All posts tagged autism

Book review: The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, by Gregory Hickok.

This book criticizes hype from scientists and the media about embodied cognition, mirror neurons, and the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Popular accounts of these ideas contain a little bit of truth, but most versions either explain very little or provide misleading explanations.

A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it’s heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don’t fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don’t have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a “resting state”).

Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn’t mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we’re imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn’t impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots’ ability to imitate our speech isn’t very effective at helping them understand it.

Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the “broken mirror theory” of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis (which I’ve blogged about before) is more consistent with the available evidence.

The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn’t have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book’s end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.

Most of the ideas that he criticizes don’t do much harm, because they wouldn’t pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person’s mind unless I’m doing something unusual like brain surgery.

A somewhat new hypothesis:

The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain.

Here’s a more extensive explanation.

This hypothesis connects many of the sensory peculiarities of autism with the attentional and social ones. Those had seemed like puzzling correlations to me until now.

However, it still leaves me wondering why the variations is sensory sensitivities seem much larger with autism. The researchers suggest an explanation involving increased plasticity, but I don’t see a strong connection between the Intense World hypothesis and that.

One implication (from this page):

According to the intense world perspective, however, warmth isn’t incompatible with autism. What looks like antisocial behavior results from being too affected by others’ emotions—the opposite of indifference.

Indeed, research on typical children and adults finds that too much distress can dampen ordinary empathy as well. When someone else’s pain becomes too unbearable to witness, even typical people withdraw and try to soothe themselves first rather than helping—exactly like autistic people. It’s just that autistic people become distressed more easily, and so their reactions appear atypical.

Book review: Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant, by Darold A. Treffert.

This book contains a fair amount of interesting information, but the writing style leaves much to be desired, and many parts disappointed me.

It describes savant syndrome (formerly known as “idiot savant”), where unusually good numeric or artistic skills coexist with some sort of mental disability (and usually prodigious memory).

Some people appear to have been born with savant skills, a few developed the skills in what appears to be a sudden insight. But the cases that seem to tell us the most about what is special about savants are the ones where the skills emerge after a brain injury. Savant skill seem to be often caused by a left brain dysfunction removing some inhibitions that prevented the right side of the brain from developing or displaying unusual skills.

This suggests that there may be some sense in which we all can potentially develop savant skills.

He doesn’t provide a good explanation of why the syndrome is defined so that savants with no disability fail to qualify. There seems to be some tendency for savant skills to coexist with some drawbacks (such as the drawbacks associated with autism), but the author denies that there’s any trade-off requiring that savant skill cause deficiencies in other areas.

Some of the weaker parts of the book claim some savants know things they couldn’t have learned, and attribute skills to genetic memory. I find it much more plausible that the savants learned their skills in ways that would look like an extreme form of normal learning, and that we just don’t know how to observe when and where they accomplished the learning.

As part of my efforts to improve my relationship skills, I read many of the posts on It’s a site oriented towards male geeks who want better dating skills, but it appears to be useful for a broader range of personal interactions, and is oriented toward geeks.

I ran into more trouble than I expected when I tried to follow this advice:

Make a list of every positive emotion you can think of. For each emotion write down a short headline to a story, moment, or experience, when you felt that emotion.

After much research, I decided that a large part of the problem was connected with Alexithymia. According to Wikipedia it is:

a state of deficiency in understanding, processing, or describing emotions.

  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.

Talking about emotions is reportedly valuable in creating a feeling of closeness with another person, but when I try to think of stories I might tell about emotions, I often come up completely blank, or remember situations where the context suggests I felt something corresponding to an emotion, but for which I’m unable to find a memory of feelings. I think my mood is often best described as neutral, which I gather isn’t the case for most people.

from another paper:

Therefore, alexithymia is viewed as “blindfeel”, the emotional equivalent of blindsight. According to this thesis, alexithymia is a deficit in reaching the conscious awareness and in maintaining the voluntary control of emotions, rather than a disruption in the sensory/perceptual aspect of emotions.

One of the tests for Alexithymia suggests that it is associated with low interest in sex, although I can’t find much evidence on that subject. I certainly feel much less interest in sex than the average person.

