Monthly Archives: April 2008

The toys of today, the tools of tomorrow

At the end of a brief history of human communication, Dave Gray of XPLANE gets to what he sees as the future of communications: visual communications.

Today, we are free once more. Paradoxically, now that everything has been reduced to zeros and ones, our only limit is our imagination. What’s interesting is that we continue to constrain ourselves to the grid, even when it is no longer necessary. The conventions of printing, which once liberated ideas by making them mass-producible, have now become a prison.

So what’s next? Watch the kids. In the 1970s we started playing video games, and although we didn’t know it at the time, we were learning how to interact with digital technologies. We were learning the hand-eye coordination skills we would need to operate the computers of the 1980s.

The toys of today are the tools of tomorrow: blogging, podcasting, photosharing, videoblogging – these are all early indicators. People are making their own movies and publishing their ideas to the world. With every passing year the technology gets cheaper and easier to use.

As Dave alludes to, we all learn how to use tools when we are young, by playing with them as toys. How many of you had toy trucks and played at construction. How about “play” carpenters? (I’m a guy, so please excuse the boy bias.) Using the “toys” of today is much the same, with one key difference being that the “toys” that kids play with are often the very same “tools” that adults use. (No plastic saw blades here!) This obviously presents some dangers, and how kids play with their digital “toys” needs to be watched, but it makes the process of gaining literacy go that much faster.

So next time someone asks you why you’re “playing around with those toys”, or why you let your kids spend so much time on the computer or playing (or designing!) video games, just tell them you’re not “playing”, you’re learning how to use the tools you’ll need to be successful tomorrow.

The art of the (TV and movie) title

If you (or a friend) enjoy watching the titles on movies or TV shows even better than watching the show itself, check out The Art of the Title Sequence. Mostly just a collection of some of the best title sequences (quality over quantity), but the authors do throw in a bit of analysis as well. (Personally, I could watch them all day!)

Found via xBlog: The visual thinking weblog.

Autism awareness “elevator pitch” (reprint)

I’m reposting this article because I think it is doubly relevant today: 1) it is autism awareness month; and 2) this is as much an issue today as it was last year. Again, it was a post from Kristina Chew that prompted me to repost this. (Thanks Kristina!)

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In her recent post Autism Speaks Now, Kristina Chew contemplates the discrepancies between the types of autism research actually being conducted and the types of autism research that are covered in the media (my emphasis):

[A] study by Stanford University researchers published in the February Nature Reviews Neuroscience notes, brain and behavior research on autism accounts for 41 percent of research funding and published scientific papers and only 11 percent of newspaper stories in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. In contrast, 13 percent of published research was on environmental causes of autism but 48 percent of the media coverage was on this topic: When it comes to reporting on autism, there is a serious gap between scientific research and the mass media; in the case of some reporting on thimerasol and autism, parents are pitted against scientists. Autism Speaks, with its access to the full power of the media, will be getting its message out.

Kristina goes on to ask how scientists (and, by extension, we) can overcome this issue (emphasis is again mine).

I would be curious as to how scientists might “frame” some “hot button” issues in autism: As the back-and-forth in the comments on a post about David Kirby and Autism Speaks, facts and research studies can be cited, but people’s beliefs are not so easily swayed. What are vaccines and chelation but “highly politicized topics” in autism circles? How might a scientist refute such theories and treatments by “strategically avoid[ing] emphasizing the technical details of science”; by translating technical knowledge with an eye to the fact that this alone does not “drive decision-making or change minds”? It needs to be recognized that, when it comes to understanding autism, parents do not rely on facts and evidence and science alone; that emotions—however much acknowledged, or not—play a huge role.

We have to remember, too, that last sentence applies not only to parents but to the media who would reach those parents. And also to the people who are trying to get these parents to give money to pursue a cause.

To reach these people, you need to be able to get your message across quickly, to the point, and convincingly. While it may be possible to get the point across convincingly using the scientific data as a basis, this will not likely be either quick or to the point.

What we need is an “autism awareness elevator pitch.” Imagine you find yourself on the elevator with Oprah’s producer (to follow the thread started by Kristina), and you have until you get to the top floor to explain why Oprah should dedicate an hour to your view of autism. Here’s the quick sound byte that probably helped get Autism Speaks onto Oprah:

This is the national health crisis of our time……..This is bigger than AIDS. This is bigger than breast cancer, and almost no attention seems to be paid to it.

There a lot of ways to approach this (scientist, parent, autistic), I want to hear them all.

So…, what’s your pitch?

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What if they had been diagnosed autistic?

In his book Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, author Roy Richard Grinker mentions chess legend Bobby Fischer (p. 63) as someone who may have been an undiagnosed autistic. I’ve just started reading David Edmonds’ book Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (P.S.), and have to say that I was thinking the same thing. (For more discussion on the subject check out the Bobby Fischer talk page on Wikipedia.)

Which got me thinking: If Fischer were indeed autistic, how would his life – and the history of chess, among other things – have been different if he had been diagnosed when he was young? If he had been provided the treatment and services that are typically demanded today for Asperger’s diagnoses, would he have had the impact he did? Would he have been able to have that impact, or would that ability have been “treated” out of him?

You can extend this to any of the great minds that people sometimes say were probably autistic, like Newton, Einstein, Van Gogh. You could also look at those who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and think back on how things may have been different, for them and their contributions, if they had been diagnosed younger.

There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that the increase in diagnoses of autism, especially Asperger’s, is due to a better understanding of what Asperger’s is and an increased desire of parents to understand why their kids are “different”. Many are being diagnosed now that might not have been diagnosed before, and demanding (and receiving) treatment they may not have received before.

