learned more explicitly than implicitly is going to slow down language learning for those who are bottom-up language learners. This style of learning -- bottom-up, explicit learning -- is what makes social learning so slow and difficult for people with autism. Without accommodations for that, people with autism are going to continue to have problems in life and work.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

If Student Loans Were Given Out Like Business Loans

            Suppose I went to a bank to ask them for a business loan to start a business. The loan officer would of course want to learn a number of things from me. What sort of business do I want to start? What is my business plan? What research have you done to understand the kind of business you are starting? What sort of background do you have?

            Now suppose these were my answers: I want to write short stories and poetry. I have no business plan, other than to write what I want and send things out when I can. I have done no research whatsoever, other than to read poems and short stories. I have a bachelor’s degree in recombinant gene technology.

            What are the odds that I would get a business loan?

            Yet, when students want to get a student loan, these questions are not even asked. If they were, when I decided to drop out of a Master’s program in biology to pursue a Master’s degree in creative writing and, later, a Ph.D. in the humanities, it seems highly unlikely I would have been given the loans I sought. Or, if I were granted loans, they would have been at very high interest rates – high enough to perhaps make me reconsider the wisdom of taking out loans for the degrees I sought. I may have perhaps decided to change course and get the degrees I now have anyway, but it would have been done without student loans – which certainly would have benefitted me over the long term.

            But this is more than a personal issue. What do you think would happen if student loans were given out like business loans? I find it hard to believe that engineering majors, business majors, education majors, and poetry majors would all receive the same amounts of money at the same interest rates. Who would be willing to invest in an engineering major with good math skills and a clear set of career goals? Practically everyone. Who would be willing to invest in a poetry major, even with good writing skills and a clear set of career goals? Practically no one. Why? The return on investment of the former is much clearer, more obvious, than the return on investment of the latter.

            But wouldn’t this result in fewer poetry majors? Fewer English majors? Fewer humanities majors? Of course it would. We grossly overproduce graduates in these majors, as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of these graduates cannot get jobs even remotely connected to their majors. And the reason why is that it literally costs the same to get a degree in English as it does to get a degree in engineering. Both the English graduate and the engineering graduate will have the same student loan debt, though the former is in far less demand and will be paid far less, while the latter is in much greater demand and will be paid much more. This would seem to result in more of the latter than the former, yet we have to take into consideration both the fact that people discount the future and often take the path of least resistance in the near future. The costs to getting a degree in English simply are not high enough, which is why we have far more English majors than the market demands.

            There are several consequences to this. One is that with large numbers of people going into fields like English, the average quality of graduates goes down. Another is the creation of downward pressure on wages for those with English degrees. This is what has caused universities and colleges to start using adjuncts at such high levels. Why hire a full time professor or lecturer, when you can hire an adjunct for half the wage? And you can do that because there are so many people out there with Master’s and Ph.D.’s in English competing for these jobs that wages are bid lower and lower. Yet, the universities continue to raise tuition more and more, suggesting they have the funds to pay more. But just because one has the funds, that does not mean one has to pay more. Or will pay more. Why would you, if you don’t have to? Even universities respond to economic incentives.

            The fact that universities respond to economic incentives also explains why tuition keeps going up. With the existence of cheap money in the form of student loans (students see it as cheap money because they do not typically think about the fact that they have to pay all this money back in the future – they are not rational calculators, but rather future-discounters), universities find an increase demand for their services. The customers in this case are budding up prices. And when the universities raise prices, students borrow even more money. The result is spiraling price increases.

            As we can see, cheap money in the form of easy-to-get student loans results in overproduction (of certain majors), misallocation of resources (from more difficult to easier majors), and increased prices. In other words, we get a bubble. If history is any guide, the production of highly educated, unemployable or underemployable people results in social unrest – even revolutions. Our student loan system, as practiced, creates people who cannot be employed in their fields, which in turn creates and will create resentment in those people toward the economic system in particular and civil society in general. It happened in a small scale in the late 1960s with the G.I. Bill. As I noted before, it happened in Tunisia and Egypt with their higher education financing system.

The U.S. is facing this situation on an even grander scale. Worse, unlike in Egypt, where the graduates simply were left unable to get work that matched their degrees, here in the U.S. the graduates not only cannot get work that match their degrees, they are shackled with considerable debt which, due to our laws, they can never get out from under outside of paying that debt. Which is made doubly difficult by the fact that they cannot get jobs that pay enough to pay down the debt.