I wonder if one of the reasons I don’t form many close relationships with people is that I don’t notice any reactions in me corresponding to what people call “love at first sight”. If I’ve ever felt even mild versions of that, I can’t recall them.

Alexithymia also seems to affect people’s reactions to music:

an apparent reduction in emotional responsiveness to music in the ASD group can be accounted for by the higher mean level of alexithymia in that group.

I don’t notice myself reacting to music by itself, but it does seem to manipulate my emotions when it’s part of a movie.

Alexithymia is clearly a separate phenomenon from Aspergers/autism, but it is reported to occur in 50% to 85% of autistic people. It could be responsible for a significant fraction of the problems autistics have relating to other people. In particular, autism by itself doesn’t seem to cause problems with eye contact:

only the degree of alexithymia, and not autism symptom severity, predicted eye fixation.

There don’t seem to be any good ideas for dealing with Alexithymia, although that might reflect how little research has been done so far rather than any inherent difficulty.

The most promising claim I’ve found is this:

So how did I “cure” myself? It’s a bit of a long story but I will give you some bits of it for now.

One of the things I did was to start to read about feelings. This might have started giving me the vocabulary.

Something else I did was I started taking time to think about my feelings. To reflect on them.

Then I also started to write about them in personal journals.

I’m starting to do this, but it clearly won’t produce clear results soon.

I’ve bought and used a dvd designed to teach people how to recognize emotions in faces. It’s got a lot of potentially useful information in it, but it leaves much to be desired – I’m fairly sure it’s mistaken to list lying as a detectable emotion (guilt or fear of detection are detectable, but the most rigorous studies seem to say that people rarely do much better than chance at detecting lies). I’m unsure whether I’m learning much from it.

ADHD and Autism

My understanding of Aspergers/autism (AS) and ADHD suggests to me that they can’t coexist in one personality. I keep coming across reports of people having both, and I’ve been trying to research whether those reports result from mistaken diagnoses or whether I’m missing something. I haven’t found any insightful discussion that addresses this directly. I’ve done some research on ADHD recently which clarified my ideas on this subject.

Both produce social problems due to unusual ways in which their attention works, and both involve unusually focused attention, which produce a good deal of overlap in symptoms. But there are many other features for which the two seem opposites.

ADHD – shifts attention easily and quickly in response to new stimuli
AS – slow to shift attention in response to stimuli

ADHD – seeks adrenaline rush from stimulating/risky situations
AS – avoids being overwhelmed by stimulating/risky situations

ADHD – often pays attention to multiple tasks at once
AS – finds multitasking unusually hard


ADHD – makes inappropriate comments due to being impulsive but realizes afterward it was inappropriate

AS – makes inappropriate comments due to not knowing better and not understanding social conventions

ADHD – forgets details of daily routines

AS – follows daily routines rigidly

From another source:

Children with ADHD frequently break rules they understand, but defy and dislike. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome like rules, and break the ones they don’t understand. They are ever alert to injustice and unfairness and, unfortunately, these are invariably understood from their own nonnegotiable perspective. Children with ADHD are often oppositional in the service of seeking attention. Children with Asperger’s disorder are oppositional in the service of avoiding something that makes them anxious

With all these traits, there are wide variations in the degree to which anyone has them. But most of what I know suggests that people on one side of the AS/ADHD spectrum with regard to one of these traits are almost always on the same side with respect to the others, or else too close to the middle to classify.

Since many of these traits are poorly observed by those who diagnose them (you don’t observe peoples’ daily routines in a doctor’s office), it’s easy to imagine that widespread mistakes in diagnoses create a false impression that AS and ADHD coexist. Does anyone know of a good analysis that disagrees with my conclusion?

[Update 2010-11-15: I’ve gotten some feedback from people with some ADHD traits who don’t clearly fit the pattern I’ve described. Maybe my analysis only works for one subtype of ADHD, or maybe things are too complex for any existing categories to work as well as I’d like.]

Book review: Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World by Tyler Cowen.