I can’t help wondering what these individuals – and the world – may be missing out on because we want to catch and “fix” their differences early in life. We want to make life “easier” for these kids and their parents in the short term, but what is the impact to the long term? (This is kind of a different take on my earlier question, “What would a world without autism look like?“)

(Just to be clear, I’m not advocating not diagnosing children – or adults – if a diagnosis is warranted. I’m just asking the question because I think the answers, even if only hypothetical, can give us some insight into why we think the way we do about autism and why we do the things we do about autism.)

UPDATE: As I finished writing this, I saw Your Advice Requested: Next Steps for a Teen Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome? over at About.com. The questions I’ve asked in this post were a hypothetical to get you thinking about what impact a diagnosis and subsequent treatment would have had on an undiagnosed autistic. If you’ve had a chance to consider those questions, your thoughts on them should help you come up with an answer to Lisa’s question.

Sun Tzu and the Art of the IEP (reprint)

With IEP season upon us (at least for us), I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post this, which I originally posted last August. The text has been altered slightly based on Joe’s recommendations to the original.

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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 (and unstated) 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.)

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Maybe we’re all autistic (redux)

While writing my most recent post, I found myself back 2 1/2 years to something I wrote on the subject of the genetic nature of autism. The following quote from the article I was discussing is quite likely the source of my opinion, expressed in The genetic basis of … everything (Or: Maybe we are all autistic), that the “autism spectrum” isn’t restricted to those with an autism diagnosis (emphasis is mine):

Autism is not a “you have it or you don’t” disorder, Todd said. Instead, it is a highly inheritable continuum of traits, much like height or high blood pressure. The cutoff for being tall or short or having high or low blood pressure is somewhat arbitrary, he said. So is the diagnosis of autism. The measure of autism is usually the inability to cope in the real world, said NYU’s Hollander.

People can be different without having a pathology,” Hollander said. “It’s only a disorder if it causes stress or interferes with function.”

Reminiscent of a comment from Laurentius Rex on a recent post.

Something to consider.

Genetic engineering and autism

As far as I know, all of the arguments about the increase in autism diagnoses being too rapid to be purely genetic are based on an assumption of randomness in the process. From that perspective I must admit that it seems unlikely that you could explain the increase in autism diagnoses purely to genetics.

But is this really a random process?

This thought occurred to me yesterday when I heard a teaser for yesterday‘s Talk of the Nation on NPR, on which they had a segment titled Genetically Engineering a ‘Perfect’ Baby. In the teaser, they played a quote from one of the guests in which he said something along the lines of:

We’ve been engaged in genetic engineering for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It happens every night in bars and clubs and every where around the world, when men and women ‘select’ the mate they want to help parent their child.

Which got me thinking: What if we (humans) have been engaged in a process of informal genetic engineering – maybe more appropriately referred to as selective breeding – over the past hundred years that has contributed to the increase in autism during that time, especially of the “high-functioning”, Asperger’s type of autism? I can hear many of you, even as I type this: What the hell are you talking about? And you can bet I’ve got my fire-suit on for all the flames that are sure to come my way. But I’m serious.

Consider this: Over the past 100 years or more, the engineers, scientists, mathematicians and other technically oriented people have become more important to the success and progress of our society. As these people’s importance has grown, so has their power and their desirability as a mate. As a result, these “geeks” have more opportunities to reproduce and further the survival of geek genes. When two geeks get together, especially if they are geeky in different ways, that is even more geekiness that passes down to their children.

Or, as a good friend once put it, “Geeks are breeding more now than they used to.” I apologize for the bluntness of the statement, or if it offends, but this is how she said it. (I’ve actually used that quote before, in an August 2005 post discussing the article Scientists begin to trace autism’s genetic roots in my hometown newspaper the St. Louis Post Dispatch.)

Does anyone know of any studies that address the non-randomness of mate selection and potential impact on genetic diversity, especially as it may relate to autism? I did a quick Google search, but didn’t really come up with much.

(Back on the subject of the Talk of the Nation segment, make sure you check it out. You can also join the conversation on the subject on their blog. Some very interesting comments so far.)

Is this neglect, or just good parenting?

What would you think if your friend/neighbor/sibling told you that they had left their 9 year old son at a department store in mid-town Manhattan, by himself, because “he had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own”? Would you call Child Protective Services, or would you say “good for you”? Would you ever do something like that?

After you’ve had a chance to think about it for a second, check out the essay Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone by Lenore Skenazy (also available on her new blog, Free Range Kids).

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.

It’s that last sentence in the excerpt above that really caught my eye. It is no less true for our autistic kids than it is for our non-autistic kids. There are obviously some differences that need to be allowed for, but only by being given independence – true independence – can kids learn how to be independent, and parents learn how to accept that independence.

Sure there are risks, and there will be mistakes and issues along the way. But isn’t that what life is all about?

As you can imagine, there was a huge negative reaction. But she also received some support from her readers. Check out her follow up, America’s Worst Mom, for the details. Security expert Bruce Schneier also weighs-in on his blog, that is worth a read as well.

How about a nice game of chess?

Remember at the end of the early-80’s movie, War Games, when Matthew Broderick’s character David showed the WOPR how to play tic-tac-toe, and then how the WOPR learned the futility of global thermonuclear war by comparing it to tic-tac-toe?  And how WOPR (or Joshua) then commented on the futility of a game that can not be won (except by not playing), and asked David if he would like to play a “nice game of chess”?

I can’t help wondering if the whole vaccine / autism thing is an exercise in futility for both sides, a game of unwinnable tic-tac-toe, or if it is a game of chess, still in the opening phase with the middle-and end-games left to come.  And if it is a game that can be won, what exactly is it that the victors will win?