Monthly Archives: August 2007

The so-called autism epidemic is just a conspiracy theory. Or is it?

In The lure of the conspiracy theory (subscription required, full article here), author Patrick Leman discusses some thoughts on the nature of conspiracy theories and why people believe them (or don’t). I learned of the article from the blog Schneier on Security, in which Schneier excerpts some key points.

From the perspective of an autism parent, and my discussions with others on the subject, this paragraph jumped out at me the most (emphasis is mine):

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Though I hesitate to make the comparison to the need for religion, believing in a conspiracy theory model for something like autism seems to fulfill much the same need in people: the need for life, and what happens in it, to have a meaning, if not a purpose.

A couple of other interesting paragraphs:

Other research has examined how the way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. Numerous studies have shown that in general, people give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias”. Reasoning about conspiracy theories follows this pattern, as shown by research I carried out with Marco Cinnirella at the Royal Holloway University of London, which we presented at the British Psychological Society conference in 2005.

The study, which again involved giving volunteers fictional accounts of an assassination attempt, showed that conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy. In fact, because of my research, I have been accused of being secretly in the pay of various western intelligence services (I promise, I haven’t seen a penny).

It is important to remember that anti-theorists show a similar bias: they will seek out and evaluate evidence in a way that fits with the official or anti-conspiracy account. So conspiracy theorists are not necessarily more closed-minded than anti-theorists. Rather, the theorist and anti-theorist tend to pursue their own lines of thought and are often subject to cognitive biases that prevent their impartial examination of alternative evidence.

How then can we predict who will become believers and non-believers? My hunch is that a large part of the explanation lies in how individuals form aspects of their social identities such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status and political beliefs. The reasoning and psychological biases that create believers or their opposites are fostered by social origins. For conspiracy believer and non-believer alike, there is a kind of truth out there. It’s just a rather different truth that each seeks.

Reading through this, I’ve come to understand better one of the reasons that I don’t post as much as I used to, or participate in various autism related forums more. Most people have already set their opinions, and are not likely to change them based on anything I, or anyone else, has to say. I’m sure that I am as guilty of this as other people, though I do believe that my opinions and beliefs in this area are somewhat flexible.

I only have to look back at the early days of this blog to see how my opinions have changed. When was the last time your views on autism, its causes, its nature, and its future changed?

For what it”s worth, Einstein was…

…not autistic, at least not in my mind. Alas, I do not have an answer of my own to offer to the question of “Does it matter?” If you were to press me, I would say that it doesn’t matter if it matters to me, it depends on whether or not it matters to you.

We all have our own point of view, and the answer to this question is – yes – relative to that point of view. Several people commented to my post Was Einstein autistic? Does it matter?. I encourage you to read those to get an idea of the answer from some diverse points of view (parents, autists, anonymous anti-autistic fundamentalists).

Was Einstein aloof? Yes. Emotionally distant? He could be, but wasn’t always. Obsessive? I’d say passionate.

In the comments to that previous post, Joseph questioned Einstein’s view toward his mentally ill son, Eduard. Here’s what Isaacson had to say:

Eduard was unable to keep his balance. He began cutting classes and staying in his room. As he grew more troubled, Einstein’s care and affection for him seemed to increase. There was a painful sweetness in his letters to his troubled son as he engaged with his ideas about psychology….

“Tete [Eduard’s nickname] really has a lot of myself in him, but with him it seems more pronounced,” Einstein conceded to [his first wife] Maric. “He’s an interesting fellow, but things won’t be easy for him.”

It is true that Einstein did not see Eduard much as he grew older, and spent more and more time in institutions. As Isaacson puts it, Einstein “simply walled [Eduard] out when the relationship became too painful.”

Sounds pretty normal (god, I hate that word) to me.

– – — — —–

Has autistic intelligence been underestimated?

Has autistic intelligence been underestimated through the years? I think many of you know what my answer is going to be (YES! of course), but I actually have a scientific study that backs up that claim that I (and many others) have known all along.

I discovered the study, entitled The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (available online through the journal Psychological Science, on the Autism pages of About.com in the article Once Again, the World Discovers That People with Autism are Bright but Different. There is also a discussion of the study on the Science Daily website.

The study was written by Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, and Laurent Mottron. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Autistics are presumed to be characterized by cognitive impairment, and their cognitive strengths (e.g., in Block Design performance) are frequently interpreted as low-level by-products of high-level deficits, not as direct manifestations of intelligence. Recent attempts to identify the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional signature of autism have been positioned on this universal, but untested, assumption. We therefore assessed a broad sample of 38 autistic children on the preeminent test of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Typically developing control children showed no such discrepancy, and a similar contrast was observed when a sample of autistic adults was compared with a sample of nonautistic adults. We conclude that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.

Unfortunately, you must be a member of the Association of Psychological Sciences to get the article from their website. Another option, the one I’m pursuing, is to get a copy from your local public library (or school library, if you are a student).

I should have it in a couple of weeks, I’ll post more thoughts once I’ve actually read it.

Sun Tzu and the Art of the IEP`

As a young Army officer, I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War many times (in different versions). When I transitioned into the civilian workforce, I realized that many of the ideas would translate to the world of business. (Not literally, of course. For example, Sun Tzu’s demonstration of leadership ability using the Emperor’s concubines as soldiers.)

The Art of War can also be applied to many other common activities, such as the IEP. You can pull from many quotes, but here is my favorite:

Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

Of course, this may need some translation* into more relevant wording. Such as:

Know the district administration and their stated goals and resources, and know your rights and what is best for your child; in a hundred IEP meetings you will never fail to get what you need.

When you are ignorant of what the district’s goals or resources are, but know your rights and your child’s needs, your chances of getting what you need in the IEP are 50/50.

If you are ignorant of both the district’s goals/resources and your rights and needs of your child, you are certain in every IEP meeting to get what you get, and probably not what you really need.

Of course, this important piece of advice can just as easily be translated into the school district perspective, I’ll leave that exercise to you.

Based on my personal experience, conversations with other parents, and conversations in the blogosphere, my guess is that most people (from both sides) go into IEP meetings knowing themselves, but not their “enemy.” As a result, we often see winners and losers in the outcomes of IEPs, the result of hard fought battles that leave everyone bitter and exhausted.

What would happen if both sides heeded this advice and came in knowing themselves and the “enemy”? According to Sun Tzu, both should expect to win. But both sides can’t “win”, can they?

To that I answer a resounding, “Yes, of course both sides can win.” Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

* (If you are interested in some thoughts on translation within a language, check out my post Knowledge in Translation on my No Straight Lines blog.)
– – — — —–