This somewhat misleadingly titled book is mainly about the benefits of neurodiversity and how changing technology is changing our styles of thought, and how we ought to improve our styles of thought.

His perspective on these subjects usually reflects a unique way of ordering his thoughts about the world. Few things he says seem particularly profound, but he persistently provides new ways to frame our understanding of the human mind that will sometimes yield better insights than conventional ways of looking at these subjects. Even if you think you know a good deal about autism, he’ll illuminate some problems with your stereotypes of autistics.

Even though it is marketed as an economics book, it only has about one page about financial matters, but that page is an eloquent summary of two factors that are important causes of our recent problems.

He’s an extreme example of an infovore who processes more information than most people can imagine. E.g. “Usually a blog will fail if the blogger doesn’t post … at least every weekday.” His idea of failure must be quite different from mine, as I more often stop reading a blog because it has too many posts than because it goes a few weeks without a post.

One interesting tidbit hints that healthcare costs might be high because telling patients their treatment was expensive may enhance the placebo effect, much like charging more for a given bottle of wine makes it taste better.

The book’s footnotes aren’t as specific as I would like, and sometimes leave me wondering whether he’s engaging in wild speculation or reporting careful research. His conjecture that “self-aware autistics are especially likely to be cosmopolitans in their thinking” sounds like something that results partly from the selection biases that come from knowing more autistics who like economics than autistics who hate economics. I wish he’d indicated whether he found a way to avoid that bias.

This paper reports that people with autistic spectrum symptoms are less biased by framing effects. Unfortunately, the researchers suggest that the increased rationality is connected to an inability to incorporate emotional cues into some decision making processes, so the rationality comes at a cost in social skills.

Some analysis of how these results fit in with the theory that autism is the opposite end of a spectrum from schizophrenia can be found here:

It seems that the schizophrenic is working on the basis of an internal model and is ignoring external feedback: thus his reliance on previous response.I propose that an opposite pattern would be observed in Autistics with Autistics showing no or less mutual information, as they have poor self-models; but greater cross-mutual information , as they would base their decisions more on external stimuli or feedback.

An unusual hypothesis about autism involves Genomic imprinting (“imbalances in the outcomes of intragenomic conflict between effects of maternally vs. paternally expressed genes.”).

It’s apparently somewhat well established that some regions of the brain are influenced more by paternal genes (the paternal brain), and some by maternally genes (the maternal brain).

The Imprinted Brain theory of autism says that autism results from the paternal brain being more developed, and the maternal brain being less developed, with an increased paternal brain causing Aspergers syndrome, and a reduced maternal brain causing more severe autism.

The father’s genes want the mother to invest more resources in a child than the mother’s genes do. Maternal genes have more desire for child to empathize with her and siblings to make childcare less costly. Paternal genes have more desire for competition between siblings over resources.

I had previously been impressed by a theory in the book Shadow Syndromes that involves a less developed cerebellum causing a slowness to shift one’s attention as a child, which makes one less likely to notice facial expressions. The Imprinted Brain theory can imply this (the cerebellum is one of the maternal brain areas which is underdeveloped).

The evidence is hard to summarize, but here’s an example:

autism increases with paternal (and maternal) age (Gillberg, 1980), and assisted reproduction via intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) may increase the risk for syndromes of dysregulated imprinting, including Angelman and Beckwith-Weideman (Paoloni-Giacobino & Chaillet, 2004; Waterland & Jirtle, 2004; Maher, 2005). Both paternal age and ICSI are expected to contribute to methylated-gene defects, which may include effects on brain-imprinted genes (Waterland & Jirtle, 2004; Malaspina et al., 2005).

I recommend reading the discussion section of the paper, which contains much more information than I can summarize.

The paper also mentions evidence that paranoid schizophrenia is an opposite of autism (involving a highly developed maternal brain) – schizophrenics are more likely than most people to notice/imagine that someone is looking at them (see (Mentalism and mechanism and The eyes have it).

Here is an apparently unrelated argument for schizophrenia and autism being opposites.