Indeed, this has been the situation I have been in for a while now. I graduated in 2004 with a Ph.D. in the humanities. In that time I have been unemployed for several years, I have worked adjunct at two community colleges and a university, I have worked as a hotel front desk clerk, and I have done a little consulting. It was only this past Fall semester (2013) that I started my first full time job that had anything to do with my degree. Nine years to get a full time job – as a Lecturer. It would probably not surprise you to learn that, yes, I did in fact feel a great deal of resentment toward society during this time. Yet that was kept in check by my understanding of economics. Without that, I would have surely done as most of my fellow humanities graduates have done and blame capitalism for all my problems. Instead, I recognize the set of incentives that allowed me to make a series of poor financial decisions. I love the fact that I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, and I love the fact that that allows me to do all of the scholarly and artistic work I love to do. But I do not love the fact that our student loan system created a situation where I could not get full time employment for almost a decade (and even so, as a lecturer, it is a year-by-year contract, and it is entirely for teaching and not for doing scholarly and artistic work) and which shackled me with loans I may never be able to pay off.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Joke Stealing as Spontaneous Order Law

Law is not legislation. Law emerges from the interactions of human beings and is a spontaneous order, as discussed here. Nobody is going to sue over jokes. It's not worth it for one joke. And you cannot prove the person stole the joke; they might have thought of the same joke given the situation.

In any case, the article demonstrates that we do not need legislation, which is a top-down process. Bottom-up law processes work just fine.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Movies Synchonize Brains

Recent research shows that movies synchronize the brains of audience members. One could of course logically extrapolate this to plays. Movies and plays are thus potentially very powerful media precisely because they can move entire groups of people, coordinating that group's thoughts.

This was suggested by Russell Berman in his book Fiction Sets You Free in regards to theater, when he suggested that plays promoted democracy. They move groups as a whole to act together. It turns out he is probably right.

Frederick Turner has also suggested in some of his work that the rhythms of formal verse, such as iambic pentameter, synchronize the rhythms of the brain with the rhythms of the poetry. This would be true of spoken verse as well, including that of verse plays. Verse plays would thus be particularly strong in synchronizing the brains of the audience.

This seems to me that verse plays are potentially a quite powerful art form.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month, and if there is anyone aware of autism, it is me. My son is autistic, I am autistic, and my maternal grandfather was probably autistic.

I have written quite a bit about autism on this blog. I have written about when your work is who you are, institutional discrimination against autism, honesty, loyalty, and autism, autism as strong explicit learners, weak implicit learners, on the varieties of styles of thinking, how my thinking affects my social views, the autistic brain and thinking about spontaneous orders, theory of mind and the autism spectrum, learning to act human, part 1 and part 2, Am I a kind of unrecognized autistic? (to which the answer turned out to be: no, I have Asperger's), and the intense world theory of autism and Daniel.

It's been a fascinating journey into myself and into learning about neurovariety.

I think there is little doubt that autism runs in my family, and that the kind of autism we have is best described by the intense world theory. The dominance of positive feedback in our neural systems goes a long way toward explaining a large number of traits, including my being mildly bipolar. Another thing that happens to me on occasion also now makes sense in the light of the intense world theory. Every so often my skin becomes hypersensitive. This happened just this week. Except this past week, it was more intense than ever before. More, my joints and muscles ached and my mind was racing -- I could not remain asleep for more than a half hour at a time -- and I would become ravenously hungry, but then be able to satiate that hunger with, say, a handful of chips. Everything was moving at top speed in me. After three days, it has subsided.

This makes perfect sense with the intense world theory of autism. When positive feedback dominates, the system in question cycles. This is true of any scale free network process, including neural networks. There are times when I don't feel very much; but most of the time the cycles are subtle enough that they are not all that noticeable. However, sometimes those cycles run amok, and the intensity increases and increases. There is eventually a crash back to normal, but the period of intensity can be a bit much.

So that's a bit of personal experience. The next thing I want to share is on a recent finding on oxytocin.

It seems that "A pair of researchers, one in Israel the other in the Netherlands has found that volunteers given oxytocin tend to be more willing to lie if it benefits a group they belong to." Now consider the fact that there seems to be less oxytocin in those with autism than in neurotypicals. This would suggest that those with autism are less willing to lie, even if it benefits the group to which they belong. This would of course be interpreted as "social awkwardness" by those for whom it is natural to lie to benefit their group (such as their family). The neurotypicals in the autistic person's group are wondering, "Why wouldn't you back me up on that?" while the autistic person is saying, "But I was only telling the truth."

Oxytocin is an interesting molecule. It is the trust molecule. It is a love molecule. And it is a divisive molecule. Specifically, it seems to be a strongly in-group molecule. The kind of trust it fosters, for example, is among those within your group. Those with autism are trusting -- but they/we are typically trusting of everyone. We don't in-group, out-group. Which, for all the benefits lost with lower oxytocin, is something I would consider a significant gain.