Book review: A Different Kind of Boy: A Father’s Memoir on Raising a Gifted Child With Autism by Daniel Mont.
This book provides a clear and moving story of what it’s like to have a fairly autistic child. It reinforces my belief that autism (or at least some of the personalities classified as autistic) is one extreme of a range of human personalities. I was surprised at the extent to which Alex’s personality is an extreme version of the personality I had as a child.
The author demonstrates an unusual ability to treat his son as an equal for some purposes (such as logical reasoning) while simultaneously being aware that Alex finds it extremely hard to learn concepts most of us take for granted (e.g. the difference between lying and pretending).
Many of the problems people have interacting with Alex closely resemble the problems AI researchers discover when they try to translate an “obvious” concept into unambiguous language. But just when I thought the AI analogy provides a reliable guide, I noticed an exception – Alex finds long division harder than economic theory.

Book review: The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters by Diane Coyle.
This book provides a nice overview of economic theory, with an emphasis on how it has been changing recently. The style is eloquent, but the author is too nerdy to appeal to as wide an audience as she hopes. How many critics of economics will put up with quips such as “my Hamiltonian is bigger than yours!”?

The most thought-provoking part of the book, where she argues that economics has a soul, convinced me she convinced me she’s rather confused about why economics makes people uncomfortable.
One of her few good analogies mentions the similarities between critics of evolution and critics of economics. I wished she had learned more about the motives of her critics from this. Both sciences disturb people because their soulless autistic features destroy cherished illusions.
Evolutionary theory tells us that the world is crueler than we want it to be, and weakens beliefs about humans having something special and immaterial that makes us noble.
Likewise, economics tells us that people aren’t as altruistic as we want them to be, and encourages a mechanistic view of people that interferes with attempts to see mystical virtues in humans.

Some of her defenses of mainstream economics from “post-autistic” criticism deals with archaic uses of the word autistic (abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy). These disputes seem to be a disorganized mix of good and bad criticisms of mainstream economics that don’t suggest any wholesale rejection of mainstream economics. It’s the uses of autistic that resemble modern medical uses of the term that generate important debates.

She repeats the misleading claim that Malthusian gloom caused Carlyle to call economics the dismal science. This suggests she hasn’t studied critics of economics as well as she thinks. Carlyle’s real reason (defending racism from an assault by economists) shows the benefits of economists’ autistic tendencies. Economists’ mechanistic models and lack of empathy for slaveowners foster a worldview in which having different rules for slaves seemed unnatural (even to economists who viewed slaves as subhuman).

I just happened to run across this thought from an economist describing his autistic child: “his utter inability to comprehend why Jackie Robinson wasn’t welcomed by every major league team”.

She tries to address specific complaints about what economists teach without seeing a broad enough picture to see when those are just symptoms of a broader pattern of discomfort. Hardly anyone criticizes physics courses that teach Newtonian mechanics for their less-accurate-than-Einstein simplifications. When people criticize economics for simplifications in ways that resemble creationists’ complaints about simplifications made in teaching evolution, it seems unwise (and autistic) to avoid modeling deeper reasons that would explain the broad pattern of complaints.
She points to all the effort that economists devote to analyzing empirical data as evidence that economists are in touch with the real world. I’ll bet that analyzing people as numbers confirms critics’ suspicions about how cold and mechanistic economists are.

She seems overconfident about the influence economists have had on monetary and antitrust policies. Anyone familiar with public choice economics would look harder for signs that the agencies in question aren’t following economists’ advice as carefully as they want economists to think.

I’m puzzled by this claim:

The straightforward policy implication [of happiness research] is that to increase national well-being, more people need to have more sex. This doesn’t sound like a reasonable economic policy prescription

She provides no explanation of why we shouldn’t conclude that sex should replace some other leisure activities. It’s not obvious that there are policies which would accomplish this goal, but it sure looks like economists aren’t paying as much attention to this issue as they ought to.

She appears wrong when she claims that it’s reasonable to assume prediction market traders are risk neutral, and that that is sufficient to make prediction market prices reflect probabilities. Anyone interested in this should instead follow her reference to Manski’s discussion and see the response by Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz.